CHAPTER FIVE (Draft)
We will turn our attention in the next several chapters to the ideas, philosophical thinking, assumptions and attitudes, that have brought us to where we are today. The changing perspectives and behavior of Americans over two hundred years of history have, of course, had broad consequences. What were we thinking? How have our ways of thinking changed, and where has this led?
We will begin here with ideas that have influenced America from the beginning, and will continue in Chapters Six and Seven, to briefly survey the attitudes and popular perceptions that developed among Americans themselves over time.
The colonists and early immigrants were intimately aware of the controversies, conflicts and oppressions of their European homelands, some of which had directly influenced their decisions to relocate to the American frontier. Prior to the American Revolution, the vast majority had arrived from England and, as we saw in the previous chapter, were highly sensitive to growing perceptions that the relative state of liberty attained in seventeenth-century England was under siege.
However, America was settled during a long period of upheaval throughout Europe, a time of growing restlessness, of intense philosophical debate and a 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 challenged and weakened, along with many of the institutions of civil society that had provided social order and stability.
While the violence of social disruption was extremely painful, it also had a stimulating effect on creative thinking and changing perceptions. As the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries progressed, new ideas, concepts, and controversial ways of thinking emerged in an accelerating rush. Intellectual ferment led ultimately to a major turning point in the development of Western civilization and consciousness. The dominant role of religion was replaced to a large extent by the conviction that human reason, armed with science, would eventually solve all human problems.
This dramatic transition, which came to be known as the “Enlightenment”, was a major break with the past. But, what came next was anything but orderly. The new ideas contained serious philosophical problems. By the time of the American and French revolutions, the inconsistencies and contradictions of Enlightenment thinking were already hotly debated.
Despite the logical problems, however, the promise of science and the assumed perfectibility of reason was extremely alluring. This new perception of reality was embraced with a fervor that came to be firmly embedded in Western thought and cultural assumptions.
The consequences were sobering. The new political world, which eventually came to be labelled “modernity”, was wide open to conflicting social philosophies and a variety of utopian visions of a new society. Imaginative ideas and beliefs were conjured into being by human reason alone, without a basis in the universal moral foundations provided by religion for centuries. The idealism embedded in the new consciousness possessed its own unconscious metaphysics, too, committed to liberty, equality, and inalienable human rights. That this metaphysics was grounded in religious precepts went unnoticed, and the existence of anything related to spiritual reality came to be discredited as figments of the imagination.
Whether the reader is religious or not, I think it essential that we come to an understanding of this momentous transition and the residual consequences that remain with us in America today.
Enlightenment thinking did not come out of nowhere, and the United States of America was not created out of thin air. What had changed, and how did it change? These questions are important because the controversies of Enlightenment thinking came to a climax simultaneously with the creation of the United States. And, for more than 200 years its’ consequences have impacted us on foreign battlefields and played out in the American mind, dominating our assumptions and views.
Escape from Oppression and Disorder
The colonies were populated initially by immigrants of European origin who arrived during an extended period of turmoil in Europe. If we are to understand these people and their motivations, we must understand their social and historical context.
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 began to rebel, to walk away from overbearing tradition. The radical notion of autonomous human individuality emerged into view.
Philosophers often attribute the concept of individualism to such thinkers as Petrarch and Erasmus. The new perception ultimately led to dramatic changes in the structure of European society and governance. The philosophy we now call humanism, and the individualist ideas 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. It is intrinsic to the American character. Individualism has sometimes been associated with egotism, selfishness, and a denial of religious 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. This idea had a transformative impact on Western culture and history that cannot be exaggerated.
A Conflicted Legacy
Two of the most influential ideas to follow on this in the emergence of Enlightenment thinking were a fierce belief in the will to freedom and in the potential for human control over nature. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is remembered as one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, was actually one of the first to recognize logical contradictions in this thinking. He raised serious questions and tried unsuccessfully to find solutions. Perhaps it was the dense technical arguments offered by Kant, or perhaps it was our willful nature as human beings, but it has long been clear that his concerns, and those of others, 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 and their contradictions have had a profound impact on the world ever since. 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.
Enlightenment 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.
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.
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 economics, the tyranny of dogmatic utopian visions of the future, and many others.
