Two Kinds of Freedom

Human history and the human psyche reveal two conditions that we describe using the word freedom. They are, however, very different conditions.

The first is what I will call, borrowing the word from Kierkegaard, “aesthetic freedom.” This is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the right to avoid making choices.

For example, the unmarried man is free to let his eyes and mind wander among the unattached females of the species, the uncommitted quasi-philosopher is free to wander among schools of thought, pretending to “not want to narrow himself to one position,” the undecided music critic is free to say, “I like all kinds of music.”

In each case, what the person is saying is that he is guided by his emotions or immediate needs, which, in turn are guided by his appetites. He is functioning slightly above the powers of an animal, but, in a way, not very far. Neither his will nor his reason have been decisively engaged.

To summarize, aesthetic freedom is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the absence of willful decisions.

The second kind of freedom, and here again I borrow the word from Kierkegaard, is ethical freedom and is characterized the act of choosing.

Any time I make a choice, I am choosing more than just one of many options. For example, if I choose to go to a football game instead of a drinking party, I haven’t only chosen football over the party. I’ve also chosen a self that would go to a football game instead of the party.

In this sense, because we are created persons with a will, we are continually choosing ourselves in every decision we make.

These choices can lead to ethical slavery, in which our decisions bind us to the appetite we indulge, or ethical freedom, in which our decisions create of us a free person who governs himself and walks the path of wisdom.

Perhaps most significantly, each choice we make can be a choice for the finite or the infinite. The aesthete tries to maintain an infinite variety of choices and in so doing limits his choices to only the finite options.

The ethical person chooses limits and commitments, and in so doing he chooses the infinite, for concrete love is the infinite act of an eternal being. Love gives life to the faculty by which we can love, and that faculty is not earthly, worldly, selfish, cynical.

Indulgence destroys that faculty, thus destroying the soul of the self-indulgent.

Ethical freedom is the act of choosing oneself. Aesthetic freedom is the act of indulging oneself. The former leads to finite but real life. In the act of an infinite choice to love another one is connected to the infinite. The latter is the negation of the self by virtue of the disempowerment of the will and reason.

The Tempest: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Freedom

I have the feeling Shakespeare has been shadowing me lately and writing his plays based on things I’m thinking about. You laugh, but think about this.

I’ve been reading the Tempest to prepare for discussions with the apprentices. So this morning, I read Act 5, and I come across lines like this:

Ariel: If you now beheld them/ Your affections would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, were I human.

Ah yes, he’s been thinking about next year’s conference theme: What is man?

But that’s not all. He goes on:

And mine shall.
Hast thou, which are but air, a touch, a feeling
of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

I think that we fail to realize how much Shakespeare’s philosophy and ethic enabled his poetry. Shakespeare was a wise man, a man of such profound insight that his literature tempts people like Harold Bloom to turn it into a secular literature.

He knew human nature. Notice the language he used, some of which would now be considered archaic because it does not reduce man to something kindless (unkind).

“Shall not myself, one of their kind… be kindlier moved than thou art?”

In other words, should I not, sharing the same nature/kind with these men, act as one who shares a nature/kind with them. Should I not act humanely, humanly?

Do you see how very high a conception of humanity Ariel has? “Mine would, were I human.” Where does it come from? Until this day, he’s only known two humans, Prospero and his daughter Miranda.

It reminds me of Miranda’s words when she sees the nobly dressed dukes and kings later in Act 5: “How beauteous mankind is. Oh brave new world that has such people in’t.”

She’s young and naive and has enjoyed the loving affection of a good father. By brave, she means wonderful, imaginative, splendid – bedecked in wonder might be a fitting expression.

She had not endured what her father had. He replies to her awe: “‘Tis new to thee.” He is less impressed.

And no wonder, he had been betrayed by a brother, “that entertained ambition, expelled remorse and nature.” Nevertheless, to this brother he says, “I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art.”

Ariel and Miranda are full of admiration for humans. Prospero less so. And yet, Prospero respects them more. He has one goal in mind, expressed a few different ways.

Line 36: Penitence.
Line 40: They shall be themselves
Line 197: To “requite them with a good thing” which restores a just order
And then, the very last word of the play, at the end of the last two lines:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free

In other words, the purpose of Prospero’s project (line 1) is that these human beings would realign themselves to nature and thus be set free.

