The Pursuit of Freedom & Wealth. Though both are good neither freedom nor wealth are morally sufficient ends in themselves for the human family. Like freedom, wealth is for something. Actually strictly speaking wealth and freedom are both in the service of human flourishing. In the Christian tradition this means that both human freedom and all the myriad forms that wealth takes are only fully realized in love and love is always necessarily sacrificial. We strive to be free and wealth so that we are able to love fully and without reservation or compromise.
Too often freedom and love are seen as sui generis, as almost Platonic ideals that are simply “there.” My own ministry as a priest has taught me to be wary whenever conversations about practical matters turn theoretical. Freedom and wealth, their morally legitimate uses, the conditions that foster or obstruct their realization and growth, are all matters of prudence. When we try and discuss prudential matters as if they were simply a matter of principle, our conversation quickly becomes a source of conflict and degenerate into mere posturing. While there is no guarantee that of practical agreement, understanding that freedom and wealth are at the service of love offers both critics and apologists of democracy and the free market a potential more fruitful foundation for their discussions and even their disagreements.
But this brings us to a challenge that is both pedagogical and cultural.
Prudence along with justice, temperance and courage, is a cardinal virtue. Unfortunately as contemporary Western culture has become more secularized it has formed generations of men and women who are deaf to the music of human virtue. Many of us embrace a vision of human life that counsel spontaneity not habit as the mark of a life well and fully lived. And since any discussion of virtue necessarily brings with it a discussion of tradition such a conversation is an affront to the atomistic individualism that is at the center of contemporary culture.
None of this is to say that we don’t form our life by habit or the shared meaning embodied in tradition. We do but we are unconscious to this fact and so we live in bad faith relative to both our convictions and our own humanity. The great irony is that the more we seek to live according to the modern dictates of authenticity, individuality and spontaneous self-expression in word and deed, the more we live lives of mere habit in conformity to the opinions of others that we have uncritically made our own.
No, for all that we seem to live in a world of options, we are really and truly anything but free, anything but wealth. Why? Because we lack the very virtues that make freedom and wealth possible and humanly meaningful.
This brings me to Jeff Sandefer and Fr Robert Sirico’s new book, A Field Guide for the Hero’s Journey. The book’s subtitle describes the authors respectively as “a serial entrepreneur and an entrepreneurial priest.” Both men are affiliated (as am I) with the Acton Institute “a non-profit research organization dedicated to the study of free-market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes.”
At first, I have to say, I didn’t particularly like the book and I only kept reading out of a personal respect for Fr Robert and a sense of obligation since I said I would write a review. So more out of guilt than gladness I read.
And as I read something unexpected and wonderful happened—I began to see myself in a new light.
The book reminded me that once the language and the idea of virtue were as foreign to me as it is to most contemporary men and women. If I am no longer the book’s intended reader I once was because, like the authors I felt “like something big [was] missing from [my]life.” Like so many of the people I meet on a regular basis, I felt “trapped, bored, stuck in a meaningless routine” thinking myself “too ordinary to ever do something special” and just as afraid that, if I tried, I’d only fail.
While I certainly don’t want to suggest that 27 years of marriage to a woman who loves me and who I don’t deserve (much less does she deserve me—though in both cases this reflects my shortcomings and failings not hers!) and 15 or so years as a priest haven’t been a source of joy, strength and personal satisfaction—because whatever my failings they are this. But as with the other areas that give my life meaning, that meaning is only accessible to me because somewhere along the line others took the time to foster in me not only the cardinal virtues but also the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
This is all a long winded way of saying that thanks to dedicated teachers, priests, friends, loved ones and more people than I could hope to know much less name, I came to see that I too could lead a meaningful life and that, like the authors and the many people they’ve counseled over the years I could decide “to journey heroically” through my own life instead of “merely marking time.”
Well, what has all of this to do with freedom and wealth, with democracy and the free market? This is the question I’ll answer in my next post.