One of Europe’s most prominent philosophers explains why tolerance seems to be evaporating from the public square.
following is a chapter by Rocco Buttiglione from Exiting
a Dead End Road: a GPS for Christians in Public Discourse, a new book published by
Kairos Publications in Vienna, and edited by Gudrun and Martin Kugler. The book can be ordered here.
is freedom? At a first sight the word freedom seems to indicate a space void of
any external intromission. The etym dom, that we meet in other words like
king-dom or the Latin domus means a space determined by a border. The word "free"
characterizes the absence of an intromission. We can also find the etym dom in
the Latin word dominus, the lord. The space in which all external intromissions
are excluded is the space where the dominus, the lord, exercises his will.
phenomenon of freedom seems then to imply on the one hand the absence of
coercion, the absence of a foreign will. On the other hand we define freedom in
relation to an interior will. An animal is free when it can roam without the
restraint of a chain according to the interior impulse of his instincts that
exercise in it the function of the will. Shall we say of a human being that he or
she is free in the same sense?
the case of man the issue is a bit more complicated. We are inhabited by many
impulses and drives and instincts. We possess as personal beings, nevertheless,
a specific capacity that is called will in the proper sense of the word. It is
a sense different from that we use when we say that a dog is free. A dog is
free when it is not enchained. We all know, however, that we can control a dog
also without a chain. We can train the dog making use of its instinctual drives
so that it responds to our will even better than if it were at the chain. We
can manipulate a dog. Is a manipulated dog still free? Here we usually do not
make a distinction between a free dog and an unfree dog. We rather make a
distinction between a domesticated dog and a wild or feral dog. We think it
corresponds to the nature of a dog to be domesticated and therefore a
domesticated dog is, in one sense, more free than a dog without a master. A dog
needs a master who takes care of it because it cannot take care of itself. If
we think about a wolf instead of a dog our conclusions could be different. We
wouldn’t describe a wolf as an animal that can be domesticated. We rather speak
of a tamed wolf, which seems to indicate that it corresponds more to the nature
of a wolf to be savage than tamed. We have here introduced the concept of
way in which a being can be free strictly depends on its nature. A dog is free
under conditions that would make a wolf unfree. This concept of nature is not
strictly biological. Biological drives and presuppositions are here very
important, however there are other factors that are equally relevant. Biologically
a wolf and a dog belong to the same species but they are different because of a
different historical development.
we consider human freedom in the same way in which we consider the freedom of
animals? In one sense yes, in another no. For man as well as for all animals to
be free means to be able to act according to nature. We cannot say what is
human freedom without considering human nature. Human nature is different. Not
only from the nature of any other animal species but from the nature of all
other animal species considered together. The difference is so great that in
one sense only of man we can properly say that he/she is free. Let us see why.
Man’s unique freedom
all other animals, man has in himself instinctual drives that incline him towards
action. We feel hunger and then look for food. We are afraid and run away from
the source of our fear. We are angry and attack those who make us angry. We
feel sexual desire and try to copulate with the subject of the opposite sex
that arouses our desire. But is this an accurate description of the properly human
form of behavior? No, it is not. Other animals behave in that way. Humans do
not. At least humans do not always act like this.
we all feel the instinctual drives of other animals we are also subject to
another law, the law of conscience. We ask ourselves questions like: is it
good, just, proper, correct, to act in this way, to follow the pressure of our
instinctual drives? Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is
no. Humans have a moral conscience. They are really free when they obey the
inner voice of moral conscience and are not subject to the absolute
preponderance of their instincts. Human nature encompasses a quest for the
moral good that is foreign to mere animal nature (even if some forms of
behavior of higher animals might bear a certain similarity to humans).
first one to discover and describe this typical form of humanity was Socrates. He
describes the world of values and, in particular, within this world, the value
of the good.
us make one example, let us consider the sexual instinct. Max Scheler has
described how the animal drive is directed towards the sexual organs of the
other. The animal concentrates on its own urge and wants to discharge it. With
humans it is different. Humans consider the form of the body of the other and
are attracted not just by the sexual organs but by the beauty of the form. There
is a moment of unselfish purely esthetical admiration in typically human sexual
continues to describe the phenomenon of eye contact. Through the eye one lover
is introduced into the personal intimacy of the other and appreciates the other
not just as a body but as a person. That is not enough. Human love has not only
a distinct esthetic but also an ethical dimension. I do not only consider my
pleasure but also the pleasure of the loved one. I wish to receive pleasure but
also to give pleasure. Moreover, I am interested in the true good of the other.
