There’s a lot of talk about freedom this time of year.
Vibrant red, white, and blue tie-dyed T-shirts with the word freedom emblazoned across the chest of a bald eagle are suddenly “in vogue” during approximately a three day time window in the first week of July. America is in full celebratory mode. The grills are fired up, grandpa reminisces on his days as a U.S. Marine (lamenting the lack of mobility that comes with old age), and relatives swap gossip over cold beers while Sweet Home Alabama can be heard playing on an old radio in the garage.
The word gets tossed around, amongst others, like confetti. I never cease to be amazed by the lack of rigor in people’s general definition of the word (myself included!). If you were to ask someone for their definition of freedom, after a disinterested shrug, you would probably hear something along the lines of: freedom is the right to do whatever you want. It is an independence from authority. Autonomy.
While it is accurate in many ways, this general concept of freedom in the wider culture leaves quite a bit to be left to the imagination. It is clear in his writings that Dietrich von Hildebrand understood it in a more robust, holistic way.
When speaking of anything good, noteworthy, valuable, or beautiful, Hildebrand often connects such things of value with their impact on the human person --- the recognition of value by the human person leads to his full flourishing. For Hildebrand, it is a whole, happy, healthy, value-responding individual who most accurately represents what it is to be free.
In my study of Hildebrand’s philosophy, this seeming “conclusion” Hildebrand reaches when it comes to freedom has been satisfying for me as a reader. So, I would stop there, underline a few good quotes, stick my bookmark in it, and move on with my day. I never realized that Hildebrand has even more to say on the subject than I thought. And what he has to say may surprise you. It certainly surprised me, seeing as though I am situated as a thinker as a citizen of the United States of America, a nation where freedom is prized above all. Here it is, the thought heard ‘round the world:
Perhaps there is something even greater than freedom.
What? If we’re talking about Hildebrand’s notion of freedom (the ability to recognize value and respond to it justly with one’s will) then how could there be a greater good? What could top it? Here it is, once again, the answer that will light up the screen like fireworks:
Excess. Overflow. Mercy. Bonus. Something that we, in our freedom, cannot choose to give to ourselves. It is given. It is a gift. And gift has the power to be greater than freedom. While “freedom is indeed an essential mark of the person as an image of God,” it is also true that “man is greater and deeper than the range of things he can control with his free will” (source, 39). I think this is really profound, and totally deserving of our reflection:
Man is greater and deeper than the range of things he can control.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I feel out of control, I definitely do not feel anything similar to greatness or depth. I think that this is true for a lot of us. We say that we desire freedom, but what we really crave is control. We want the freedom to be able to control our surroundings, to live the life that we desire, to do what we want when we want it as often as we want it. There seems to be a strange connection between a disordered idea of freedom, and an insatiable hunger for control. But there is something more, something other that calls us out of ourselves and the realm of things that are within our control, and into something higher.
This happens when we encounter beauty. Faced with the vastness of the Grand Canyon, I find myself out of control. I encounter gift. The gift of beauty that has caused the response of awe to well up within me, without consciously willing myself to do so, is enough to prove that my freedom can only take me so far. The volitional elements of my life cannot give me what this encounter with the Grand Canyon just gave me: a gift.
My hope for all of us during this season of our independence is that we learn to freely receive the gifts that are waiting for us in the every day.