Conscience, Authenticity, and True Freedom
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I’m currently reading The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by Sohrab Ahmari. Ahmari opens the book by telling the stories of two different people named Maximilian. The first Maximilian, the one representing the “tradition” mentioned in the subtitle, is Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic Priest, and one of the “greatest of modern Christian martyrs.”
Kolbe’s story, and his martyrdom, took place in 1941. Kolbe had been imprisoned at Auschwitz for a few months when one of his fellow prisoners escaped. As punishment the deputy camp commandant picked out 10 men to starve to death as a way of deterring future escape attempts.
[Kolbe] wasn’t selected. But when he heard one of the condemned cry out, “My wife, my children!,” [He] took off his cap and quietly stepped forward from the line.
“What does this Polish pig want?” the deputy commandant asked.
“I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place”—here, Kolbe pointed at his fellow prisoner—“because he has a wife and children.”
[The commandant] accepted Kolbe’s offer.
And so Kolbe went on to starve to death in the man’s place. It took two weeks, and Kolbe was calm and prayerful the whole time.
Obviously Kolbe was only able to take this man’s place by virtue of his strong Christian faith. One assumes that his faith in the existence of a hereafter, of Heaven and Hell played a role. Also John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” certainly played a role. And while people have no difficulty accepting that religious faith may motivate people to make extreme sacrifices, Ahmari wants to make sure we understand that his faith didn’t require him to do this thing, it didn’t constrict his choices, it opened them up. Kolbe's faith gave him the freedom to make that choice.
What gripped me the most, what I couldn’t get out of my head once I learned about Kolbe, was how his sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. An ordinary man, once [The commandant] had passed over him in the line, might be stunned by his luck and gobble up the night’s rations all the more eagerly, knowing how close he had come to death. Kolbe, however, climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it—and this is the key to his story, I think—by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive. His apparent surrender became his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you. In that time and place of radical evil, in that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human.
This form of freedom is at odds with the account of freedom that prevails in the West today. Plenty of people still carry out great acts of sacrifice, to be sure. Witness the heroism of physicians, nurses, and other front-line health in response to the novel-coronavirus pandemic. But the animating logic of the contemporary West, the intellectual thrust of our age, if taken to its logical end, renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible.
What form of freedom “prevails in the West today”? If Kolbe is an example of the sort of freedom which emerges from tradition, what sort of freedom emerges from the “age of chaos”—that other part of the book’s subtitle? Or what sort of freedom causes an age to be chaotic?
Here we turn to the second Maximillian, Ahmari’s son. As you might have guessed he was named after the first Maximillian, and as Ahmari considers his son he wonders about these questions. Specifically he wonders what sort of freedom his son will experience:
What kind of a man will contemporary Western culture chisel out of my son? Which substantive ideals should I pass on to him, against the overwhelming cynicism of our age?
The book is Ahmari’s attempt to answer the second question, and if you’re interested in that answer I would urge you to read the book. (And I will of course do a review of it in my monthly round up.) But Ahmari considers the first question as well, and that’s the thread I am most interested in following. This thread of modern freedom vs. traditional freedom.
As Ahmari considers the answers to these various questions he casts his mind forward and endeavors to imagine his son’s future if Ahmari does not intervene, if his son takes a path similar to other children of recent generations. At the time the book was written his son was two, but Ahmari tries to imagine what sort of person he’s likely to be when he’s in his 20s, or when he gets to be the same age as the first Maximillian.
Fast-forward my bad dream: Max is now forty-seven years old—the same age at which his patron saint laid down his life for a stranger at Auschwitz. Having retired early from his firm with a tidy sum in his investment account, my Max is now touring Europe with his girlfriend in a luxury electric RV. The two of them have been cohabiting on and off for nearly a decade now, yet they have no intention to marry, much less have children.
On the road, they seek out Michelin-starred restaurants for feasting—followed by nights browsing Tinder (theirs is an open relationship). And this is the relatively optimistic scenario. It assumes that Max hasn’t succumbed to opioids or high-end synthetic drugs. It assumes he hasn’t become one of those young men who spend months and years shut in their bedrooms, playing videogames and browsing the Web. The Japanese call them hikikomori, though the phenomenon sadly spans the whole developed world.
