"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, November 13, 2017

Why We Secretly Hate Freedom and Health

In having to choose books for next year for a moral theology class, I've had occasion to go back to old works I've used in the past, beginning with the Orthodox thinker Christos Yannaras's The Freedom of Morality, which I have often used over the years, having first read it a dozen or more years ago now. Like many of his books, it contains occasionally wild claims and polemical allegations, and Freedom of Morality in particular is grossly swollen on its own verbosity and badly in need of severe editing. Nevertheless, the core arguments still remain important in refusing the temptation on the part of too many Christians--Catholics especially--to reduce "morality" to some kind of discrete system or, worse, an ideology.

Following Heraclitus' famous aphorism that you cannot step twice into the same river, so I find that picking up books one has read several times over the years necessarily entails reading them differently as the river of one's life continues to move. So this time, in coming back to Yannaras, I read him in light of more recent reading along similar themes, including the social critic and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom.

Fromm, in turn, let me to Nikolai Berdyaev's Slavery and Freedom. I don't know if anyone has ever read Fromm and Berdyaev together, let alone written and analyzed their similarities, but they are plainly there in both books for everyone to see. This is not entirely surprising as both men were near-contemporaries in living through both world wars. Both were also shaped by Marxism and existentialism in different ways.

All three--Yannaras, Fromm, and Berdyaev--have been on my mind lately because I have, since reading Adam Phillips, been especially taken with two of his insights: first, that most of us do not really want to be free because we find ourselves too much to bear. It is easier to restrict our freedom through submission to someone or something else--ideology, alcohol, authority figures--than it is to bear our freedom in all its uncontained unpredictability and ill-defined spontaneity.

I think our dis-ease with freedom is what led to D.W. Winnicott's powerful aphorism (quoted in Phillips' short biography of him, but originally found in his book on the child) that "health is much more difficult to deal with than disease." If we are suffering and diseased (spiritually, psychologically, physically) we are bound and unfree. Perhaps perversely, many of us seem to prefer it that way. That is both stranger and yet more widespread than many of us realize.

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