Tuesday, August 20, 2002

The theory of freedom of indifference, which was at the heart of nominalism, together with nominalism itself, influenced all Western thought. It was found almost everywhere, even among those who scarcely knew its name. It did not remain at the level of ideas and doctrines; it penetrated life and its deepest experiences.
One of the surest signs of the active presence of freedom of indifference was the tension it engendered, tension that posed problems of a disjunctive sort, expressed by the "either...or" formula. A few samplings of this characteristic disconnectedness follow.

-Either freedom or law. This opposition dominated casuistry and found expression in the comparison of freedom and law to two landowners disputing the field of human actions. Ethicists would say, this action pertains to law, that to freedom.

-Either freedom or reason. Reason opposed law just as the determinism it engendered opposed voluntary choice, or again, as the law it proclaimed opposed freedom of action and limited it.

-Either freedom or nature. Freedom was defined as opposed to nature. It was non-nature. It sought to dominate and exploit nature, understood as subrational or irrational, blind, and enslaved to its impulses.

-Either freedom or grace. In theology, freedom and grace were opposed in the manner of the two landowners disputing over human actions. What was ascribed to grace seemed by that very fact taken away from freedom; what was attributed to freedom as merit seemed to diminish grace.

-Either man was free, or God. This opposition led to and culminated in the relationship between God and humanity. From now on, a choice had to be made: one could not exalt man wihtout slighting God, nor exalt God without diminishing man. As E. Borne writes, "Contemporary atheism seeks a total affirmation of man by negating God... Whence the presupposition that belief in God dehumanizes man."

-Either subject or object. These basic terms came to signify on the one hand the person, changeable in will and feelings to the point of caprice, and on the other hand the external world, an apersonal reality with its firm, hard, opaque quality. The worst failure in regard to the person was to treat him as a thing; the greatest danger in science was subjectivity. Subjectivism ended in solipsism; objectivism became materialism.

-Either freedom or sensibility. Freedom became indifferent in order to fulfill itself, and it stiffened against sensibility; or else it identified with the passions and claimed total freedom for them.

-Either my freedom or the freedom of others. The freedom of others appeared as a limitation and a threat, since my idea of freedom was self-affirmation in the face of all others. From this issued a struggle with everyone; this was at the root of the dialectic between master and slave.

-Either the individual or society. Freedom of indifference created individualism. It severed the bonds between individuals in the same way in which it had isolated human acts from each other. Society was no longer anything more than an artificial creation and a constraint. Henceforth the individual and society would be opposed and would engage in a struggle for power, in a dialectic of domination. The two poles were individual freedom to the point of anarchy and state control to the point of despotism.

It is clear that the influence of freedom of indifference was very far-reaching. It affected all areas of human action and all the problematics to be encountered in moral theory. It even reshaped the questions; they became disjunctive, where in the case of freedom for excellence they would be synthesized, as we shall see. Wherever it appeared, freedom of indifference seemed to be a force for division and separation, for an opposition engendering an interminable dialectical struggle.

-Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, p. 350-351

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