University of Chicago, Illinois. Via Wikimedia Commons

Freedom as Ideal, Freedom as Ideology

Traces spoke with Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, prominent political philosopher and author of over 20 books.
Lorenzo Albacete

When you wrote the book Augustine and the Limits of Politics, what made you think it was necessary to call attention to the limits of politics in the United States? The 20th century had seen the politization of everything in Marxism and Nazism. Did you feel there was a danger of the United States moving in that direction and, if so, do you think that still remains?
Augustine warns us against hubristic overreach, alerts us to the fact that the city of man cannot be the city of God, and that any time you express an eschatological concern and then locate it in the city of man, you’ve got a problem. Then politics, the advocates of this eschatological view, start to ignore limits, including the limits to what they can do to people in the name of some cause, including a good cause. Everything becomes justifiable. “These people are standing in the way, let’s get rid of them.” Now, the United States has never gassed people, but I thought it needed to be said as a warning about certain sorts of aspirations. This was before 9/11. The ones I had most particularly in mind had to do with the areas of bioethics, sexual norms, and so on. As you know, almost everyone in the United States who has a preference, a want, turns it into a right. So you wind up with the right to abortion, the right to this, the right to that. Questions that are fundamentally ethical questions are turned into political ones. I wanted to indicate that one really needs to think about that process of politization and the fact that there should be some limits to that process. These limits are ethical limits.

One other thing that I was concerned with is that, especially in a highly technological, advanced society like the United States, we easily get overtaken by the illusion that we can control everything, because we have more control over our environments than people in the past would have imagined possible. That means that when there’s an imperfection we can’t abide it. In London, there is a case in all the newspapers about a baby aborted at 8 months because of a cleft palette. This was considered an unacceptable imperfection. These are the kinds of things I was thinking of. Of course, we do this in the name of freedom!

Since 9/11, we seem more devoted to a cause that has a real attraction: freedom. Do you think that one should still remember to be more humble about political, military, and diplomatic possibilities?
I do, and the way I would express that is that there is a difference between freedom as an ideal and freedom as an all-encompassing ideology. My worry is that this ideal of freedom might turn into kind of a messianic purpose and we won’t again respect limits that need to be there even in a good cause.

In The City of God, St. Augustine says that the creation of idols characterizes the earthly city because of its impatience in not achieving its desires and goals, even the good ones. As such, the earthly city “prematurely and presumptuously” fixes something as a response to its desire and therefore turns it into an idol, saying, “This will bring happiness.” Even human rights and democracy can become idols in this way. In that sense, Christians should encourage the State to remain earthly and…
…not to get too heavenly!

Yes, and simply create and serve spaces for religious freedom and human creativity. Do you think St. Augustine would tell us this today?
Absolutely. I think he would warn us not to make an idol out of the sovereign self. With rights and with our control over technologies, we’ve developed this very worrying notion of self-sovereignty and made that an idol which we worship. That extends to the notion that we can guarantee certain outcomes through control of political processes. One of the limits we need to carefully embed in our thinking about international politics is that it is better to respond to concrete instances of injustice rather than to have this overarching notion of freedom and justice everywhere and then go in search of achieving that goal.

Could you describe what “freedom as an ideal” would look like?
Any defensible ideal of freedom has to have at its heart some notion of the dignity of the human person. And human beings have purposes and ideas; can be held accountable for what they do; have aspirations–decent or indecent–that take them beyond their own immediate circumstances. Freedom is the way we realize a certain vision of human dignity and human possibility, not utopian, but concrete possibilities for us not just to move in directions that are more consistent with human dignity, but for us to understand and realize our own dignity. One of the first things that happens before people start to protest their circumstances if they’re in a terrible situation, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, is they start to recognize that they’re being ill-dignified, that people shouldn’t be treated like this. I do agree with the President that there is something in us that recoils from this and that yearns for freedom.

Nietzsche said there are no longer facts, only interpretations. Hannah Arendt said that the modern disease that creates this totalitarianism is a kind of laziness in the task of distinguishing between fact and opinion. Do you agree with this?
Yes, I do. Hannah Arendt says that the ideal subject for totalitarian rule is someone who doesn’t believe in facts, someone who thinks it’s only opinion and anything can be anything else. I think that is the edge of nihilism we see today. What’s shocking to me is that we have people in our universities who see it as their task to strip students of any belief. You can say the Holy Father describes it this way, and Saddam Hussein describes it this way, and take your pick! That really is a world of moral nihilism.

Cardinal Ratzinger has said that St. Augustine, in writing The City of God, had, as a foundation, a Church at the beginnings of its history before it had acquired some political power or influence. Do you think we are at this point again? Is the Church today, once again, at the beginning, and for that reason awareness of what Augustine tells us is so important?
That’s a keen observation, and there’s something persuasive about it. I suspect that recognition helps to account for why Pope John Paul II has spent so much time talking about culture and about the Church as a sign of contradiction. I have had a couple of interesting conversations along these lines with my friend Cardinal George in Chicago. We were speaking specifically of the American Church after the scandals, the fact that the Church has lost a good bit of its patrimony to pay victims, that you now have a smaller and less powerful Church. That vulnerability is the moment that you are describing, where you have the bishops remaining sites of authority but it’s still very uncertain and very fragile. I suspect that that’s the circumstance in which the Church and Christians in general find themselves.