“Dad, I’m happy!” he insists, if and when he permits us to talk about his life. And the worst part of it is, he might be telling the truth, by his own lights. He may not even know what he has missed: the thrill of meditating on the Psalms and wondering if they were written just for him; the peace of mind that comes with regularly going to Confession and leaving the accumulated baggage of his guilt behind; the joy of binding himself to one other soul, and only that one, in marriage; that awesome instant when the nurses hand him a newborn baby, his own.
Having kept his “options open” his whole life, he hasn’t bound himself irrevocably to anything greater than himself and, therefore, hasn’t exercised human freedom as his namesake understood it. Maximilian Kolbe dreamt of acquiring the crowns of virtue and sacrifice. The dream—or rather, the nightmare—that haunts me is one in which my Maximilian spends a lifetime reaching for other crowns.
As Ahmari says, this is his nightmare, but why should it be so? Why would he rather that his son starve to death for a stranger at age 47 as opposed to having him childless and touring Europe with his girlfriend? Obviously as you can tell from the excerpts Ahmari is profoundly religious, and perhaps you’re inclined to dismiss his preference precisely because of this reason, as the biased zealotry of a true believer. But I think that would be a mistake. I believe there’s something to this distinction even if you don’t believe in a hereafter.
You may also have a hard time wrapping your mind around this different definition of freedom, but as it turns out this isn’t the first book I’ve read which makes this point. Patrick Deneen makes it in Why Liberalism Failed. To reuse a quote from my review:
“Liberty” is a word of ancient lineage, yet liberalism has a more recent pedigree, being arguably only a few hundred years old. It arises from a redefinition of the nature of liberty to mean almost the opposite of its original meaning. By ancient and Christian understandings, liberty was the condition of self-governance, whether achieved by the individual or by a political community. Because self-rule was achieved only with difficulty— requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites—the achievement of liberty required constraints upon individual choice.
Deneen uses the term liberty instead of freedom, but his point is the same as Ahmari’s, liberty is self-rule, and in this sense Kolbe was maximally liberated. His self-discipline was ironclad, and his command of his “base but insistent appetites”, in this case literally, was so great that even after two weeks without food he could remain calm and prayerful.
But as Deneen points out now freedom and liberty have come to mean almost the exact opposite of what they used to mean. And this is why Ahmari is worried for his son. I don’t think Ahmari wants his son to end up in some modern day Auschwitz, nor does he want the world to end up as the kind of place where we have Auschwitzs for people to end up in. He wants his son to be virtuous and to have the self-discipline over his appetites that comes with that virtue. But instead of pursuing this freedom Ahmari is worried that his son will pursue the other kind of freedom, the one which says that being free is being unconstrained. And primarily unconstrained in the pursuit of one’s appetites.
As Ahmari points out, in the best case this pursuit might lead to someone becoming a rich, childless swinger. But there are far worse outcomes, his son could end up wanting nothing more than to spend his days engaging in his appetite for video games, or he could end up dead from an opioid overdose. Obviously this last outcome would be awful, and becoming a hikikomori isn’t great either, but what about the first option, is it really as bad as Ahmari fears/claims? What if Max has always wanted to tour Europe in an RV? That it’s the number one thing on his bucket list, and an expression of his authentic self. Isn’t authenticity an example of a good appetite? Isn’t it a form of virtue, perhaps one different from that espoused by his conservative father, but still important and worthy of pursuit? Is it possible that unlike the baser appetites his father worries about that this is a pure appetite?
The genesis of this post goes all the way back to January when I got an email from a reader. He had read several of my book reviews which touched on the topic of authenticity (He mentioned three in particular, see here, here, and here.) and he wondered about the same conflict I just mentioned. Intellectually he wants to be traditional. He senses he will have a better life if he settles down, raises children and is a good member of a community. But if he searches inwardly for his authentic self, in the fashion of the day, that person would rather travel the world and never settle down. Which, coincidently, is precisely how Ahmari frames the choice that confronts his son Max. This reader figured I might have something useful to say on the subject (we’ll see if he was correct once he reads this post). So here we are.
The topic is obviously a complicated one, and as I’m currently experimenting with shorter posts, let me see if I can cut straight to the heart of the matter. To do so we’re once again going to lean heavily on Ahmari, and consider the story he relates of John Henry Newman.
