Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Freedom to Love

by Frank J. Sheed


An excerpt from Frank Sheed's book, Society and Sanity, on freedom, conscience and the moral law.

Larger Work

Society and Sanity

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, Unknown

Man's primary right is to be treated as what he is. But we cannot study man in a vacuum. He exists in a universe. The universe, not being a chaos, has laws and man is subject to them.

Exploring the universe man discovers more and more of its laws, and, with each new law discovered, his freedom increases. If, at first hearing, this sounds paradoxical, that is only because we are thinking of the laws of the universe, God's laws, as though they were like the laws that man makes. Man's laws constrain us only when they are enacted, so that we may feel each new law as a new interference. But when a scientist, say, announces a law of nature he has not enacted it, but only discovered it.

For the laws of the universe are there all the time, and we are affected by them whether we know them or not. We do not need to know about Vitamin B to die of malnutrition for want of it; the new-born baby can be destroyed by the law of gravity as easily as Sir Isaac Newton. So that man's discovery of these laws is not the beginning of his subjection to them; on the contrary, once he knows what they are, he can learn how to cooperate with them, and by so co-operating increase his own freedom within them. His freedom can be only within them, never from them. By discovering the laws of flight, man was able to harmonize himself with them more perfectly, and so gained the freedom of the upper air. The utmost freedom for man lies in co-operation, obedience, harmony with the universe and its laws.

Real Freedom?

But is the freedom thus gained real freedom or illusory? The answer depends on what we are thus submitting ourselves to, harmonizing ourselves with. If there is a divine Person behind the universe and responsible for its laws, then submission to it is simply submission to Him, and so true freedom and not servitude; for there is no servitude in harmonizing one's mind with a mind of infinite knowledge, one's will with a will of infinite love. But if there is no Person, only the universe and nothing more, then subjection to it is subjection to the mindless and can only be enslavement: we are simply moving about more largely and more comfortably on a longer chain.

For a being with a mind there is no freedom, there is only degradation, in harmonizing himself with a mere mechanism, taking his orders from hydrogen and oxygen and such. There is only grotesqueness and indignity in being forced into harmony with things less than ourselves. One way or another all thinkers have told us that we must be in tune with the universe. But why shouldn't the universe be in tune with us? After all, we know what a tune is, and it does not. If we do not believe in God, we must see ourselves performing in an orchestra under a conductor who does not even know that he is conducting, does not even know that he is. There can be no enslavement so total as that of minds to the mindless. And if there be no Mind behind the universe, then mindlessness says the last word as it said the first. But the mind of God is there, and it is with Him that we are to be in tune, in obedience to His laws that we are to find freedom.

Freedom and law

The absolute dependence of freedom upon law known and obeyed applies not only to our relations with the universe, but to the conduct of our own selves in their inmost reality. Man is not the one lawless object in the universe. Man is not a being so universally adaptable that it does not matter what he does or what is done to him, does not matter in what ways he treats himself or others treat him, because he thrives equally well under all possible treatments. Such a being, indeed, is inconceivable. Of any being at all it must be true that some sorts of treatment are good for it and others bad for it, some help it to be more fully itself, some hinder and cripple it. Man is not a chaos any more than the universe is; and as he learns the laws that govern himself, he is freer. The dependence of freedom upon law is invariable.

Looking at man, with no views already formed as to the nature of law, an observer would say that he is subject to bodily and mental laws, and that he subjects himself to moral laws. The first two, which may roughly be lumped together as physical laws, the observer might see as the statement of how bodies and minds work, so that men would be wise to act accordingly. The moral laws he might feel as being in a different category-man thinking that this is what God wants and that it would be virtuous to act accordingly. So feeling, the observer would be only partly right. That God's command gives the moral law a new quality that the physical laws have not got is true. But the moral laws are, just as much as the physical laws, statements of how things work.

Moral laws are not optional

If you contravene the bodily laws, you will have disease, deformity and death. If you contravene the laws by which the mind works you will be kept from discovering the truth, so that there will be a veil between you and reality; if you collide too hard with them, the result might be insanity. The moral laws are just as objective. They are for the handling of the whole man, and for the direction of the whole life, but they are laws all the same-statements that reality is like that, therefore we must act like that or take the consequences. The moral laws, like the physical laws, tell us how to handle ourselves harmoniously with reality.

