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IX: The Problem of Freedom

IX: The Problem of Freedom
The idea of freedom is not one of those which like the ideas of truth and justice have stirred humanity throughout all the ages. As a guiding idea and a basic principle of human existence it is the product of modern times. It is true that within the New Testament message reference is made to freedom but no one would claim that this idea holds a key-position. It will be our task to search out the reason for this. But for the moment attention should be called to the fact that the word freedom is used with very different meanings. Freedom occurs in the most different contexts in different layers so to speak of our existence. Perhaps we shall understand this best if we start with the opposite idea of unfreedom. Man is unfree when he has no room to decide and shape his life. The maximum of this unfreedom is represented by the condition of the slave whose whole life is in the hands of another and who cannot dispose either of his time or of his powers who has to do continuously what another forces him to do. Now this slavery in the old classical sense of the word has ceased to be a problem of our society but it may be questioned with good reason whether unfreedom is less acute and less dangerous when the place of the individual slave-owner is taken by the commanding power of a state which determines life and action in the same comprehensive manner leaving almost no room for individual decision. The rise of totalitarian states has given the problem of freedom a tremendous new actuality not because it is dictatorship i.e. not because it prevents the individual citizen from sharing in the decision of government but because such a state whatever form it takes controls the individual in all sections of his life leaving almost no sphere for private activity responsibility and planning prescribing all that the individual must do and not do must say and not say commanding where he is to live and to work and making an individual negative utterance or decision a matter of capital punishment. In the totalitarian state the individual like a remotely controlled aeroplane is directed in all his movements by the will and commands of the state.

We are proud and rightly so of our democratic freedoms. But we are not always sufficiently conscious of the extent to which the majority of citizens are under the dictate of another's will even in our free countries. It is true they have the formal freedom to do or not to do what they like or dislike within the wide limits of that which the state demands and prohibits as a minimum. But this state-free space is occupied by other directing powers; the worker is forced to take work where it is offered he is forced to take it under the conditions which are offered to him; the free contract is more or less a fiction. Whoever is not independent by reason of considerable wealth must do a multitude of things which he would not do if he were not compelled to. And he cannot do many things which he would do if he could. Nobody eats poor food voluntarily nobody lives in bad houses voluntarily very few voluntarily forgo the pleasures which they see enjoyed by others. The power restricting a man's will in all these cases is money. That is the lack of money prevents man from doing and having what he wants to do and to have. Here as well as in the case of the state it is man-made institutions that limit and narrow down the area of freedom for the non-privileged to such an extent that the space of free decision seems not so very much larger than in the totalitarian state.

There is a space however which no state no social order no slave-owner of any kind can narrow down and that is the area of inner freedom. Nobody can prevent me from thinking believing loving hating hoping and fearing as I wish. That is why the slave Epictetus was able to affirm his freedom; he had discovered the illimitable realm of inwardness compared with which all the external dependence implied in his being a slave seemed irrelevant. In a similar way the Apostle Paul exhorted the slave members of the community of Corinth1 not to struggle to get rid of their fetters because they were in possession of a freedom so great and lasting that compared with it this outward unfreedom would seem irrelevant.
But how about this inward freedom? Are we really free to think and to will and to judge as we want to to give our action the direction which we decide? Are there not also powers that limit this inward area of freedom and perhaps reduce it to nothing. The Bible as you know speaks of the slavery of sin of inward powers dominating man's will and driving his thought feeling and action in a direction against his will and which hold him back from what he does will.2 Again there is a certain philosophy that goes even further and declares freedom to be entirely illusory. It says that man is always like that remotely controlled aeroplane; that his interior life his thinking and willing is never free but always determined by his nature his inborn character his physical constitution by the functioning of his glands and the effect of the hormones. The action of man even if he seems to be his own lord and master is no freer than the trajectory of a bullet shot by a gun. Again it is said man is not free in his thinking and willing because he is always a child of his time a product of his environment a particle of that historical stream in which nolens volens he has to swim.
In order to find our way in this perplexing multitude of facts and conceptions of freedom let us make an initial distinction. There are two separate problems of freedom quite distinct from each other. First how far and in what sense is man free or unfree? Second how far and in what sense ought man to be free? It will be seen in our later discussion that these two questions utterly distinct as they are at first sight are in close connection with each other. At first however the distinction—even the separation—of the two is necessary. The question whether man is free and to what degree is answered in extremely different ways some of the answers affirming a perfect freedom the others denying any kind of freedom. The first of these two extremes the idealism of freedom is a very exceptional phenomenon compared with the second—determinism. Apart from the philosophy of Fichte3 the boldest form of liberalism—the assertion of absolute freedom—has hardly ever been formulated. This doctrine becomes possible only by denying the reality of an outward world that could and would necessarily limit freedom: because and in so far as the self or Ego creates the non-Ego the outward world it can be unconditionally free; that means that this Ego or self is identified with God. On this condition only can absolute freedom be affirmed. It is easily understood that this extreme liberalism had no great chance of becoming popular. It remains to be seen whether the renewal of this theory of absolute freedom has any better chance in its most recent atheistic form in the so-called existentialism of Sartre.
