– John Denver
Are they? Are they really free? Or are they constrained by their very nature? I submit that there are two things about them that constrain their freedom: Fear and the Herd.
First, let’s define terms. Freedom in common parlance is lack of any restriction, the ability to do what one wants, whenever one wants. Yet, this common notion of freedom is problematic. It leads to trouble. I submit that true freedom is not freedom from restriction, but freedom for a goal or purpose. And that purpose is love.
First, horses have always been prey animals. They are used to running, rearing, stomping, doing anything they can to escape a predator who wants to make a tasty meal out of them. This is one of the reasons why one has to be mindful around horses. They are so afraid of potential adversaries that they will lash out at anything, or anyone, regardless of motive. They also have a lot of blind spots, places around their bodies where they can’t see what’s coming.
Yet, this is not so for us. “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) When fear takes over in our lives, it has the potential for making us act in the same way: defensive, isolated, with the potential to lash out at an adversary, real or imagined. Fear restricts us from acting freely out of love. Freedom for love gives us all a goal, a direction in life. As humans, we are endowed with intellect, will and memory. We are self-aware, aware of our own existence. This gives us an advantage. This is how we can learn to master the horse rather than let the horse master us. This is what gives humanity distinctiveness, and a dignity unparalleled among all God’s creatures.
That said, there is something (among many things) we have in common with horses: Community. Horses are social beings. they live in the context of a community, called a herd, with leaders and followers, and each one has its place in the herd. One horse’s actions and decisions affect the rest. If the leader decides to roam elsewhere to find food, then the rest follow.
Just as horses are herd animals, so we are most fully ourselves when we realize that we are meant to live in community. Each person’s individual actions affect those around him. Whether we realize it or not, we cannot live isolated from the rest of humanity. We are interdependent on one another.
But, this also affects what we are able to do. Living as part of a community means that one cannot simply do whatever he wants, regardless of how it will affect anyone else. That’s called license, and it has the potential for stripping us of our dignity.
But this life in community does not hinder our freedom, properly understood. It can only enhance it, because it gives us a purpose, a goal, a direction. It gives us the environment to learn to perfect those essential habits of virtue.
And virtue sets the stage for authentic love, willing the good of another for another. And love perfects freedom.