Date: 21/10/2016
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Ockham's Metaphysics

Bruce Thornton has an interesting review of George Weigel's book, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, at City Journal. Like Richard Weaver, Weigel locates the origin of the modern breakdown of metaphysics and morality in William of Ockham. Weaver traces Ockham's thought through Puritanism and on into modern liberalism.

...Weigel’s essay “Two Ideas of Freedom” begins by critically examining Isaiah Berlin’s influential notion of “positive” and “negative” freedom: the former is the freedom “to,” which allows us to pursue some perceived greater good; the latter is freedom “from,” particularly from governmental intrusion into private life and interference in the individual’s pursuit of happiness. But Berlin fails to address “the crucial question,” Weigel writes, which is “the truth about man—the truth about the human person—on which any defense of human freedom with real traction must ultimately rest.” Thus Berlin’s notion of freedom reduces it “to a matter of one human faculty—the will—alone.”

Pointing out that Berlin’s analysis is rooted in Enlightenment philosophy and ignores earlier thinkers, Weigel revisits pre-Enlightenment thinking in his discussion of William of Ockham and Saint Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, freedom “is a means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfillment of human destiny,” Weigel writes. Freedom helps us to “choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit.” Only then can we pursue happiness suitable for a rational, moral creature and “build free and virtuous societies in which the rights of all are acknowledged, respected, and protected in law.”

In contrast to Aquinas, Berlin’s intellectual ancestor Ockham reduces freedom to “a neutral faculty of choice, and choice is everything—for choice is a matter of self-assertion, of power,” Weigel writes. Thus freedom has nothing to do with goodness, truth, or virtue. The moral life is now severed from human nature, and humans are severed from one another, “for there can be no ‘common good’ if there are only the particular goods of particular men and women who are each acting out their own particular willfulness.” Moreover, by putting reason into conflict with freedom, Ockham “created a situation in which there are only two options: determinisms of a biological, racial, or ideological sort, or the radical relativism” that eventually leads to nihilism. “In either case,” Weigel believes, “freedom self-destructs.”

Weigel traces the consequences of an Ockhamite understanding of freedom shorn from virtue and moral truth, or the “freedom of indifference” that dominates “much of Western high culture.” Advances in genetics and biotechnology entice us with the promise of human engineering for perfection and immortality, while cloning and stem-cell research destroy human embryos in the service of various ends. By ignoring Aquinas’s notion of “freedom for excellence” we are unlikely “to deploy our new genetic knowledge in ways that lead to human flourishing rather than to the soulless dystopia of the brave new world.” More immediately dangerous is moral relativism, which has been on display throughout the culture in response to the challenge of Islamic jihad; it is an outgrowth of the separation of freedom from moral truth. Meeting the Islamist challenge, Weigel writes, requires not the flabby tolerance or guilty self-loathing engendered by such moral relativism, but rather a patriotism that is the “expression of a nobler concept of freedom than mere willfulness.” For ultimately, “Homo Voluntatis cannot give an account of a freedom worth sacrificing, even dying, for.” Absent such patriotism, we will end up in the state of appeasement that Weigel documents in his essay “Is Europe Dying?,” a brilliant survey of a culture that can no longer reproduce itself or act against Islam’s “aggressive anti-humanism fueled by a distorted theism.”...