There is a big difference between license and freedom, although many people use these words interchangeably and have only a hazy idea of what they mean by either one.
Freedom empowers an individual to do the right things. License is doing whatever one wants to do, with no regard for right or wrong, good or bad.
When we are free, it means we are free to live in a way that nurtures our minds, bodies and spirits — and by extension, nurtures all aspects of our society.
When we are licentious, we live in a way that corrupts our minds, bodies and spirits — and by extension, confuses, degrades, and eventually — if unchecked — dissolves our society.
License and freedom are opposing forces.
No Limits versus Limits
License has no limits. It does not consider outcomes at all, personal or otherwise. Acting licentiously is simply doing what feels good at the time. Licentious behavior is rooted in emotion, whereas freedom is rooted in intellectual and spiritual aspiration. License is superficial. But when we are moved to action by freedom, we have plumbed the depths of our souls and pondered difficult philosophical, theological and practical questions.
Freedom involves restraint. It has limits. It takes into account outcomes; that is, how one’s actions affect oneself as well as others. Acting freely requires reflection, insight, discernment; a careful weighing of options. One does not, for instance, freely choose a career or a spouse without going through these processes.
Easy versus Hard
Licentiousness is easy. If it feels good, do it — no thinking involved. Licentiousness was elevated to the level of a moral code (most recently) in the 1960s, still exerts powerful influence, and explains how the sacrificial Greatest Generation gave way to the self-indulgent Me Generation.
Freedom is difficult. No matter how diligently we apply ourselves, making right choices is tough sledding, and whether we have chosen rightly or wrongly can take years to become clear, if it ever does. Living freely means living responsibly — that is, continually evaluating and reevaluating the impact of our decisions on ourselves and others.
Fun versus Work
Licentiousness is fun, at least in the moment. The long-term effects of a life of license are negative, and it sometimes happens that people repent when the effects become clear. The conversion story of Oscar Wilde is interesting in this regard.
Freedom is hard work every day. To protect one’s freedom, one must be prepared to do battle against internal and external forces that thwart it. An urge to drink too much alcohol (internal) thwarts the freedom to cultivate one’s career. Unfair hiring practices (external) does the same. Freedom requires vigilance, 360-degree awareness and willingness to fight on all fronts.
A Looming Idiocracy?
Oppressive, centralized governments eagerly promote license and suppress freedom among the citizenry. When citizens are poking around looking for external threats to freedom, a government’s unjust policies are revealed, resisted and ultimately overturned — which is literally what happened when Jesus confronted the established order in the temple:
Then Jesus went into the temple of God, and drove out from it all those who sold and bought there, and overthrew the tables of the bankers, and the chairs of the pigeon-sellers; It is written, he told them, My house shall be known for a house of prayer, and you have made it into a den of thieves. (Mt. 21, 12-13)
The United States was founded on the principle of freedom. If a critical mass of citizens prizes license above freedom, then we are in trouble individually and collectively.
To promote license, governments use a trick probably as old as civilization, what we call from the days of the Roman Empire “bread and circuses.” Keep the citizens entertained, distracted, and indulging their passions, and governments will be free to do as they please.
Freedom cannot be preserved when the citizenry is dumb, fat and happy.
Fortunately our choices are not all or nothing. Entertainment is a healthy diversion as long as it remains a diversion and doesn’t become a distraction, obsession, or addiction. And certainly the substance of our entertainment matters, an issue that deeply concerned Leo Tolstoy and anyone else able to distinguish excellence from excrement.
There is a lot of both to choose from, so it is best we choose freely.
(Image credit – Wikimedia Commons)