I take a responsibility for this true good and subordinate my personal
satisfaction to this responsibility. Is it good for her to have a sexual
relationship with me? Would her personhood flourish or be impoverished in this
relationship? This question cannot be answered without considering not only the
couple of the two lovers but the general environment in which they are set.
Would, for example, this act disrupt her (his) relationship to other persons,
spouse, children etc…?
these considerations enter into a properly human love relationship, giving it
an esthetical and ethical dimension that is missing in the purely animal drive.
We want, of course, satisfy our drives -- but in a way that is compatible with
our human dignity and enhances it. We see a world of values and know that our
lives would be qualitatively different if we remain faithful to this world of
values. We know also that we have to subdue our drives to the world of values.
In the center of the world of values stands the value of truth. There can be no
world of values without truth.
to ask the question: does she love me truly? If her love is not true it is not
love at all. A false love is no love. No value is valuable if it is not true.
The world of values (the properly human world) is animated by the search for
truth. This world of values is not given to us all at once. It manifests itself
step by step and we have to follow its unfolding investigating at the same time
the sense of our human experience. Truth and good and beauty are the ordering
principles of the world of values and they determine what the proper conditions
for the satisfaction of our instinctual drives are. St. Augustine calls the
faculty to order the world according to the principles of truth, good, beauty
and wisdom. We could call it also reason. A human life is a life led according
a paradox arises. Whilst for all (other) animals to be free means to act according
to instinct, for man to be free means to be able to act according to reason.
The instinctual side of man must be convinced to obey to reason.
freedom can be defined against external pressure. If I am left to my instincts I
am free. For man it is more complicated. Human freedom is defined in opposition
to two different kinds of pressure: external pressure but also the internal pressure
of the instinctual drives trying to avoid the control and disavow the primacy
freedom, therefore, demands the self control of the person, who can do what he
or she sees to control his or her own passions. Immanuel Kant stresses the
social relevance of his specific human freedom in his concept of the
transcendental I. The transcendental I is the subjectivity in which man acts
without the conditioning of passions only guided by the idea of the good
(actually for Kant it is rather the idea of duty, but now we cannot deal with
the difference between these two ideas). This subjectivity is easily directed towards
the common good. Man cannot see anything as good if it is only his own
individual selfish good opposed to the good of others. The so called Kantian
imperative always tries to preserve the social character of the good.
experience of the value of the person, and in particular the experience of the value
of the other person, induces me to recognize that I cannot define my individual
good in opposition to the good of the other. Hence the rule: consider always the
person, in yourself and in others, always also as an end and never only as a
means. A society in which this rule is not acknowledged cannot be a truly human
The drama of two
we consider the complexity of human freedom we are forced to see that there are
two ways in which we speak of human freedom. We could call the first the lesser
freedom and the second the greater freedom. Luther differentiates in his
theological language between the freedom of the flesh and Christian freedom.
one sense we can speak of the freedom of man in the same way in which we speak
of the freedom of animals, meaning the absence of external interferences. If we
are slaves of our passions, however, this freedom will not be real human
freedom. If we are manipulated by others through the offer of different kinds
of pleasure so that we renounce the use of reason and behave as if we did not
possess an autonomous capacity for the knowledge and the recognition of good
and evil, then we are not free.
goes as far as to say that for such men it is better to be slaves of other
human beings than of their own passions, since they are unable to be free. The
specific human freedom arises out of the human capacity to recognize values and
to know truth. We could also see that in human beings freedom is ordered to
love. When we recognize the value of another person and choose to belong to
this person in love than we make the proper use of our freedom and become truly
man who never makes the experience of love leaves this world as void as he was
when he first entered into it. His freedom becomes slavery.
consequence of the nature of human freedom seems to be that our freedom needs
to be educated. We are born free, but at the same time we must become free
through the control of our passions and the search for truth.
Controlling the passions
In a certain
cultural tradition the control of passions is equated with the destruction and
humiliation of those passions. The will is opposed to passions and has to
I think it is
more proper to see the relation between intellect, passion and will rather in
terms of education. The instinctive side of man is not bad; the body is not an
enemy of the soul. The instinctual drives are not bad. In principle they are
aimed at evolving the good of the person. They come nearer to this good through
the world of emotions.
cannot trust them completely. They have a certain leaning towards the
individual self satisfaction and the oblivion of other values at stake in the
action. In the moment of passion some values are seen by the soul with absolute
evidence and force. In one sense, those values are really there. But the
forcefulness of the passion can make us blind to other values that are equally
Passion is like
a lens that makes some things more evident but changes the proportions of
reality. We must educate our passions by widening their scope according to the
real order of reality. This order includes not only the objective hierarchy of values
(some values stand higher than others) but also the subjective order according to
which they are given to me. All children have an absolute value that I must
recognize but my children are entrusted to my care in a way that is absolutely unique.
