The Will to Freedom


We will turn our attention in the next several chapters to the ideas and social forces that have influenced our present condition.  The changing attitudes and behavior of Americans over two hundred years of history have had social, economic, and political consequences.  How have we been living?  Where did it lead?  What were we thinking?

We will begin here with the ideas that have influenced America from the beginning.  European colonists were intimately aware of the conflicts and controversies of their homelands, some of which had directly influenced their decisions to relocate to the American frontier.

America was settled during a period of upheaval in Europe, a time of growing restlessness and irreverence, of intense philosophical debate and mounting interest in scientific enquiry.  It was also a period characterized by fierce religious controversy and horrific Christian-on-Christian violence.  The dominant role of the Church during the Middle Ages was challenged and greatly weakened, along with most of the institutions of civil society that had previously provided social order and stability in European society.

This led to a major turning point in the development of Western civilization and consciousness. As the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries progressed, new ideas and controversial ways of thinking emerged in an accelerating rush.  By the time of the American and French revolutions, the dominant role of religion had been replaced by a near-religious conviction that human reason, armed with science, would eventually solve all human problems.

Such thinking was controversial, of course, and remains so today.  But it became the central idea embodied in Western culture and thought.  This did not come out of nowhere. What had changed?

The stability of civil society in Europe during the Middle Ages depended on the strictly ordered institutions of family, church, local community and associative networks.  Such institutions provided foundations for local community that our present-day society lacks.  But, they were rigid, controlling, and patriarchal.  Eventually, increasing numbers of individuals began to rebel, to walk away from overbearing tradition, and soon the radical notion of autonomous human individuality emerged into view.

Philosophers often attribute the concept of individualism to such thinkers as Petrarch and Erasmus.  And, it led ultimately to dramatic changes in the structure of human society and governance.  The philosophy we now call humanism, and the individualist attitude that characterized it, became the subject of fierce debate among Christian thinkers.  Some of the resulting conflicts have never been resolved.

The spirit of individualism went on to inspire the dominant themes of freedom and independence on the American frontier, and became intrinsic to the American character. Individualism has sometimes been associated with egotism and selfishness, but the concept was originally conceived in the fourteenth-century 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.

Among the most influential ideas to emerge from Enlightenment thinking included, as I have said, a fierce belief in the will to freedom and the notion of human control over nature.  The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is remembered as one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, recognized logical contradictions in the duality of this thinking and raised serious questions about it.  Perhaps it was the dense technical arguments left by Kant, or perhaps it was our willful nature as human beings, but it has long been clear that his warning went unheeded.

Writing of the consequences 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.”[i]

These ideas have had a profound impact on the world ever since, along with their contradictions.  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.

A Conflicted Legacy

The emergence of modern civilization from the philosophical roots of the Enlightenment has 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 cultures, institutions, and domineering governments.

There 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.”[ii]

We have admired the generation of Americans who survived 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 mostly 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.  Both the fear of debt and the depression – and horrifying perversity of total war – have been largely repressed and lost to memory.

There is, however, a deeper historical problem that must be recognized.  While the emergence of individualism since the middle ages was central to the spirit of early America, it coincided with another equally profound trend – the steady disappearance of community and the social structures of civil society that had previously provided human beings with identity and a sense of belonging in the world.  This happened gradually, but the consequences have been revolutionary.

The sociologist, social historian, and influential conservative intellectual, Robert Nisbet, has described the close relationship between these two trends, and the consequences of the loss of community that led to disaster in the twentieth century.  The growth of state power cannot be limited simply by advocating individualism, Nisbet asserted.  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 wrote, “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.”[iii] 

If we are to recapture the spirit of civil society that flourished in nineteenth century America, and successfully resist the dehumanizing power of the total state, we must respond to the compelling human need for community, which was once met by family, church, and civic association.  And, we must do so in a way that respects and fully supports the human will to freedom.

Such community has never before existed in history.  It must be created now, and it is imperative that we progress promptly – before totalitarianism regains a foothold.  This challenge will be addressed more thoroughly in Chapter Nine: The Individual in Society.

The Will to Freedom

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.  A new vision of history had, in the words of 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 [in?] time.”[iv]

For 200 years the dominant worldview has conceived of the story of history as an ever-progressing conquest of the natural world, leading to ultimate and undeniable peace and prosperity.

The “will to freedom” as conceived and understood by philosophers and treasured by Americans from the beginning, thus became the dominant metaphysical 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 nations.

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.

The present turning point demands a more conscious understanding, which comes to terms with implacable material realities.  The philosophical question echoed by Dr. Gillespie can no longer be left to classroom debate.  It is crucial.

Do we still think we can make ourselves master and possessor of nature?  Can the natural world support continued human life without practical stewardship?

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?  Do we have a realistic comprehension of the meaning and potential of human freedom in a world redefined by science and constrained by an increasingly complex society?  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 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 disposed of with the cry of “God is dead!” they were immediately replaced by constraints and limitations imposed by belief in a supposedly mechanistic 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, a strictly mechanistic interpretation of natural order precluded the existence of God, as well as reason and free will, none of which can be accepted by an insistent belief that all things must have a prior cause.

