SEPTEMBER 11 started something: a new conversation about freedom. No doubt philosophers in their conclaves have been at this all along, but suddenly Americans more generally are being invited to refurbish our views about the core of our heritage.

And so we have a spate of new works with titles like "Why We Fight" and "What We're Fighting For" and "What's So Great About America" that give freedom pride of place. Together they enlarge our understanding of this concept, not just as a political principle but as the handmaiden of truth.

Freedom, as everyone who's read the Declaration of Independence knows, is our national starting point. That people are "born free and equal in dignity and rights" is also the first of "five fundamental truths" affirmed by the signers of the manifesto What We're Fighting For: A Letter from America. Orchestrated by the Institute for American Values and released in February, this statement carries names like Francis Fukuyama, William Galston, Samuel Huntington, Harvey C. Mansfield, Will Marshall, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Fred Siegel, James Q. Wilson, and scores more. Their fourth principle is freedom of conscience--at the service of their third: "Human beings naturally desire to seek the truth about life's purpose and ultimate ends."

In his little book Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, William J. Bennett elaborates on the commitment to "the weighing of opposite propositions in an open-ended search for the truth." "We do not," Bennett writes, "like the relativists, suppose that there is no such thing as the truth; we do posit contention in getting to it." Indeed, he adds, "the open, curious, free spirit of sic et non [yes and no] is what differentiates us from totalitarianisms of every kind, political and religious alike; . . . it is the essence and the engine of civilization."

Bennett's concluding chapter is a hymn to the exercise of freedom--by brave men like the heroes of Flight 93 and the New York rescue workers; by communities of faith like those rallying round the injured and bereaved of September 11; and by Afghans who rejoiced when music returned to their country and the scaffolds were torn down.

Our embrace of freedom, Bennett notes, is the reason the authors of September 11 hate us. It's a point Dinesh D'Souza makes in What's So Great About America, due out from Regnery this month. Islamist thinkers denounce the West precisely for building societies on freedom--where Islam, as they see it, builds on virtue. Western politics is atheist, in their view, and popular sovereignty is an idolatrous denial of the sovereignty of God.

It is true, D'Souza says, that in America freedom has fostered an "ethic of authenticity" that many beyond our shores find incomprehensible. We leave individuals to generate their own identity; we make being "true to oneself" the foundation of morality. D'Souza challenges conservatives to ennoble freedom by redirecting it toward virtue.

What is needed, one might argue--and George Weigel does--is "A Better Concept of Freedom." This is the title of the lead article in the March 2002 First Things, adapted from Weigel's inaugural William E. Simon lecture. Not mere willfulness or absence of constraint, but "freedom for excellence," Weigel writes, "is the freedom that will satisfy" the yearning of the human heart.

This freedom for excellence--the term is taken from a contemporary interpreter of the 13th-century Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas--signifies freedom intimately allied to truth. This freedom is rooted in the inalienable dignity of the human being, which forbids coercion of the conscience. This freedom is "the capacity to choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit, . . . as an outgrowth of virtue. Freedom is the means by which, exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human beings."

This better freedom must be nurtured by education, and is intertwined with law. Weigel borrows the analogy of learning to play a musical instrument. "Anyone can bang away on a piano; but that is to make noise, not music, and it's a barbaric, not humanistic, expression of freedom. At first, learning to play the piano is a matter of some drudgery as we master exercises that seem like a constraint, a burden. But as our mastery grows, we discover a new, richer dimension of freedom: we can play the music we like, we can even create new music on our own. Freedom, in other words, is a matter of gradually acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with perfection."

It's what the old patriotic song was getting at: "America! America! / God mend thine ev'ry flaw, / Confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law." It's an understanding of freedom that is worthy of defense.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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