I do not have in mind political freedom, which is always limited. Fortunately in a representative democracy, however, the citizen has a voice in setting the limits and deciding how free "freedom" should be. Political freedom is not absolute. Ideally laws are drafted to give all groups the greatest amount of freedom possible under the law in a way that does not unnecessarily abridge the freedom of others who share minority views. So in a representative democracy all give a little to get a little.
In this essay, however, I have in mind the ability of individuals to make decisions that have not been influenced, whether overtly or subtly, by their environment. From the earliest moments in life no one can independently envision their course of life. You cannot pick your parents, their social and economic status, or their prospects. You take what fate decrees for you. You cannot pick where you were born. Your birthplace is chosen by your mother. You cannot pick your native language, your skin color, or nationality. All these things happen by chance. Your religion or non-religion in the early years is the choice of your parents whom you did not pick. You are indoctrinated by their religious views, or lack thereof. You do not choose in the lower grades your educational institutions. Schooling hinges on where you live and/or your parents' economic circumstances. So the attitudes, values, quality and kind of instruction, inductively learned prejudices in the region where you live, and the acquired knowledge (both formal and cultural), which subtly mold and shape you, are also not of your own choosing. Your socialization happens almost by osmosis. By the time you think you have gained control from the dominant powers in your life (parents, local educational and political systems, religious institutions, regional cultural mores, etc.) you have already become something that may not be able to be changed, even if the thought occurred to you to do so. Your future choices have already been influenced by the powers outside you in your past. Thus people are free only to the extent that they can escape their own pasts.
In later life you find yourself immersed in a culture whose expectations, moral values, and ideals demand compliance if you are to live successfully in society. The compliant are rewarded with status in the community and those who resist are marginalized. In later years you marry and become focused on job and advancement—each economic institution has its own rules that must be mastered. There are children to be tended, a home to be kept up to community standards, taxes to be paid, medical bills to be met, the children's future to consider, and retirement to be planned for. The demands are such that you have little time to give to abstract things as thinking about becoming—and anyway you have already "become" by buying into or resisting the culture and its expectations. You simply meet the requirements, without thinking, or challenge the expectations. In any case you are simply too far in to life to make radical changes.
Nearing the age of retirement, some do find time for reflecting on where life has brought them, or perhaps better: on what their past and present have made them. In retrospect, they look back over their lives searching for the turning points that shaped them.
Religion is part of the problem rather than the solution. All religions claim to possess Truth, particularly the missionary religions in their traditional forms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these have attached themselves to certain cultures sympathetic to their religious systems. They reciprocate symbiotically by helping to reinforce the cultural norms in their chosen societies. This has always been the case with Christianity, for example. In the first century Paul urged his churches to be subject to the governing authorities, "for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1-7)—and he said this about the Roman Empire, no less! The author of Revelation, whose time and situation were different, disagreed—calling the Roman Empire "Babylon the Great, a dwelling place of demons" (Revelation 18) and "mother of harlots" (Revelation 17:5). Paul, a Roman citizen found in the Empire a symbiotic partner; the writer of Revelation did not.
Christianity in America thinks of its gospel as "freeing." Jesus said to the Jews "who believed in him": "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). And Paul wrote: "For Freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). He of course was talking about freedom from the Jewish Torah. But Christianity has assimilated to American culture and its political system to such an extent that "Americanism" has become a synonym for "Christian." The American flag is displayed in churches, the pledge of Allegiance is taught to children in church schools, and patriotic songs are sung in worship. Not all churches are as blatant about the "Americanism" in their religious programs, however. Nevertheless, the religious instruction and preaching in mainstream churches aim to produce good Christian citizens who reflect American societal norms, so that their lives reflect well on the church, something the early churches were concerned about as well (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12; 1 Peter2:13-15; Titus 3:1-2). The early churches rejected the radical ethics of Jesus (if they happened to remember them) and turned to the ethical values (called "household codes") that governed private life in the early Roman Empire (for example, Colossians 3:18-4:1).
Growing up in a lower middle class family in the Mississippi Delta in the 40s and 50s leaves me to wonder just how free I really was.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
The classic "freewill versus determinism" argument. Baron d'Holbach said that libertarianism/freewill was simply an illusion. Jean-Paul Sartre said everyone had freewill, because humans were not created for a set purpose.
Interestingly enough, those who tell me that they have "freewill" in all decisions will often mention about some circumstance from their past that seems to control their future decisions. "Nature versus Nurture" is definitely a true argument.
Regardless of whether we have some degree of freedom (and some of us probably have more or less freedom than others), it seems to me that what matters is the choices we make given our individual circumstances. Do we live mainly as recluses or do we engage society? If the latter, how do we treat other people? Do we try to make the world a better place or a worse one?
Thank you for this, Charlie. Like you, Charles and I question how free we have really been from where and how we grew up and what we absorbed from our culture -- subconsciously and unconsciously --at such a deep level.
Good Afternoon Cody,
I wonder if you can elaborate on your last sentence a bit. I just don't understand it and rather than me guessing I would rather hear it from you.
I agree that what we do with what we have where we are is important but my question is different and directly affect what we do with where we are. If we are unconsciously shaped by influences over which we have little to no control in our formative years then how "free" can we be to choose "the high road" in the future? Or put another way: if we were not responsible for "freely choosing what shaped us," how can we be held responsible if we choose "the lower road" in the future?
Very interesting blog! I think a lot about this while living in the Middle East - environment and cultural constraints being characters in the play that is my life right now. People are alike in that we all have hopes, dreams, goals. It's the possibilities that differ depending upon our life's experience.
Thomas Carlyle in his On Heroes, Hero Worship and The Hero in History focuses on outstanding individuals who rose above the masses, went against and beyond the limitations of their background and environment, and accomplished great things changing the course of history. In mythology they are celebrated (Odin, Balder). In history, he cites Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Mohammed, Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Goethe, Otto von Bismarck, I would add Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Albert Schweitzer, MLK, Mother Teresa. Individuals can make a difference. They can rise above their social and economic environmental determinants, their class and gender limitations, their genetics to make a distinct and real difference. Some of these history makers were born of advantage, but not all, some came from surprisingly obscure and impoverished backgrounds, yet their accomplishments were and are astonishing.
Basically, it's a question of how much of our personality is based on who we naturally are (our nature), and what our environment has made us out to be (our nurture).
Hi Chuck, thanks for joining the conversation. You and Lee are clearly correct that some people achieve in spite of their disadvantaged background. But that is not answering my question, which is: to what extent are people so conditioned by their early life situations and economic disadvantages that it affects their future options? Your question, which you answer quite well is: can exceptional people rise above their disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve at an unusual level?
Charlie, greetings and thanks for the reply. B. F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud answered the question of environmental and genetic determinism to my satisfaction. I am more interested in the exceptions to the rule, i.e., those who overcame or rose above these obvious determinants and conditionings. As Kierkegaard wrote “One must make an active choice to surrender to something that goes beyond comprehension, a leap of faith into the unknown.” This action of shaping one's own convictions and acting on them is authentic faith.
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