Progress in the void
R. J. Snell on modernity’s preference for freedom over the good
“The Western tradition has long grappled with the question of freedom within the limits of natural right and natural law, a distinction vital to so much of our understanding of the rule of law, human dignity, the meaning of human freedom and responsibility. If right is determined only by what we arbitrarily choose, then right is fundamentally unstable; but if there is a natural right, then justice is beyond mere caprice or accident but normative and binding. The explanation of how things were right by nature took many forms, and the West exists as the tension between the explanations offered by Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. By the time of early modernity, however, a new consensus emerged that nature (or creation) did not provide an explanation of the good. John Locke, for example, rejected the ‘old view of nature’ and the understanding that ‘human beings . . . were directed to a highest good under which all goods could be known in a hierarchy of subordination and superordination’ — there simply was no such good. In the absence of a normative ordering of goods, it became difficult, but essential, to explain the meaning and foundations of justice, and Locke and the liberal tradition declared that justice was contractual rather than rooted in nature. As George Grant articulates it, the fathers of modernity knew that their version of justice required ‘giving up the doctrine of creation as the primal teaching,’ for if there was truth ‘deep down things,’ if things were heavy in their interiority and made demands on us to be respected in their integrity, and if we were charged to work, attend, till, and keep the garden through good work, offering both the perfected garden and our work-perfected selves as adornments for God’s cosmic temple, then our contractual agreements were bound rather than free-floating. More succinctly, if there was a truth about the good, then we were not entirely free to make justice in the image of our own unfettered wills; we were not sovereign, not autonomous, but remained ruled rulers. Modernity chafed on these limits, viewed them as obeisance rather than freedom, and determined that humanity ‘depends for its progress not on God or nature but on its own freedom, and the direction of that progress is determined’ by our own self-understandings, although it is unclear whether those self-understandings can secure anything like the common good.”
—from R. J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Angelico Press, 2015) Internal quotes are from George Grant, English-speaking Justice (Anansi Press, 1985)
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