The Great Conversation:
Liberty—Part III

By Gabriel Blanchard

Many figures from history write of a "true freedom" they contrast with mere autonomy: a freedom of will, intellect, and character.

Go here for Part I (mainly on liberty versus slavery and liberty of thought), and here for Part II (mainly on the theory and history of classical Liberalism).

So far, we have mainly discussed various senses in which people can be free or unfree in relation to each other (legally, politically, and socially). There are many more of that kind, like economic liberty, which time fails us to look over. However, there are several less tangible senses of liberty—liberty in the spiritual dimension, we might say—that merit our attention.

Liberty often comes up in discussions of the virtue of temperance. We naturally pursue things we like, and have to be taught principles like fairness, patience, and so on, which interfere with our wants. As a result, we often think of temperance as a negative virtue: “don’t do this,” “that’s too much,” “not right now.” Self-indulgence can thus feel like a liberation, and people who habitually ignore the rules are accordingly described as libertines; incidentally, it is no coincidence that the Roman god of wine, Bacchus, was also called Liber or “the Free.”

But most people cannot afford that kind of freedom, in many senses of the word “afford,” and will raise an eyebrow at someone making wholesale self-indulgence into a vocation rather than a treat. People who write great works of theology, law, or philosophy are known to fill them with such eyebrows. The conventional libertine counter-accusation is that deep down, these temperance cheerleaders are writhing with envy, trying to compensate themselves for all the fun they want to have but can’t (Wonders of the Invisible World isn’t going to write itself, and besides, what would mother say?) It must be admitted that in most cases, the charge is probably true. Many forms of misery and servitude are enforced as much by the envy and spite and fear of ostensibly good people who don’t want their “inferiors” to surpass them, as they are by the the avarice of those servitude actually serves. As Bill Watterson put it, “I suspect most of us get old without growing up, and that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way.”*

Another name for pursuing pleasure recklessly is hedonism, but with that word we run into a curious problem. It comes from the normal Greek word for pleasure, ἡδονή (hēdonē); fine so far. But when the philosophy of Epicurus comes up, terms such as hedonism  or epicureanism can cause confusion, because what Epicurus in fact argued was that the habits of moderation and self-discipline, far from being antithetical to pleasure, were vital to long-term contentment. The fact that he considered total freedom from physical and mental distress the highest good doubtless contributed to this outlook. Many later schools of ethics, philosophy, and psychology have granted a similarly high role to pleasure in their accounts of human motives and behavior—from St. Augustine‘s claim that all our desires are forms of love, to Sigmund Freud’s explanation of the development of the mind as an increasingly sophisticated set of strategies for meeting the instinctive desires of the id. But if our only motive for doing anything is the pleasure it brings, whether to ourselves or someone else, that prompts a question: are we, in some sense, slaves of pleasure?

A phrase like “enslavement to pleasure” may put us in mind of Puritan preachers thundering at malnourished churchgoers. However, there is more to the concept than the words just as such: the treatment practices for substance abuse often draw on such metaphors, as when we speak of someone being free of an addiction, or of their behavior as compulsive (a word we sometimes forget is related to the verb compel). And while the thesis that all human choices are motivated by pleasure may seem intuitive enough, a surprising number of traditions are intensely concerned with, or even based on, the idea of being freed from certain dominating impulses in our own makeup—Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Christianity, and Islam all share this characteristic. The very word “self-mastery,” while it may be silly, does suggest a conquest of one part of ourselves by some greater or higher version of the self, resulting in a greater freedom.

This may seem like an arbitrary paradox, but we do see it regularly. For example, all else being equal, a modest person has more options at their disposal for responding to an insult than an egotistical person does, because an egotistical person can’t let things go; they, rather than the modest, are the ones stuck serving just one desire (fix the ego-wound somehow). There is a strong case to make for the claim that asceticism, even without any religious motives behind it, is a path to far greater inner freedom than being a libertine is. Part of the reason the ancient Christian martyrs made such a strong impression on the world, non-Christian as well as Christian, was that most people are too afraid of death to be able to choose it for the sake of truth. Ironically, one of the most famous early martyrs, St. Lucy of Syracuse, was said in later versions to have been supernaturally fastened in place: found guilty of Christianity, she was condemned to serve in a brothel, but heaven sanctioned her freedom by keeping her still.

