Lossky on Freedom and the Person

pantocrator_4078gr1

Vladimir Lossky, who can be notoriously difficult to read, offers this observation on freedom and the person. It is taken from his essay, “The Creation,” in the small collection, Orthodox Theology: an Introduction.

A personal being is capable of loving someone more than his own nature, more than his own life. The person, that is to say, the image of God in man, is then man’s freedom with regard to his nature, “the fact of being freed from necessity and not being subject to the domination of nature, but able to determine oneself freely” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). Man acts most often under natural impulses. He is conditioned by his temperament, his character, his heredity, cosmic or psycho-social ambiance, indeed, his very historicity. But the truth of man is beyond all conditioning; and his dignity consists in being able to liberate himself from his nature, not by consuming it or abandoning it to itself, like the ancient or orental sage, but by transfiguring it in God.

The goal of freedom, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus explains, is that the good belongs in truth to him who chooses it. God does not wish to remain in possession of the good He has created. He awaits from man more than a blind, entirely natural participation. He wants man consciously to assume his nature, to possess it freely as good, to recognize with gratitude in life and in the universe the gifts of divine love.

“A personal being is capable of loving someone more than his own nature, more than his own life.” Such words point to the character of our struggle – to live in freedom and not by necessity. Life by necessity is, to some degree, life that is trapped in death. Living in freedom is the triumph of Christ over death. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). Thus obedience to the commandments of Christ is not obedience to bondage (to law) but obedience to freedom’s call. The commandment to love – even an enemy – is a call to be transfigured – to live in a freedom that is above nature. The same can be said of all of Christ’s commandments. Indeed, to know Him is to know the Truth, and that Truth will make us free.

11 comments:

  1. But the truth of man is beyond all conditioning; and his dignity consists in being able to liberate himself from his nature, not by consuming it or abandoning it to itself, like the ancient or oriental sage, but by transfiguring it in God.

    A very intriguing way of looking at it!

  2. ‘Thus obedience to the commandments of Christ is not obedience to bondage (to law) but obedience to freedom’s call. The commandment to love – even an enemy – is a call to be transfigured – to live in a freedom that is above nature.’

    This is so good to hear, since sometimes the commandments of Christ seem impossible but in the words of Lossky, we are capable. This is a good reminder that God only asks us to do things that will free us from ourselves, even if it is painful or undesirable.

  3. Father,
    I am probably misunderstanding all this, but it seems that what is being implied is that nature equals necessity, and person equals freedom. From reading some things both from and about Maximus the Confessor, it seems that he says that we are not trying to live above nature, but rather in line with nature. Our problem is a fall into confusion about what in fact our nature is properly longing for. We personally deliberate and make decisions not knowing what is in fact truly “good” or “natural” and therefore we sin. Christ did not suffer from this confusion yet he had our human nature. Was Christ’s human nature under necessity?

    I not sure how we can “transfigure our nature in God”, isn’t that what Christ does in his Incarnation? Aren’t we enabled by grace, through union with Christ, to transfigure our persons in God? Bringing our actions and desires in line with those original and good impulses of nature which has been restored in Christ?

    More questions from a pitiful seeker….Thanks.

  4. You’re correct about Maximos, indeed. “Above nature” is perhaps not the best phrase – but rather that our nature is only rightly “instantiated” by the person (as is true of the Person of Christ). To act in a manner that is simply “natural” would indeed be to act according to necessity (we cannot be other than our nature). Thus we do not say that God is “creator” according to His nature (else he would have been compelled to create – this is a mistake of Origen). The East starts with the Three Persons and then proceeds to the Divine Nature lest we make the same mistake as Origen. St. Basil is good in this – probably best studied in Zizioulas’ writings (though there are differences between Zizioulas and Lossky (Aristotle Papanikolaou’s Being with God is an outstanding book making comparison between Zizioulas and Lossky).

    Christ certainly takes on our nature, but lives in a freedom which is not compelled by nature (“no man takes my life from me, I lay it down of mine own self”).

    Nature does not properly act alone in human beings, but rather is rightly manifested in the freedom of the person.

    I’ll admit that all of this gets a bit thick. But it is good reading. Papanikolaou sorts things better than any current treatment I’ve seen (if you read Maximus, you won’t have trouble with anything modern).

  5. Your question prompted me to spend some more time today in Papanikolaou’s book. I recommend it quite strongly. He sets both Zizioulas and Lossky in their proper Patristic context, while also looking at their contemporary setting. He answers critics (particularly of Zizioulas) and offers, I think, a step forward that answers questions raised (primarily by non-Orthodox).

  6. The necessities from which we often need to be free’d are not even those things that are in fact required to preserve our life. But rather those thing we simply fancy we could not live without.

  7. Luciasclay,

    Technically, those things we be considered “passions” and not a function of our nature. By definition, our nature is the “being or essence” of what it is to be human. I cannot, for instance, be a bear or a dog. I am a human. There are necessities that are inherently a part of a nature. This is where Orthodox theology sees the Person as having a priority over our nature, in that our freedom is found in our Person – and true freedom as the Person is in communion with Christ. It’s all part of the Church’s teaching on Christology and also the Holy Trinity – where questions of Personhood and Being are paramount.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *