The Philosophy of Freedom

The Philosophy of Freedom

Nature makes of man merely a natural being; society makes of him a law-abiding being; only he himself can make of himself a free man –Rudolf Steiner. I have very recently come across a concept of freedom which is so radical and so groundbreaking that it changes everything. Seriously. I have been able to think of little else since I encountered this idea a few days ago. In this post I am going to do my level best to communicate the essence of this idea to you and exactly why it is as powerful as it is. Let me begin though by giving you some context. Are we truly free? Do we have free choice? What does it mean to be free? These are questions that philosophy has been grappling with for the last two and a half thousand years. And yet still today these questions plague contemporary philosophers. I have spent the best part of the last six months engaged with this question on a daily basis. During this time I was busy with three concurrent projects:
I wrote my MA dissertation, at Essex University, on the subject of Jung on Consciousness, Articulating the Archimedean Point. In this dissertation I argued that the defining feature of consciousness, for Jung, is that it is capable of making free (unconditioned) choices. I participated in the Philosophy of Mind module at Wits University where one of the central themes under consideration was the idea of free choice (is it possible and if so what would it look like). The thesis we considered is known as compatibilism, which means simply that we are free inasmuch as we act in accordance with our given nature. I was part of a study group reading Rudolf Steiner’s definitive work The Philosophy of Freedom. In this book Steiner argues that freedom is our fundamental and true nature.
That is to say I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the nature of freedom and some of the problems in believing in the possibility of freedom.

Why is freedom such a difficult concept to believe in?

Firstly let’s be clear on this, the freedom we are talking about here is the freedom to make your own choices. Choices which are not predetermined or governed by any factor external to you. Also we are considering this in relation to mind or personal freedom, i.e. this is not political or social freedom we are considering here. The problem with this idea is: what does it mean to make a choice that is not governed by an external factor or predetermined? I cannot make a choice in a vacuum after all; I need to consult ‘myself’. Meaning two things need to happen: 1) I ask myself what I want. 2) I ask whether the satisfaction of this want is appropriate. By appropriate here we mean: will it serve me and is it aligned with my ethical framework and worldview (simply my beliefs in other words)? However in going through a process like this where exactly is the freedom? Firstly the desire itself is a given, I do not create desires, desires are given to me. That is to say I am subject to my desires not master or creator of them. Secondly, on what does my ethical framework rest, an external moral authority, personal preferences and prejudices ‘ and where did this originate? In what sense can I claim ownership of my ethical framework/worldview? Yes okay I adopted it along with my prejudices, but why? Surely because of prior prejudices. That is to say that my ethical framework/worldview is necessarily always constructed from a prior ethical framework/worldview. Why should I choose a over b? In order to make this choice I consult my current inventory of prejudices, I am never at the 0 point so to speak. There is always a framework that I am operating within and which dictates which choice is the ‘right’ one. I hope the problem is starting to emerge here. This I think is the hard problem of free choice. Beyond this though, in a simpler sense, the scientific-naturalistic worldview is predicated on the law of cause and effect. This means that the effects we are living today are the consequence of a prior casual chain. Following this line of thinking how can our choices escape the universal law of causality? Surely the choices you think you are making are determined by this same casual chain. This suggests that the idea you have of making choices is purely an experiential rather than fundamental truth. Is freedom then still a real possibility and if so how?

Steiner’s idea of freedom

Steiner makes a very persuasive argument for freedom. This is what he suggests. The essence, the being, or the concept, of everything in the world is given. Life, the universe and everything in it is objective, in that its behaviour is given to it. A tomato, a chicken, or a star are only given the possibility of acting and being one singular and homogenous way. Each in accord not with its subjective dictates but in accord with its objective law. Only a human being posses a subjectivity which creates the possibility of transcendence. Only a person has the capacity to ask what does it mean to be a man (or a woman), and even more significantly, what does it mean to be me? Not everything in you is given. You must complete yourself. My god! Just think about the power of that statement for a moment! You must complete yourself. Your nature is fundamentally free; it is not given what you will become. You are an incomplete project. And as long as you are alive you will remain incomplete. Your essential nature is only given in part; I repeat the quote this post started with,
Nature makes of man merely a natural being; society makes of him a law-abiding being; only he himself can make of himself a free man.
Yes okay, but in a profound sense freedom is our very constitution. Think about it: Only he himself can make himself a free man. Only he himself can make himself an unfree man. Only he himself can make himself a happy man. Only he himself can make himself an adventurous man. Only he himself can make himself and inquisitive man. Only he himself can make himself a transcendent man. The point is you have a choice. Of all the beings in this cosmos (that we know of), of all life in this world, only you have this unique gift. You can choose. So encompassing is this freedom you can even choose not to choose.

