Miscellany: On freedom and authenticity

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I understand the inclination to equate freedom with arbitrariness but I don’t think it’s right. Suppose someone is attempting to communicate his thoughts on freedom to another person. It is simply not the case that it would be an exercise in freedom not to conform to standards of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In this way, someone who has no foundation in the so-called Trivium of the Liberal Arts (the Quadrivium includes music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic) does not possess the same degree of freedom of expression as someone who does. In this case, it can be seen that freedom is a function of both knowledge and also constraints. Paradoxically, true metaphysical freedom grows in direct proportion to one’s acceptance of external constraints on one’s possibilities for action. I can see how people with power control the second thing but I can’t see how they can threaten the first one except by our first giving them consent. A more illustrative example of the manner in which knowledge and acceptance of constraints is a condition of the exercise of freedom is perhaps a blindfolded truck driver: sure, he can do whatever he wants, but he cannot really be called “free” unless he possesses the knowledge that would allow him to respond to the constraints of the context and environment in which he finds himself, like the road. In a certain sense, perfection of freedom actually entails the limitation of choice and not the maximization of it, since it is not an expression of freedom but of ignorance to make an incorrect decision. I know this is not a common conception of freedom, but there are many topics in respect to which consensus or popular opinion is not a suitable judge. 

Is it right to say that “all wild animals are free”? On the one hand, the truth of the statement is self-evident so I think I understand what a person would mean by that. Indeed, the interpretation of freedom that seems to be operative in the statement above almost follows from the definition of “wild animal,” which would likely be contrasted with “captive animal.” But obviously a songbird is not free to let down its constant vigilance lest it be pegged by a hawk or a housecat. So what the interpretation of freedom must mean is that each animal is “free” to live in accordance with its instincts and nature. 

This verdict seems to invite further inquiry, for there seems to me a fundamental difference between (a) a creature who immediately acts on instincts when they arise and (b) a creature who is free to weigh a given impulse against his better judgment and either consent to act or refrain from acting. In this case, any eventual action would be posterior to (i.e. coming after) the exercise of reason. In other words, an action of this sort can be carried out for a reason that is conscious to the one who is to carry out that action. Contrast this to the “free” animal, which is indeed at liberty to behave according to its nature but not to act in the sense just delineated. When a being is able to act for a reason of which it is conscious, that being can be called “free” in a higher sense.

A question occurred to me over the difference between freedom and power. It was sparked by someone’s observation that money confers freedom. I was not surprised to hear this view expressed, but I wondered if it was really freedom that money would foster and poverty would sabotage or if it is rather power. By the latter, I have in mind something like “the capacity to change the external world.” This definition seems to me to fall short of describing freedom and hence my hesitation over accepting the equation of money and freedom. Conceiving of freedom as the ability to make a decision, seems closer to the truth to me, and that is not something directly undermined by lack of resources. I can, indeed, imagine a situation in which somebody possessed a surfeit of resources but not freedom. Consider, for instance, the proverbial tyrant, who is a slave to his passions.

Many people think of freedom as “being able to do whatever I want.” But that is equivalent to saying that freedom means being able to do whatever my desires compel, which is an improbable definition of freedom, to say the least. Moreover, a person is actually far better off not being able to do what he wants unless he also possesses the wisdom to ensure that he wants the right things. St. Augustine built off of Plato’s insights in this respect to describe philosophy as the ordo amoris, which is to say, “the ordering of one’s loves towards their true ends.” The opposite of philosophy can thus be understood as disordered love, and the tyrant can be seen as the quintessential expression of this. Given that freedom cannot be the same as mere license to deploy one’s power in the arbitrary pursuit of one’s desires, freedom is clearly primarily a function of the inner man. Nobody can confer this upon somebody else, but by the same token, no one can deprive another of it. It is an account that everyone must settle for himself. 

