The Will to Freedom


We will turn our attention now to the ideas, reasoning, assumptions and attitudes, which have brought us to where we are today.  The thinking and perspectives of Americans over more than two hundred years of history have, of course, had broad consequences.  What were we thinking? How has our thinking changed, where has this led, and where do dangers lie?

In this chapter we will begin with ideas that have influenced America from inception, and in Chapter Six we will survey the way in which popular attitudes, thinking and perceptions have changed over time.  Chapter Seven, “Freedom’s Truth”, examines the meaning of liberty specifically, and the contradictions that have plagued the idea.  In Chapter Eight, “The Freedom Within”, we will confront the forces and constraints we find in our personal lives.   Readers who wish to think more deeply about these ideas will find references and a bibliography for each chapter in the back of the book.

The American colonies were populated initially by immigrants of English and European origin who arrived during an extended period of upheaval in Europe.  They were intimately aware of the controversies, conflicts and oppression of their homelands, which had often directly influenced their decisions to relocate to the American frontier.  If we are to understand these people and their motivations, we must understand their social and historical context.

It was a time of political restlessness, of intense philosophical debate and a new fascination with scientific inquiry.  It was also a period plagued by fierce religious controversy and horrific Christian-on-Christian violence.  The dominant role of the Church during the Middle Ages was severely challenged and weakened by this time, along with many of the institutions of civil society that had long provided social order and security for the individual.

The stability of civil society in Europe during the Middle Ages had depended on the strictly ordered institutions of family, church, and commerce, including the tightly controlled structure of extended families, organized guilds for merchants and artisans, and other associative networks.  Such institutions provided foundations for local community that our present society lacks.  But, they were rigid, controlling, and patriarchal.  Eventually, increasing numbers of individuals rebelled, walking away from overbearing traditions.

The radical notion of human individuality began to emerge into consciousness early in the Renaissance, the transition period between the middle ages and modernity.  Both the idea and the fact of individuality took form along two distinct tracks, in Protestant Christianity and the emerging modern culture of the Renaissance.  Protestantism challenged the dogma of the Catholic church, allowing a heightened awareness of individuality based on the belief that the freedom of the human spirit is ultimately bound only by the will of God.  Modern culture, on the other hand, was dominated by the rise of science and rationalism, and rejected the limits imposed on it by either Christian faith or the laws of nature.[i]

The modern sense of individuality developed rapidly with belief in the “autonomous” individual, the self-conscious and independent human being who went on to create the industrial mechanized culture we know today, dominated by commerce and financialization.  The autonomous individual has since been completely annihilated by the same culture it created, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

We will trace the outcome of modernity’s wishful thinking in greater detail below and in the next chapter.  It is a story with profound implications for America, both then and now.  But first we must understand how this expectant self-assurance initially led to dramatic developments in the structure of American society and governance.

The spirit of autonomous individuality inspired the dominant themes of the American frontier, giving license to immense creativity and productivity, as well as all manner of presumptive audacity.  Despite their nebulous connotations, the ideas of freedom and individuality took root in American consciousness and belief, becoming intrinsic to the emerging identity of the American character.

Individualism has sometimes been associated with egotism, selfishness, and a rejection of religious belief.  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.  This idea had a life of its own and had a transformative impact on Western culture and history that cannot be exaggerated.

A Conflicted Legacy

While the political and religious violence in European homelands had been devastating, it had a stimulating effect on creative thinking and changing perceptions.  During the years of American colonization, new ideas and controversial ways of thinking were emerging in Europe with an accelerating rush.  A hopeful belief in the synthesis of ideas and assumptions that came to be known as modernity was reaching a peak of intensity.  It was a major turning point in the development of Western civilization and consciousness.  The dominant influence of religion was replaced to a large extent by the conviction that human reason, armed with science, would eventually solve all human problems.

