Human beings possess gifted imaginations. One misuse of this remarkable faculty is to reconstruct reality so that it fits our own vices. Sometimes we reconstruct the world so that we are “forced” to obey a set of absolute moral requirements maintained by the authority of an angry deity, an unrelenting Church, or a social order that still occasionally expects conformity. Against that, we sometimes construct an alternative vision of our own autonomy, where even if we are miserable with our choices, heigh-ho, they are ours to make, and, by golly, better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.
Milton’s Satan erred in this latter way of thinking in Paradise Lost. No one rules in hell, for hell is bondage to sin. No one rules in heaven either, save for God to whom alone is divine right to rule truly and essentially inherent. Thus, we are always servants, either of sin unto death or of love unto life. There is no alternative. Sin offers us the illusion of “freedom” but to do what? To carve from ourselves the only good that ever could satisfy us, and then, in the utter absence of peace that our sin causes, we insist that this license is now the true and only good, and we call it by an apparently positive term: autonomy. “You don’t rule me. My parents don’t rule me. The state doesn’t rule me. God doesn’t rule me. I rule me. Autonomy!”
Well, let’s take a look at that: “auto”-“nomos.” “Auto” doesn’t refer to cars, but rather to the self. “Nomos” means law, quite simply. So, auto-nomos means self-law, a law unto oneself, or as the Book of Judges describes it, “each man did that which was right in his own eyes.” So terrible a state of affairs did this create in Genesis 6, that God thought it best to wipe out mankind and restart with a drunk named Noah. Why is this? Because the definition of “law” implies universality, entails something that applies equally to me and to you, such that a common standard, a common rule applies to all. It’s not a law for me to say to myself, “I should like to go fishing today.” It’s a law when a rule applies to me even outside my desire. A law applies to me in virtue of what I am. Such a rule applies also to you, if you have the same nature as I do. If it is the case that I should not steal, then neither should you. That’s quite different from saying that because I like to fish, then you should like to fish too. Desire does not entail law. Law orders desire. And so, there cannot be a law that applies just to me. Law must apply to all of us. So, how could there be a situation in which each man made up the law for himself? How could auto-nomos make any sense?
For something to be right it must mean something other than “It’s what I want to do.” For something to be wrong it must mean something other than “It’s what I don’t want to do.” Otherwise, there’s no point in the language of “right” and “wrong.” They become equivalent to what I want vs. what I don’t want. And yet, we know from experience, tradition, philosophy, theology, and so many other sources (such as parenting) that we often pit what is right against what we wish not to do. And we often pit what is wrong against what we want to do. Right and wrong only make sense if they mean something larger than the satisfaction of my desires. And so, the phrase “what is right in my own eyes” is a contradiction, no different than the phrase “auto-nomos.” It would be better just to be honest and say, “I don’t care about what is right. I’m going to do what I want to do.”
Then what about “freedom”? Let’s begin by considering what is necessary for freedom, namely the conditions for action. If I cannot act, then I am definitely not free. Hence, I need to live, I need to move, and I need to acquire food. For this reason, Locke depicts our traditional “natural” rights as life, liberty, and the preservation of property. Or to put it in terms of the moral code: I ought not to murder you. I ought not to steal from you. I ought not specifically to steal your wife (hence, I should not commit adultery). I ought not to steal your reputation (hence, I should not bear false witness against you.) And finally, I should not entertain in my inner life the warping of desire that motivates me to do all these terrible things! Hence, I should not covet my neighbor’s wife, his donkey, his house, his boat, his car, his job, his singing voice, his athletic skill, his kids, his promotion, his reputation, or anything else that belongs to him. Notice that the tenth commandment is key to fulfilling the requirements of the other laws. Stop wanting what belongs to someone else and guess what? You won’t murder him, steal from him, lie about him, take his wife, etc. It’s not all that different from the Socratic principle of justice, namely the internal ordering principle that each man should mind his own business and not stick his nose in everyone else’s! Moses and Socrates are on to the same idea, namely that what goes on inside a man pretty much dictates what he does on the outside. So, guard your heart, and your actions will follow. And isn’t that pretty much the point of Jesus’s example about cleaning the inside of the cup, not just the outside? If we would just learn to be thankful for what we have, rather than insisting that we must also what have what he has, so much of what the prior four rules prohibit would not occur. So, the natural rights doctrine from Locke and the moral code of Moses coincide in the remarkable principle that freedom requires law.
The notion that my desires may rule my life unchecked by any common principle is the illusion of freedom. It’s the false identification of liberty with license: I want this, so I shall have this, so I deserve this, so I have a right to this, so you ought to respect it, and maybe even you ought to provide it. This series of non-sequiturs pretty much sums up the moral life of twenty-first century hedonism. But as philosophers from Socrates to theologians like St. Paul have maintained, addiction to pleasure is slavery. If you get want you want, but what you want isn’t good for you, then it will never make you happy.
The only alternative to hedonism is the virtue of moderation, self-control. In fact, disciplining our desires is necessary in every successful facet of life, from sports to university, from childhood to marriage, from traffic safety to fasting. Every worthwhile endeavor in life requires that we reign in and order our desires. Heaven, then, is not the freedom to pursue my desires into the unrelenting happiness of self-expression. On the contrary, that is hell, the state of maximal illusion, of my turning so utterly inward that I insist that everything in the universe bend its knee to me. But not everything in the universe was made for me. On the contrary, all things were actually made for God. By flipping reality on its head, then, I am really attempting to displace the uncreated and ever-loving God with my feeble, self-centered mortality. But the result of this autonomy isn’t personal satisfaction but instead slavery to this bending of being, to this disorder of misery, to this insistence that misery is happiness, to this cynicism that everyone else’s delight must somehow just be a show. Hell is accordingly terribly lonely.
Heaven, on the other hand, offers true liberty, but real freedom exists only under law. Why? Because law orders all things according to their natures. I am not a rabbit, so what is good for rabbits won’t make me happy. But what is good for humans will, and only what is good for humans will. So, I really ought to be a good human being, for only therein can I be happy. Thus, liberty requires submission to the good. Freedom requires law. Anarchy is slavery. To be free is not to be liberated from nature—from what I am—but rather to choose to fulfill what I am. When a bird stretches its wings and takes flight, it is free. How? It is free as a bird in the air. Mermaids who demand legs never find real freedom.