We must not think that whereas physical laws operate with or without our consent, we have a choice about the moral laws: for they are not simply rules that it is virtuous to observe: they too operate. In this matter the position is exactly the same for both. We can treat either set of laws as though it does not exist. But that is the limit of our choice: we have no choice about the consequences in the one or in the other. The law of justice is as much a law as the law of gravity (the latter is more easily discoverable, but not therefore more important- more beneficial in its observance, more catastrophic in its ignoring). Every sort of consequence flows from this. Because each is a law, we cannot break either. We can ignore them or flout them, by walking over a cliff, for instance, or stealing: but the law of gravity is not broken in the one case or the law of justice in the other. Both laws continue to operate and it is we who are broken. Material law or moral law, either way you are living under God's law: and that applies to every creature of God from the ruler downwards.

They can't be broken

From the ruler downwards I say. Moral law is not only moral, it is law. The run of rulers do not realize this, at any rate not all the time. They know that physical laws are what they are and cannot be changed by them, no matter what the emergency. Food nourishes and lack of it starves, night follows day, microbes kill, muscles and minds, unexercised, atrophy.

It is exactly the same with the moral law. The mightiest despot cannot drive a Ford car save as Ford made it to be driven. If he wants to drive a Ford car, then like the humblest of his subjects he must study the maker's instructions. God is man's maker and the laws of morality are his instructions for the running of man. They cannot be broken but they can be ignored, and, with the man as with the car, the ignoring is destructive: this may not immediately appear-there may even be temporary gain-but the result is always loss.

As I have said, it is hard for the ruler to realize that the moral law is law in this sense. It is hard for everybody, because we have so free a choice whether we shall act morally or immorally. All health for men and communities lies in realizing two truths about the moral laws. The first is that they are laws of reality: to say for example that economics has nothing to do with morals is like saying it has nothing to do with physics: it is not simply morally wrong to go against God's laws to gain something for ourselves, it is plain foolishness: we cannot gain by going against them because they are a statement of the way things really are, observing them goes with sanity. The second is that this is not servitude but freedom, for in observing them man is more fully man and not a travesty.

Two ways of knowing

God's laws for the ordering of man's life are given, promulgated so to speak, in two ways-written into our nature, uttered to us by God or by teachers sent by Him. Both ways are worth study.

The laws of morality, like the laws that govern our body and our mind, are written into our nature. That is to say, God made us with certain powers which can only function properly in the line of the moral law, and certain needs which can only be satisfied by action in that line: just as our bodies are made with the power to digest certain foods, and will only function if fed by them: the moral laws are in man's structure very much as the laws of diet are. If we do not observe the bodily laws, we get protest in the body, stomach-ache for example. If we do not observe the moral laws, we get that protest in the mind, a troubled conscience, which is in fact the protest of the spiritual part of man against misuse, that is to say against action contrary to the moral law which is woven into the very making of man.


Unfortunately neither the body's protest nor the mind's gives us infallible guidance. The body can settle into bad habits and cease to protest, at any rate, vigorously enough to catch our attention. We may, for instance, be eating food of such sort that the body is not fully healthy; but we may feel satisfied enough, especially if we have never known what perfect health is. Nor is the conscience an infallible guide either. In itself conscience is the practical moral judgment of the mind, the judgment the mind makes as to the moral rightness or wrongness of our actions-not their wisdom or unwisdom, be it noted, but something more profound which can only be expressed as ought or ought not.

In making this judgment of ought or ought not, the mind's standard is the law of God which is, in the sense already set out, in the very structure of man's nature. But a lot has happened to man's nature since it came new-built from the power of God; and too much of what has happened has damaged it and not perfected it. Men have damaged their natures by misuse, in spite of the protests of conscience, and have settled into certain routines of misuse. So that on all sorts of wrong actions there is no audible protest any more.