 …

Again, many naïve people equate freedom with arbitrariness but that can’t be right since a driver who is blindfolded cannot be called free despite the fact that he is at liberty to do whatever he wants. Since freedom is obviously not the same thing as being able to act without a reason, it must have something to do with acting for a reason. Hence, it must stand in a certain relation with knowledge. The latter would seem to serve as something of a necessary condition for the former. I think this dovetails very nicely with the idea of freedom as the willingness and ability to take responsibility for our actions. It explains why the blindfolded driver cannot exercise freedom: to wit, he cannot account for the consequences of his actions. Thinking this through has really cast the question of contemporary threats to our freedom in a different light since, despite that we experience comparatively little external coercion in the United States, we may still wonder whether we can really be free given the obvious perverse incentives that are operating in so many of our media and legislative institutions. 

People often attempt to capture the essence of authenticity with the phrase “to thine own self be true.” That they are, more or less wittingly, quoting Polonius is perhaps significant because it begs the very question that is at issue. If it were self-evident which elements of ourselves were authentic and which were not, then no difficulty would arise. But this seems to be precisely the question we are posing when we ask about “authenticity.”

Today, post-Freud and post-Jung and post-sixties culture, it is not uncommon for people to regard the unconscious elements of their psyche as the more “authentic.” Before this time, the reverse was the case. In fact, when we read about gods, angels, or demons in myth and Scripture, these were experienced in the same way that we today perceive influences on our behavior that emerge from the unconscious in the form of overpowering urges, emotions, and ideologies. Many people describe a feeling of being “carried away” from themselves in particular social contexts. People in the past would have recognized this as an external influence of a psychic (i.e. related to the soul) or spiritual, rather than a material or mechanical nature. Today, the only external influences most people recognize are material ones and they believe all psychic or spiritual impulses are internal to the self. If a stapler falls on my toe, I might swear or yelp or whatever. But I would recognize this as an external influence. If I get angry with another person, by contrast, I would assume that this is authentically me. But people before the scientific revolution would have recognized this same phenomenon as the devil, or Mars, or “the spirit of Tuesday” taking hold of the reigns of my soul and marshalling it to his design. The same would go with Venus, the spirit of Friday, for instance, and being possessed by the erotic fantasy or infatuation. At the same time, Venus could also be experienced in the appreciation for beauty, sensual pleasure, or the mere delight of form for its own sake. Returning to the more overpowering expressions of these spirits: my authentic self would be the one who could affirm or resist their external influence or “possession.” Again, today people would be more liable to think of this as psychological repression of the authentic self.

Aside from the demonic influences, poets and artists and prophets would have felt themselves “inspired” by an external intelligence like a muse or an angel. Angelos means “messenger” in Greek. After the Renaissance, the individual artist began to celebrate his work as his own personal achievement—as an expression of his authentic self rather than as an inspiration through which he was able to serve as a mouthpiece for the gods. As I reflect on this inversion of identification between the conscious and the unconscious, it seems immensely significant and seems to shed light on many contemporary phenomena in society and culture. 

I have won through only with great difficulty to an insight that some may seem to have achieved with such ease: namely, whatever we are presently engaged in at any given moment is just what we think it is best to be engaged in at that same moment. This is less of a discovery we make through observation than an a priori axiom that is self-evident to someone who understands the meaning (logos) of the terms in question. To wit: if, “contrapositively” (i.e. a→b becomes ~b→~a ), we did not think something was the best option available to us, then we would not be engaged in it.These precepts might seem obvious or even facile but I assure the reader that if my experience is any guide, they are anything but. And, moreover, many people may affirm them in principle while denying them in practice, as evinced by their fundamental attitude in respect to their experience. This seems to be the source of most negative emotions. Discovering the internal freedom to pursue the Good as the basic and original source of all of our actions, by contrast, seems to be the foundation for a positive and loving relationship with life and a fortiori, the culmination of the liberal arts and the goal of philosophy. Not to discover this is to be bound by the continual delusion that our decisions are just as determined as the external circumstances that emerge to demand such decisions from us. In this way, the liberal arts can be thought of as “liberating arts” because they offer a path of freedom from this cavern of self-deception (cf. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”). Does this seem right?

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