Pure arbitrariness and free will. Some practical reflections

Tackling, albeit in extreme synthesis, the subject of human freedom is an almost insane undertaking, which would put anyone in serious difficulty because it is a vast subject, on which the most excellent minds of humanity have been questioning for centuries, if not millennia. And yet, being part of an association such as ALU[1] (and, of course, ISOFIA!), whose name already emphasises this concept, I think it is good to deal with it.

Aware of the above, I have chosen to limit myself to providing a few hints, which I think will be useful to encourage those who read this to reflect more deeply on the topic. First of all, it will be useful to “put our feet on the ground”, focusing on the word itself: libertà (Eng. freedom/liberty).

This word has its roots in the Latin world, through the concept of libertas. Libertas, in turn, while implying the sense of libet, i.e. to do what one wants (which is already part of the corresponding Greek word eleutheria), always implies, in an apparently paradoxical way, the existence of a certain bond. It is no coincidence that in ancient Rome, the sons of Roman citizens, who were partly subject to the pater familias, were called liberi, and similarly, freed slaves, who still had obligations to their patronus, were called liberti or libertini.

Now, this link always manifests itself in two converging facets: the first of a practical-legal nature, concerning the sphere we have just mentioned and, in general, the so-called liberties from (for example freedom from slavery) and the second of an inner nature (freedom of or freedom for; cf. the “freedom for excellence”, as opposed to the “freedom of indifference” according to S. Pinckaers, who in turn related the thought of St Thomas Aquinas to that of William of Ockham). The two dimensions harmonise perfectly when freedom from, understood as liberation from extrinsic constraints, as far as possible, proves to be functional to the exercise of freedom of, in other words, free will. It goes without saying that free will cannot be understood as absolute either, otherwise we would have nothing but pure will; on the contrary, it is inextricably linked to the concept of the good and its practical application in traditional value systems[2]. These systems act, to quote Prof. Sabino Palumbieri, like magnets, among which the human conscience is called upon to choose the one that will attract it, and to decide, i.e. to cut off all other alternatives. The prerequisites for the whole process are self-determination, the will and the motivation to act, combined with the relational and responsible dimension of man, for which no human life finds fulfilment in itself because none originates from itself. The person can never be assimilated into a self-referential monad, but rather, being part of a system of relationships, has responsibilities towards himself and towards others that must be respected.

These responsibilities, however, in order to be invoked, must be based on a true good which, in turn, is coordinated with the concepts of truth and beauty. It is no coincidence that the Latin adjective bellus/a/um, from which the Italian bello derives, attested, among other authors, in Catullus, comes from a diminutive of bonus/a/um. Thus one of F. Dostoevskij characters could say that “beauty will save the world” and, among the ancient Greeks, heroes were always defined as kalòi kai agathòi, i.e. beautiful and good. What is authentically beautiful (and consequently also good and true), in fact, necessarily attracts the will, without the need for constraints or sophistry.

Even the word ‘dignity’ (from the Latin dignitas), one of the inviolable principles mentioned above, which is proper to the human being as a human being, has in itself semantically the idea of beauty.

Consequently, media propaganda or even state laws that, as is happening particularly in Italy, try to pass off as “good” or “worthy” what is not, going so far as to coerce the human will with blackmail and false promises of freedom (from) or even with obligations imposed from “the high spheres” (but, in the end, they’re not so high!) for utilitarian and logically improbable reasons, must be challenged in no uncertain terms. This is evidently the case with the so-called Green Pass, but also with the various and ever more pressing campaigns for euthanasia, which are certainly benefiting from the lack of sense deliberately created in the situation we are experiencing.

But what is truth? For the Latins it is, on the one hand, a practical fact, which St Thomas Aquinas would later summarise as ‘the adjustment of a thing with the intellect’ and, on the other, a spiritual/moral concept, since the word veritas etymologically seems to be linked to faith. Similarly, in Hebrew, it is defined as émet (from which the well-known amen also derives), i.e. something solid, stable, because it is founded on something else that does not collapse. An almost identical vision is also at the basis of the Greek concept of alétheia, which emphasises the fact that truth is, literally, “something that is not hidden” insofar as it is founded on a revelation that is transcendent with respect to the reasoning and laws of men (who should also adapt to it in order to be truly so) but which they receive and inwardly experience because it is in keeping with their own “responsible” nature. Even the ancient Oriental idea of “enlightenment”, understood as the path to truth through meditation, follows this principle. After Parmenides’ reflections on the “path of well-rounded truth” and, later, Plato’s on the “theory of ideas”, it is in this sense that one interprets the famous Gospel phrase “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32; where, however, it is well to remember that for Christians the Truth is not reduced to a simple concept but is rather a Person: cf. Jn 14:6 “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”[3]). Finally, the English word truth, which seems to derive from an ancient Germanic word indicating faith but also being stable, is also semantically related to all this.  The path to freedom is therefore a path characterised by “signals” (aka stable moral principles), which requires a certain amount of training and practice, not only spiritual but also material, and which necessarily entails more or less demanding sacrifices, to be assessed according to one’s own personal experience.

How, then, are we to react to the incredible impositions that are presented to us from time to time? Surely even those who do not have the direct power to change the environment in which they find themselves can do so with the famous method defined by Gandhi Satyagraha. This is, as we know, a passive resistance based on adherence to the truth (satya), which often, classically, can also mean withdrawing to a private life (or private teaching or profession), perhaps even associating with those who pursue the same goal, in order not to be subjected to unjust laws. Experience teaches us that a massive adhesion to this principle, even if without ever ceasing to denounce publicly through all available channels the injustice of the challenged practices, sooner or later causes the collapse of the practices themselves.    

To sum up, it would be good to reiterate with Palumbieri that “inner freedom […] is not pure arbitrariness […] but it is free will. The word arbitrariness means self-orientation. The word free says critically motivated act, that is, related to a framework of stimulating values (motivations as motus ad actionem). This framework is chosen by the conscience and the values are not abstract, but lived within as inner experiences. They thus constitute the project which, when it is fundamental, contains the motives for existence and is the cause of the orientations and behaviour of the subject himself […]. And it is also that for which the subject is also willing to offer his life[4]“. Therefore “the highest celebration of interior freedom is the gift that is made of oneself. And this only happens in the logic of love[5]“.

Florio Scifo


[1] Associazione Liberamente Umani (Freely Human Association).

[2] Proof of this is the fact that anyone who acts differently from these value systems is called “cattivo” (Eng. villain), from the Latin captivus, i.e. prisoner, as he becomes a slave to his own will. On the need to refer to traditional values see, among others, C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

[3] See also the famous question put by Pontius Pilate to Jesus: “Quid est veritas?” (“What is truth?”) which Jesus does not answer but which, anagrammed, leads back to the phrase “Est vir qui adest” (“It is the man who stands in front of [you]”).

[4] Sabino PALUMBIERI-Cristiana FRENI, L’uomo meraviglia e paradosso. Trattato sulla costituzione, concentrazione e condizione antropologica”, Urbaniana University Press, Città del Vaticano 2006, pp. 124-125.

[5] Ibidem, pag. 122.

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