Some indeed of these aberrations have managed to impose themselves as duties, with conscience active on their behalf. Thus, there have been peoples who, when a man died, slew his wives to bury them with him, and would have thought it shocking not to. Even when conscience speaks loud and clear against some particular wrong action, some matter upon which our nature is still as God made it, we can find philosophies to explain away the protest, so that ultimately it too falls silent. And one way or another we grow comfortable in some at least of our sins. But they are, slowly or quickly, imperceptibly or spectacularly, damaging us all the same.

The second way of learning the laws of morality, by hearing what God explicitly teaches, brings us to the real distinction between physical and moral laws. Physical laws God leaves man to discover for himself; moral laws He tells man-not only tells him what they are, but tells him to observe them: so that His moral teaching is at once information and command. One can see a twofold reason why God should tell us the one set of laws and not the other. For in the first place the moral laws are harder to discover, and in the second they are more essential to be known.

Harder to discover

They are harder to discover. For the physical laws, the only problem is to discover what actually is, what actually happens, and the evidence is all here under our noses: it concerns the material universe or the operations of our minds, and any errors we may make about either produce their results in this life, so that man can see them and correct them; and in a general way the story of man has shown a continual progress in their discovery. Whereas the moral laws treat not only of what is, but of what we ought to do; and the evidence is not all available-what follows on being right or wrong about the moral laws does not always show in this life so unmistakably that only the blind can miss it: much of it only appears in the next life, so that it does not help us to rectify errors here upon earth.

More essential to know

They are more essential to be known. Their precepts concern the whole man and the direction given to the whole of life, and they involve that thrust of the self which is the dynamic element in human life: if it goes wrong, life goes wrong. How well or ill the body works, how well or ill the intellect works-these things are facts and significant, but not of the same order of significance as the direction the will takes. Ignorance or even error about physical laws need not twist the whole self out of the right relation to God and to other men. You have there all the difference between error, which must be involuntary, for obviously no intellect would choose to be in error, and sin, which is wrongness embraced. God teaches us the moral laws because He wants men to be what He made them to be and help others to be so, because He wants the order of reality to be observed and not mocked. And He can make the laws of morality into commandments, precisely because the will is free-only that which has a choice can be commanded.

The teaching of the moral law by God to man has been progressive. It would be outside the scale of this book to give more than the main stages in the progress. In the Ten Commandments God gave to His chosen people, through Moses, the essence of the natural moral law, the law as it might have been discovered by the mind of man from the way God had made man-provided, of course, that man's nature had remained as God shaped it and man's mind interpreted that nature aright. Fifteen hundred years later Christ restated the law given to Moses, perfected it, and uttered its profoundest meaning in the two commands that we love God with all our power and love our neighbor as ourself. These two commands were not meant to supersede either the great mass of detailed commands for the application of the natural law, or the new precepts that Christ gave-as in the matter of Baptism, for instance-in relation to man's supernatural destiny. But they give us the life principle of all laws, that without which all of them would only be sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. In the two thousand years since, Christ's Church has carried on the teaching work, taking the Ten Commandments to the uttermost ends of the earth, and applying the moral teachings of Christ to the new situations that social, political and economic changes have produced.

Expressions of love

Let us pause for a moment upon the two commandments of love. The law given by God has a great mass of detail, and none of the detail is pointless: every element in it has health and wholeness in its observance, disease or deformation in its ignoring. But all the details down to the tiniest are expressions, and in the long run valueless save as expressions, of love. God loves man, and His laws utter His love, the provision He has made for man's well-being-that well-being including the ultimate perfection of well-being, total union with Himself. Man's submission to the laws is not simply a commonsense acceptance of the rules given him by an intelligent Maker, or a grateful obedience to the rules laid down for him by a loving Father. It is even more profoundly a co-operation of man's will with God's will. Love is the reason God gave the laws, love is man's best reason for keeping them: "If you love me, keep my commandments," not "Keep my commandments or it will be the worse for you."

It will be the worse for us if we do not keep the commandments. Any contravention of the moral laws damages man, because they are laws: one does not have to know the laws of morality to be damaged by coming into collision with them. But the damage is not fatal unless we have broken a command of love-that is, unless we have deliberately chosen love of self as against love of God. That, and only that, makes sin mortal, death-bearing.