The transition came to be known as the “Enlightenment” and it was a major break with the past.  Most significantly the new thinking rejected religious belief as dogmatic, superstitious, irrational.  By the time of the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century, the philosophical problems with Enlightenment thinking were hotly debated.  Despite the religious and philosophical controversies, the promise of science and the presumed perfectibility of human reason captured the popular imagination.  The new perception of reality was embraced with a fervor that came to be firmly embedded in the Western mind.

The consequences were jarring.  The social imagination of a new world was wide open to intellectual anarchy and the violent competition of values.  The loss of belief in one God and the unity of a single coherent reality, opened the door to a multiplicity of alternative realities.   Utopian conceptions for an ideal society proliferated.  Visionary efforts to create a utopian society were well-intentioned, but, like all closed social constructs, they were inflexible, uncompromising, and resistant to questions.

Without awareness of a coherent universal reality, or grounding in the moral foundations that had guided human societies for millennia, the imaginative constructions of visionary social philosophers attempted to force society into utopian forms.  Among these, one line of thought asserted that freedom is destabilizing and dangerous; another that society can be organized in a manner that defends liberty and social justice alike, but on relative terms.  The first sought the strong hand of dominant leadership and expert planning to ensure social justice.  The second envisioned democratic governance as the only realistic path to social justice and accepted the unruly and unpredictable character of democratic institutions as the necessary condition for liberty.

The philosophers best known for utopian thinking included Helvetius, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Marx, all of whom subverted liberty in significant ways.  The renown historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin believed that Hegel has had the most profound historical influence on Western civilization.  But, Saint-Simon appears to have provided the primary intellectual basis for the dominant totalitarian versions of both communism and fascism in the first half of the 20th century.  Indeed, Isaiah Berlin argues that most of the ideas of Marx can be traced to Saint-Simon.[ii]

Looking back, it is not hard to see that a utopian society cannot survive unless everyone follows the rules and does so without question.  In the end, those who were perceived as socially or politically unfit, or who asked too many questions, were imprisoned or exterminated.

Whether we are religiously inclined or not, I think it essential that we come to an understanding of this momentous transition and the consequences that remain with us today.  Enlightenment thinking did not come out of nowhere, and the United States of America was not created out of thin air.   Ideas can have consequences.  What had changed, and how did it change?

These questions are significant because the developing controversies of Enlightenment thinking emerged simultaneously with the creation of the United States.  A newly vested sociological imagination came into being, which produced compelling social constructs with dramatic, and sometimes disastrous results.  For more than 200 years the consequences have impacted us on foreign battlefields and played out in the American mind.

The Boundaries of Liberty

American history begins with two of the most influential ideas to emerge with Enlightenment thinking:  A fierce belief in the will to freedom, and unquestioning confidence in the ultimate success of human control over nature.  With the founding of the United States, these pivotal ideas were newly joined in the European mind as the conceptual basis of modernity. This is the heritage we live with today.

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.”[iii]

Clearly these ideas and their contradictions have had a profound impact on the world.  First emerging during the transition from medieval to modern times, they 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.

Such thinking generated ideas and social ferment that influenced the early American identity profoundly.  The new ethos was grounded in the belief that a rational humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, must be capable of discovering effectual truth.  From these convictions there arose a faith that we would, in the words of Michael Allen Gillespie, ultimately secure “universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.”

It was under this dynamic influence that the American identity began to take shape.  The new nation became closely associated with the spirit of these expectations in the European mind.  The idea of a promising future for humankind was powerful, inspiring confidence in the potential to free ourselves from the shackles of the past.  And, for the thousands of European immigrants disembarking in the New World, a working knowledge of philosophy was not required.

Everyone knew what America represented, and the promise, however primal and unformed it might be, came to root itself deeply in the emerging American identity.  Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American character, and Americans were energized by their freedom from the fetters of European culture, institutions, and domineering governments.

