When I taught my Jurisprudence course last spring, one of the many striking moments was in reading Aristotle’s discussion of freedom in The Politics with my students. Toward the end of Book V, Chapter 9 (1309a33-1310a38), Aristotle says that two criteria are generally countenanced for judging the efficacy of democratic regimes: the sovereignty of the majority and freedom. In democracies, he writes, “freedom is seen in terms of doing what one wants.” But this conception of freedom is a pathology of democracy for Aristotle. To focus entirely on the state as a coercive power, a force that demands obedience, and to ask why we should obey, is to look at only one aspect of politics. Citizenship is not just about being ruled, but about ruling well and about being ruled well. Freedom, like the accumulation of wealth, is not the purpose of politics. I tell my students that Aristotle could never endorse the view, stated by a famous American president, that the business of America is business. Freedom, wealth, property—these exist for the sake of virtue, in Aristotle’s account, not virtue for the sake of them.
A new book by the political theorist, D.C. Schindler, looks like a superb new intellectual and political history of classical conceptions of freedom, as adopted and modified by various figures (some of whom I confess not to have known about) in the Christian tradition: Retrieving Freedom: The Christian Appropriation of Classical Tradition (Notre Dame Press).
Retrieving Freedom is a provocative, big-picture book, taking a long view of the “rise and fall” of the classical understanding of freedom.
In response to the evident shortcomings of the notion of freedom that dominates contemporary discourse, Retrieving Freedom seeks to return to the sources of the Western tradition to recover a more adequate understanding. This book begins by setting forth the ancient Greek conception—summarized from the conclusion of D. C. Schindler’s previous tour de force of political and moral reasoning, Freedom from Reality—and the ancient Hebrew conception, arguing that at the heart of the Christian vision of humanity is a novel synthesis of the apparently opposed views of the Greeks and Jews. This synthesis is then taken as a measure that guides an in-depth exploration of landmark figures framing the history of the Christian appropriation of the classical tradition. Schindler conducts his investigation through five different historical periods, focusing in each case on a polarity, a pair of figures who represent the spectrum of views from that time: Plotinus and Augustine from late antiquity, Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor from the patristic period, Anselm and Bernard from the early middle ages, Bonaventure and Aquinas from the high middle ages, and, finally, Godfrey of Fontaines and John Duns Scotus from the late middle ages. In the end, we rediscover dimensions of freedom that have gone missing in contemporary discourse, and thereby identify tasks that remain to be accomplished. Schindler’s masterful study will interest philosophers, political theorists, and students and scholars of intellectual history, especially those who seek an alternative to contemporary philosophical understandings of freedom.