The closest approximation to Fichte seems to be the Vedanta philosophy of identity teaching the identity of Brahma the One and All with Atman the principle of selfhood. But strange as it appears to us Europeans the idea of freedom is here completely overshadowed by the idea of being. Indian thought is not interested in the problem of freedom at all. At the other extreme we find determinism the doctrine of complete unfreedom which—in distinction from the former doctrine—has a great following particularly in our time even amongst those who have never bothered much about philosophical questions and who would not be capable of doing so. This determinism may be a very simple but thoroughgoing conviction expressed in the phrase: Ich bin nun einmal so!— “I cannot help being what I am!”—a phrase which one can hear both from the most highly educated as well as the simplest and which expresses a complete determinism. Being a self is understood entirely on the analogy of objective being. Just as a lump of lead “is what it is” because of the number of molecules and their atomic particles so man is determined by his constitution; his self is the sum of phychological or physical factors and his designs are the resultant of the different components as they arise from the psycho-physical structure of man and the reciprocal action and reaction between him and his outward world. Freedom then is nothing but the constitutionally determined possibility of reaction to the outward world. Although this conception as a theory has many adherents practically it does not play a great rôle. The determinist lives almost always as if he were not a determinist and in his dealings with others he presupposes that they are not determined but have a certain measure of freedom.
And this whether with or without philosophical formulation is the view of the majority of people. Man has a certain measure of freedom from physical heritage and constitution from environment and historical streams; he is a self-deciding responsible being. It is surprising and comforting to find how little this untheoretical unreasoned and even unconscious conviction of freedom and responsibility is affected or shaken by adverse theory.
The Christian conception of freedom links up with this middle view between determinism and indeterminism. The problem of free-will which plays such a rôle in philosophy is hardly mentioned in the Bible. The freedom and unfreedom of man are lifted from the theoretical field into that of practical God-relation. The freedom of man is presupposed as a matter of course because and in so far as man is seen as always responsible to God. Man is a subject who has to decide and to act and is obliged to give account for what he does. On the other hand man is free only in a very limited sense since he is a creature. He is placed as an individual subject within space and time. My space and my time are also my limits. Above all my being bound to a physical body reminds me of the limitation of my freedom.
But this creaturely limitation as such does not infringe upon that freedom which is essential for man and which is primarily realised in his responsibility before God. In being created in God's image he has received dominion over the other creatures. It is in this superiority over the sub-human nature and the physical world that man experiences his aboriginal freedom: “Thou hast put all things under his feet”.4 The specific character of the Christian idea of freedom is however founded in the fact that man's freedom springs from the same spot from which comes his dependence. His freedom has its real possibility only within this dependence on God so that the maximum of dependence on God is the maximum of his freedom and that any attempt to get out of the dependence on God leads to slavery.
For ordinary thinking—whether of a more idealistic or materialistic deterministic or indeterministic brand—freedom is identical with independence. Whether this freedom is affirmed denied or postulated freedom is in clear opposition to dependence. Man is free so far as he is independent he is unfree so far as he is dependent. That is the axiomatic rational conception of freedom inherent in so-called common sense. Either free or dependent: so far as dependence goes freedom is excluded; so far as freedom goes dependence is excluded.
This common-sense idea of freedom originates in our reflection on our relation to the world. With regard to the world and to nature it is valid. But this conception of freedom does not grasp the centre of personality. The centre of personality is our relation to God. In our relation to God however this either/or which is true in relation to the world ceases to be true and becomes the very opposite of truth. For in relation to God man is the more free as he is the more dependent. Deo servire libertas. The human self is not an entity in itself. Human personality is what it is through its relation to God. Man is a true self or person and therefore he has freedom in so far as he is not “in himself” or “by himself” but in God i.e. in so far as he does not determine himself but lets himself be determined by God. Here then is the opposite of autarky or self-sufficiency. The more man is sufficient unto himself the less he is free; and the less he suffices for himself and seeks his life and meaning in God the freer he is.5
In the Bible this attempt of man to withdraw himself from God to be sufficient unto himself and to become independent of his Creator is called sin. And this sin is consequently and truthfully connected with unfreedom or slavery. Man's attempt to emancipate himself from God does not end merely in misery but in the loss of freedom. That is the meaning of the doctrine of the fall of the first men. Adam and Eve let themselves be so hoodwinked as to seek their freedom in independence of God. They are the prototypes of modern man; they thought to become free by becoming independent by throwing off the tie which bound them to God. They thought by doing so to become like God absolutely free independent selves grounded in themselves and therefore having their freedom in themselves.