Shortly before the American Revolution, the cause of American independence was articulated most forcefully by Tom Paine in his brilliant and compelling pamphlet “Common Sense”.  Paine called on Americans and all humankind to reject the past as a guide to the future.

“The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,”  Paine wrote: “`Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province or a kingdom, but of a continent, of at least one eighth of the habitable globe.  `Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings.  Now is the seed-time of continental union, faith and honor….”[iv]

“Everything was to be new,” in the words of Judith Shklar, Harvard historian and political theorist, “and new was better.  Newest of all was the expectation of a permanent, continental, democratic government.  The very size of the new nation made all the old metaphors of politics obsolete…. It would be a marketplace where all nations would meet to exchange goods and ideas, a universe in its very character. …And the revolutionary call went out to all, not just to Americans.”[v]  

“There can be no doubt,” Shklar continues, “that for Paine the boundaries of democracy were meant to embrace all who loved freedom.”[vi]

From Common Sense: “Oh ye that love mankind!  Ye that dare oppose, not only tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!  Every spot of the old world is over-run with oppression.  Freedom hath been hunted round the globe.  Asia and Africa have long expelled her.  Europe regards her like a stranger…. Oh! Receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”[vii]

here were ample crises and controversies to arouse and vitalize the new nation as it struggled to find its feet.  We did not agree on much.  The country was saddled with the unfinished business of its European roots: the scar of slavery, the tensions between the moneyed and working classes, and the prejudices of religion, race, and nationality.  Yet, a potent hopefulness prevailed as wave after wave of new arrivals powered the growth of a seemingly insatiable industrial economy.  The ideas continued to generate a confident vision on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the nineteenth century.

But then things started to go terribly wrong.

Dr. Gillespie has described the shock of events in the twentieth century:

“The view of history as progress was severely shaken by the cataclysmic events of the first half of the twentieth century, the World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Holocaust.  What had gone wrong?  Modernity, which had seemed on the verge of providing universal security, liberating human beings from all forms of oppression, and producing an unprecedented human thriving, had in fact ended in a barbarism almost unknown in previous human experience.  The tools that had been universally regarded as the source of human flourishing had been the source of unparalleled human destruction.  And finally, the politics of human liberation had proved to be the means to human enslavement and degradation. The horror evoked by these cataclysmic events was so overwhelming that it called into question not merely the idea of progress and enlightenment but also the idea of modernity and the conception of Western civilization itself.”[viii]

We have admired the generation of Americans who survived and stood firm in those nightmarish years.  We like to call them “The Greatest Generation.”  They did not forget.  They remained proud and frugal throughout their lives, though many of their children did not understand.  They are gone now.  How many of us today know what they knew?  We, who have drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt.

What happened?

We have tried to walk away from the past with little understanding of it.  The fear of debt, the Great Depression, and the horrifying perversity of total war – have all been repressed and lost to memory.  Yet, many of the same threats, and more, hang over our lives today — the threat of social disruptions or disintegration, the complexity of global finance, the tyranny of dogmatic utopian visions of the future, and many others.

Confronted With Questions

The new ideas and controversies that transformed European culture and influenced early American consciousness so profoundly remain with us.  We have become accustomed to them, but their problems live on in the controversies and consequences that bedevil us today.

The defense of liberty that motivated the American Revolution was rooted in the belief that the autonomous freedom of the human will, guided by science and reason, would control nature and resolve all human problems.  This became the dominant theme on a continent that seemed unlimited, but for the noble indigenous peoples it displaced.  Questions of logic have rarely met with objective consideration.  We have not been willing to tolerate anything that stands in our way, not nature and not the once proud and independent indigenous American nations.

After the horrors of the past century, however, we now know that human reason is not the source of wisdom it was once imagined to be, and that science has nothing to say about ethical principles or moral responsibility.  Science and reason are tools.  They are not sources of metaphysical values like liberty, justice, and equality.

