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by Ken Myers


Sound thinking

Unreason destroys freedom


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the relationship between freedom and truth

by Ken Myers


by Ken Myers


Unreason destroys freedom

“In the mind of contemporary man, freedom appears to a large extent as the absolutely highest good, to which all other goods are subordinate. Court decisions consistently accord artistic freedom and freedom of opinion primacy over every other moral value. Values which compete with freedom; or which might necessitate its restriction, seem to be fetters or ‘taboos,’ that is, relics of archaic prohibitions and fears. Political policy must show that it contributes to the advancement of freedom in order to be accepted. Even religion can make its voice heard only by presenting itself as a liberating force for man and for humanity. In the scale of values on which man depends for a humane existence, freedom appears as the basic value and as the fundamental human right. In contrast, we are inclined to react with suspicion to the concept of truth: we recall that the term truth has already been claimed for many opinions and systems, and that the assertion of truth has often been a means of suppressing freedom. In addition, natural science has nourished skepticism with regard to everything which cannot be explained or proved by its exact methods: all such things seem in the end to be a mere subjective assignment of value which cannot pretend to be universally binding. The modern attitude toward truth is summed up most succinctly in Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’. Anyone who maintains that he is serving the truth by his life, speech and action must prepare himself to be classified as a dreamer or as a fanatic. For ‘the world beyond is closed to our gaze’; this sentence from Goethe’s Faust characterizes our common sensibility today.

“Doubtless, the prospect of an all too self-assured passion for the truth suggests reasons enough to ask cautiously, “what is truth?’. But there is just as much reason to pose the question, ‘what is freedom?’. What do we actually mean when we extol freedom and place it at the pinnacle of our scale of values? I believe that the content which people generally associate with the demand for freedom is very aptly explained in the words of a certain passage of Karl Marx in which he expresses his own dream of freedom. The state of the future Communist society will make it possible, he says, 'to do one thing today and another tomorrow; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner, just as I please. . . .’ This is exactly the sense in which average opinion spontaneously understands freedom: as the right and the opportunity to do just what we wish and not to have to do anything which we do not wish to do. Said in other terms: freedom would mean that our own will is the sole norm of our action and that the will not only can desire anything but also has the chance to carry out its desire. At this point, however, questions begin to arise: how free is the will after all? And how reasonable is it? Is an unreasonable will truly a free will? Is an unreasonable freedom truly freedom? Is it really a good? In order to prevent the tyranny of unreason must we not complete the definition of freedom as the capacity to will and to do what we will by placing it in the context of reason, of the totality of man? And will not the interplay between reason and will also involve the search for the common reason shared by all men and thus for the compatibility of liberties? It is obvious that the question of truth is implicit in the question of the reasonableness of the will and of the will’s link with reason.”

— from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Truth and freedom” (Communio 23, Spring 1996). The complete text of this article is available on-line here.

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