Tag Archives: Freedom

“The Great Gatsby,” the American Dream, and True Personal Freedom

The Great Gatsby offers a profound look at and critique of the American Dream. I found this paragraph from Chapter VI about Jay Gatsby to be particularly insightful:

His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

America is a place of freedom: its citizens are not constrained by class or caste. In America, a Dakota farm boy can indeed become a millionaire or a celebrity. We Americans value “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” more than anything else. We have enthroned freedom as an absolute good, and built monuments in its honor all over our land.

The great Jay Gatsby is a fictional icon of the person allured by the American Dream. He had been born James Gatz of North Dokota, but he did not allow the limitations of his childhood circumstances determine his destiny. He was not afraid to grasp for godlike control of his fate and actualize “his Platonic conception of himself.” With voracious ambition, he launched out on his self-conceived, pseudo-divine mission of achieving the success that is available in America to those willing to grab it.

Those who have read the novel know how it turns out for Gatsby and appreciate what it tells us about the American Dream.  He goes too far in forcing reality to conform to his will, and his self-made destiny takes a wrong turn into self-destruction.

I have been reading R.R. Reno’s recent book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. In the introduction, he points out,

We Americans like to compliment ourselves for our independence and self-sufficiency. But there’s a dark side to our national character. A deep sadness comes when we realize, finally, that we’re on our own, which is where secular individualism brings us in the end.

American freedom, when left unbridled, leads to isolation from God. Absolute self-determination is simply incompatible with God’s Providence. As Reno puts it,

This world is God’s, not mine. It’s not for me to make myself into whatever I wish. God, not my sovereign will, is the Supreme Being. In him we live and move and have our being.

But our American society has so hyper-valorized personal freedom, that we are arriving at unnatural consequences.

Our dream of freedom promises that no man’s destiny is fixed at birth. Why, then, should nature dictate? Why should genitalia dictate? Why should our decaying bodies dictate? Why should DNA dictate? Why should anything other than freedom alone, operating in a void, govern our futures? Unless we’re ready to propose an end or purpose for freedom to seek and serve, we’ll end up saying that freedom is for the sake of freedom. The American dream thus turns into a totalitarian nightmare of political power marshaled to subdue everything— except freedom.

It is a beautiful thing that in America no man’s destiny is fixed at birth, but it can become a nightmarish thing if this freedom is not guided and channeled by truth. Fitzgerald intuited this reality and wonderfully captured it in his classic novel.

God has blessed us with freedom to develop ourselves up into flourishing human beings, and America, perhaps more than any other country, cherishes this freedom. However, when we overstep our bounds with Gatsby-like arrogance, we step into the dark side of the American dream – one that leads us away from God and into ruin.

The proposal that R.R. Reno offers in his book is the only way to prevent the American Dream from mutating into an “American Nightmare”: we must indeed cherish our freedom, but within the context of an ennobling and ultimately more liberating submission to divine truth.


The Statue of Responsibility

Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl

In Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl makes the following observation and recommendation:

Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Honoring Freedom

For Americans, this quote may seem a little perplexing. In the US and many other Western nations, freedom is practically an absolute value, an end in itself. It is something worth dying for; it is something worthy of being enshrined in monuments and of being cherished above all else. To hear someone say that it is “only half of the truth” or “the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon” can be disconcerting.

Nevertheless, it is true. Freedom is a necessary condition, but it isimage not an end in itself. If you think about it, we actually honor freedom more for the good that it enables us to achieve than for the value it has in itself. We value freedom because it allows us to achieve the goods of a peace and equal opportunity. We honor those who have died protecting our freedom because in so doing they protected the well-being of our country, for which liberty is an indispensable condition.

A movie came out last summer called The Purge: Anarchy. It is about a future United States in which one night a year, nothing is illegal. That night, absolute freedom is allowed. I have not watched the movie, but I find the premise intriguing. What would happen if absolute freedom were allowed? Knowing human nature, probably not much good, as the movie portrays.

Guiding Freedom

Freedom must be tempered and guided; it must be limited. G.K. Chesterton illustrates this fact in Orthodoxy with the following analogy:

G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

When the children’s freedom of movement was limited by the wall, they were free to play and have fun. But when the wall was torn down and they were allowed absolute freedom of movement, their games ended.

Higher Freedom

Gary Lee Price working on a model of the Statue of Responsibility.
Gary Lee Price working on a model of the Statue of Responsibility.

We have to limit our freedom to achieve higher freedom. Fr. Robert Barron uses an interesting example to explain this in his book Catholicism. No one was more free on the basketball court than Michael Jordan. He could do whatever he wanted with the ball. But that freedom of movement would not have been possible if he did not first limit himself to the rules of basketball. Similarly, no one was freer and more creative with the English language than William Shakespeare, but to achieve his literary freedom, he too had to subject himself to the rules of grammar.

Our moral life is the same. If we wish to achieve peace and happiness, we must limit and condition our freedom through virtue. Virtue may limit the options open to us, but it allows us to achieve a freedom that is better than absolute freedom: moral freedom, i.e. freedom to achieve the good. Virtue frees us from our passions and vices that incline us to evil; virtue enables us to do and achieve that which makes us truly happy.

And so, Viktor Frankl’s proposal actually makes a lot of sense. We have honored freedom with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, why not honor virtue with a Statue of Responsibility in San Francisco Bay?

There is a movement to erect a Statue of Responsibility. To learn more about this project, visit statueofresponsibility.com.