Individual Freedom

Isaiah Berlin argued in his Inaugural Lecture on liberty in 1958 that human freedom takes two particular forms when the individual moves toward the self: self-abnegation, and self-realization.

Self-abnegation has historically taken the form of the monastic, the ascetic.  Many interpret asceticism as a form of escapism from the corruptions of the world, or rather, from the “desires of the flesh.”  Berlin points out that rather than escaping “from,” the ascetic seeks to gain control “over” laws manageable by the self.

I am free only to the degree to which my person is ‘fettered’ by nothing that obeys forces over which I have no control;

Self-abnegation seeks freedom by means of gaining control over external forces, or laws, and internal forces such as desires.  The self aims for autonomy—that is, self-governance.

For if the essence of men is that they are autonomous beings – authors of values, of ends in themselves, the ultimate authority of which consists precisely in the fact that they are willed freely – then nothing is worse than to treat them as if they were not autonomous, but natural objects, played on by causal influences, creatures at the mercy of external stimuli, whose choices can be manipulated by their rulers, whether by threats of force or offers of rewards.  To treat men in this way is to treat them as if they were not self-determined.

Berlin proceeds to the concluding point that

if, as Kant held, all values are made so by the free acts of men, and called values only so far as they are this, there is no value higher than the individual.

Now, how does this correlate to the classroom, or rather, to classroom management?  How ought teachers to cultivate virtue in their students if they endorse the idea that “there is no value higher than the individual”?  What does that classroom look like?


One Response

  1. Buck,

    Your follow-up questions are important and I can’t help but wonder if they don’t underscore the idea that Berlin has presented us with a false dichotomy rooted in Enlightenment thinking, demonstrating the practical fantasy of thinking that humans can be autonomously free.

    God Himself does not “exist” as an autonomous individual but as trinitarian being. Being itself is communion.

    We, in His image, find our fulfillment and realization only in communion ourselves, and that is why we realize ourselves by denying ourselves.

    In the classroom, therefore, we don’t teach students to express themselves when they write but rather to communicate an idea of which they are vessels from their own soul to the soul of another in written form. We strive for what Keats called, and I believe this is at least partially what he meant, negative capability.

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