An Interview with D. C. Schindler, Author of “Retrieving Freedom”

D. C. Schindler is professor of metaphysics and anthropology at the John Paul II Institute, Washington, DC. He is the author of eleven books, including Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty (Notre Dame Press, 2017). The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled publish his latest book, Retrieving Freedom: The Christian Appropriation of Classical Tradition (October 2022). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

D. C. Schindler

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

If we go all the way back to the beginning, the thinking that eventually led to this book began with a philosophical problem regarding the nature of freedom that struck me with great force in high school (I can point to the place on the street in South Bend where I was stopped in my tracks on my walk to school). I knew that the problem arose because I didn’t have a good conception of what freedom was (nothing but the unfettered power to choose between alternatives), but I also had not encountered any other conception, and decided I would eventually have to explore the question in more depth. It was not until I was in graduate school that I first started to pursue the project in earnest, and still later that I made it a principal focus of research. In the meantime, I had learned a good deal more in metaphysics and philosophical anthropology, and the cultural manifestations of the problematic modern conception of freedom had become increasingly apparent.

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

No one could seriously deny, not only that we are currently in the midst of a crisis, but that it is a profound one. The typical sources of reassurance and stability—our nation, our communities, even the Church—appear to be themselves in crisis. Most people feel that our lives are subject to forces that are not ultimately governed by intelligence and good will, if they are governed at all. The temptation to radicalism on all sides of the political spectrum is obvious, and only increases the sense of disorder. If there is anything good that can come out of a deep crisis, however, it is that it provides an opportunity to rethink our basic notions and kindles the desire to recover our roots. My book is an effort to retrieve the Western tradition in as robust a way as I could manage (recognizing of course that a single person cannot recover a tradition, but only participate in a larger movement) by rereading some of the fundamental figures that have shaped our understanding of freedom, attempting to gain a new perspective by focusing on the metaphysical, and in a certain sense theological, roots of their doctrines.

How did you research this book?

The bulk of the research came during a sabbatical, during which I postponed as many academic tasks as I could in order to read the primary texts of the authors I had selected and then to scale the mountains of secondary literature. Some of the principal lines of the interpretation had already taken shape in an undergraduate course on the “Philosophy of Freedom” I taught for a couple of years, and then a PhD seminar at the John Paul II Institute which covered the basic figures in the book and laid out the lines of argument.

What did you learn while writing it?

There are countless things: I acquired a much richer sense of freedom than I had when starting it; I came to appreciate an important contribution from Scotus than I previously realized, in spite of the problems he introduced; I always knew that the concept of “nature” was crucial in classical thought, but I discovered that it is far more important, even in Christian thinkers, than I had supposed; and I came to a new appreciation for Plotinus, whose philosophy of freedom was even richer and more subtle than I had thought; and, while I was confirmed in my belief that Thomas Aquinas has the most ample and complete philosophy of freedom, I discovered aspects that needed further development and came to appreciate the “voluntarist” reaction a bit better.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

When I first conceived the idea for the book a decade ago, I had envisioned a fairly succinct analysis of the problems in the conventional conception of freedom today and a response drawn from the classical Christian tradition. But as I began work it became clear that much more work was needed in order to accomplish the original idea, and so the projected expanded into a trilogy. The first volume was published five years ago as Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty. It contains a diagnosis of the current view of freedom, which is drawn from John Locke but traced through many of the ideals and institutions of modern American culture, and then concludes with a contrasting view drawn from Plato and Aristotle. The present volume, Retrieving Freedom: The Christian Appropriation of Classical Tradition, picks up from Plato and Aristotle, and explores the evolution of the notion of freedom through some of the principal Christian thinkers up through the late medieval period, when the modern view (discussed in volume one) begins to take shape. The third volume will be a more constructive theory of freedom, which seeks to bring together perspectives that are often treated in isolation: metaphysics, philosophical anthropology, politics, and theology. The point will be to attempt to offer a full response to the problems outlined in volume one, and to do so in light of the rich tradition laid out in volume two.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

There are too many to name. My father, to whom the book is dedicated, has no doubt had the biggest influence on me. Perhaps the thinker who most fundamentally opened up the perspective that guides this particular study is the great Catholic philosopher, Ferdinand Ulrich, who died just a couple of years ago. I had the privilege of having had dozens of conversations with him over the last decade, and what I learned from him has given a distinctive color to all of my thinking. My interpretation of Aquinas is deeply inspired by him. Another teacher it would be fitting to mention here is Eric Perl, who helped me to appreciate the endless wealth of Plotinus and the broader neoplatonic tradition. As far as authors go whom I did not know personally but from whom I have learned a great deal, Hans Urs von Balthasar is no doubt a name I ought to put on the top of the list.