What does this mean practically?

Well for one thing it means realising that you do not have a destiny; at least not in the sense that there is a ‘destiny’ out there in the world waiting for you to arrive. As long as you are alive what you have is possibility. Only once you die does that possibility become your destiny. It means that there is no objective meaning, at least not for you and me. Now at first that may sound less than comforting. But really, on consideration, it is incredibly liberating. Just think about it for a moment. If there is no objective meaning, no objective destiny, no objective truth for you to access, then, and only then, can you be free. You are free to create that meaning, destiny and truth.

A Jungian Perspective: the Road to Freedom

Jung seems to be agreement with Steiner here. Jung too believes that freedom is possible. However Jung equates this possibility to access freedom with consciousness. That is to say we are only as free, or can only be as free, as we are conscious. As long as my actions are dictated by my unconscious mind I remain unfree. To the extent that I make the unconscious conscious the possibility of freedom opens up. I do think Jung, being a proponent of the unconscious, is a lot more cautious in his formulation of freedom. Freedom for Jung is a more limited possibility because of the significant role of the unconscious in the psychic economy. But still the possibility exists inasmuch as I bring the searchlight of consciousness to bear on my psyche and in my life. To put this in a Jungian frame, we need to let go of the idea that to individuate means the realisation of our ideal destiny- in the sense that that destiny is latent, somehow lying in wait for us to uncover it. In this sense to individuate means rather to choose my ideal destiny, to create it, to live it. To individuate means to realise that over and above the given qualities of your physical, social, and cultural being, you exist. You are an intangible, irreducible, unquantifiable entity. An entity that is capable of becoming that which it chooses to become. And becoming that, is what it means to individuate.

My own experience of freedom

I have had two very specific occasions when I can honestly say it felt as though I was making a free conscious choice, as opposed to running on unconscious autopilot. Let me tell you about one of these occasions, the more recent one, which happened about 18 odd months ago. After a decade of studying Jungian psychology through a private institution in South Africa as well as later self-studying and then teaching it, I was given the opportunity to go to Essex University, in England, to do a Masters Degree in Jungian Studies. To put this in perspective, the Master’s at Essex is unique, one of a kind in the world; and in addition to that it is taught by some of the leading Jungian thinkers in Europe. I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Okay so far so good. There were a few challenges though in deciding whether this was in fact the path I should choose.
I have a wife and three young children who could not travel to England and spend a year there; they would need to stay in South Africa. So I would spend the best part of a year away from my young family. I run my own business. My business is based in South Africa it too could not travel to England for a year . And at the time that I had to make the decision to do the MA, my business was facing a crisis more serious than any other in the 10 odd years we had been in business. So serious was this crisis I was not sure if there would still be a business when I got back from England. In a challenging financial climate the budget for this little excursion worked out to R200 000 odd. Whilst all of this was going on I was in the middle of a very serious conflict with my brother and business partner.
I decided to take a leap of faith into the great unknown and went to England and did the MA. It may have been one of the best and most life affirming decisions I have ever made. The story ends with me back in SA with my family, reconciled with my brother, my business survived the crisis and is thriving, and I have recently been awarded the MA with distinction. That is to say the story had a happy ending. However there was no way that I could anticipate that ending when I decided to do the MA. So how did I make the decision? Well the truth is I don’t know, but what I learnt in making that decision is that I have a choice. I am free to make choices which are counter-intuitive, which defy ‘common sense’, which defy my very own prior programming. I believe in making that choice I proved a point, to myself at least, about our capacity for free choice. And in making that choice I took one step forward to actualising my own individuation.

Final thoughts

I am not sure if I have been able to accurately or fully convey this idea of freedom, I hope at least I have given you some sense of it. It truly is the most profound truth if you can come to terms with it. We spend so much of our lives living out a truth someone told us, taught us, or somehow inculcated in us. One of the more nefarious of those ‘truths’ is the idea that who you are is given to you and that you are simply living out a pre-destined plan. Bullshit! The only plan is that you are. You are here and now. The rest is up to you.

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