Why Are There Stairs? Philosophical Lessons on Freedom

Why Are There Stairs?

William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education, under President Reagan, came to the conclusion during his tenure in office that most of education consists in restating the obvious. I shall begin this essay with the question, “Why Are There Stairs”? This should not be a difficult question to answer, though I can imagine that there are competing answers. Stairs exist so that we can get to a higher level. We speak of a “flight of stairs,” suggesting that they rise, akin to the way an airplane takes flight. Now it is true that a staircase serves a twofold purpose: descending as well as ascending. But the primary purpose of stairs is to ascend. We speak of elevators, not de-elevators, escalators, not de-escalators, and, in the British vernacular, lifts, not drops. The upward trajectory of stairs is further emphasized by expressions such as “Let’s build a stairway to the stars,” or a “stairway to heaven”. It is also true that we can fall down the stairs, but that is not the purpose of stairs.  

The notion of using stairs as a means of moving to a higher level symbolizes life. In this regard, Jacob’s dream “in which he saw a stairway on earth, with its top reaching heaven” (Genesis 28:12), is richly symbolic. We all rise in the morning. Some hope to climb the corporate ladder, while others pray that they may come closer to God. There are times when we need to have our spirits uplifted. We are advised to “cheer up” and to “keep our chin up”. “Up” seems to be where we want to go. Mountaineers cannot resist climbing mountains to get to the top. If there is a single word that epitomizes the legacy of ancient Greece, it is “aspiration,” the natural desire to attain something higher.    

“Stairs” is analogous with freedom. The purpose of freedom of choice is to use that freedom wisely so that we can attain freedom of fulfillment. Jacques Maritain has referred to this kind of freedom as “freedom of autonomy”. To remain on the level of freedom of choice is to remain on the ground floor and not to ascend to the penthouse. Freedom of fulfillment is on a higher level than freedom of choice. How do we get to this higher level? We use reason, which is our veritable staircase. We use reason to put our life in order. Acquaintance, friendship, love, and willingness to make a commitment, in that order, seem to be required before marriage. To employ a dubious pun, we should not stare at the steps, but step on the stairs. Life is an upward journey. Sloth is the deadly sin that keeps us at ground level.

Some time ago, in an attempt to assess the aftermath of sexual permissiveness on the campus of a major North American university, I spoke with the director of the school’s Birth Control and Sex Information Centre. By way of summarizing what she had informed me, I said to her, “You have observed a tidal wave of premarital sex, a rash of unwanted pregnancies, a high number of abortions together with their train of complications, an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a widespread disruption of studying in the dorms, a lowering respect for women, and an intolerance toward the minority of students who are opposed to premarital sexual experimentation”. I then asked her if there was anything positive on the other side of the ledger that might counterbalance this plague of misfortunes.

She hesitated for a moment. Without taking her eyes away from me, she responded in a studied tone of voice, “Yes, the freedom!” On that note, our conversation ended. There would be no development in our conversation. There would be no staircase to permit moving to a higher level of freedom. She excused herself and hurried off to her next appointment. I sensed that she was not altogether happy with her single-word defense.  

It is a sad commentary on present day society that so many people, students especially, believe that any expression of freedom of choice is self-justifying. To exclude freedom of fulfillment from the equation, however, is to deny the validity of morality. Such a denial would inevitably lead to chaos. Surely education and chaos are sworn enemies. The aim of education is to help people put their lives in order so that their lives have meaning. Contemporary film director Werner Herzog has said that “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness”. All that is needed for chaos to bob to the surface is for freedom of fulfillment to be severed from freedom of choice.

In his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, Saint John Paul II unites the two freedoms when he states that “Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end.” Moving in the direction of one’s end is a voluntary activity. This voluntary activity, however, exists not for itself, but for a higher end.  

My colleague at the university did not seem to recognize the essential importance of freedom of fulfillment. I became an antagonist because I did not share her truncated philosophy. She was loyal to students who were not loyal to themselves. Torn between the risk of offending them and not providing any direction, she chose the latter.  

I think that William Bennett, as an educator, would classify the innate and unbreakable relationship between freedom of choice and freedom of fulfillment as fairly obvious. Unhappily, what seems obvious these days has become mysterious. 

Photo by Nick Castelli on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College.  He is is the author of forty-two books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on amazon.com.  He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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