Ironically, perhaps, it takes something more than nature to achieve that end.

Read the Tempest with these three themes in mind (but just read it for the pleasure of it) and you will be drawn deeper and deeper into truths that will open your eyes and, while they will “take the ear strangely” you will “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace.”

On Liberty

Here’s a link to a nice set of quotations on liberty. Raise your soul a little!

Freedom Begins at Home

If a people would be free (and very few people would be free) there are two things they must do, two foundations they must lay and that firmly. First, they must love their neighbors. Second, they must honor their fathers and their mothers.

There is a third as well. They must not commit adultery.

And yet another comes to mind, and maybe it is the foundation for all the rest. They must not steal.

These crimes against the soul are snakes in the garden, cancers in the social body, breakers of wills.

A people governed by sentiment will tolerate thieves and nurture adulterers. In such a society children will learn to dishonor their parents as a matter of right, while abstracting love of neighbor into a substitute to soothe the conscience rather than to obey it.

Such a people will never learn to govern themselves. Each will cry out for protection from and power over the other, some from greed, some from fear, some for vengeance.

Thus, like charity, freedom begins in the home. When husbands fail to love their wives, when children are not expected to obey their parents, when families do not love their neighbors, the blessings of liberty are sought with an ever intensified futility.

For how can she whom we have killed continue to bless us?

Should we be a Secular Country?

If so, how can religious freedom carry any meaning?

Over the last two decades the popular opposition to religious thought in the public forum has become increasingly snarly and aggressive. Lately I’ve begun to wonder whether it is possible to be free in any meaningful sense when the transcendent realm is removed from public discourse and, more importantly, decision making.

People like to say, and more loudly since Christopher Dawkins and company have figured out how to market the bromides of the “New Atheism,” that “religion is bull shit” and insightful things like that.

But think about it. As one who would like to be a deeply religious person, I agree with that statement. But so what. The same can be said of politics. Does that mean we should shoot each other instead of debate? Or of the media. So what?

“Religion” is a vast abstraction. It can’t be judge as a whole any more than books or food or stores can be judged as a whole.

So our country enshrined the right to freedom of religion. Then the state pulled a one-two hat trick: one, they determined that freedom of religion only applied in domains in which the state was not involved. Wherever the state had a role, they had to eliminate freedom in order to keep from establishing a particular religion.

Two, they gradually expanded the role of the state to be involved in everything, thereby continually shrinking the role of religion in the public sphere.

Can a secular state be free? I don’t think so, for a number of reasons. First, by nature or disposition, secular states have always limited the free exercise of religion. In other words, they restrict religious freedom. They are, therefore, not free states. QED.

Second, without a publicly acknowledged role for religion, there is nothing adequate to restrict the power of the state.

Third, without a publicly acknowledged role for religion, there is no foundation on which to build a free state. Freedom, after all, is a transcendent value, rooted entirely in the notion that human beings have a will and that the will is free. No secular argument could ever so much as imagine, much less discover, the idea of freedom. It is a borrowed and contorted religious concept.

Therefore a secular state must, by its nature, become despotic.

Can We Know?

Warning: this post is very philosophical.

Immanuel Kant is one of the most interesting philosophers to read because he is so incredibly hard to understand. Before he wrote in the late 18th century, philosophers were trying to figure out what was knowable. The Rationalists, following the French Philosopher, Rene Descartes, argued that we had innate ideas in our heads and that was what we could know. Descartes famously expressed it this way, “I think, therefore I am.”

But the Empiricists, following Bacon, Locke, and Hume denied innate ideas. They argued that no idea could ever enter our head unless it came first through the senses.

Kant wanted to resolve the impasse, at least partly because he was worried about the sciences losing their way and at least partly because he was worried about religion being overthrown by materialist philosophy.

His solution is elegant. He argued that we do have ideas in our minds, such as time and space, that no amount of experience could ever put there. In fact, they precede experience. We can’t even have an experience without time and space being a part of it.

But these ideas are dormant until experience arouses them. So experience is just as necessary as thought, and thought is actually radically limited in its power.

Because time and space precede thought, we can never understand time and space. But we can also never really know the particular thing we know through our senses either (which is the only way we can consciously know things) because we can only know them through our senses as our senses operate and in the context of time and space.

