A few days back, my young son responded to my wife’s request to do the dishes by exclaiming “but I want to do whatever I want to do, whenever!”

I expect he learned his wicked sentiments directly from me; his immature wish for freedom a bold articulation of what I really want to say.

Like so many others, I spent too much time hoodwinked by the story of liberation, emancipation, and autonomy. What it meant to be free, I supposed, was to be free from limits and entanglements, duties and responsibilities; freedom was self-sufficiency, and a major goal in life was to maintain and extend the range of sovereignty.

Other people are threats to freedom, what with their expectations and demands. To have a child, for example, is virtually to die, for they demand so much, and so absolutely, as to put you out of the driver’s seat of your own life. (Metaphorically of course. In reality, you spend much of your time in the driver’s seat shuttling them around.)

This viewpoint is utterly bizarre, something we forget because the viewpoint is so prevalent.

One mark of our cultural abnormality is how strange it seems to think of freedom as marked by self-restraint, loyalty, fidelity, reverence, piety, or responsibility. We tend to think that freedom is the absence of responsibility.

Now, it certainly is the case that I am an individual and free. But the sort of individual I am is personal, and necessarily in relation to others. In the tradition, a central claim about persons was their ability to give themselves and receive others, as Jacques Maritain puts it: “this is a center … capable of giving and giving itself; capable of receiving … even another self as a gift.

In fact, one of the marks of the greatness of a being is its ability to give itself to another. For Thomas Aquinas, “it is the nature of every actuality to communicate itself insofar as it is possible. Hence every agent acts according as it exists in actuality.” By this Aquinas means that everything gives itself to the world as it can. There is a “basic generosity of existence.”

For finite beings, the generosity of existence occurs both because we are rich and because we are poor. As rich, we have existence and communicate ourselves to others. Unlike God, finite beings are poor, lacking the fullness of existence and so each tries to enrich itself by its relation and dependence on other beings. As persons, we give and receive because we are both generous and in need.

While all finite being must receive, this is not a shameful imperfection but a sign of personhood. Unlike the sovereignty model where capacity for isolation is the mark of perfection, to receive is not imperfection but perfection, a mark of our dignity.

I can think of myself as an empty container of freedom, as a sovereign who exists prior to my entanglements with others, but this is a paltry and ghost-like self. The person who matters is the one who is son, father, husband, cousin, son-in-law, friend, and each of those roles limits my ability to do just whatever I want, whenever. As son, I owe piety; as husband, I owe fidelity; as father, I owe gentle instruction; as friend, I owe loyalty. Consequently, I am what I am in virtue of the responsibilities I bear. Insofar as I matter as a person, I am constituted not by sovereignty, but by what I owe. And only by knowing what I owe to others do I know who I am and what I’m for; ignorance of owing is to be devoid of a self.

If this is true, then the ability to cultivate a sense of owingness is to become a real human being, a free human being. But almost every bit of our cultural life is stacked against our developing this sense, and so we are deaf and dumb about what matters most.



Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Previous articleMafia Among the Mountain Folk, Part II
Next articleIf Not Exceptional, How about Unusual
R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. In this, the last stage of late modernity, we have exchanged the notion of personhood with the illusion of individuality, the reality of obligation and gratitude for the finely tuned sense of entitlement, with only such commitments as we choose to have and only for as long as we choose. them. But in truth, the most salient facts about our lives are gifts, not choices. I did not choice my family, my language, my nationality, my moment in history, etc. They were all gifts, gifts that require some return. Real life is about the reception of gifts and decisions about how to use them and pass them on.

  2. Brings a Father Brown story to mind, The Wrong Shape, I think. There is an Eastern mystic in it, and at one point he says. “I want nothing” three times in succession. The others think he’s nuts, but as usual Father Brown gets it. The first is a basically common response in conversation, “I don’t need anything.” The second is the idea talked about here, “I am complete, self-contained.” Which may sound nice until one sees that it leads to the last: “I want nullity, the void, nihilism.” the second repudiates personhood, the last life itself.

  3. Well now, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but what always impressed me most about the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, was that chapter one or book one is entirely filled with this sort of thing:
    “From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.”
    (Ever since becoming a parent, when I read this particular acknowledgement of debt I wonder what it was little Marcus broke.)

  4. So you could be a perfectly moral person and a parasite; the feudal/medieval concept of being moral while being either a beggar or a rich lord who built completely useless things and fought duels, even over trivia, but viewed the middle classes with their thrift and savings with contempt applies?

  5. I think yes. Consider that it was the autonomous middle class that provided us with the concept of strapping young men into anti masturbation devices, and the clinical abortion of fetuses. All while maintaining smugness, and posting stupid little comments on Front Porch Republic. Yes, I could quite comfortably be a landlord and be quite confident of the superiority of my position. It is time to throw away the revolting sense of smugness used to abuse our ancestors.

  6. Found your post today through a link in Facebook from a friend who I would say has fully developed his ability to give himself away to others as an act of great courage and love.