Confronting the Questions
During the colonial period when America was first being settled by Europeans, the emerging identity of the new nation was influenced powerfully by a new vision of history that 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.”[iii]
The defense of liberty that motivated the American Revolution was rooted in this understanding. It became the dominant theme on a continent that seemed unlimited, but for the noble indigenous peoples it displaced. Our contradictions have rarely met with objective consideration. We have not been willing to tolerate anything that stands in our way, including those first peoples, the once proud and independent indigenous American nations.
The paradox hidden in the vision of absolute freedom and unlimited prosperity has remained largely unconscious and unresolved, whether the implications be social, economic, or physical.
After the horrors of the past century we now know that human reason is not a source of wisdom, and that science has nothing to say about ethical standards. Science and reason are tools. They are not sources of metaphysical values like liberty, justice, and equality. If reason can produce both goodness and evil, and religion is rejected as mythical, where can we find ethical standards for behavior and the ordering human affairs? And, if the Will remains undisciplined and unrestrained, how can we live with responsibility or embrace the future?
Confronted with frightening circumstances, we seek firm ground to stand on. Without ethical grounding or trust in rational governance it is often easiest to reach for the false security offered by strong personalities. We become attached to inflexible absolutes and pitch ourselves into a confusion of emotionally charged philosophical and political conflicts.
The questions echoed by Dr. Gillespie is 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 pragmatic stewardship? Given the complexity and destructive potential that science and technology have opened to us, how will we determine ethical 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 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 an inflexible 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 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 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 continue to confuse and misdirect 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 the most transformative of the early influences emerging with Enlightenment thinking was the concept of individualism mentioned above. This was followed over time by the gradual disappearance of the social structures of civil society that had long provided human beings with identity and a sense of belonging. The patterns of community that had always anchored individual self-consciousness and belonging in a stable order slowly evaporated as the primacy of the individual independence took hold.
The consequences have been 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 argued, 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 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.”[iv]
Americans today have little experience with genuine community. What little we do have has no basis in physical space. We do not know our neighbors. And, we are confronted by a history of philosophical inconsistencies and contradictions which contribute to alienation and hostile divisions, which cannot be easily resolved. If we are to restore the vibrant spirit of civil society that flourished in the American past, and successfully resist the dehumanizing threat of the total state, we must respond to the deeply ingrained human need for community.
There is also a compelling need to understand where we have been and where we are going. Our love of freedom and readiness to protect and defend liberty are expressions of the human Will that manifest an emotional, almost religious intensity. This is a hallmark of the American mind and a pivotal attribute of the American attitude. But, how have we lived it? 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 unrestrained and uncivilized liberty of wild animals, what is it we actually seek and believe in? Can liberty exist without the disciplined mediation of responsibility? Is it possible to maintain an order and 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 as individuals? Where are we going with it? How are we finding the meaning that gives us motivation and interest in life?
That liberty is a concept closely associated with the human Will rather than with cognitive thinking seems readily apparent. I say this because liberty is often perceived as a primal need rather than as an intellectual challenge or technicality. It appears to us as a necessary principle, a requirement for personal integrity, and the means (rather than the reasoning) necessary for pursuing goals. The “will to freedom” seems closely related to the primal “will to life” spoken of by philosophers and theologians.
These are not easily articulated notions, and their ambiguous nature may be the reason our thinking about them is so unformed and nebulous. There has been a long history of debate over the nature and relationship between reason, will, and judgement. Most would agree that freedom and Will are inextricably enmeshed. Some have argued, somewhat less convincingly, that the two are one and the same. Since the 19th century most philosophers have seemed to agree that reason and thinking are entirely distinct from the Will. Reason and cognitive thinking do not provide volition and cannot make anything move. Will puts ideas and plans into motion. It acts, but cannot analyze, interpret, or exercise judgement.
So, what is the Will? Understanding the functioning of Will in our own minds is important because without it we may inadvertently set events into motion that are self-destructive or could have a negative or evil impact on people we care about or depend on. While some of the earliest observations regarding the Will come to us from Christian philosophers, all of us, whether religiously inclined or otherwise, would do well to consider the difficulties encountered.
The concept of free will has not always existed. The Will cannot exist outside of li near time and the expectation of future outcomes. And the reader may be surprised to hear that human beings have not always consciously conceived of their ability to influence the future. This was because the human experience of time was, until relatively recently, circular and cyclical. There was no concept of the future that could be understood outside the perpetually revolving motion of seasons, moon and stars. Endings always brought us “full circle” back to an approximation of where we began.
