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The Gate and Key to Freedom

February 20, 2012
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Discipline is the gate and key to freedom. As such, it is also the gate and key to virtue.

Discipline is mostly a bad word these days and so when I use it here I want you to think of it in terms of people you might describe as “disciplined”, like elite soldiers. The primary form of discipline is self-discipline and, if properly instituted, discipline coming from others should be aimed at causing self-discipline to appear in the target of discipline. Of course, there is such a thing as improper discipline (and plenty of it!) but this is not our immediate focus.

Self-discipline is inherently tied to freedom because what binds most of us (as those who are politically free and unlikely to starve) into slavery is our own wants. We normally think of freedom as the ability to fulfill our wants as our means allow, without interference (except, perhaps, when our wants interfere with someone else). However, it becomes easy to allow our wants to enslave us. Soon enough we find that while we don’t need something for physical survival, or even for a continuation of our current manner of living, it is nearly impossible to choose not to have it. We have become enslaved, unable to choose to do what we think is best, capable only of choosing to fulfill our desire. This is where self-discipline comes in. A disciplined person can choose either option. They are not constrained by overly-powerful desires that outvote them at every turn. They are free.

Because discipline allows the freedom to choose as we see fit and not as we feel compelled to by our passions, discipline allows us to choose virtue. I don’t feel the need to go into an extended discussion of this here but virtue, generally speaking, is most pronounced when it is hardest. Doing the right thing when it is easy is hardly a great act of virtue. However, only someone with sufficient discipline can make themselves do the right thing when it is also a very hard thing. I wish to be careful here, though, to note that while discipline may be the gateway to virtue, it is not a gateway virtue in the way we might use the phrase “a gateway drug”. Discipline allows for virtue to flourish and without it virtuous conduct will always be stunted. However, discipline does not lead to virtue. Discipline is only a tool and it will cut in whichever direction it is swung.

When a virtuous person approaches discipline, they approach it with the intent to use this power to do good. However, evil people can also approach discipline and use its power to further their evil. Now, there is undoubtedly an element of undisciplinedness in the passions of those who do evil since their goals are always fixed on the fulfillment of passion. Despite this, though, evil can adopt a great deal of discipline. It can learn to wait before springing the trap. It can learn to do things that it might otherwise find revolting. (I’ve heard that there was at least one Viking mockingly called “child lover” because he refused to kill children. A bit of discipline with evil intent could have cured him of that embarrassing flaw.) Because of this, discipline is not, itself, a virtue in the normal sense. It is a tool by which the moral character of a person is given greater sway. This is much like the ability we term “leadership”. If a person is good and possesses this quality they are a great leader. If they are bad and possess this quality they are a great tyrant. Discipline is, in some sense, actually a more complete leadership over one’s person. Because of this it remains a morally-neutral tool that is steered by the aims (perhaps even the undisciplined aims) of the one who is disciplined.

So why does self-discipline so rarely feel like freedom? I suspect that the way we feel freedom is by the number of times someone, including ourselves, tells us to stop what we are doing. Since self-discipline ultimately requires us to tell ourselves to stop and do something else it feels like a constraint. And, indeed, developing self-discipline requires constraint. We must constrain ourselves to choose the hard thing, to practice choosing what is difficult.

It is at this point that another issue can surface. It would be easy enough to say, “Well then, if discipline comes about through choosing what is hard I will never choose anything easy ever again. I will regard happiness as an enemy and hardship as my only friend.” There are two issues with this. The first is that this makes enemies out of God’s good gifts – God does not intend for us to be permanently miserable. In fact, permanent misery stunts the soul, which is one reason we as Christians try to rescue others from misery. The second is practicality. Sometimes we think of discipline as being akin to quitting drugs – just go cold turkey, especially since sin is a lethal drug. However, discipline is built up like a muscle. I once knew a man who loved to run but had a tendency to run much further and faster than he could really handle. He spent most of his time injured. When he recovered he’d promptly run too hard again and injure himself. He never got faster or developed more endurance. In a similar way, being overly hard on oneself doesn’t produce good results. It just breaks your discipline and makes you an unpleasantly undisciplined person for a while. This sort of experience of discipline feels nothing like freedom – it feels like being beaten up. That’s because that’s what it is. Developing discipline will be difficult, but there’s a level of difficulty that forces you to grow and a level of difficulty that breaks you.

So how does one cultivate discipline? It is a relatively simple matter on the face of it: do hard things. Christianity has traditionally embraced discipline within the ordered context of the spiritual disciplines – one might fast (give up something one wants), give charitably (give away what one wants), pray regularly, read the Bible regularly (which, if done even when one does not feel like it, cultivates discipline), or otherwise engage in acts that promote discipline. Even the act of going to church regularly involves discipline. These disciplines are also valuable in other ways. One normally fasts in accordance with a church calendar that marks particular periods of sorrow, such as Lent. The other disciplines clearly involve positive virtues.

A short note is worthwhile here – whenever one cultivates a virtue, there is a vice waiting: arrogance. It is easy to say, “I am now better-disciplined, that makes me better than those people.” The only real guard against this is watchfulness.

One other facet of discipline is worth mentioning briefly: a large number of arguments against particular Christian practices assume that wants are sufficient reasons to do something. “This is hard” or “But that would be fun” are advanced as if they are serious arguments against Christian sexual ethics, Christian views on wealth, Christian views about loving one’s enemies, and even waking up for church on Sunday. Once we understand the necessity of discipline for the good life it becomes clear that the problem with these arguments is that they assume that the denial of wants is bad when, done right, it is just the opposite.

Discipline is the gate and key to freedom. If we wish to be free instead of enslaved to reckless desires we must be disciplined. It must be done right, it must be done carefully, but it must be done.

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