In a recent address, George Weigel described Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of freedom as “freedom for excellence.” As Weigel explains, “Freedom, for Saint Thomas, is a means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfilment of human destiny.” In other words, freedom is not merely the liberty from external control but, rather, the liberty to pursue those things that make us most human.
For Aquinas, being free means to choose to act reasonably—that is, in accordance with our human nature—and to act reasonably is to act virtuously. As Weigel puts it, “In Saint Thomas’s view, freedom is in fact the great organizing principle of the moral life.” Freedom is preeminently about virtue, for the preeminent human task is to be virtuous, to dispatch our lives in the love and service of God and neighbor. As Weigel concludes, “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 that human person with the absolute good, who is God.”
In Weigel’s example, “It’s a bit like learning to play a musical instrument.” At first, it is difficult, tedious, and tiresome to work through practice exercises, and the discipline is constraining. “But as our mastery grows,” Weigel continues, “we discover a new, richer dimension of freedom: we can play the music we like; we can even create music on our own.” In this way, Weigel is restating what Lord Acton said over a century ago: that freedom is not the power to do what we please but the right to do what we ought. Only when freedom is thus linked to the truth about the human person is a free and virtuous society possible. The Acton Institute has always sought to explain and defend this understanding of freedom, especially to the religious and business communities; I thank you for the support that makes this possible.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico