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Modernising the two ideas of liberty part 2: a tale of two Monks

By George Weigel - posted Thursday, 16 May 2002

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican friar known to the history of theology as the "Angelic Doctor," was born c. 1225 in his family’s castello near Roccasecca in the Roman Campagna, and died in 1274 at the abbey of Fossanuova, southeast of Rome, en route to the Council of Lyons. His monumental achievement, in such epic works as the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae, was to marry the wisdom of a millennium of Christian philosophy and theology to the "new philosophy" of Aristotle that had been rediscovered in Europe (largely through the mediation of Arabic philosophers) in the early thirteenth century. This intellectual marriage yielded a rich, complex, and (to use the precisely right word a few centuries before its time) deeply humanistic vision of the human person, human goods, and human destiny. Embedded in that vision of the human person was a powerful concept of freedom.

According to one of his most eminent interpreters today, the Belgian Dominican Servais Pinckaers, Aquinas’s subtle and complex thinking about freedom is best captured in the phrase freedom for excellence.

Freedom, for St. Thomas, is a means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfillment of human destiny. Freedom is the capacity to choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit—or, to use the old-fashioned term, as an outgrowth of virtue. Freedom is the means by which, exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human beings. Freedom is something that grows in us, and the habit of living freedom wisely must be developed through education, which among many other things involves the experience of emulating others who live wisely and well. On St. Thomas’s view, freedom is in fact the great organizing principle of the moral life—and since the very possibility of a moral life (the capacity to think and choose) is what distinguishes the human person from the rest of the natural world, freedom is the great organizing principle of a life lived in a truly human way. That is, freedom is the human capacity that unifies all our other capacities into an orderly whole, and directs our actions toward the pursuit of happiness and goodness understood in the noblest sense: the union of the human person with the absolute good, who is God.


Thus virtue and the virtues are crucial elements of freedom rightly understood, and the journey of a life lived in freedom is a journey of growth in virtue—growth in the ability to choose wisely and well the things that truly make for our happiness and for the common good. It’s a bit like learning to play a musical instrument. Anyone can bang away on a piano; but that is to make noise, not music, and it’s a barbaric, not humanistic, expression of freedom. At first, learning to play the piano is a matter of some drudgery as we toil over exercises that seem like a constraint, a burden. But as our mastery grows, we discover a new, richer dimension of freedom: we can play the music we like, we can even create music on our own. Freedom, in other words, is a matter of gradually acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with perfection.

Thus law has a lot to do with freedom. Law can educate us in freedom.

Law is not a work of heteronomous (external) imposition but a work of wisdom, and good law facilitates our achievement of the human goods we instinctively seek because of who we are and what we are meant to be as human beings.

Aquinas was fully aware that human beings can fail, and in fact do evil — often great evil. No exponent of Aristotelian realism like St. Thomas, indeed no one formed by biblical religion as well as ancient philosophical wisdom, could deny this. Yet even in the face of manifest evil Thomas insisted that we have within us, and can develop, a freedom through which we can do things well, rightly, excellently. Evil is not the last word about the human condition, and an awareness of the pervasiveness of evil is not the place to start thinking about freedom, or indeed about political life in general. We are made for excellence.

Developed through the four cardinal virtues — prudence (practical wisdom), justice, courage, and temperance (perhaps better styled today "self-command") — freedom is the method by which we become the kind of people our noblest instincts incline us to be: people who can, among other possibilities, build free and virtuous societies in which the rights of all are acknowledged, respected, and protected in law. It was not for nothing that John Courtney Murray, the great American Catholic public philosopher of freedom, called Thomas Aquinas "the first Whig."

Our second monk, William of Ockham, was born in England about a dozen years after Aquinas’s death, joined the Franciscans, was educated and later taught at Oxford, and died in 1347 in Munich after a life of considerable turbulence, both intellectual and ecclesiastical. Those who have never studied philosophy will recognize him as the author of "Ockham’s Razor"—the principle (still used in the sciences as well as in philosophy) that the simpler of two explanations should be preferred.


Professional philosophers consider him the chief exponent of "nominal-ism," a powerful late-medieval philosophical movement that denied that universal concepts and principles exist in reality — they exist only in our minds. According to the nominalists, there is, to take an obvious and critical example, no such thing as "human nature" per se. "Human nature" is simply a description, a name (hence "nominalism") we give to our experience of common features among human beings. The only things that exist, according to nominalism, are particulars.

Often presented as a crucial moment in the history of epistemology, nominalism also had a tremendous influence on moral theology. And because politics, as Aristotle taught, is an extension of ethics, nominalism’s impact on moral theology eventually had a profound influence on political theory. If, to return to that obvious and critical example, there is no "human nature", then there are no universal moral principles that can be "read" from human nature. Morality, on a nominalist view, is simply law and obligation, and that law is always external to the human person.

Law, in other words, is always coercion — divine law and human law, God’s coercion of us and our coercion of one another.

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This is part two of an extract from the inaugural William E. Simon Lecture given to the 25th Anniversary of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Part one examines the two concepts of liberty in a modern context, and part three proposes a modernised view of the Two concepts of Liberty. The whole paper can be downloaded here.

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About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the John M. Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy and heads the Catholic Studies project.

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