Man desiring to become free in the sense of being independent of God confuses God and the world; he wants to be independent of God as he ought to be independent of the world. But by cutting himself loose from God in order to become free he loses the stand from which he can be free with regard to the world. He loses that Archimedean fulcrum outside the world by which he really could move the world. By cutting himself loose from God man precipitates himself into the world and becomes its prisoner. Man liberated from God becomes the slave of the world. Without his noticing it the world becomes his God theoretically and practically. Theoretically man makes the world God by absolutising it and giving it the attributes of divinity. Practically he does the same thing by surrendering himself totally to the world and what the world has to give. “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart” is filled with the world but never satisfied. The soul of man created for God can never be satisfied with finite things. That is why cut off from God and lost in the world it is insatiable and ever disappointed. Moreover the world attracts him with a force that is not merely the force of sensual stimulation but of a demonic power absolutised finiteness. He is not merely the slave of the world but the slave of the demons.
From this point we can understand the development of the problem of freedom in the modern age. By throwing overboard the Christian conception of freedom two alternatives are developed—a false liberalism on the one side a false determinism on the other—which in spite of their being opposites in many ways merge into one another. On the one hand the conception of freedom as independence produces a rational liberalism which reaches its summit in Fichte: the self is identical with God and this self creates the world. It is quite logical that Fichte should see the Biblical idea of creation as the first criterion of false philosophy and as the origin of metaphysical error.6 The self is itself the creator—how should there be a creator above it? This extreme liberalism carrying the identification of freedom with independence to its last consequence was too bold to acquire much following. A closely related idea however became the starting point of one of the most powerful movements of the last century.
At the basis of Karl Marx's system we find the idea of freedom identified with independence. Marx teaches a kind of fall of humanity an initial point of the erroneous development and a source of all the evils from which modern society suffers. This fatal beginning is the loss of independence taking place first within the economic reality by the division of labour and second in its ideological consequence in the recognition of a God. Marx formulates this axiom: “Man is free only if he owes his existence to himself”.7 Therefore the recognition of a God being identical with the loss of independence is the beginning of unfreedom. Therefore mankind can regain its freedom only by shaking off this double dependence i.e. by overcoming the capitalist division of labour through Communism and by shaking off religion. In the classless society man owes his existence to himself and in atheism he becomes aware of the fact that he owes it to himself. Therefore Communism and atheism are linked together in the very foundations of the Marxist system in the same way as capitalism is linked together with belief in God. The abolition of capitalism is at the same time the abolition of religion. The two are two sides of the same process of regaining liberty which is independence.
We find a similar idea expressed in what Nikolai Hartmann the Berlin philosopher calls postulatory atheism. For the sake of liberty the non-existence of God must be postulated because the acknowledgment of God is irreconcilable with independence. Again we find a very seductive variation of this idea in a little work by André Gide L'enfant prodigue in which the author interprets the parable of the prodigal son by consciously turning it in the opposite direction. The prodigal son was quite right to emancipate himself from his father; that is how he became a free man.
More impressive than all these expressions of postulatory atheism is that of Friedrich Nietzsche. To him also the idea of God represents so to speak a fall of humanity. For it is the belief in a God which makes possible the uprising of the weak against the strong. The fictitious thought: “There is a God father of all men” produces that slave morality of service and paralyses the will-to-power on the part of the powerful. By the idea of God the Lilliputian men the powerless herd people enslave and fetter the great and powerful individuals and prevent them from doing what is according to the true principle of life according to the doctrine of the will-to-power the right thing to do: to use their power and to dominate the weak. None has ever expressed this postulatory atheism more bluntly than Nietzsche's Zarathustra. “If there were Gods who could bear not to be a God? Therefore there are no Gods.” Atheism is the product of the will to absolute independence. It is Nietzsche who has expressed the thought which according to the Genesis narrative stirred only half-consciously in the soul of Adam and Eve but was what the serpent meant by saying: Eritis sicut deus.