He developed some terms for this situation which are kind of fun.The thing that we perceive is the phenomemon. The thing in itself he called the ding-an-sich, which cleverly means “the thing in itself.” In other words, the thing that is and exists independently of us, whether or not we perceive it. He argued that we can never know the ding-an-sich, but we could perceive it with our senses.

This is a really huge idea, one of those things that manifests itself in the nerdiest corners of everyday existence after it works its way throug people’s minds. What Kant is arguing is that the universe outside of our minds is real, and therefore it is a valid object of study. However, we can only know about it; we can never know the universe itself.

Since Kant wrote that, German education, more specifically Prussian, has become the dominant intellectual force of the modern world. The American school system finds its model in the schools of 19th century Germany, and these schools were, at the least, strongly influenced by Kant’s thinking.

The higher criticism, for example, is a direct development of Kant’s so-called Critical Theory.

While I admire Kant, I think his influence on the way literature is taught is problematic. In some ways, it was positive, because he influenced Coleridge and Shelling in England and Germany, and both had some valuable insights into the creative process. But when his influence reaches the classroom, all the transcendent value is washed out of it and it seems to reduce itself to knowing about instead of knowing.

In the typical literary class, at least one that is dominated by the text book, a group of students sit outside a text the way a photographer sits outside a wedding. They observe it, record some high points, learn some technical language, and produce an artifact. But they don’t, typically, enter into the ceremony of reading.

The text itself is unknowable.

I think I know why, and this is what prompted me to write this blog even though I absolutely should be working on editing documents for LTW II right now. Forgive me Leah and Camille – I will get back to work.

I think the reason is because Kant and most moderns think of knowledge as something scientific, almost material. When you know the qualities of a thing, you know the thing. When you can act on or with a thing, then you know it. That’s the Pragmatism of Dewey or James.

But this is not the case. Knowledge is first and foremost a formal relationship between things.

Kant and many of these philosophers break down every sort of knowledge because of this mistake, which is cyclically related to language. Let me explain.

When I think a thought, I always think about something. In other words, my thought always has a subject.

In addition, every thought I think always thinks something about the subject. We call that the predicate, which comes from the Latin “predicare” which means “to say about.”

Every thought, therefore, has a subject and predicate. This is the form of thought.

Now consider things that exist. Everything that exists is something. It is a subject. But nothing can exist without something being true of it. Every existing thing has a predicate, even if the only thing “predicable” of a thing is that it exists.

Therefore, you can see ratios and proportions in thinking and being. As thinking is done in subjects and predicates, so existing is done in subjects and predicates. Thinking is relating predicates to subjects. Existing is relating predicates to subjects.

Thinking and being are both about relationships. And thinking and being are related to each other.

The relationships are all formal, not material. The material substance of an object can never enter my soul. But its formal substance certainly can.

That is the fundamental problem with the Enlightenment, with Modernism, with Post-Modernism, and with conventional education.

In the earlier cases they tried to build a theory of knowledge that was rooted in physics (Descartes, Bacon, Hume, Locke, and Kant all tried this in varying degrees), but the first four failed utterly to develop a tenable theory of knowing and Kant’s theory reduced knowledge to something more limited than necessary).

In post-modernism, the attitude seems to be that since the Enlightenment couldn’t give us a way to know things with their radically limited tools, nothing is knowable, so we won’t worry about it, since the many meta-narratives of the Enlightenment were found wanting, we are obliged to enter into a meta-meta-narrative that rejects meta-narratives.

My hypothesis is simple: the error is fundamental in all these schools of thought. They all reject what the Latins called Form, what the Greeks call an eidon or idea or logos. They are all so anxious to move away from Logos that they make knowing impossible.

Everything has its own inner logos. The Enlightenment started out looking for these logoi using the tools either of reason or of experience. It didn’t work, so Postmodernism denies the existence of logoi at all. All is convention, constructed in the human mind. There is no logos in the mind that matches the logos in the cosmos, that can perceive and know it. So knowledge is impossible.

However, the doctrine of a logos, an essence, a nature, an idea, is not mere Platonism. It is what makes knowledge possible. It is what makes us able to know things we can’t see, such as justice, freedom, and truth. Without it, justice, freedom, and truth can’t exist in human souls or society. They are reduced to words that have a strange power to manipulate others and move their souls, but that have no existence in reality.