What is your writing schedule like?

The morning hours have always been the most fruitful, from about 7am to 1pm, accompanied all the way through by black coffee. If I’m able to do a bit more writing after lunch I will, but usually I use that time to read, get books and articles from the library, and take notes on secondary sources. People are often surprised to learn that I still do all of my writing by hand in a spiral-bound notebook. I find that I can think much better with a pen in my hand than I can sitting at a keyboard. Writing by hand also gives me a little more flexibility regarding where I work. Nietzsche would no doubt be horrified, but I tend to do my best writing lying down on my stomach, near a heat source if it’s in the cold months. Thinking through the hardest problems absolutely requires being on the floor! The disadvantage of this approach is that, after I have a draft written, I still need, then, to type the whole thing into the computer. For a 600 page book like the current one, that can take a great deal of time! But it gives me a chance to do an initial edit, and see how the whole thing flows. One of the nice things about writing by hand is that I end up with an original artifact at the end; I actually have a big box full of laden notebooks and folders. For some reason, that is much more satisfying than a mere external drive with backed up files.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

The best advice I could give is to keep a notebook around and jot down ideas as they come. A book is very different from an article: one can write an article around a single compelling idea (in fact, the best articles tend to have a single idea!). By contrast, while a book certainly ought to have a unifying argument and so a central idea, that idea needs to ramify, and develop in several directions in order to justify a larger work. But it takes time to allow ideas to unfold in the proper way. When one has the initial idea, it’s not always clear that it will in fact unfold. Keeping a notebook allows one to build on initial ideas, and after a time it becomes clear whether the idea warrants a full book. If it does, then one already has a sketch of some of the book’s basic parts! That focuses one’s thinking, and the notebook can again provide opportunities to follow and flesh things out further.

Who would you like to read Retrieving Freedom and why?

The first people I would want to read Retrieving Freedom are those who already read Freedom from Reality; I’d especially want those to read it who were frustrated that the Christian dimension was not apparent in that first book. It is front and center in this one! But I would more generally like to have has readers educated people with broad, general interests, in particular those concerned about the culture and those with a somewhat speculative bent. Finally, I would be delighted to have philosophers who work on the theme of freedom (in the field, for example, of philosophy of mind) to see how some of the narrowly-formulated questions on this theme open up naturally to “bigger picture” questions, namely, metaphysics, theology, and the meaning of history.

What books are you currently reading?

Lately I’ve been reading a great deal of Giorgio Agamben. Even though I disagree fundamentally with his basic presuppositions and the ultimate conclusions he draws from his studies, I have found that he takes a profoundly interesting angle on every problem he explores in the history of political thought, and sets into relief quite fascinating themes. The questions he raises are just outstanding. I am reading through his principal works in English translation, and will no doubt have to read them through again once I finish: it is sometimes difficult to follow the thread of his argument amidst the many themes raised. But I have found that it is very much enriching my own thinking.

What project are you working on next?

I’ve actually got notes for a dozen projects right now, but the most pressing is a study on work, which looks like it may end up as two volumes, a theological one (aimed at a broader audience), and then a more metaphysical, philosophical one. But I do not want to let too much time pass before working on the third volume on freedom, in order to bring this series to a close. For that final volume, I have a fairly complete set of notes regarding the overall structure. Because it will be most basically a “constructive” theory, there won’t be nearly as much research required as I had to do for Retrieving Freedom, though I think I will try to complete the history/genealogy, begun in the first two volumes, in a substantial introduction. Having learned so much working on the first two volumes, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what fruit all of that can bear in a more direct reflection on the nature of freedom.

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