One principle of action

The moral law, the sum of God's commands for human action' is as various as the ways in which the will of man may thrust wrongly. But all the various commands and prohibitions that it contains are reducible to, or modes of application of, one single principle of action, love. Love God is Christ's first commandment; love your neighbor as yourself, His second. In these two are all the Law and the Prophets. Because this book is concerned with human relationships, I shall concentrate on the second commandment, that we love our fellow men. As we have already seen, the nature of man demands, and examining man we realize, that we must reverence all men. But over and above that the law of God commands, and listening to Christ we learn, that we must love all men-not simply love the lovable, we should hardly need a command for that, but all men whatsoever: we must love our enemies and do good to them that hate us.

The average man's first reaction is that this is totally unrealistic: it is a nice sentiment, charged with idealism, but impossible: that He should have uttered ~t shows that Christ was indeed the friend of man: if only He had known men better-as well, say, as we do-He would have known that it couldn't be done. But this is folly. As man, Christ experienced all the possibilities of malice that the heart of man can find within itself, indeed human malice seemed as if driven to new ingenuities at new depths for His destruction. He tells us to love our enemies; and who has ever had enemies like His? And if, as man, Christ knew the cruel possibilities of human nature by experiencing their sharpest edge, this was still only the fringe of His knowledge of man: for Christ was God, and as God He knew the being He had created, knew above all the potentialities in man by His gift, and His own power to aid men to realize them. That we love all men is the command of God, who made us. He would not give us an impossible command.

Not an emotion

But what does it mean? Clearly it is not an emotional love that is required of us, to feel loving. For the emotions cannot be commanded, though they may be slowly brought under some sort of control. Commands can be addressed only to the will, and in the will love belongs. It may express itself in the emotions, more so or less so according to each person's temperament, but in its own self love is an act of the will. And, as Christ makes clear, the most important element in it is willing the good of other men.

We must, then, will the good of all men, not merely wish it, but will it, will it effectively, will to work for it, will it as we will our own. Observe that Our Lord does not say that we must love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, but only as we love ourselves. The degree of intensity will vary, but the love will be of the same sort. We shall not love others as much as we love ourselves- most people we shall love less, a small handful of people we may love more than ourselves. But towards all men it must be real love, a genuine willing good to them, good in the next life good in this life.

We have seen that the love Christ commands is not an emotional love. But normally there will be some stirring of emotion, some warmth in it. It is true, as we are so often reminded, that Christ commanded us to love everybody, but gave us no command to like everybody. Yet there is danger here. A strong drive in the will which has no warmth in it at all is psychologically something of a monstrosity, and in practice is very difficult to maintain. We should come to feel love for men, as men, and not simply hold grimly to the duty of willing and working for their good. Love, thus felt, adds something specific, something for which there is no substitute, something that reverence does not provide something that pity not only does not provide but may even betray.

Reverence and pity

Reverence sees the greatness in men and bows before it. Pity sees the weakness in men and goes to aid it. But pity can easily tend towards magnification of oneself, an enjoyment of one' own freedom from the weakness we are aiding in the other- the tendency to play at God can insinuate itself to the contamination of almost all virtues. It cannot insinuate itself into reverence, which remains the one absolutely indispensable attitude, towards God and towards man. Yet reverence is not necessarily dynamic; it does not of itself demand warmth. It sees the greatness in another, but is not drawn towards that other. Love does all these things. It is dynamic, it has warmth in it, is drawn towards the other, moves towards him, and not simply to aid his weakness as pity does, but to express our fellowship with his whole self. Indeed, in this fellowship lie the special possibilities of human love. Because men are men and I am a man, I know their problems as I know my own, indeed in some sense they are my own. The modalities differ from man to man, but in essence I know every man's struggle, every man's misery, from inside.

But if there should be some warmth of emotion in our love for all men, there should be no sentimentality. Emotion is a legitimate product of love, sentimentality means that the energy has gone out of it to the point where it is denatured and only a parody. The absolute test as between love and sentimentality is whether we can see another's faults, hate them as faults, not minimize or idealize or romanticize their faultiness, and still love him. After all, we see faults in ourselves, and love ourselves still. With the same clearsighted love, we must love our neighbor.