The task of education is that of making use of the force of passion in the
service of the objective good. This demands, of course, also a certain measure
of self restraint. Without self restraint there is no self possession and
without self possession there is no freedom.
not only the fact of not being subject to the will of another but also the
capacity for making one’s own passions obey to one’s will oriented by the
knowledge of truth. Here lies the paradox of human freedom. On the one hand
freedom demands the absence of external coercion. On the other hand it requires
the capacity to lead one’s own actions according to objective truth. Objective
truth cannot be imposed upon the will; it demands according to its inner nature
to be recognized and accepted and loved. Without objective truth, however, man
cannot be free. Education is such a fascinating task, at the same time
necessary and impossible, because it has to do with freedom and love. It has to
do also with credibility.
Education in the truth
enters into the path of virtue (meaning by virtue the habit of searching for
truth and acting according to truth) because he or she loves and trusts his or
her parents and listens to them when they tell him or her what is good and what
is bad and consign to him or her the life experience they have gone trough. The
word tradition derives from the Latin word tradere and means to consign to the
next generation the values that the ancestors have experienced as true.
Tradition is not something fixed and unchangeable. The next generation accepts
the spiritual heritage of the forefathers as a general hypothesis to be tested
in their lives. Through this trial, what is really valuable and of permanent importance
is distinguished from what is only linked only to the specific contingencies of
the life of the other generations. A true tradition is continually tested, and
challenged and renewed. Goethe tells us that “what you have received from your
ancestors you must rediscover yourself, in order to possess it truly”. The
critic is not opposite to tradition but is a part of its living body.
Our spiritual vacuum
Now it seems
that this process has been interrupted in our civilization. After the war the
generation that had made the war found it difficult, in Germany and in Italy,
to tell their children what they had gone trough. Sometimes the horror was
unspeakable. The generation of the fathers of those who are about sixty today,
had earnestly believed in the religion of nationalism and that religion had
failed, leading millions of men to war to sacrifice their lives and destroy the
lives of others in a massacre without example in history. This has created a
spiritual vacuum in which only material values survived. Our fathers worked hard
for us and to rebuild Europe -- but the question on why this was worth the while
remained largely unanswered. With the student revolt of ’68 this break between
the generations became apparent: the older generation could not consign the
values they cherished, because they could not explain the reasons underlying those
values and could not make sense of their own life experience. And the new
generation rejected them without having any idea what could be substituted for
them. The living process of tradition was interrupted.
As I said,
only vital values survived this devaluation of all values (Max Scheler speaks
of the Entwertung aller Werte but we have lived this experience in a form that
was much more radical). T.S. Eliot explains, that when all values are dead what
is left is only “usury, lust and power”.
circumstances it is easy to lose memory of the greater freedom and to reduce
freedom to the lesser freedom. We do not feel bound to search for truth and we
do not want to live the experience of belonging to a person (or to a community,
a nation, a church or a great ideal) in an act of self giving love. We rather
want to be left alone and to be able to follow the impulse of the moment. We
are concentrated on ourselves and, at the same time, we are completely exposed
to the manipulation of our sentiments and ideas (if we still have any) through
the media. We do not seek our inner truth and we are prone to assume the
imitation of the protagonists of the star system as core of our life
experience. As a result, we do not really love our life and we are not really interested
in entering into ourselves or to our true happiness.
The movie Avatar
is an impressive representation of this condition of mind. We live another life
that is not our real life and we play the role of the heroes of a legendary saga
whilst we become emotionally starved, oppressed and depressed because of the
absence of love and meaning in our real life. We have gone so far that it
becomes difficult to remember or to understand the true meaning of the word
freedom for many people. The indispensable effort of self control has been
banned under the name “repression” and the result is the instability and precariousness
of “frittered lives and squalid deaths” (T: S. Eliot) in a world in which “the
word of God is unspoken”.
