Sin, Freedom, and Order, Part 2: Historical Development


The denial of the concept of sin yields freedom without order because it is based on the denial of the rationality of human nature, particularly in denying the intelligibility of final causality. Each individual human of his very nature has as his proximate purpose his own good or the good of another of his own kind. Man shares purposefulness toward good with all living things, but in man movement toward these goods is directed by intellect and will, by knowledge and love. Due to his intelligence, man can also know of the existence of God and in acting in conformity with his created nature, man honors his creator by not sinning, i.e., by not doing evil to himself and others. In doing evil, Man places his will above his intellect.

Subordination of the Intellect to the Will: The Philosophical Development

Beyond natural knowledge is the Judeo-Christian revelation of God, in which God has revealed as a free gift and as the ultimate destiny of man, the rapturous beatific vision of God, Himself.1 It is enigmatic that the very denial of the concept of sin, which is so common today, arose in principle within theology, the study of Divine revelation. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attributed to the Franciscan theologian and philosopher, Bl. John Duns Scotus (ca. 1265-1308), the initiation of the modern denigration of reason, which has culminated in the denial of the concept of sin. Benedict XVI cited Duns Scotus’ proposal that we can know only literally God’s commands for us, such that:

Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which  …  might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God.

Benedict XVI traced this philosophical exaltation of the will over the intellect form Duns Scotus through the Reformation, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). He labeled this process the de-Hellenization of Western thought. Perhaps the most succinct contemporary expression of the denigration of the intelligibility of reality due to the pre-eminence of will is that by the Supreme Court of the United States, ironically another SCOTUS:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Notice liberty is not identified as the right to discover the concepts of existence etc. through a material and intellectual encounter with reality. It is identified as the right of the individual to define these. In current parlance, I have my truth and you have your truth. These conflicting personal truths can only exist in the denial of the inherent intelligibility of reality and in the subordination of the intellect to the will.

As noted in the prior essay of this sequence, the currently popular philosophy of scientism does not deny the intelligibility of formal and efficient causalities but does deny the intelligibility of final causality inherent in the natures of things. The willful violation of this intelligibility is the inanity of sin. However, the claim, that purposefulness arises solely within the will of man, denies the very concept of sin. The acceptance of this philosophy has not been solely academic, but, historically has been fostered by social and political pressures.

Historical, Social, and Political Pressures to Deny the Concept of Sin

We are all favorably impressed with the comforts of modern life provided by technology, including greater public health, comfortable housing, appetizing nutrition, and luxurious transportation. However, more important than these—and also made possible by the scientific and industrial revolutions—is the subtle social control effected through the technologies employed by mass media and centralized entertainment. This is particularly evident in the complete banishment of the concept of sin from public consciousness.

In the public square created by the mass media, there is no such thing as sin, i.e. an act contrary to the nature of man. There are crimes, acts contrary to civil law, but no sins. Sin is a concept of an outdated, unscientific age. Each of us is now free to define the meaning of life, so there can be no sin. There can be no acting contrary to the inherent purpose of humanness because there can be no scientific identification of purpose.

Prior to the development of mass media with its subtle control of thought, was the historical introduction of the most powerful political force of indoctrination, namely the compulsory education of children in government schools.

It is not an historical accident that the model of uniformity in compulsory government education, which has been copied throughout Europe and the Americas, originated in Prussia. Uniform compulsory education in Prussia was a necessary prelude to Prussia’s looming military and political hegemony of its neighboring German states. The Prussian hegemony was later dubbed The Second Reich, allegedly the successor to the Holy Roman Empire. Compulsory government education instilled a sense of militant patriotism and provided a rudimentary training of the proletariat, a necessary human resource for industry and the army.

The Nearly Total Success of the Pressures to Deny the Concept of Sin

The common acceptance of scientism, due to the impressive application of technology to every aspect of our daily lives, coupled with the success of governmental control of education from early childhood, abetted by mass media and entertainment, has banished the concept of sin from modern consciousness. This is particularly evident in university education.

Many Catholic universities in the U.S. are no longer bastions of rigorous thought. At my alma mater, a sequence in philosophy organized by subject matter (cosmology, ontology, etc.) was required for all seeking a liberal education. Philosophy is now organized as surveys of historical thought. Uniformity is now characteristic of almost all universities. Perhaps the greatest evidence for the degradation of the universities is the common complaint that many college graduates have accumulated great debt, but have not been trained for a job. The idea of a liberal education, namely, knowledge, including the concept of sin, for the sake of knowledge, has been replaced with the idea of liberal democracy, namely, the subversion of knowledge to the human will for the sake of economic and political power.


Strangely, the idea of the will to power, expressed so effectively by the Third Reich, has been repudiated, but only at the military level. The supremacy of the will over knowledge is elsewhere the norm, even to will oneself to be of the other biological sex. Cecily Lowe has noted the loss of the concept of sin as the loss of the concept of virtue:

The underlying cause is relatively simple—get rid of a basic moral foundation, and then all the virtues that proceed from it essentially go out the window, even those that may still be acknowledged on the surface, like honesty.

In May of 2019, Anthony Esolen concluded an essay on the parental vs. the governmental education of children with the question, “What are we, Prussia?” The answer is yes. The third and final essay in this series, “Sin, Freedom, and Order, Part 3: A Discussion on British TV”, illustrates the denial of the concept of sin in the context of contemporary compulsory government education and Equality Acts.


1 “… [T]hese souls have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence.” (On the Beatific Vision, Benedict XII, 1336)

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