Love is not something soft and mushy that simply asks to be imposed upon. If a man is a liar or a thief or a murderer, I must love him, just as in the same sad circumstances I should love myself. I must face the fact, I must be prepared to act upon it. Love does not mean, for example, smiling foolishly while murderers murder. If a man tries to kill me, I have a right to resist him; if a man tries to kill some other person, I have a duty to resist him. Willing good to all men does not mean leaving some men free to do evil to others-as when a criminal attacks a more decent citizen or when a nation commits brutal aggression upon another.

The Christian paradox

But here comes the appallingly difficult Christian paradox. The worst of criminals, the most brutal of aggressors, I am bound to love. Christ says so. And He says not only that, but that I must do good to him. We have to stop him if he violates the laws of God to the harm of other people. We may even have to kill him on the gallows or in the electric chair if he is a private criminal, in battle if he is in the army of an aggressor. But we must not cease to love him.

Our first instinctive rejection of this as impossible is partly based upon the false idea of love as purely emotional. We must love a man, even if we have to kill him. That does not mean we must be feeling strong affection for him. It does not necessarily mean feeling at all (although one who realizes his duty of reverence and love will probably be stirred emotionally to the very depths of his being by the cruel necessity of actions so hard to reconcile with them). I say it does not necessarily involve feeling. It means something far deeper-that we must still, with all the strength of our will, will him good. By his own act he has made it necessary for us to hurt him, to prevent his attaining something he wants but is not entitled to have. Yet we still will him all the good he has left it in our power to will him. And it is no pious platitude, but the plainest reality, that the eternal good we can still will him is more important to him than this earthly life that he forces us to cut short.

The magnitude of love

We cannot call a command to love our neighbor as ourselves impossible, but we must not think it easy either. Of the two errors, that would be the more dangerous, for it would mean that we had not grasped the magnitude of love- an amiable niceness to everybody was not what Christ made into the second greatest commandment. What we should do is soberly examine it, see how far human nature goes out to meet it and at what point the real difficulty in observing it begins. There is an attitude, half cynicism and half indolence, in which we underrate the average virtue of man. There is immeasurably more love in men than in that mood we realize. Christ says that the ultimate test of love is that a man lay down his life for his friend. But that test all sorts of ordinary men are constantly meeting and triumphantly passing. Soldiers are not exceptional men. Every nation has them in vast numbers. The men who man lifeboats are very much like other men, but they risk their lives and often enough sacrifice their lives, not even for friends but for total strangers. It may be too much to say that the ordinary man's instinct is to love his fellow-men to the point where he will deny himself for them or even risk his life for them unless some further element enters to prevent that instinct functioning. But it is closer to the reality of human nature than the assertion that men know only self-interest.

The difficulty begins with the elements, whatever they may be, that do in practice prevent the instinct from functioning. Such elements there must be, for love is not the dominant element in human relationships. The plain fact is that love in this sense stops short when the other man arouses our dislike, by his character or his actions or his principles. To love our enemies, to do good to them that hate us-that is the testing point. Only the exceptional person does it. But Christ commands that we all do it. We shall not do it without some more powerful motive than is provided by simply looking at men. The knowledge that God loves them, all of them, provides a reason: yet, as we saw earlier in the matter of reverence, a reason may be clearly seen by the intellect, yet not stimulate men to act. The one thing that can bring love, like reverence, fully alive is the realization that God loved all men enough to become man and die for them on Calvary.

The Author

Up until the moment he died at the age of 84 in November, 1981, Frank Sheed remained one of the 20th Century's most gifted and indefatigable apologists of the faith. In 1926, with his wife, Maisie Ward, herself a brilliant writer, he established in London the Sheed & Ward publishing company which for many years served as a catalyst for the revival of Catholic literature and thought in America and England. Frank Sheed translated classics, edited and assembled anthologies, and wrote several major works including Theology and Sanity, To Know Christ Jesus, and Society and Sanity from which this booklet has been excerpted.

© The Augustine Club at Columbia University

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