Winter 2002

Freedom Beyond Our Choosing: Augustine on the Will and Its Objects

D.C. Schindler

“Freedom is dependent on the existence of things of intrinsic value. A world of mere options is a world without the possibility of freedom.”

The question concerning freedom warrants the same response Augustine gave to the question concerning time: “I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.” Servais Pinckaers has observed that, since it lies at the heart of any activity that belongs most intimately to us, we have a profound grasp of the meaning of freedom; but he adds, nevertheless: “[a]t the same time, freedom is what we know least, for no idea can encompass it, no piling up of concepts reveal it adequately.”2  Precisely because it is freedom, we have difficulty giving a single determinate account of it; the term gathers up quite a variety of experiences, events, and realities without for all that disappearing into pure equivocity. Common political discourse, however, tends to neglect the real mystery of freedom, and contents itself instead with a paltry share of a rich philosophical legacy, reducing the notion to the mere capacity to choose or determine oneself. What we debate in the political sphere is rarely whether this is an adequate conception of freedom, but most often if and to what extent the power to choose ought to be regulated, how to ensure this power to the greatest number of people, and what are the most effective means of multiplying options in order to increase this power.


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1. Augustine, Confessions [= Conf.], XI, 14 [translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 264. All citations of the Confessions in the present essay are from this translation].

2. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 328.