Is Freedom an Option?

“O sancta simplicitas! In what strange simplification and falsification man lives!” So begins Nietzsche’s second Nietzsche freedomchapter of “Beyond Good and Evil”. It says that humanity has always contrived to retain its ignorance, so that we might realise “an almost inconceivable freedom”. Indeed to Nietzsche even our thoughts were suspect. For those who call themselves ‘free spirits’ in a philosophical sense are in fact often “glib tongued and scribe-fingered slaves of the democratic taste and its ‘modern ideas’ […] they are not free”.

Just a quick explanation here; note the use of “almost” in Nietzsche’s work. Contrary to what a lot of people think, Nietzsche did not oppose, or dismiss, freedom. To him it was something that we strive towards, but are simply very unlikely to really obtain.

Of course you might question what freedom is. Arendt explained the difficulty of this question well when she said:

“In its simplest form, the difficulty [of defining freedom] may be summed up as the contradiction between our consciousness and conscience, telling us that we are free and hence responsible, and our everyday in the outer world, in which we orient ourselves according to the principle of causality.”

As a philosophical concept freedom is most often discussed with reference to determinism, as its opposite, and moral responsibility as its partner. For if we are not free at all then our actions must be determined. And if we are free, then we must also be morally responsible for our actions. It is from these baselines of the philosophical discussion of freedom that Arendt notices the major difficulties. We all assume that we are morally responsible for our actions, because we at least have an illusion of free will in deciding what to do. And yet analyse it a little deeper, and our thoughts themselves seem to contradict this common sense; for just as when we make excuses, so too in any sense can we say ‘I acted thusly, because X, Y and Z had happened in the past. Had they not, I would have been forced to act differently.’

So there are contradictions. And it’s difficult to define in an objective sense. But even if we have different imaginations as to what it is; we definitely have at least the illusion of freedom/free will. But if nothing comes from nothing, how can we create an illusion of that which truly doesn’t exist? The illusion of freedom must either be an image of a conceptual reality, or at very least a modified version of a very similar concept; and if it is the second, it has since caused us to create the conceptual reality of freedom. So freedom does exist. But is it a real option in our lives? Or is it more as John Dewey said, that our activity results from impulses that emerge spontaneously in response to changes in circumstances?

Illusion-of-FreedomLet’s think. In most of the world escaping into the wild; where only nature would restrict our actions; simply isn’t an option. There isn’t enough wild to escape into, particularly in Europe. So, if we can’t hunt and forage for ourselves, we’re forced to live within those societies and economies which already exist. Within these societies we are forced to go to school throughout our childhood. And within these economies we are forced to either enter the labour market in order to earn enough to survive, or live off the benefits provided by those who feel themselves to be forced into the labour market. Freedom of entry into, and exit out of, the labour market, is not free. Society presents us with commitments that restrict our geographical location, creates expectations that further limit our options in the job market, and creates the economic demand which dictates what careers are going to pay. Flexible and part time roles aren’t allows offered, and thus to take a job we are usually forced to spend most of our time in the job. The competitive economy forces employers to work their employees hard enough that during their free time, many people are too tired to properly look after themselves by exercising or cooking healthy food. In order to stay alive we need a place to live, and to pay bills that often leave us with less than enough cash to freely pursue what we want during that limited amount of free time that we have. We are even imprisoned by society’s desires. Who reading this can’t remember comparing themselves to other classmates at school, and hoping that they would earn more in later life? Those people we call ‘weird’ are in most cases those people who for some reason don’t desire what society encourages us to desire e.g. money.

We could even go so far as to question what freedom is, for usually we talk of freedom within nature. But is not nature the biggest prison of all? Kant argued that space, time and causality are categories used by the human mind to interpret experience, and so in this sense physics and biology themselves limit what we are able to think, for they provide a finite, defined number of tools with which we may think. And if you ascribe to the Newtonian view of nature as being like a machine, or Spinoza’s view of freedom as an illusion, then we could say that even the most minute of human actions is determined.

What do you think? Is everything pre-determined? Is, as Spinoza argued, the only freedom that we have the ability to see the world as it is and say yes to it? Does the probabilistic nature of reality mean that because everything is not determined, then we are free to choose between some limited, finite options? Do you think that freedom really is an option, and that it can be enhanced by politicians reforming the socio-political economic structures? Or do you think, as Jean-Paul Sartre did, that “man is condemned to be free [because…] he did not create himself and not only is he free to choose, but he must choose.”

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