If reason can produce either goodness or evil, and religion is rejected as mythical, where can we find genuine ethical standards for behavior and the ordering human affairs?  And, if the human Will remains unexamined, undisciplined, and unconstrained, how can we live with responsibility in the present or seek a stable future?

When confronted with disturbing circumstances, we seek firm ground to stand on.  But, without ethical grounding or trust in rational governance it is often easiest to accept the false security demanded by strong personalities. We soon become attached to inflexible absolutes and pitch ourselves into a confusion of emotionally charged political conflict.

The questions echoed by Dr. Gillespie are of profound consequence and can no longer be left to classroom debate.  Do we still think we can make ourselves master and possessor of nature?  Can the natural world support advanced human societies without effective stewardship?  Given the complexity and destructive potential that science and technology have opened to us, how will we determine practical guidelines and enforce limits?

The historic questions have taken on a contemporary character, but they are essentially the same questions.  Earlier generations evaded them 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 displaced by the cry “God is dead!” they were immediately replaced by constraints and limitations imposed by belief in the mechanistic natural world supposed by 20th century science.

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, a strictly mechanistic interpretation of the natural order disables reason and free will and disregards the inviolable balance of ultimate design mediated by an all-knowing God, none of which are acceptable to an insistent belief that all things must have a material prior cause.

Having rejected the God of prophetic 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 two world wars and 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 20th century and the disastrous 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 debates inherited from the past continue to misdirect and confuse our thinking.   Of particular consequence, we are haunted by the failure to fully comprehend the inevitable conflict between freedom and necessity.  This is a problem that is deeply embedded in the American psyche.

The Loss of Roots, Membership, and Belief

Perhaps individualism, an idea that emerged early in the historical process leading to modernity, deserves particular consideration here.  While nurturing creative initiative and personal autonomy, individualism also led to the withering and disappearance of the social structures of civil society that had long provided human beings with a sense of identity and belonging in medieval Europe.  The patterns of community that had anchored individual self-consciousness and belonging in a stable order slowly evaporated as the primacy of individual independence took hold.

The consequences were revolutionary.

Robert Nisbet, a leading American sociologist and social philosopher, has described the close relationship between these trends and the dramatic consequences that followed.  The growth of state power, Nisbet argues, cannot be limited simply by defending individualism.  A thriving civil society must mediate between the individual and the state, without which freedom cannot be sustained.

“The extraordinary accomplishments of totalitarianism in the twentieth century would be inexplicable,” Nisbet writes, “were it not for the immense, burning appeal it exerts upon masses of individuals who have lost, or had taken away, their accustomed roots of membership and belief.”[ix]

Community, Nisbet asserts, is an essential need of every human being.  Americans today have little experience with genuine community.  What little we have has no basis in physical space.  We do not know our neighbors.  And, we are confronted with a history of philosophical inconsistencies and contradictions which contribute to alienation and hostile divisions that cannot easily be resolved.   If we are to restore the vibrant spirit of civil society that flourished in the American past and resist the dehumanizing threat of the total state that some fear, we must respond to the deeply ingrained human need for community.

In the following chapters we will explore the dynamic meaning of community and how we can make it happen among our neighbors.  And, we will consider the foundations needed to sustain civil order in a free society and propose a strategy to regenerate a civil society reminiscent of the American past.

However, this very positive and liberating prospect will come to naught if we do not first confront the demons of our past.  There is a compelling need to understand where we have been and, in general terms, where we are going.  Our love for liberty and our readiness to protect and defend it is an expression of the human will that manifests an emotional, almost religious intensity.  This is a hallmark of the American mind and a pivotal attribute of the American Idea.

But, how have we lived it?  How have the strengths of individuality been subverted and destroyed by an industrial society and a mechanized culture?  And why has American culture been so prone to unrestrained violence and self-indulgent materialism?

