Traces N.9, October 2001

Freedom, But Where is It's Source?

In these weeks that slip by, covered by the leaden feeling of war, numerous comments have been made on a theme batted about by politicians, writers, and journalists. Are our civilization and our culture “superior” to the others, and in particular, superior to the one whose womb brought forth the kamikaze terrorist attacks?
Is it right to state, as Oriana Fallaci (Italian writer) did, that Western culture cannot even be compared to Islamic, and that therefore she will not stand for being attacked by them? Or, as Angelo Panebianco (Italian columnist) says, that our institutions are not on the same plane as those of others? Or, still, is it fair to compare, as Piero Ottone (Italian columnist) does, this moment to the fall of Rome, overrun by barbarians?
The debate goes on and it is a fascinating one, even in the midst of an enormous amount of historical inaccuracies and approximations. But no matter how learned, impassioned, and full of enlightening and courageous points for further reflection the arguments are, many of these observations do not go to the heart of the question. For it is not enough to say that certain ways of life and of understanding coexistence are “superior.” It is necessary to comprehend where the difference lies, in what it consists.
Oriana Fallaci approaches the matter in one point of her essay, when she insists on the fact that she was “brought up in the concept of freedom.”
What is the wellspring of this concept of freedom; from whence can it always rise up again and thus grow, advance, be defended? And where today can one be brought up in the concept of freedom?

What is this freedom, really? Are the institutions sufficient for educating people to it? Is it enough to be able to do what one likes in order to know what it is, in order to be educated to freedom?
There is a great poet, heir of the grand tradition from Homer to Dante to Petrarch, who imagined the thoughts of an Asian shepherd, a kind of Afghan. This is Leopardi, in his splendid Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia. The idea came to him reading an essay by a French scholar about the life of those peoples. At a certain point in the poem, Leopardi imagines the question that this man addresses to the moon and to the infinite mystery of the night: “And what am I?” This is the question of the Afghan shepherd, but it is the same one asked by the Hebrew psalmist King David and by Leopardi himself.

The question is the same, but it is from the difference in the answers that–among dramas and contradictions–the diverse human histories develop.
For the Judeo-Christian tradition, from which the West arises, that “mystery”–the Infinite in front of which man stands lost and thrown into life–loved in that man a son and entered into history, presenting Himself with a positive answer to the asking “I.” He did not present Himself to the person as a law to be venerated and as an entity that waits in the great beyond for the imposition of His dominion over the world, at any cost.
In Jewish tradition and in Christian history, the absolute value of individual existence was constituted, its irreducible freedom. The Infinite came into “relationship” with even the most derelict existence. He revealed to the person, every sort of person (lucky or not, intelligent or not, healthy or not) the foundation of his freedom: his being made of God, of the relationship with Him, therefore unassailable.

A man who conceives of himself and his similars as made by the relationship with the Infinite is reminded to treat himself and others with a particular way of looking at things, recognizing the high stakes of the game. From this conception of the “I,” a society is born, attentive to the value of the person, to its defense and development; a society is born where man is the protagonist with his desires, realistic about his limitations. Otherwise, a reality is imposed in which material, civic, and institutional life are not commensurate with the person as “made” by the relationship with the Infinite; in which freedom and existence itself have no value and can thus be instrumentalized, all the way to the utmost design of power.
Our contribution is positioned right on the level of this education to freedom which today is so urgent.