Colonial America was influenced significantly by philosophical ideas concerning freedom and the control of nature that many of us take for granted today.
One of the most influential of these ideas is the concept of independent human individuality, generally attributed to such thinkers as Petrarch and Erasmus, which emerged to form the conceptual foundations for the humanist movement.
Individualism has sometimes been associated with egotism and selfishness, but the concept was originally conceived as respect for the validity of the views and experience of the individual within his or her own sphere, and the ideal that each of us should be encouraged to develop our own natural gifts.
Humanism developed as a dialog among Christian thinkers and generated considerable controversy. Some of the resulting conflicts have never been resolved. The particular ideas that ultimately became most influential in the development of western civilization focused on the will to freedom and the notion of human control over nature.
Writing of this history, the American philosopher and political scientist Michael Allen Gillespie, a professor at Duke University, has observed that “modernity has two goals – to make man master and possessor of nature and to make human freedom possible. The question that remains is whether these two are compatible with one another.” (2008)
These ideas had a profound impact. First appearing during the European Renaissance, the historic transition from medieval to modern times, humanism gradually crystallized into the conviction that an ideal future civilization would bring freedom and prosperity to the world through the progress of science and rational governance.
To many the United States of America came to embody that promise.
The philosophical contradictions were, however, swept under the carpet and remain to this day. The fact that nature and the physical realm, (as well as the inevitable constraints of a complex society), impose limits to freedom rarely enters into consideration.
What limits? Well, we care for our families, whatever that requires. We cooperate with the necessary requirements of our employment. We commit ourselves willingly to civic engagements: athletic teams or dance recitals for our kids, charitable organizations and religious communities, all of which can take up most of our wakeful hours. And, we rarely fail to notice the impositions made upon us by government and the weather.
As with our social circumstances, the physical environment is an ever-present reality in our lives. We normally take these things for granted. But, there is more. The challenges to our sense of personal independence and integrity seem to be everywhere now. Even our principles are challenged.
By definition the word “freedom” implies that there is something we wish “to be free from.”
Many things can chafe in life, particularly the actions of others. Domineering and dysfunctional institutions are particularly aggravating in a time of deteriorating conditions. Yet, human beings have risen above the natural constraints in life to find meaning in a free society.
What is it that the world gained with the founding of the United States?
I believe we will find it useful to reflect on the development of our assumptions about freedom, a range of ideas that are central to the American character and have co-existed for 200 years with apparent ease, but which contain certain logical inconsistencies.
Clear thinking is of great importance today. A lack of clarity could subvert our best intentions, allowing muddled assumptions to fester behind the tension and contentiousness that threatens our self-confidence at the present turning point.
I suggest that we each reflect on what freedom means to us personally, not simply as a principle but in our immediate lives. We will explore this and related questions here in the coming weeks.
Next week: A Conflicted Legacy.