False liberalism is the one false determinism is the other line which European thought took in cutting loose from the Christian idea of freedom. While radical liberalism says “There is no God” because there is—or there ought to be—human freedom radical determinism says “There is no freedom because there is no God”. Radical determinism is pancausalism; pancausalism is elimination of God. If there is no God there is only world. If there is world only everything is determined by that category which is the very definition of the world causality. Because there is world only there cannot be freedom. Man also is a particle of the world a tiny wheel in this machinery of the world. Freedom is an illusion because God is an illusion. Man is an object amongst objects a particularly complicated object of which the most essential element is his brain. Man is fixed by his constitution just as a machine is fixed by its construction. Here it becomes apparent that man is precipitated into the world by losing his hold in God. He is not in any degree removed from it; he is entirely submerged in it.
Even more important than the metaphysical question of freedom and determinism is the ethical question about what kind of freedom man ought to have. The history of the last few centuries shows an almost uninterrupted chain of movements of freedom or emancipation. The idea of freedom is—alongside that of equality—the strongest spiritual driving force in the life of modern Western humanity. The first of those movements of liberation is a process which has rarely been seen from this angle namely the evolution of modern technics as the subconscious attempt of man to free himself from his dependence on nature. In a gigantic wrestling-match with the forces of nature man tries to become her master. This idea previously inspired the alchemists of the time of the Renaissance humanism. They were seeking the philosopher's stone which would give them magical power over the forces of nature. It is not modern science which has produced modern technics but it is this will subconscious rather than conscious to elevate oneself above the dependence of creaturely being which accounts for the vehemence of the scientific as well as the technical enthusiasm of the modern age. That is why technique so often preceded science and showed it the way.8 But it is only in the last phase of this development that this motive came to the surface and unveiled itself completely as technocratical pseudo-religion. Here it becomes clear that the deepest source of this movement is rebellion against the Creator but a rebellion which clothes itself in a pseudo-religious garment. The credo of this religion is: We do not need a God any longer since by science and technics we have become Gods ourselves. The attribute of omnipotence and saving power is transferred from God to organised humanity.
On the tombstone of Benjamin Franklin we find the inscription more characteristic of his admirers than of himself: “He wrested the lightning from heaven and the sceptre from the tyrants”. The liberation-movement of political revolution is seen together with an emancipation-movement in the direction of the transcendent. It is again the motive of Prometheus; through his technical knowledge man becomes independent not only of nature but of deity. Whilst it was fitting for the man of antiquity to take refuge from the whims of nature in prayer this seems no longer possible or worthy of the man who can split the atom and has the unlimited secret powers of nature at his disposal.
It is fair to add however that the idea of technical omnipotence in our days does not so much bewitch the minds of the masters and pioneers of science and scientific technics as it does the younger generation and those nations for which science and technics are comparatively new. The more mature minds have become aware that mankind is now in the situation of the Sorcerer's Apprentice of Goethe who by the stolen magic word of his master forced into his service the slave-spirits but could not really rule them so that he finally found himself in great danger of being ruined by their very service. There are many amongst the scientific masters of our time who confess with no little apprehension that technical knowledge has outgrown the control of man and that it is no more a serviceable spirit but has become a master dangerous to life. Why is that the case? Because man has developed his life on the lines of emancipation from God in the foolish belief that freedom is independence and now learns from bitter experience what he could have known from the Bible that this independence is not freedom but slavery endangering his life.
We can see equally clearly the same thing at work in the liberation-movements taking place in the sphere of political and social life. When modern man speaks of liberty he first of all thinks of political and social freedom. Now in the Christian conception of human life there is a marvellous balance of freedom and dependence in human relation because freedom and dependence are already tied together in the root of man's personal existence in his relation to God.9 Truly man is called by God to freedom. He who is a servant of God is a free man amongst men. The Creator has made man free; slavery is a negation of God's order of creation. The unconditional commandment of love protects everyone from the claim to dominion on the part of the others. Equal dignity includes equal freedom. But now you will remember that in the Christian conception of man there is founded not only this equal dignity from which mutual independence derives but also unlikeness from which mutual dependence follows. Man is not created only for freedom but also for community and not only for the free community of love but also for functional interdependence which is based on the principle of supplementation and the structural subordination of each individual within a functional unit. The Biblical principle of life does not establish autarky but mutual giving and receiving; not the individualistic existence of Robinson Crusoe but marriage family neighbourly community and political solidarity.