Mens immota manet, lacrimæ volvuntur inanes.
His mind stands fast; the tears fall uselessly.

The idea of ethical freedom raises the specter of still another dimension of freedom, namely free will. We have no space to examine all its contours, which go at least as far back as ancient Roman disputes between Christians and Jews on the one hand (who tended to take a strong view of human responsibility and therefore of freedom), and schools like the Stoics and the Manichees on the other. Most people in the Roman Empire had a great passion for the supposed predictive powers of astrology, and both Stoics and Manichees (the former as materialist pantheists—long story—the latter as part of a Gnostic* spiritual cosmology) believed that the stars and planets controlled human behavior and fate. It took centuries of Christian hegemony in Europe before astrology was generally agreed to stand no higher than influencing the will, not controlling it.

In more recent history, free will was a frequent theme among Existentialist and Absurdist writers like Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Perhaps they were responding in part to theories of heredity and psychoanalysis, which have played a similar role in our time to astrology among the medievals: both fill the role of “what prompts but does not force,” with the one party allowing for influence but denying outright control, while the other (the B. F. Skinners of the world) asserts that free will is illusory. The latter theory may seem deeply unappealing, but it must be said, the idea of being free and therefore responsible is not always appealing either! Søren Kierkegaard in particular, the progenitor of Existentialist thought, wrote of the sense of vertigo that can attend the contemplation of human liberty. Seriously reflect for a moment on the fact that nothing except your own choice is preventing you from doing any number of insane things—murdering your closest friend, becoming a Buddhist hermit in the wilderness, learning French—and it can be a little dizzying. It is a refusal to face this vertigo that Sartre named mauvaise foi (bad faith), perhaps the only thing that he considered wrong no matter what values you adopted.

There are many other sub-topics of liberty that merit consideration. We shall close with just one. The phrase “liberal education” is sometimes mixed up with “liberal arts education.” The latter phrase refers specifically to the seven traditional subjects of the trivium and quadrivium, these being grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.** Any liberal education may use or include the liberal arts, but their goal is broader: a certain kind of public-spirited, open-minded intelligence. We might summarize it in phrases like “critical but not cynical” and “not partisan but not naïve.” But why should liberal education, or the liberal arts, be called liberal? What is “free” about them? It is true that throughout history, slaves and the working classes had no access to this kind of education, so it could have been called “liberal” merely on those grounds. However, in his (sadly under-appreciated!) book Studies in Words, C. S. Lewis proposed a different theory:

There is a further development, which we owe (I believe) entirely to Aristotle; a brilliant conceit. (There is no reason why we should not attribute a conceit to him; he was a wit, and a dressy man, as well as a philosopher.) … “We call a man free whose life is lived for his own sake, not for that of others. In the same way philosophy is of all studies the only free one; for it alone exists for its own sake.” … It is a free study because it holds among other studies the same privileged position which the freeman holds among other men. … Disinterestedness is an essential part of the “free” character. The free study seeks nothing beyond itself and desires the activity of knowing for that activity’s own sake.

Suggested reading:
The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans
Epictetus, Discourses
Héloïse d’Argenteuil, The Love Letters of Abelard and Héloïse, Letter V
Martin Luther, Christian Liberty
Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Albert Camus, The Plague

*This comes from The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, in a section on the strip’s six-year-old protagonist.
**If the four subjects of the quadrivium seem arbitrary, you are not alone in thinking so! They were bound together by certain philosophical conceptions of knowledge that are no longer widely accepted. Our essay from last year on the idea of quantity explores this in a little more detail.


Gabriel Blanchard holds a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, exercise your liberty by going to one or more of these predetermined links to other Journal articles, covering topics like how to define terms, identity versus otherness, the idea of immortality, the life and work of Oscar Wilde, and the role of the Eucharist in history, philosophy, and literature. Thank you for reading!

Published on 25th January, 2023. Page image of Lucy Before the Judge by Lorenzo Lotto, painted 1523-1532; note the man to the martyr’s left leaning as he pulls on her, indicating her miraculous immovability.

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