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 debates inherited from the past will continue to torment us if we fail to fully comprehend the inevitable conflict between freedom and necessity.  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.

Rising Above Our Limitations

On the coming pages we will consider our ability to find freedom, both as individuals and as a society, despite the constraints and necessities we face each day.  In considering the limitations we experience in life I will leave the implications of religious faith to individual judgment.  Belief in an all-knowing God imposes constraints on our decisions and behavior, while freeing the heart and mind in entirely transcendent ways.

Here we will focus instead on the spirit of freedom as it can be experienced by religious and non-religious readers alike, as we engage (and potentially prevail over) the limitations in our personal, social, and physical lives.

Our relationship with nature is of particular interest.  Nature determines the biology and physics of our material environment, even when we manipulate it.  And, natural balances provide the filtration systems that purify the air and water we depend on for life.

This planet is our home, yet we sometimes seem to doubt our responsibility for it.  Human beings do have the unique capacity to manipulate nature.  But, as science has begun to understand the complexity and balance of natural systems, it has become clear that the natural order must be sustained for human survival.

Setting aside the issue of climate change for a moment, the idea that nature might have limits when sufficiently disrupted seems to make sense.

When I was a child there were two billion people alive on this planet.  Now, having recently reached retirement age, I am confronted with the fact that the number has reached seven billion and is growing rapidly.  This has taken place in a single lifetime.  My lifetime.

I cannot imagine how seven billion human beings, along with a massive agricultural and industrial footprint, could fail to impose a strain on natural systems.  Yet, the idea that the goal of absolute freedom has collided with limits in the natural world seems to cause a violently negative reaction.  What is this about?

If belief in the possibility of absolute freedom is suddenly threatened by none other than the revelations of science, this would be no small matter.  And so a disagreement that might appear to simply raise questions as to material fact has instead descended into bitter accusations of conspiracy, treason and dishonor.

Am I wrong to think this reaction is about more than climate change?  The emotional climate suggests that freedom itself is under attack.

We are confronted today by many growing threats to freedom: the loss of privacy, violence on our streets, rising food prices, aging infrastructure, conflicts over land and water rights, exponential population growth, insolvent financial institutions, and massively indebted governments.

It gets to be crazy-making, you know?

Emotion coalesces into a rage focused on those who may have effectively driven us off a cliff.  Who is responsible for all this, we ask?  Bankers?  Scientists?  Politicians?  Are these not people who are supposed to know what they are doing?

These threats have emerged as the consequences of human behavior and political policies.  But, the constraints of nature are a given on this planet.  They come with the territory.

Whether it is the natural order that is in question or the shock of a failing social and economic order, clearly the cherished expectations of ultimate human prosperity are no longer assured.

The prospects for peace do not look so great either.

Humankind has arrived at a moment of historic significance.  For better or worse, we find ourselves at a turning point where the human world has become aware of itself as a single interrelated whole.  We have gained both the benefits and dangers of an integrated global economy and monetary system dominated by an interdependent banking system, by rapid air travel and digital telecommunications, and, significantly, by emerging interrelated crises with worldwide implications.

Social stability is under immense pressure throughout the world.  We have entered a period of profound structural change that has implications for every aspect of our lives.  It is time to recognize, assess, and address the challenges that confront us – before the opportunity to do so rationally is wrenched from our grasp.

Freedom and Constraint

In Chapter Six I will explore the way both ideas and popular assumptions have developed in the United States during the past century.  If some of it sounds like criticism, please understand that I seek only to pose questions we might want to consider in determining our way forward.  Few of us have intended or expected that things would turn out the way they have.

We will consider the manner in which our sense of individualism has influenced our present circumstances, as well as our assumptions about the meaning of freedom.

In the two subsequent chapters we will then turn to our experience as individuals, exploring the nature of freedom in our personal lives and in our personal relationships with the society around us.

Each of us has the capacity to transcend the practical limitations that confront us.  Not only can freedom be realized in the context of constraint, but the experience of freedom can be greatly strengthened by our attitudes toward life.

We live in the twenty-first century.  Our physical conditions will become increasingly constrained, not by intentional actions for the most part, but as a consequence of changing material realities.  In addition, we will face the limits imposed by the decisions we ourselves have made: family commitments, employment and career, church community, and the geography in which we live.

And yes, we are often negatively impacted by people and institutions around us.  There will always be those who lack responsibility or foresight, or who impose their greed and foolishness on everyone else.  But, we must not allow ourselves to be deterred by our aggravation.

We must commit ourselves to the independent investigation of truth, and not overreact or be misled by the distorted perceptions of others.  We each have the capacity to learn, to be open to ideas, to think for ourselves.

Most importantly, we must not focus on the past at the expense of the future.  This is a time for each of us to become open to new conditions, questions, and ways of thinking. We owe it to ourselves to keep our wits about us.  Understanding freedom in a way that transcends human limitations has become very important.

[i]  Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, University of Chicago Press (2008), p. 42.

[ii]  Ibid., pp. 283-284.

[iii] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, Oxford University Press (1953), p. x.

[iv]  Gillespie, op. cit., ???.