FEBRUARY 3, 2020
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of God
Etienne Gilson was one of the clearest thinking philosophers of the 20thcentury. As a good philosopher, naturally, he fully understood the importance of reason, a power that is often downgraded or even dismissed in the modern world. In an address he gave at Harvard’s Tercentenary Celebration (1936), he made the following statement: “Realism always was and still remains the source of our personal liberty. Let us add that, for the same reason, it remains the only guarantee of our social liberty.”
Jacques Maritain concurred, citing St. Thomas Aquinas. Totius libertatis radix est in ratione constituta, says the Angelic Doctor: The entire root of liberty is in reason. Maritain went on to say that when reason is suppressed, what is left is not liberty, “but that amorphous impulse surging out of the night which is but a false image of liberty.”
Reason connects us with reality. Liberty is one of its offspring. We are not free if we cannot see where we are going. In fact, we are lost, and lost without a compass or a map. For G. K. Chesterton, “modern man has lost his address.” We are lost because we disregarded reason (i.e., what science says regarding the nature of the unborn human and what it observes concerning the adverse effects of abortion, especially for women) and expected liberty to bloom in a vacuum.
During the recent March for Life, President Donald Trump became the first sitting president to join the hundreds of thousands who came to Washington to stand up for life. The following excerpt from his address indicates his preference for concrete realities over airy abstractions:
When we see the image of a baby in the womb, we glimpse the majesty of God’s creation. When we hold a newborn in our arms, we know the endless love that each child brings to a family. When we watch a child grow, we see the splendor that radiates from each human soul. One life changes the world… We cannot know what our citizens yet unborn will achieve. The dreams they will imagine. The masterpieces they will create. The discoveries they will make. But we know this: every life brings love into this world. Every child brings joy to a family. Every person is worth protecting. And above all, we know that every human soul is divine and every human life, born and unborn, is made in the holy image of Almighty God.
An eloquent testimony, indeed, to the value and dignity of life.
On the other hand, a number of Democrats, infuriated by the president’s stand, have pledged that concern for life must not stand in the way of liberty. As “liberals,” they want to secure, through a federal law, the liberty of a woman to choose abortion. Thus, the clash comes down to Life vs. Liberty. But this is a false dichotomy since life and liberty do not oppose each other. The very first sentence of Lawrence Tribe’s book, The Clash of Absolutes, reads as follows: “This book is about a clash of absolutes, of life against liberty.” His fatal mistake is to make liberty an absolute, whereas, in truth, liberty can flourish only when it is rooted in reason. Liberty is not an absolute; it is a derivative. Reason is fundamental. Life is a blessing. By giving liberty an absolute status, reason is discarded, and, without its connecting function with reality, life is no longer seen as the blessing that it is.
When liberty is viewed as an absolute, all life is threatened, not only that of the unborn child. This is because liberty is no longer tempered, directed, or enlightened by reason. Reason tells us that the unborn child is a member of the human family and thus deserving of the same protection that is extended to all human beings. Respect for life, therefore, becomes the ground for respect for liberty, which is a liberty that does not “clash” with life. A rose flourishes only when its roots are intact. To choose liberty at the expense of life is to lose both.
Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the 1973 Doe v. Wade ruling, made a most revealing statement in the 1977 Beal v. Doe Supreme Court case. “But the cost of a nontherapeutic abortion,” he wrote, “is far less than the cost of maternity care and delivery, and holds not comparison whatsoever with the welfare costs that will burden the State for the new indigents and their support in the long years ahead.” This is a far-reaching form of liberty that pretends, without any real basis, to see into the future. By this cost calculus, liberty would endanger all life. To reiterate the words of President Trump, “We cannot know what our citizens yet unborn will achieve. The dreams they will imagine. The masterpieces they will create.”
President Trump’s speech is a defense of true liberty, but one placed in the context of human life, evoking notions of love, joy, potential, and even the hand of God.
Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images
Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He’s a regular contributor to the St. Austin Review.