The essential difference between men and
I think that
what I have endeavored to explain is what Benedict XVI means when he speaks of
the “anthropological question”. If we lose the perception of the true meaning
of freedom then we lose at the same time the “anthropological difference”, that
is the element that constitutes the difference between man and all other
animals, the greater freedom based upon the search for truth and the encounter
for truth. Immediately linked to the “anthropological question” is another
issue that frequently returns in the speeches of the Pope. It is the “emergency
answer to the anthropological question is an education leading to a full and
uncompromising experience of true humanity. The chain of tradition may be
restored only through men and women who incorporate in themselves the world of
values in such a way that they coincide with their own lives. Only in this way
values may become convincing and generate a true force for change. In one sense
this means that we need saints. Also on other occasions, in other epochal
crises, the continuity of our tradition has been challenged and has been
restored through the witness and the teaching of martyrs and saints. God never
abandons his Church deprived of the witness of martyrs and saints, but people
(and first of all the clergy) do not always recognize the witnesses among them.
Freedom and tolerance
The idea of
tolerance is directly connected to the idea of freedom. Man must seek truth in
order to be a man but must be free from external coercion in order to be able
to search for truth. The lesser freedom is an unavoidable presupposition for
the greater freedom. If I am compelled to act according to freedom, because of
the pressure brought to bear on me by an external power, then I am not a free
subject but a slave.
A world in
which people obey the objective truth because of fear and not because of
intelligence and love, would not resemble paradise but rather hell. I am bound
to act, moreover, according to the truth I have freely recognized. This means
that I must obey my conscience, even in case that it be wrong. What is typical
of our age is not the fact that we hold as true a lot of false presuppositions.
This happens more or less in all historical epochs. What characterizes our
current crisis is rather the fact that many of us use their lesser freedom in
order to disengage from the moral duty of searching for truth. We think that
there is no truth and it is not worth the while to search for something that
does not exist. We cannot, of course, coerce the lesser freedom of others in
order to compel them to be free according to the greater freedom. The only way
open for a recovery of our civilization is the way of witness.
that we must tolerate error in order not to destroy freedom. Tolerance is the
simple recognition of the fact that I cannot think truth in the place of
another. I can help another to discover truth through argumentation, example and
witness but I cannot recognize truth in her or his stead.
In an age,
however, in which the idea of truth seems to have been abolished, some may
argue that this is not enough. We are required not to be judgmental, that is
not to pass any judgment since the distinction of good and evil seems to have
been obliterated and has lost its firm foundation in the nature of things. This
leads to a kind of tolerance that is different from the one I have explained on
the basis of the nature of truth. One is not satisfied with the fact that I
recognize his right to error. He does not recognize the right of someone else
to think and say that he is wrong. Any judgment based on the presumption of the
existence of an objective truth must be excluded from the public square and those
who uphold such judgments are labeled as enemies of democracy.
apparent that this pretension is self-defeating. If there is no objective truth
I have the right to my private truth but since there is only one world in which
we all live I have also the right to impose this truth on others, if I have a chance
to do it and if the balance of power is in my favor.
expression “right” is misplaced in this context. The lion does not have a
“right” to kill a gazelle. It just does it. A world without truth is a world
where the words right and wrong have become devoid of meaning. It never occurs,
however, that a supporter of moral relativism really thinks his or her
intellectual stands coherently up to the last consequences, since this is
really untenable in real life.
cultural and philosophical discussion the aggressive side of moral relativism
is usually set aside to concentrate on the pretension that the non-relativist has
an inner drive towards the repression of the freedom of those who do not stand
in agreement with him/her. We have already explained why this is not the case.
The respect for the freedom of the other is a consequence of the reverence for
the dignity of the person. I do not need to doubt my convictions to recognize
your right to hold a dissenting opinion. It is enough to know that God wants
you to come to truth through a free act of your conscience. If I do not have the right to compel, to coerce, to
threaten the dissenters, I nevertheless have the
right to argue with them and to try to convince them.
In the new mood
of moral relativism this is not allowed and is considered as an intolerable offence.
I am ready to accept, for example, that nobody has a right to compel gay people
to change their sexual preferences or to mistreat them for this reason but I am
also convinced that I have a right to think that homosexuality is intrinsically
wrong and to argue this conviction in the public debate.
