The Christian Appropriation of Classical Tradition
- Catholic Media Association Book Award: Faithful Citizenship/Religious Freedom, Third Place
Retrieving Freedom is a provocative, big-picture book, taking a long view of the “rise and fall” of the classical understanding of freedom.
In response to the evident shortcomings of the notion of freedom that dominates contemporary discourse, Retrieving Freedom seeks to return to the sources of the Western tradition to recover a more adequate understanding. This book begins by setting forth the ancient Greek conception—summarized from the conclusion of D. C. Schindler’s previous tour de force of political and moral reasoning, Freedom from Reality—and the ancient Hebrew conception, arguing that at the heart of the Christian vision of humanity is a novel synthesis of the apparently opposed views of the Greeks and Jews. This synthesis is then taken as a measure that guides an in-depth exploration of landmark figures framing the history of the Christian appropriation of the classical tradition. Schindler conducts his investigation through five different historical periods, focusing in each case on a polarity, a pair of figures who represent the spectrum of views from that time: Plotinus and Augustine from late antiquity, Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor from the patristic period, Anselm and Bernard from the early middle ages, Bonaventure and Aquinas from the high middle ages, and, finally, Godfrey of Fontaines and John Duns Scotus from the late middle ages. In the end, we rediscover dimensions of freedom that have gone missing in contemporary discourse, and thereby identify tasks that remain to be accomplished. Schindler’s masterful study will interest philosophers, political theorists, and students and scholars of intellectual history, especially those who seek an alternative to contemporary philosophical understandings of freedom.
Part I: Prolegomena
1. Christian Freedom and Its Traditions
Part II: Late Antiquity
2. Plotinus on Freedom as Generative Perfection
3. Augustine and the Gift of the Power to Choose
Part III: The Patristic Period
4. Perfectly Natural Freedom in Dionysius the Areopagite
5. Maximus the Confessor: Redeeming Choice
Part IV: The Early Middle Ages
6. St. Anselm: Just Freedom
7. Bernard of Clairvaux: Liberating Love
Part V: The High Middle Ages
8. Bonaventure on the Trinitarian Origin of Freedom
9. Thomas Aquinas: A Fruitful Reception of the Whole
Part VI: The Late Middle Ages
10. Godfrey of Fontaines: The Absolute Priority of Act
11. John Duns Scotus and the Radicalizing of Potency
Part VII: General Conclusion
12. The Givenness of Freedom
“Retrieving Freedom is an impressive volume that locates the nature of free will in the very depth of both history and metaphysics. This is a much-needed contribution that will situate the questions of free will in the only horizon that can make them intelligible: a horizon in which we can get into view the very meaning and purpose of our freedom.” —Anselm Ramelow, OP, editor of God: Reason and Reality
"Lucid, capacious, and forceful as all of Schindler’s work, Retrieving Freedom reexamines the problem of human freedom within a philosophical and theological tradition spanning from Plotinus to Duns Scotus. The book’s provocative decision to retrace the question of freedom within Christianity’s inherently normative and metaphysical framework helpfully counteracts modernity’s habit of conceiving freedom through its ostensible contrary: determinism. Instead, Schindler’s brilliantly executed, contrastive approach allows us to see that the true source and origin of human freedom is found in Christianity’s Triune God as revealed in the twin orders of nature and history." —Thomas Pfau, author of Incomprehensible Certainty
"Through a close analysis of ten key figures beginning with (the not-quite-Christian) Plotinus and ending with John Duns Scotus, Schindler walks us through a historical tour de force of major—and not so major—Christian thinkers grinding out an ever clearer understanding of freedom through a process of clashing ideas that result in syntheses." —The Heythrop Journal
"This book is part of an ambitious project, and specialists may quibble with Schindler—for instance, with his unitarian rather than developmental approach to Augustine and with his admitted advances beyond the explicit words of Thomas Aquinas—but Schindler's lucid and often elegant discussions cannot fail to illumine. ...Recommended." —Choice
Freedom has an origin. We have come to take freedom for granted as an evident fact, one of the obviously given realities of the world, or else we dispute that reality, just as we might dispute other ostensibly obvious things, such as the existence of nature or the existence of God. If the question of freedom has become in the past century one of the classics of philosophical controversy—“free will” versus “determinism”—it is a sign that the ground of its evidence has become occluded, just as it has for the other questions just mentioned, namely, those of the existence of nature and of the existence of God. And indeed the ground, in the end, is the same in all three cases. At the core of the question of freedom ultimately lies the question of God, who is the source of both nature and freedom. To the extent that we allow the question of God to be eclipsed, which is to say that we block the intellect’s natural and essential access to God, whether we do so as individuals or as a culture, it is not simply that we begin to draw bad inferences regarding the existence or non existence of freedom; it is that we become incapable of raising proper questions to begin with, we become incapable of thinking fruitfully about freedom and inquiring into its reality in a genuinely productive way.
To say it again, freedom has an origin. There can be no freedom if there is no God at the origin of all things, no God who is at once Creator and Liberator of the world, who is free of his very being, whose nature it is to be both free and freeing. To be both free and freeing, this God must be able to give rise to a world that has its own reality in itself, its own principle of selforiginating self-motion, which exists in some fundamental way in itself and from itself. This God must not, then, stand in radical competition with this creaturely reality, but be able to share its reality himself, which is to say to enter into its history and to establish that history tout court, giving a liberating, theological sanction to what is in its essence a wholly natural reality. And this God must be able to do so because he is already in himself, in his own inner being, something like a reciprocity of wills, a reciprocity of freedom joined in love—a love that both generates and results from a non-reductive relation that can be perfectly, numerically one without being any less a reciprocity between abiding others.
If such a God is in fact the real origin of freedom, then the fate of freedom will be bound up with the fate of the self-revelation of this God in the actuality of created nature and of history. In this book, we have traced some of the key figures in the reception of this self-revelation, specifically in what concerns the nature and meaning of freedom. To be sure, there is no claim here to be exhaustive, even within the limits of this particular theme. God’s self-revelation has been received by an effectively infinite number of people, and it has been analogously different not only in every individual case, but more generally at different historical periods and geographical locations. Nevertheless, the figures we have chosen to study in some depth are paradigmatic, and collaborate together in their polarities, which span the extremes of the spectrum of possibility in a given period, to present an illuminating picture of the arc of freedom in the West, the rise and fall of the great classical Christian tradition. Plotinus represents a culminating point of the pre-Christian classical tradition, the point at which that tradition flourishes and allows its fruit to be taken up into the Christian form. It is not an accident that this bearing of fruit coincides with the first great insight into freedom, since freedom just is this fruitful generativity. As we saw, for Plotinus, the perfection of freedom is essentially a superabundant perfection, which has its own goodness always both in itself and out beyond itself. A key principle arose here, which proved to be crucial for the fate of Western freedom, as it has unfolded in the figures we have studied in this book: freedom requires a principle that simultaneously transcends the act-potency distinction and establishes that distinction in its properly asymmetrical order. This simultaneity is the meaning of generosity, the essence of gift, which creates things as good and as fruitful in their goodness. Plotinus, we might say, inaugurates the Western tradition of freedom by opening up an insight into this radically original generosity, even if he ultimately lacked the theoretical resources to sustain it.