If we are to ask ourselves what we mean by freedom, and where our love for freedom has led us, each question begs another.  If our ideal is not the involuntary and uncivilized liberty of wild animals, what is it we actually wish for?  Can liberty exist at all without the disciplined mediation of moral responsibility?  Is it possible to maintain a civil order that protects liberty from destroying itself, and does so without undermining the liberty it intends to shield?

And finally, for what purpose do we value liberty in our personal lives?  Where are we going with it?  Where are we finding the meaning that gives us meaning and motivation in life?

History and Heritage

The destructive capacity of the unexamined and undisciplined human will has become painfully apparent after the political violence of the 20th century.  The social and intellectual rubble left by 19th and 20th century megalomaniacs and self-styled Messiahs remains at our doorstep.  And the present-day consequences of economic devastation, social disorder, and spiritual emptiness have brought us full-circle once again.

Frustration and anger are boiling over in an orgy of mass murder, incivility, and domestic violence that continues today.  We have entered a reality in which we are forced to recognize the danger of the undisciplined human will, and its’ potential for overwhelming, earth-shattering hostility.  It would be easy to ignore the forces and failures that have brought us here.  However, if we fail to understand the meaning of history we make ourselves vulnerable to the worst possible consequences.  We are not immune to the terrors of the past.

When perceived insults turn to injury, humankind has often shown a weakness for the leadership of self-styled saviors.  But governments today have acquired the surveillance technology to enforce absolute tyranny.  And, having distributed the tools for implementing spectacular violence, mayhem and mass murder, we are confronted with a social problem that has accelerated now to take on terrifying dimensions – in our homes, our schools, churches, and workplaces.

The violence and complexity of our circumstances require that we assert responsibility as self-respecting human beings.  We can do this by defining our common values, identifying practical principles and confronting unacceptable behavior.  We can integrate the learning process in the endeavor to take active responsibility for developing trust and dependability in our local communities.

There has never been a time when freedom did not require responsibility and the disciplining of the human will, but the future depends on it now.

Reflecting on the legacy of two world wars and mass murder on a monumental scale, Hannah Arendt drives home the tough truth of our shattered heritage:

We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition.  This is the reality in which we live.  And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.”[x]

[i]   Reinhold Neibuhr argues that individuality was always grounded in Christianity, and then goes on to detail the decisive influence of Protestantism. However, the earliest open expression of the concept appears to have been advanced by such early Renaissance thinkers as Plutarch and Erasmus. See Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, University of Chicago Press (2008), pp. 44-68; and Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941), vol. I, p. 57-61.

[ii]   Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal, Princeton University Press (2002), see especially, pp. 102-104, 122-130.

[iii]    Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, op.cit., p. 42.

[iv]    Thomas Paine, Common Sense, ed. Isaac Kramnick, Penguin (1976), p. 82.

[v]     Judith Shklar, The Boundaries of Democracy, in Redeeming American Political Thought, Univ. of Chicago Press (1998), p. 136.

[vi]    Ibid., p. 137.

[vii]   Common Sense, op. cit., p. 100.

[viii]   Michael Allen Gillespie, op. cit., pp. 283-284.

[ix]   Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, Oxford University Press (1953), p. x (Introduction).  He continues: “I believe, then, that community is the essential context within which modern alienation has to be considered.  Here I have reference not so much to a state of mind–although that is inevitably involved–as I do to the more concrete matters of the individual’s relation to social function and social authority.  These are… the two supports upon which alone community, in any reasonably precise sense, can exist and influence its members…. By authority, I do not mean power.  Power, I conceive as something external and based on force.  Authority, on the other hand, is rooted in the statuses, functions, and allegiances which are the components of any association. Authority is indeed indistinguishable from organization, and perhaps the chief means by which… a sense of organization becomes a part of human personality. …Unlike power, it is based ultimately upon the consent of those under it; that is, it is conditional.  Power arises only when authority breaks down.” Nisbet, op.cit., pp. xxvi-xxvii.

[x]  Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1951, 1966, 1976), p. ix. (Preface to the First Edition).


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