Two visions of tolerance
have two visions of tolerance. One concerns a tolerance without truth. We have
already seen how contradictory this concept is. In one possible formulation
this may exclude tolerance, in another it implies a prohibition to discuss the
behavior of others. A new categorical imperative substitutes the old Kantian
ones: the norm of your action must be to collude with the pretension of the other
of being not what she or he is but what he fancies to be. There is a bridge between
the two possible versions of the principle of tolerance in a society without
truth. This bridge is the principle of self preservation and the desire to avoid
conflicts that might expose this self preservation to danger. The imperative of
the new science of morals is changed thus: collude with the pretension of those
who hold enough power to impose their view of things and their interests.
of a grown up who pretends the unborn baby is just a piece of flesh colludes
with the position of the child who pretends (although he cannot articulate this
thought) to be a human being. If there is no objective truth then force takes
the place of truth and those who are more powerful also possess a larger share
If we connect
the idea of tolerance with the idea of truth we have a completely different
outcome. Truth exists although I do not possess it and can see it only “as in a
mirror”. I have the duty to tell the truth I have seen in order to help others
to live in the truth. I must always be open to the possibility that others have
seen sides and aspects of truth that I have not seen and must be ready to
incorporate them in my vision of truth. I must never forget that truth is one
but that there are many avenues leading to truth and, in one sense, each human
being has her or his personal alley of truth. I must respect the conscience in
good faith of the other even in case that she/he errs. And I must always
remember that I can judge only facts but not persons and their conscience.
I can say:
this action is good and this action is bad. I can never say: this man is
(absolutely) good or this man is (absolutely) bad. Action has an exterior side
that I can judge but also an interior side in the conscience of the person that
only God can judge. But I have a right and a duty to pass a judgment on
If we deprive
the human being of this right we perform an amputation of the moral dimension
of his life. We dehumanize her or him.
Being judgmental is not discrimination
Let us stress
once again that the right and duty to pass judgments does not imply an attitude
of superiority in relation to the (other) sinners. We are not perfect. We know
that we are poor and fallible human beings and that we are not better than
those whose actions we affirm to be bad. We may easily be equally wrong or even
worse on other issues. And we never know if, in a given situation, under the
same pressure of circumstances, we would have done any better than the subject
whose actions we censure. Nevertheless we know that his actions were wrong,
that something has been done that should not have been done and we have a duty
to say it in order to help the other to better himself and to better the human
quality of our life together. This is also an essential aspect of freedom.
be confused with hate speech. Hate speech offends, demands the exercise of
physical violence against the offender, wants to ban her/him from our society.
In our case it is quite the opposite. If I am wrong, my best friend is not the
one who lets me sink in my error (for example taking drugs, destroying his
family, offending my friends, etc.). He should be the one who tells me the
truth even at the risk of exposing himself to my outrage and my reprisals. This
also belongs to the essence of freedom (freedom to tell the truth) and
tolerance (we must tolerate the freedom of the other of telling the truth or at
least what in conscience she or he thinks to be true).
We have gone
a long way towards the complete destruction of the true meaning of freedom and
tolerance. We do not want to emancipate ourselves from our instinctual drives
and we have proclaimed the superiority of pleasure over conscience.
In this way
we have lost the idea of happiness, that is the properly human way of taking
pleasure not against the other human being or disregarding her/his dignity but
together with her/him in a true community of love. We do not want to accept the
self discipline and the virtues that we need in order to develop our
potentiality for the greater freedom. The greater freedom is what St. Thomas
Aquinas would have called a bonum arduum (something very valuable that
demands a high price to be won). The reward of the efforts needed to acquire
the greater freedom is the possibility to live a great love. As a consequence of
our cowardice we, the people of this generation, live only small loves that are
not enough to fill our lives, which therefore remain void and tasteless. We say
we are tolerant only because we have no passionate interest in the lives of
others and only want to be left alone. And we are left alone until our world peters
out “not with a bang but with a whimper”.
Can we still
have hope? Of course we can. The heart of man naturally longs for love, and for
truth and for freedom and this thirst will never be quenched. There will always
be martyrs and saints and through their witness the history of freedom can be
renewed. We do not know how long the night will be but we do know that it will come to pass.
Rocco Buttiglione is an Italian Christian Democrat politician and an academic. He is a
professor of philosophy and political science at Saint Pius V University in
Rome, and member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. From 2001 to
2005 he was minister of European affairs and from 2005 to 2006 minister of
culture in the Italian Cabinet. Since 2008 he has been a vice president of the Camera dei deputati,
one of the two chambers of the Italian parliament. In 2004 Mr. Buttiglione was
nominated for a post as European Commissioner but did not succeed due to a
campaign of radical political groups opposed to his Roman Catholic views.