Retrieving Freedom: The Christian Appropriation of Classical Tradition
By D. C. Schindler.
University of Notre Dame Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 550 Pages, $60.
Reviewed by Michael Lucchese.
Around 2014, pundits and Washington, D.C.-based journalists announced the arrival of a “Libertarian Moment.” It seemed as though Republicans, under the influence of Tea Party anti-government rage, had de-emphasized the national security and social conservative legs of the Reaganite “three-legged stool” in favor of free market economics. “Freedom” became the rallying cry of a generation of politicians.
And then, just as suddenly as it began, the Libertarian Moment ended. The 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Rand Paul stalled out, leaving the new libertarians adrift politically. And shortly thereafter, “postliberalism” became the great fashion among conservative writers. Thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony began publishing critiques of freedom-oriented politics, arguing that libertarian or classical liberal policies were damaging traditional communities. Intellectually and politically, it seemed that freedom had been almost discredited as a social principle.
As conservatives weigh how to balance the competing principles of order and liberty, however, it is important not to abandon one in pursuit of the other. As Russell Kirk once wrote, “The aim of a good constitution is to achieve in a society a high degree of political harmony, so that order and justice and freedom may be maintained.” A recent book by D.C. Schindler, Retrieving Freedom: The Christian Appropriation of Classical Tradition, can help conservatives understand the deep cultural roots of Western society’s idea of liberty.
In the preface, Schindler tells his readers that the book avoids many dominant academic methodologies and is meant instead to be a “work of tradition.” He believes that truth transcends history, but is only expressed in concrete historical circumstances. Therefore, Schindler attempts to return to the original sources of the Western philosophical tradition—especially the Neoplatonists and Christian interpreters—to discover the true meaning of the word “freedom.” The bulk of the book is a series of studies in the thought of individual thinkers from antiquity through the Middle Ages.
“In the classical world, freedom is either a belonging to the Good or a belonging to God,” Schindler writes, “but in any event it is a belonging.” Whether Platonist or Stoic, Greek or Roman, ancient philosophers were all attempting to investigate the nature of being itself. They wanted to know what the human person was, and the question of free will vexed them greatly. Indeed, Schindler argues fate and free will haunted these thinkers because their worldview was essentially materialist. They possessed some knowledge of the freedom of the human soul, but could not fully understand it without Christian revelation.
According to Schindler, the Christian concept of freedom is an appropriation of earlier Jewish, Greek, and Roman ideas. “We fail to understand Christianity properly if we do not recognize it as taking up into itself the Jewish, the Greek, and the Roman traditions as a kind of novel synthesis of the three,” he says. The Christian synthesis is transformative, however, and therefore its conclusions can be surprising.
Christian narratives about sin and redemption presuppose free will, and therefore for Schindler the most essential doctrine of the faith is the redemptive Incarnation of Christ. While the Incarnation may have been a stumbling block to the Greeks initially, Schindler argues that the idea of the eternal stepping into history does not violate the classical conception of freedom. Rather, Schindler says it is the highest expression of it. Christ’s taking on of human nature elevates it, even divinizes it. The Incarnation becomes the ground for a new conception of human dignity, and therefore gives the idea of free will a new meaning. True freedom is freedom from sin. Perfect freedom is the freedom to serve God.
The Christian synthesis of classical thought, then, shows how order and liberty can be truly reconciled—in the virtuous life. Schindler writes:
Order reinstitutes itself at the far end of freedom’s activity, and indeed in some sense as an expression of that identity. Here we have the essential Christian contribution to the meaning of freedom, the reason why freedom is essentially Christian: the drama of the incarnation of the personal Goodness that defines freedom overcomes the exclusive dichotomy of historical reality or the good as such, the a priori or the a posteriori.
At the heart of Retrieving Freedom is Schindler’s contention that Thomas Aquinas integrates all the previously covered thinkers in one cohesive framework. For him, Thomism is the full reception of the Western tradition. Christendom, then, was an attempt to draw out the political implications of Thomism and root the social order in Aquinas’s philosophical insights. It was an attempt to build a virtuous society on the basis of a redeemed humanity’s freedom to serve God.
Schindler tracks the beginning of the decline of freedom in the West to the philosophical troublemakers who challenged Thomism’s ascendency. Duns Scotus, in particular, prefigures the modern rejection of freedom as belonging. “Rather than disclosing freedom at the heart of being, Scotus places freedom beneath being, so to speak,” Schindler writes, “and then reflects that freedom back in the form of a universalized potency as self-actuating power.” It is easy to see how the revolutionary ideologies of the modern world, with their emphasis on radical change and political violence, stem from this conception of freedom as power.
The shortcoming of Schindler’s thesis is that he fails to apply it to the tradition of American liberty. Critical of John Locke’s individualist metaphysics and contractarian politics, Schindler seems to dismiss the American Founding as an inherently modern project. He seems to believe this regime is at odds with the freedom of the ancients he so ably articulates. What Scotus began in the Middle Ages, Schindler might argue, achieved some kind of culmination in the revolutionary movements of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries—including the American Revolution.
Russell Kirk’s argument about Locke’s influence on the Founding in The Roots of American Order may alleviate some of Schindler’s uneasiness with America. Denying that Locke is a “monarch” in the realm of American political thought, Kirk claims that he had far less sway with the Founders than generally imagined. Indeed, the Founders treated Locke as merely “one of several commendable English friends to liberty.” They appropriated Lockean rhetoric insofar as it served their political ends, but by no means were Lockean metaphysics necessary to their ideas about justice, order, or freedom.
Kirk prefers to stress the continuity of American political thought with the very tradition Schindler articulates and assesses in Retrieving Freedom. The Founders may not have often encountered Plotinus and Bonaventure, but the great ideas of Western Christendom had come to them through the classical education they enjoyed and the great literature they read. One cannot but hear an echo of this tradition in the Declaration of Independence’s invocation of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Though Schindler mostly deals with high philosophy and metaphysics, it would be foolish not to recognize the political implications of his thesis. As Whittaker Chambers wrote in his memoir Witness, “Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible.” Schindler’s work of historical and philosophical recovery proves that Chambers is right beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Writing of freedom in Augustine of Hippo’s work, Schindler reminds readers that free choice is a gift from God. “Freedom is therefore something that must always be renewed, something ever again to be achieved,” he writes, “but this power itself is possible only because this has already been achieved—pro nobis.” For Schindler, there is no tradition without freedom, and no freedom without tradition. These ideas are a precious heritage to be guarded with great care, because they are a gift of the wise born before the present and the God who inspired their wisdom.
American conservatives have always believed that the human person is endowed with certain inalienable, natural rights. But they have also always believed that those rights have to be endowed in turn with deep, metaphysical meaning. D.C. Schindler’s work in Retrieving Freedom can show those who wish to truly restore Western civilization the true significance of freedom. Without a framework such as his, the idea of freedom as the chief political principle of a regime is surely doomed to become little more than a libertarian cliché.
Michael Lucchese is the founder of Pipe Creek Consulting, a communications firm based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was a communications aide to U.S. Senator Ben Sasse. He graduated from Hillsdale College in 2018, and in 2017 was a Political Studies Fellow at the Hudson Institute. His writing has also appeared in several publications, including Law & Liberty, Public Discourse, and National Review.
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