Understanding history as a linear progression, and the Will as a human capacity, was inconceivable until the Christian era. And, it was Enlightenment thinking and the emergence of science in the 17th and 18th centuries that decisively broke the construct of cyclical thinking. As the idea of linear time gradually took hold, with a past, present, and future, it became possible to conceive of the Will as a faculty of the mind capable of controlling ones’ life and influencing ones’ fortunes.
Progress and History
The notion that history exists as a linear progression was a radical concept to Enlightenment thinkers. The idea of progress and a belief in the human ability to control the future emerged as a powerful force and has since become the dominant historical ethos. And, importantly, recognition of our ability to influence the future encouraged belief in an inviolable sovereignty for free will.
Freedom and Will came to be synonymous in the Western mind. But, the social and moral implications of this – “the rules of engagement”— have yet to be worked out.
The inclination “to issue commands,” in the words of political philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt, “is among the chief characteristics of the Will. In Plato reason could take this function on itself because of the assumption that reason is concerned with truth, and truth is indeed compelling. But reason itself, while it leads to truth, is persuasive, not imperative, in the soundless thinking between me and myself….”[v] Aristotle recognized the Will as having the capacity to make independent choices. However, choice alone leaves very little room for freedom. We could suppose, as Arendt suggests, that “the faculty of choice… is the precursor of the Will.”[vi]
Much has changed. The role of the Will in our lives today is another thing entirely. It tends to ignore the past and it empowers us to influence the future. It lives in linear time, generating volition and with it the capacity to engage in action. This is of critical importance in the effort to build a future compatible with a vision for a free, stable and prosperous society.
At the same time, we can clearly see that free will, in the absence of reason and moral responsibility, has brought catastrophic suffering and death to the world. After the horrifying events of the 20th century, the potential dangers of undisciplined free will are frighteningly obvious. Indeed, human beings have clearly shown themselves to be incapable of disciplining the Will or deducing universal moral values by reason alone.
Two of the earliest thinkers to recognize the Will as a powerful and problematic force, and who lived at about the same time and in the same part of the world, were the Apostle Paul and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Their personal perspectives varied dramatically, yet both left us with views that continue to haunt us today.
Paul’s discovery of the Will, described in the Letter to the Romans, came with recognition that the Will is dangerously divided against itself. This led to a terrible struggle within Paul himself. Hannah Arendt outlines the internal conflict as Paul describes it in Romans, Chapter 7:
Precisely when he “wants to do right,” he finds that “evil lies close at hand” (7:21), for “if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet,’” he “should not have known what it is to covet.” Hence, it is the command of the law that occasioned “all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead” (7:7,8).
The function of the law is equivocal: it is “good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin” (7:13), but since it speaks in the voice of command, it “arouses the passions” and “revives sin.” “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (7:9-10). The result is that “I do not understand my own actions…. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate (7:15). And the point of the matter is that this inner conflict can never be settled in favor of either obedience to the law or submission to sin; this inner “wretchedness,” according to Paul, can be healed only through grace…. What he [Paul] wanted was “righteousness”, but righteousness, namely, to “abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10), is impossible; this is the “curse of the law,” and “if righteousness were through the law [alone], then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).[vii]
We owe Paul a debt of gratitude for clarifying this conundrum, whether or not we understand or accept his theological dilemma. The problem of free will is critical and has profound implications for the present crisis in the human condition and our ability to reformulate our understanding of ourselves and the future we wish to build.
Epictetus leaves us with a less ambiguous point of view. He “points to the appalling gap between a man’s teachings and his actual conduct, and by implication,” Hannah Arendt notes, “hints at the old insight that reason by itself neither moves or achieves anything. The great achiever is not reason but the Will.” “Consider who you are” is the exhortation of Epictetus apparently addressed to reason but directed attention to the Will. “Man… has nothing more sovereign than will… all else [is] subject to this, and will itself is free from slavery and subjection.”
“Reason, it is true,” continues Arendt, “distinguishes man from the animals, which therefore are ‘marked for service,’ while man is ‘fitted for command’;[viii] yet the organ capable of command is not reason but Will. If philosophy deals with the ‘art of living your own life’ and if its supreme criterion is usefulness in these terms, then ‘philosophy means very little else but this – to search how it is practicable to exercise the will to get and the will to avoid without hindrance.’”[ix] [x]
Unlike Paul, Epictetus asserts his views without equivocation or inner conflict. Yet, he leaves us with glaring problems. He asserts the unqualified power and independence of the Will with no apparent concern for ethics or responsibility. He appears to reject all restraints or hindrances, whether for good or evil. More fundamentally, Epictetus does not appear to consider the indisputable fact that the Will, in order to be Will, must have the choice to act or not to act. As we recognize today, and as Paul discovered to his great discomfort, the Will is always in dialog with itself.