[Newman] was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825. [When he was 24.] Soon, he emerged as a leading light of what became known as the Oxford Movement, a circle of thinkers who wanted to position the Church of England as a middle way, a via media, between what they saw as a tradition-bereft Protestantism and Rome’s “excesses”
As things developed Newman became more and more interested in following traditions, and less and less worried about Rome’s excesses. Continuing with Ahmadi’s narrative:
[T]he most fateful incident of this period…was…the journey he took in 1832 to Sicily and the Italian mainland. The trip granted him a glimpse of religious devotion the likes of which he had never before witnessed.
In the years following this he became more and more critical of the creeping progressive tendencies in the Anglican communion, and at the same time more and more attracted to the Catholic communion. And yet his conscience would not allow him to switch:
Newman’s romance with Rome was heating up by the day, yet still he resisted converting. Why? Because he entertained serious doubts about some doctrines, high among them the Roman devotion to the Virgin Mary. So long as these doubts persisted, “I had no right, I had no leave, to act against my conscience. This was a higher rule than any argument.”
And yet, as we already mentioned he was steadfastly against the progressive liberalization of the Church of England. And what is liberalization but people deciding that their individual sense of right and wrong, their conscience, was more important than the traditional teachings of the church.
“My battle,” he would insist, “was with liberalism; by liberalism, I mean the anti-dogmatic principle,” the “lawless” notion that every first principle, every dogma, every authority, and every hierarchy was up for questioning. Thus, Newman held in his mind two seemingly contradictory beliefs—first, that the conscience was sacred and inviolable; and second, that unlimited freedom of thought was not a good but rather a wellspring of error and chaos.
How did Newman solve this apparent contradiction? How can my reader solve his dilemma? To begin with Newman believed that behind everything there is an objective standard of truth. For Newman it’s the divine law, which originates from God, and the conscience is this law “as apprehended in the minds of individual men.” Other people dispense with God, but still assume that there are natural laws: rules of behavior that make human lives and civilization as a whole better, rules which have been distilled out over the centuries and embedded into tradition and religion. In both cases you mostly end up arriving at a similar destination. For example both seem to come down strongly in favor of having kids. Authenticity, or “self-will’ as Newman called it, is like a conscience, the difference being that it’s unmoored from either divine or natural law.
This is not to say that authenticity is entirely unmoored from things. Humans have an intense need to justify whatever they’re doing: “I’m doing this because God commanded it” and “I’m doing this because this is what our people have always done” have been replaced by “I’m doing this because it’s who I am, it’s a reflection of my authentic self.”
At first glance one would think that this would work extremely well for generating individual happiness and fulfillment, but as it turns out it doesn’t. I don’t have the time to get into all the reasons why, for that see the book reviews I linked to previously (Here, here, and here if you don’t want to scroll back up.) Nor do I have time to get into why modern technology, by expanding the scope of potentially fulfilling things, has made the problem much worse than it was in Newman’s day. We have gone to enormous lengths to allow people to delve as deeply as they want into their authentic selves, but I’m afraid to say that we have yet to reach bedrock.
Still, at the margins, following your conscience and being authentic are easy to confuse. Are you traveling the world because you hope to learn about other cultures and pass that knowledge along to others? Is this sort of education the best way you can give back to the world? Or are you traveling the world because you have the money, and it’s fun? What about kids? Have you decided not to have kids because it makes vacations harder to take, more expensive when you do take them, and on top of all that you have to go to places they like rather than places you like? Or are you not having kids because you’ve decided to become a Catholic priest and devote your life to the service of others?
It would seem that a key way to tell the difference is the position other people play in these decisions. If you’re doing something entirely for yourself, then it’s probably authentic, and not in a good way, but rather in a way that will ultimately lead to an unfulfilling dead end. On the other hand if you’re doing something for someone else then there’s a good chance you’re following your conscience. And of course, to tie it back to the story of Kolbe, following your conscience isn’t easy. Following your conscience and the true freedom it brings can only come when we overcome our appetites. Fake freedom, what people call authenticity, is about giving into those appetites. And what no one wants to hear is that in the end everything that’s good in this world is also damnably difficult to do.
What does your conscience tell you about donating? I mean it’s obviously helping someone out, but the person you’re helping is long winded, full of bad ideas, and generally unpleasant. Clearly it would be more authentic to keep the money yourself and spend it on someone truly deserving. If despite this ironclad logic your conscience still compels you to donate, you can do so here.