The Will to Freedom


We will turn our attention in the next several chapters to the philosophical thinking, ideas, 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 views 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 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 previously provided social order and stability.

While social disruptions and unrest were extremely concerning, they also had a stimulating effect on creative thinking and 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 in many ways a clean 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 were extremely alluring.  The 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 committed to liberty, equality, and the unfettered improvement of human welfare.  That this metaphysics was grounded in religious precepts went unnoticed, and the existence of anything related to spiritual reality became thoroughly discredited as figments of the imagination.

Whether the reader is religious or non-religious, I think it essential that we come to an understanding of this momentous transition and the residual consequences that remain very much alive 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 final stage of Enlightenment thinking took place during exactly the same time period as the creation of the United States.  And, for more than 200 years its’ consequences have played out in the American mind, consciously or otherwise.

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-day 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.  And, it led ultimately 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, 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 with 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 the logic of 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 warnings, 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 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

As suggested above, 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 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.  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.

Two continuing stumbling blocks pose profound challenges for Americans who seek a hopeful future. The nation remains deeply divided by disagreement concerning the possibility that any universal metaphysical basis for social stability and moral responsibility can possibly exist.  And, secondly, while the emergence of individualism in the European mind was central to the spirit of early America, it coincided with another equally profound trend. This has been the steady disappearance of community and the social structure of civil society that has long provided human beings with identity and a sense of belonging.  This loss has happened gradually, but the consequences have been revolutionary.

Robert Nisbet, a leading American sociologist and social historian, has described the close relationship between these trends and the consequences that followed 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] 

Americans are confronted today with a history of philosophical inconsistencies and contradictions that alienate us from one another and cannot be easily resolved.   In my view, however, if we are to recapture the vibrant spirit of civil society that flourished in the American past, and successfully resist the dehumanizing power of the total state, we must respond to the compelling human need for community.

The problem of agreement on basic human values is of at least equal significance. After the catastrophic events of the 20th century it became obvious that human reason is incapable of deducing universal moral values without reference to a spiritual dimension.  Even non-religious philosophers have recognized that such concepts as equality and inalienable human rights are founded on religious premises and presumptions.

Some degree of acceptance for basic human values, however rudimentary, will be a functional necessity whether or not we possess religious convictions.  A consensual basis for values must be found, which is subject neither to the vagaries of human reason nor to the corruption of ancient cultural traditions.  National unity, like that required in local communities, will depend on a common understanding of moral responsibility.

A new form of genuine community is needed as the basic foundational unit of civilization.  And, it must provide the functional elements of civil society that mediate the power of centralized government and free the individual to construct a creative life.  To provide the social strength and intelligence required for stability, the ideal community will incorporate maximum diversity – all the varied people we have inherited as neighbors by default, and without regard for differences of religion, politics, or ethnicity.

It is imperative that we progress promptly, even in the face of hostility – before both the Constitution and the Nation succumb to division, bigotry and totalitarianism.  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]

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.

Following the horrors of the past century we now know that human reason cannot produce wisdom and science has nothing to say about ethical standards.  These are tools and 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 practical ethical standards for behavior and the ordering human affairs?  How can we understand the purpose of moral responsibility?

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. Even our own personal values are found at times to be plural, incompatible with one another in the complexity of the real world.

The present turning point calls for wisdom, flexibility, and openness to new ideas.  With open minds, unexpected problems will lead to unexpected solutions.  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 advanced human societies without practical stewardship?  Given the complexity and destructive potential that science and technology have opened to us, how will we determine ethical guidelines and 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 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.

Universal 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

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.  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?  These threats have emerged as the consequences of human behavior and political history.  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.

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.

It is a moment of extraordinary historic significance.  We are forced by circumstances to come to terms with both the hard realities of the natural world and the perplexing truths of our own uniquely human qualities.  We have arrived in the present as a consequence of the past, and it would be easy to ignore the forces that have brought us here.  And, if we fail to understand the meaning of history we make ourselves vulnerable to the worst possible consequences.  We are not immune from the terrors of the past.

With words written at a similar turning point, following two world wars, the great depression, and mass murder on a horrifying scale, the philosopher and historian of ideas, Hannah Arendt, brings us down to earth with the reality of our historical context:

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.”[v]


[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., ???.

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