It’s often said that true freedom consists in the freedom to do what is right. Dietrich von Hildebrand breaks this down a bit in the 9th chapter of Transformation in Christ. In the chapter, titled “Striving for Perfection”, von Hildebrand distinguishes two dimensions of freedom. The first dimension pertains to “man’s basic capacity of assent and dissent itself” with relation to “value and non-value”. The second dimension consists of the will, choosing to act in accordance with the aforementioned assent to value or dissent to non-value.
By value, von Hildebrand means that which is good, true, beautiful, just, etc. Furthermore, both value and non-value address us; we do not address them. Thus we are primarily receptive moral beings in the world in which we are placed. This is not to deny free will, as in we are helpless receivers forced to participate in value and non-value alike. We are still free to assent or dissent to the value and non-value that addresses us. Or put another and more familiar way, free will is properly understood as man’s capacity to choose what is good and reject what is evil. Again, when value addresses us we must choose to either assent to it or dissent, but to choose is not enough. We must take the further step of acting in accordance with our assent or dissent.
We must also recognize that it is not enough to posses the first dimension of freedom without likewise possessing the second dimension, or vice versa. To assent to value or dissent to non-value is of little worth if it is not followed by action. I can assent to the truth that pornography is depraved (i.e. the antithesis to beauty), but still continue to visit pornographic websites. In this case, the assent to value is meaningless because my will is not acting according to its purpose which to carry out my choice for the good. This is what is meant by sin as a disintegration of the soul. Saint Paul knew this. We know what is right (i.e. assent to value), yet our will cannot or will not act accordingly. We are dis-integrated by sin.
On the other hand, if I am a person of strong will and supreme self-control, it does not necessarily follow that I am in possession of true freedom. If I assent to non-value and dissent to value, following through with my will is actually harmful. As von Hildebrand writes:
There are many people who, while possesed of an iron will, [are] able to persue their aims with great energy and remarkable success, and giving proof of the utmost self-control, yet neglect their deeper spiritual freedom and refuse an adequate response to the call of value… Many of the great evildoers in history (Richard the Third for instance) were at the same time disciplined personalities whose will power left nothing to be desired.
Only when we assent to value or dissent to non-value and then act accordingly, will we be in possesion of true freedom. In this lies a proper understanding of our transformation in Christ.
What can, and should, be our own contribution to the process of our transformation in Christ? What is meant by the cooperation on our part to which St. Augustine refers in saying: “He who created thee without thee, shall not justify thee without thee” (Sermo 169.13)?
First, it is the free word of assent we are to speak to God and to our own transformation in Christ. In the free gift of ourselves that is implied in our decisive turn towards God (which finds its most tangible expression in the act of conversion); in the Volo uttered in the rite of Baptism as an express statement of the person’s being delivered to God; in the words of the Blessed Virgin, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word” – herein lies the basic actualization of our freedom in the process of our justification and sanctification. This is the word which God expects from us and from which we can never be dispensed.
But this alone does not suffice. We are also called upon to concur with our transformation in Christ by single acts subject to the command of our will; that is, by the operation of our freedom in the line of its second dimension.