    I’m crazy about the way you’ve articulated this challenge of “owning up” to our real power. Just shared your piece with my people in G+. I hope you’ll add me to one of your circles there if you’re participating there. I’d love to stay in conversation with you.

  7. You know it seems to me libertarians get pilloried on this site and I have no idea why, the reason why I am one in the first place is because I BELIEVE IN CONSEQUENCES FOR ALL ACTIONS TAKEN. I have read the articles on this web site and agree with everything but I am sick of reading that all I care about is “me” and that I am some sort of libertine hedonist when the absolute opposite is true. Government has for too long made people irresponsible by cushioning the consequences of making stupid decisions. Passing laws against “vices” will not solve anything. I believe in community and I believe in more than just “me”. People need each other and most libertarians I have talked to believe the same thing. A man wouldn’t be able to build a car all by his lonesome, he needs the guy who knows engines, the guy who knows tires etc. all the individual parts constitute the whole. I don’t believe in forcing community nor does it seem that most people on this site want that either. Community is organic, comes from our traditions and institutions. I believe in personal responsibility and most libertarians believe the same thing, it is why we’re libertarians. Now granted some are “libertines” but some also are “moralists” like me. Government can’t change hearts and minds only people can, this isn’t pointed at this particular article either. I have held my piece for awhile but today I just lost it, I have had it with the stereotypes. The last thing on my list is materialism, liberty and community is what I believe in, and I don’t believe in forced help either, a community helps each other out because they know they can’t exist without one and other. See we aren’t all sex, money, narcissistic and drug driven nutcases. LOL!

  8. Well okay, RockLibertyWarrior, there were some posts by Caleb Stegall about a year ago and he raised some questions that to my mind have not been quite addressed. And I’ve been lurking since I posted to see if anyone would bring them back up – you can search the site for “rugged individualism” and find the earlier posts. I wrote about Marcus Aurelius, and to me he still is an epitome of remaining in the context of family and polis and “owingness”, but there is something to what Stegall was trying to get his finger on as far as I’m concerned. Here’s a quote from Stegall from the earlier posts: “The communitarian view, or, what I might suggest ought to be the Front Porch view, which is that healthy, well-ordered, self-sustaining, decentralized political communities are only possible in, among, and between the fraternity of self-made men—that is, between men of a certain class who are both competent and able to provide for the basic needs of themselves and their families, who come by their own opinions honestly and absent any artifice born of “mass culture,” who as such are beholden to no one…”

    That gives a good sense of it, I think. It was a lively discussion, and I think this particular post gives us a chance to revisit it, but we’re poorer for the absence of Mr. Stegall, is what I’m thinking. Which, in a sense, is simply the description of a community of sorts.

  9. Thank you for this thoughtful post. It reminded me of Steve Jobs resignation letter, which really struck me at the time.

    “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.”

    Also “Sully” the pilot who landed his crippled airplane in the Hudson with no loss of life, and of the United 93 passengers…

  10. The conclusion of this column seems exactly wrong to me. I think Harry Browne had it right, nobody owes us anything:
    The reason we have and value community and responsibility is because it is in our interest to do so, not because we should convince ourselves we owe stuff and others owe us stuff. In fact the latter is exactly the premise that statists use to justify the theft they call taxes.

  11. RJ, Thanks for these reflections. While I agree with your concluding paragraph, there is at least one area of American life that consistently goes against that judgement (albeit in a confounded way): We continue to buy our economic freedom through the accumulation of debt. Americans as individuals, as a nation, as a economic way of life – choose to bind ourselves to lifelong economic obligations, from student loans, to mortgages, to credit cards. You might even say we come to define ourselves by these obligations. (On another note: the Dutch film “Character” is a wonderful cinematic exploration of the role of debt in the moral development of a person. Check it out.)

  12. “As son, I owe piety; as husband, I owe fidelity; as father, I owe gentle instruction; as friend, I owe loyalty. Consequently, I am what I am in virtue of the responsibilities I bear…. And only by knowing what I owe to others do I know who I am and what I’m for; ignorance of owing is to be devoid of a self.”

    This is a powerful statement and I commend you for your courage in making it. Not only does it sound reasonable, but it also describes what is required to live reasonably because each of these relationships flourishes when guided by the principle you cite. Lived randomly and egocentrically they all falter and become complications that drag life down rather than enlarge and enrich it. I was left with a question. I wonder what you would add to your list if you included in it, “as citizen, I owe ….?” Our failure to agree about this has fueled our national anger and the disillusionment that seems to be driving us back into cynicism about owing the government, the nation, or our fellow citizens anything.

  13. As I read this post I kept thinking about what Auden said on the mass:

    The significance of the Mass. As biological organisms, we must all, irrespective of sex, age, intelligence, character, creed, assimilate other lives in order to live. As conscious beings, the same holds true on the intellectual level: all learning is assimilation. As children of God, made in His image, we are required in turn voluntarily to surrender ourselves to being assimilated by our neighbors according to their needs.

    ​The slogan of Hell: eat or be eaten.
    ​The slogan of Heaven: eat and be eaten.

Comments are closed.