As we celebrate the 4th of July, and remember America’s declaration of political independence from Great Britain, we hear many weighty and passionate words about freedom. The recent Supreme Court decision regarding pregnancy and birth-giving has sharply intensified debate around the subject of freedom of “bodily autonomy” and freedom to fulfill the responsibility of nurturing the sacred gift of life.
Other important issues, inflation, gun control, climate change, immigration, all raise questions bearing on freedom. Scientific breakthroughs, such as ‘gene editing’, require sober exercise of freedom. Gene-edited crops may help the poor and feed the world, but ought this technology also be used to alter human embryos according to desirable traits such as intelligence, longevity, and physical beauty?
True freedom is hard to define and even harder to actualize because it entails multiple factors and tasks. There are different kinds of freedom based on good health, emotional maturity, intellectual knowledge, moral judgment, as well as on favorable conditions for economic, political, and social progress.
Freedom is not only liberation from constraints such as poverty, sickness, arbitrary arrest, and laws that may silently aid social prejudice and political oppression. Freedom is also liberation to fulfill responsibilities such as being law-abiding, truthful, fair, and courteous to others, so that together we may foster flourishing life for all.
Freedom as a positive good is the ability to participate and enjoy the gifts and blessings of membership in a community, such as the Church, or of citizenship such as in America. However, freedom requires careful thinking and hard work. Ancient Greek philosophy and Orthodox Christian spirituality provide helpful parameters within which to think about and practice the blessing of true freedom.
The Hellenic tradition reached its zenith in Athenian democracy, a delicate flower of political governance. It was a balancing act of cooperation between leaders and citizens based on maturity of character growing out of the four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, and courage.
The primary virtue, justice (δικαιοσύνη), is the attainment of equitable laws equitably applied to all citizens as the very foundation of civic life. Without justice there can be no security, no peace, no worthy freedom. But justice itself can be achieved by the harmonious exercise of all the cardinal virtues.
Prudence (φρόνησις) has to do with right reasoning, that is, insight and wisdom into human life, civic affairs, and well-being. It is the attribute of defining proper criteria and right principles by which to choose and practice what is worthy, fair, and helpful to all citizens.
Temperance (σωφροσύνη) involves self-control, moderation – the ability to achieve a balance between duties and desires, abilities and limitations, moral demands and individual interests – under the guidance of reason. “Nothing in access” (μηδέν άγαν) is a famous Greek saying.
Courage (ανδρεία) pertains to inner strength, fortitude, a heroic spirit by which to persist in practicing justice, prudence, and temperance, and to take such actions as demanded by the cardinal virtues, to achieve true well-being and true freedom in both the city state and the life of individual citizens.
Orthodox Christian spirituality presents a distinctly different group of virtues as foundations of freedom. By way of comparison, four virtues from Orthodox spirituality may be selected, without excluding others, as touchstones of Christian life and true freedom: faith, selfless love, compassion, humility. These are selected not in any opposition to the Hellenic civic virtues but as complementary to them and in fulfillment of the ancient Greek humanistic tradition.
Faith (πίστις) is both the belief and personal trust in the truth of the revelation of a personal God, supremely known in Jesus Christ and in the work of the Holy Spirit. This faith is the decisive pivot to a new vision and a new way of life based on God who is a loving Father, who has revealed His will for us, and who cares equally for all of us as his beloved daughters and sons.
Selfless love (αγάπη) is the supreme Christian virtue that signifies the very character of God as love (1 John 4:8, 16) and ignites the liberating and unitive power of selfless love among us, diverse and fragile as we are.
“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude … Love bears all things.” (1 Cor 12:4,7) “Let everything that you do be done in love.” (1 Cor. 16:14)
Compassion (έλεος) is the first fruit of selfless, sacrificial love. Compassion, literally ‘co-suffering’, generates self-sacrifice through words and deeds. It is energized by faith and love, and strengthened by divine grace, to forego purely personal interests of power and gain, and instead to embrace all kinds of acts of service to others in the family, the Church, at work, and in society.
Humility (ταπεινοφροσύνη) ranks among the highest Christian virtues. It is emblematic of Christ Himself who “being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 3:8) for the salvation of the world. Pride enslaves and divides. Humility frees and unites. While humility is not high on the lists of secular thinkers, there is something truly Christ-like about any human being endowed with gifts and blessings who voluntarily and freely uses them as gifts and blessings to others without any pretensions to self-glory.
In the Hellenic tradition the practice of the cardinal virtues was conceived of as chiefly a human achievement through the use of reason, education, and discipline. In the Orthodox tradition the practice of Christian virtues was conceived of as ‘synergy’ (συνεργία) between free will and divine grace, but chiefly as the grace of God working in receptive and striving human souls.
The two ways are distinct and different, but not necessarily opposed or contradictory. Both reject the notion of freedom as license, namely, to choose and act as one pleases, for that leads only to anarchy and chaos. Both require focused attention to both rights and responsibilities, privileges and duties, personal desires and moral values, individual and communal benefits. Both warn not to use freedom as cover for selfish and evil pursuits. The two ways are complementary paths of seeking and discovering true freedom.
St. Paul integrates the Hellenic and Christian tradition when he exhorts: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things … and the God of peace will be with you.”(Phil. 4:8-9)
Rev. Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Holy Cross School of Theology.