Augustine, who Hannah Arendt describes as “the first Christian philosopher and… the only philosopher the Romans ever had,” developed the concept of the Will much further and resolved the confusion experienced by Paul. To simplify his long and complex investigation and testimony, I will quote again from Hannah Arendt’s monumental inquiry, The Life of the Mind. She outlines Augustine’s early conclusions as follows.
“Let us retain the following,” Arendt writes. “First: The split within the Will [that commands us ‘to do’ or ‘not to do’] is a conflict, and not a dialogue, and it is independent of the content that is willed. A bad will is no less split than a good one and vice versa. Second: The will as the commander of the body is no more than an executive organ of the mind and as such quite unproblematic. The body obeys the mind because it is possessed of no organ that would make disobedience possible. The will, addressing itself to itself, arouses the counter-will because the exchange is entirely mental; a contest is possible only between equals. A will that would be ‘entire’ without a counter-will, could no longer be a will properly speaking. Third: Since it is in the nature of the will to command and demand obedience, it is also in the nature of the will to be resisted. Finally, within the framework of [Augustine’s classic work] the ‘Confessions’, no solution to the riddle of this ‘monstrous’ faculty is given; how the will, divided against itself, finally reaches the moment when it becomes ‘entire’ remains a mystery. If this is the way the will functions, how does it ever arrive at moving me to act…? No such ultimate arbiter appears in Augustine’s main analyses except at the very end of the ‘Confessions’, when he suddenly begins to speak of the Will as a kind of Love, ‘the weight of our soul,’ but without giving any account of this strange equation.”[xi]
The role of love as a force that can resolve conflicts and bind opposites is hinted at here. It reappears later, fully articulated in Augustine’s last great treatise, City of God. We will explore this idea further in addressing the practical realities of community and governance.
As suggested earlier, there can be no doubt that these questions and considerations are of the utmost consequence in our lives as witnesses of the downward spiral of the social order in today’s world. As we encounter the multiple concurrent crises that now approach we have reached a time, perhaps long overdue, when human beings are forced to recognize the inherent danger in undisciplined Will. Examples of such failure abound all around us. Humankind has always had a predilection for tyranny; but having developed the means for implementing spectacular violence, mayhem and mass murder, we are confronted with a problem that has accelerated now to take on terrifying dimensions.
Certainly, there are personal challenges to be labored with, as Paul testified. But on the most basic level, in our families and communities and in this nation, American dignity and integrity will depend on our readiness to respond and attend to unjust, destructive, and self-serving behavior. This will require courage and forbearance.
I submit that it is no longer possible to avoid the responsibility for understanding the power and effectiveness of the Will. Our circumstances are complex, but we must begin by identifying practical principles and limiting unacceptable behavior. Can there be any doubt that freedom depends on this? There has never been a time when freedom did not require responsibility, but today the future hangs in the balance. On the coming pages we will explore the human qualities, ethical requirements, and practical tools for disciplining free will in a free society.
We have arrived in the present as a consequence of the past, and it would be easy to ignore the forces and failures that have brought us here. But, if we fail to understand the meaning of history and the power of the Will, we make ourselves vulnerable to the worst possible consequences. We are not immune from the terrors of the past.
Reflecting on the legacy of two world wars and mass murder on a horrifying scale, Hannah Arendt brings us down to earth with the tough truth of our legacy:
“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.”[xii]
[i] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, University of Chicago Press (2008), p. 42.
[ii] Ibid., pp. 283-284.
[iii] Ibid., p. ???.
[iv] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, Oxford University Press (1953), p. x.
[v] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1971), Vol.2, pp. 58-59.
[vi] Ibid., p. 62.
[vii] Ibid., p. 64-65.
[viii] Epictetus, Discourses, bk. II, chap. x.
[ix] Epictetus, Discourses, bk. III, chap. xiv.
[x] Arendt, op. cit., Vol.2, p. 78.
[xi] Ibid., pp. 95-96.
[xii] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1951, 1966, 1976), p. ix. (Preface to the First Edition).