During the period when America was first being settled by Europeans, the emerging identity of the new nation was influenced powerfully by a hopeful confidence in the future: the belief that freedom would lead ultimately to general prosperity and peace.
A new understanding of history had, in the words of Duke Professor Michael Allen Gillespie, “opened up the possibility that human beings need not merely accommodate themselves to the natural world. Instead they could become masters of nature and reshape it to meet their needs through the methodological application of will and intelligence. This new understanding of the relation of man and nature had profound implications for man’s own understanding of his place time.”
The “will to freedom” as conceived and understood by philosophers and treasured by Americans from the beginning, thus became the dominant theme on a continent that seemed unlimited, but for the noble peoples it displaced.
We have not been willing to tolerate anything that stands in our way, including those once proud and independent indigenous American peoples.
The contradictions hidden in the vision of absolute freedom and unlimited prosperity have remained largely unconscious and unresolved, whether they be social, economic, or physical. Forced by extraordinary circumstances, our attachment to inflexible absolutes is today pitching us into a confusion of emotionally charged philosophical and political conflicts.
Several related questions were raised in previous posts.
Do we still think we can make ourselves “master and possessor of nature” without respect for the balances that life on earth depends upon?
Is absolute freedom possible, given the complexity and destructive potential that science and technology have opened to us? What do we expect, for example, of rapidly advancing surveillance technologies that are capable of prying into every corner of our lives?
Finally, what do the new realities we face today suggest about the meaning of freedom? Can we address these questions thoughtfully and retake control of our destiny as wise, creative, and courageous people?
The historic questions have taken on a contemporary character, but they are essentially the same questions. Earlier generations evaded these questions by exalting science and materialism above all else. Consequently, the denial of a rational God and the suppression of religious perspective diverted attention from a logical contradiction that transcended philosophy and belief.
When the constraints and limitations imposed by belief in an all-knowing and all-powerful God were disposed of with the cry of “God is dead!” they were immediately replaced by constraints and limitations imposed by belief in a supposedly mechanical natural world.
It was, of course, assumed that science would soon master nature, human beings would succeed in perfecting rational governance, and humankind would realize absolute freedom. But, nature proved to be far more complex and unpredictable than was expected. And, having rejected the God of traditional religion, humankind has found itself confronted with a severe discipline imposed by nature, but without the grace or guidance of a loving Teacher.
And “rational governance”? Well, we have certainly witnessed in graphic terms the manner in which self-appointed leaders of “rational thought” led us into the totalitarian nightmares of communism, fascism, and Nazism.
Please make no mistake: This past is not far behind us.
If we are to reconsider the cataclysms of the first half of the twentieth century and the horrific consequences of the many bungled attempts to control human destiny – politically, economically, and scientifically – we might start to see the future more clearly. Indeed, we might then avoid potential disasters before they befall us.
The unresolved philosophical problems inherited from the past will continue to torment us if we fail to understand them. And, the danger can worsen with sloppy definitions and confusion about the requirements and limitations of freedom and prosperity.
Agreement among us is not required, but understanding the consequences of our actions in the real world is of immense significance.
We cannot neatly sidestep such fundamental unresolved questions, which I would suggest have embedded themselves deeply in the American psyche.
I look forward to reading your comments.
Next week: Transcending Our Limitations