As the nation celebrates its birthday, one can’t help but reflect upon the concepts of freedom. Freedom, that grand precept to our nation, fundamental to the liberty that we all enjoy. If one were to ask any American, nay, any westerner, if he knows what freedom is, the reply he’d likely receive is laughter. Of course he knows what freedom is, who doesn’t? But if one were to ask him what freedom is, the answer may be a bit more slow in coming.
When it does come, the answer more likely than not will be that freedom is the ability to do whatever one wants, when one wants to do it, without hindrance from others. If this is freedom, then there have been very few men who have died free, and even fewer born that way. And what is to be done when two people’s “freedom” to do “whatever they want” conflict with each other? Is one to be less free because what he wants to do cannot be done? Surely it’s not true that some people are necessarily less free than others.
When defining freedom, one might instead say something about rights, not least of which are life, property, and the pursuit of happiness. These things are certainly important, but freedom surely is more than a collection of rights: if freedom was reduced only to this, why would anyone ever give up property, leisure, and even life itself to defend it?
What, then, could this thing possibly mean, freedom? The late Pope John Paul the Great once stated that “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Freedom, then, is the ability to live rightly, in being able to do the right thing—and living freely then means that one must actually make the right decisions and follow them through to their ends. It means sometimes making sacrifices, giving up some of the luxuries and lesser pursuits of life, even sometimes suffering or dying, that one may be virtuous in his life, just towards others, and, yes, faithful to the Almighty.
In his essay on courage and the Fear of God, the philosopher Russell Kirk noted that "Meek before Jehovah, Moses had no fear of Pharaoh.... What raises up heroes and martyrs is the fear of God. Beside the terror of God's judgment, the atrocities of the totalist tyrant are pinpricks." In refusing to obey the Pharaoh, in choosing to obey the will of God, regardless of the consequences, Moses was truly free. He refused to bend, to do a thing that he knew was wrong for the sake of convenience; he risked death rather than submit to the Pharaoh’s tyranny.
He would risk nothing to do what is right is most easily enslaved. Many a man is enslaved by wealth, comfort, and a myriad of other pursuits. Those with material wealth may appear to be freer for it, but if they live for that wealth, they become enslaved by it—they serve the whims of the market, or the government, or whatever is the source of their wealth. The same is true of those who value only their own lives, they become the servants of any who are in a position to end them. This is a thing which was well understood by the saints and the martyrs, those who were willing to sacrificed everything they had in order to pursue the truth and to live (and die) in their faith. In following Christ’s example, in living their faith even under torture or unto death, these people have borne witness to the maxim that “the truth shall set you free.”
This was a thing which was especially understood by Christ. It was He Who asked what good it was for a man to gain the world and lose his soul (Mark 8:36 and Matthew 16:26). As Pope Benedict XVI observed, Christ "in obedience to the will of the Father, offered Himself for love.” This was the penultimate act of freedom, "as an informed choice motivated by love." The Holy Father further notes that for Christians, the true meaning of freedom is "to follow Christ in the giving of self even unto sacrifice on the Cross. It may seem a paradox, but the