Let me try again. My hypothesis is simple: Knowledge is first formal, then personal, and in all things relational. My soul can absorb the glass that holds the wine just as surely as my body can absorb the wine itself. It cannot absorb it physically, but it can absorb its form.

Not perfectly, by any means. But truly.

Until our world accepts this principle, our civilization will continue to disintegrate and unravel. All that is good in our age and everything worthwhile in our schools is a remnant of the time when people lived in this knowable world. All that is dangerous and unstable, all the forces of disintegration in the modern soul and society arise from this rejection of the logos.

Whatever else Kant achieved, it seems to me that he could never resolve the issue he was facing simply because he did not understand or embrace the formality of knowledge.

Freedom, Mandates, and Financial Solvency (with an implied comment on the power of naming)

Rep Paul Ryan wrote a rather tepid response to the health funding and decision making  plan that President Obama passed into law yesterday. It was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Of all the parties in the discussion, Rep Ryan has presented the most clear alternative, so he’ll be interesting to watch over the next few years. If he has charisma, the Republicans might be wise to lean on him.

However, I was most struck by two comments by readers. I have no idea whether these views are widely held, but you need to look at them closely. At least some people support the new law for the reasons described below.

Way to many procedures being done for no reason. I agree people should be mandated to live a health life style. How many times do you see overweight people with handicap parking and driving those electric shopping carts. Who is giving out these permits, doctors. Instead they should be telling these people to exercise and lose weight and some of there disabilities will actually improve.

comment in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

But costs are not Ryan’s main beef. He is an idealogue. He wants small government, commerce, low taxes and individual freedom, financial solvency be damned.

another comment

Way back when women were not allowed to vote, some of the opposition was the male chauvenistic argument that women love to meddle and that if they are allowed to vote, we will have a state that meddles in all our affairs. I always thought that was pretty funny. It would be so nice to think that one sex has this vice more than the other. Oh well.

Meddling is a sin, but since we don’t have any room for religion in public life it is not worth pointing that out here. More to the point is this simple fact: with a federal health funding and decision making plan in place, there is nothing that people do with their time that does not affect our federal budget. The state now has an interest in absolutely everything you do.

I think it was my brother Nate that made this point about motorcycle helmets. If an insurance company insures a driver of motor cycles, they have, it seems to me, the right to tell them to wear a helmet or at least to charge a lot more in premiums for those who don’t agree to wear the helmet. After all, they will have to pay a lot more money to reconstruct shattered skulls than bruised ones.

Since the motorcycle rider has made a voluntary association with the insurance company in order to defray potential emergency expenses, he can walk away from that arrangement if he disagrees with the terms. Everything is private and voluntary.

Now we bring in the federal government. It carries, or at least will eventually carry, the final burden for every medical expense in this country. For now we can set aside the favors and bribes that will become a routine element of federal health funding and decision making. Let’s just accept the fact that we are all now paying for every stupid thing that anybody ever does.

In a world where symbols dominate the discourse, we have handed the federal government the right to eliminate anything they can persuade the people they should not like. Today it might be motorcycle helmets. Tomorrow it might be babies with missing chromosomes. On Friday it might, through an unimaginable social revolution, be people with STD’s. On Saturday it might be a mental disease.

The lady who wants doctors to be mandated to tell obese patients to lose weight needs to understand that when the power she has voted to Leviathon wants to eliminate some problem she carries, it won’t sit when she tells it to. This is not a Night at the Museum.

That is why I would urge you to reread that second quotation. Do you notice what he thinks of freedom? It is an ideology. Financial solvency is his priority.

Ideologists have a habit of projecting onto their opponents their own vices, in particular, ideology. They also have a tendency to create false dichotomies. The great lesson of history, vis economics, is certainly this: individual freedom has always been the only predictable path to financial solvency.

We are living out the Law of the Catastrophic Continuum. The next steps are not hard to predict, though their timing is. Being frightened infidels, afraid of reality, unwilling to accept the certainty of death and the risks of life, we are building a tower to heaven. It will end in haos and catastrophe, but not until we’ve convinced ourselves we can touch the sky.

But at least we know it won’t end with a flood.