Now in this functional unity there is always a subordination alongside equal dignity. The one must be above the other below; the one must lead the other obey. Wherever men have to do something together there must be a hierarchy of competence of command; where this is not recognised the co-operative unit falls to pieces. This hierarchy is also an order of creation but it must be distinguished most strictly from that kind of hierarchy which includes inequality of dignity and of freedom. This functional order of co-operation is however always falsified by man's egoism which transforms functional structure and service into some kind of caste-system or class-rule enslaving and degrading large parts of mankind. In order to increase the power and profit of the privileged a false system of authority is erected which destroys liberty. This was the situation at the beginning of the modern era. The liberation-movement had as its purpose and legitimate aim to destroy this false order of authority as it was incorporated in feudalism and in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The battle had to be fought in the name of God-given freedom. But the fact that this battle was also to be fought against a false Church authority gave rise to the deep misunderstanding that a battle had to be fought against the authority of God as such. The rationalist interpretation of equality implied suspicion of any kind of authority and professed that any kind of subordination was contrary to human dignity and freedom. The very concept of authority was discredited in the name of freedom. It was by this misunderstanding that the idea of freedom became the lever of the anarchical destruction of society.
Within this process we have to distinguish three phases. In the first liberalism of the idealistic type still recognised a certain transcendent root of human dignity and therefore a certain divine authority the authority of a categorical imperative or moral law. But this authority was uncertain because by the principle of autonomy this moral law was interpreted as our own law and therefore real dependence and authority were not acknowledged as they are implied in the faith in a creator. Moral law was interpreted in such a way that the idea of authority vanished in the light of the idea of freedom.10 While the authority of a transcendent power thus becomes uncertain the idea of authority among men disappears altogether. There is no further place for that natural interdependence forming structural units. All community is understood merely as society. Authority among men is merely provided for in the attenuated form of “administration” as it is grounded in the idea that the freedom of the one has to be limited by the freedom of the other. This is the idea of the contrat social of which we spoke in the last lecture. Contractual association is substituted for original community. Authority is merely the delegation of individual rights. Government becomes administration which has to execute the will of the sovereign people whether good or evil and this again is justified by the assumption that the will of the people is always good.
In the second phase even the transcendental element which remained within idealism namely the divine moral law disappears. There is no more moral authority there is only freedom without authority. The attempt is now made to construct society and state on the principle of freedom alone in such a way that all social order and rule is considered as a mere measure of utility. This is the condition of laissez faire of the utmost possible limitation and progressive diminution of legal authority the proclamation of free love superseding the out-moded institution of marriage.
The third phase is a reaction against the anarchical state of society into which laissez faire liberalism had thrown it. It has become apparent that society cannot exist without authority holding it together. But no authority of a spiritual character is left—neither that of a moral law nor that of God. One has to create an authority of a bluntly de facto character the authority of the one who has the power i.e. dictatorship on a purely naturalistic basis. It is evident that this dictatorship is irreconcilable with those rights of man that were proclaimed in previous centuries because these rights would make this de facto authority uncertain and might destroy it. Therefore this very freedom has to be attacked and it is attacked not always quite without reason as individualistic and a danger to society. The totalitarian state despises ridicules and discredits liberal democracy basing its criticism on the shortcomings inherent in individualistic liberalism. Individual freedom disappears in the collectivist totalitarian state which is erected not on a moral foundation but on sheer power. And this so far is the end of those modern movements of liberation in which freedom was understood as independence and which could not but fulfil the warning word that the Creator spoke to Adam: “For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”.
We said in the beginning that the idea of freedom is not at the centre of Biblical revelation. Freedom rightly understood is not the first but a second word. The first word is dependence on God God's lordship. First comes God's gift and will. God gives freedom to man in binding him to Himself. Man's freedom is identical with his dependence on God: “If the Son therefore shall make you free ye shall be free indeed”.11 “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty!”12 It was the tragic error of modern humanity to seek a freedom outside of and in independence of God. This way could not but lead into the opposite into slavery be it slavery to the world or slavery under man's dominion.
Where freedom is not sought in independence but in dependence on God there the mastery over things will not lead to obsession by the things of the world or by technical powers; there the freedom of the individual will not produce the dissolution of community; there the structural hierarchy of competence based on unlikeness will not lead to an authoritarian caste-system or class-dominion; there individual freedom and social cohesion will be balanced because the recognition of equal dignity is combined with a functional aristocracy the freedom of the individual and the interest of the community being equally recognised.
Let us remember however with reference to freedom what has been said in previous connections: that the false directions of the emancipation-movements of modern times had their origin not merely in the rebellion against divine authority but also in the legitimate rebellion against false authority for which empirical Christianity was responsible either indirectly or directly. Not only had the Church sanctioned the misuse of authority by the political and economic powers but it had itself created a clerical system of false authority and in its orthodoxy false spiritual authorities which in the long run were insupportable. Therefore Christianity still faces the task of interpreting the Christian message in such a way that freedom of the individual as well as the order of society is grounded in unconditional dependence on God.