The Wisdom of Freedom

In this article I give a short presentation about how philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, can even today provide its assiduous practitioners with genuine inner freedom. I explore the human desire for a freedom that goes beyond externalities, followed by a discussion of the different kinds of freedom that philosophy can offer. I conclude with some words on the most important of those freedoms: the attainment of mastery over oneself, and the role the love of wisdom plays in this.

In 1575, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, future author of Don Quixote, was captured by Barbary pirates on the way home from his participation in the historic battle against the Turks at Lepanto. He was to spend five years in the notorious baños [1], or prisons of Algiers, awaiting his redemption. The sufferings he endured marked him deeply, but were unable to quench his thirst for freedom: over those five years of captivity he made four escape attempts, despite the miserable odds against his success and the punishment he knew he faced upon recapture. At a deeper level, however, he maintained an inner, creative freedom that allowed him, it is said, to develop that rich vision of Spain and of the human person that was to characterize his works upon his return to his homeland, above all the Quixote. Similar tales abound, both historical and fictional, about other men and women who have suffered similar experiences in prison. For Nelson_Mandelathese inspiring people, a single powerful lesson has stood out: prison bonds may shackle the limbs, but the spirit always retains a spark that can be kindled into a deep, unshakable inner freedom. As Invictus, the poem that sustained Nelson Mandela during his long years on Robben Island, proclaims in a ringing voice: “It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll. / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul”.

Shouldn’t we, who have the good fortune to enjoy so much exterior freedom, have the ability to attain to the inner liberty that these great men, and others like them, have achieved? The question is no trivial one, for our real life experience is often one of a great constriction in our lives, an ‘unfreedom’ that haunts us, though we find it hard to discern its precise outlines. The society which we live in, and which exerts such a powerful influence on us, is in many ways an instrument of oppression, and often designedly so, whether subtly or not. An oppressive media culture feeds off of our habit of seeking to escape the grimness of our lives, dominated by a working schedule that has invaded every moment of our waking hours, and ‘smart’ devices that rob our attention wherever we go. Advertising and propaganda deliberately seek to take away our ability to maintain genuine attention, whose need Jaime Nubiola has described so well in his previous article. And a rigorous separation from tradition, in the sense of the collective experience of the best who have lived among us, is imposed by the insistent superficiality of our cultural landscape and by our schools, which ever more frequently simply refuse to teach this rich inheritance of thought. Driven by a voice from our conscience that refuses to be silenced, we blunder about in search of some vestige of inner freedom, bereft of guides or maps that might lead us truly, relying instead on a cheap diet of new age spirituality and self-help manuals. We know, much to our dismay, that the freedom that is the birthright of the human spirit is lost to us, and we often become cynical about the very possibility of finding it again.

Philosophy, which we might describe as the lifelong practice of careful, keen exploration of the rational structure of reality, including man and his capacity for attaining truth, has been engaged with this question since its very beginnings. Philosophers, perhaps paradoxically, have written throughout the ages of the power of the ‘mother of the sciences’ to liberate the human spirit. I say paradoxically, because philosophy is often accused of muddying the waters around the issue of human freedom in the world. We’ve all heard of the ancient debates regarding ‘freedom of the will’, or the many arguments that sustain the ‘ontological determination’ of the universe. Despite these unresolvable discussions, or perhaps because of them, even thinkers who uphold a universal determinism, Spinozasuch as Spinoza, praise the philosophical endeavor as profoundly liberating. Perhaps the most vivid such vision is Plato’s parable of the cave, which most of us encountered in first-year philosophy or Western Civ. It’s an unforgettable image, beginning with the stifling darkness of the cave, the flickers of the firelight and the toted sculptures that cast lurid images on the walls; then the ascent, forced and difficult, that leads to the true light, which blinds the eyes like our Sun does to any who dares to look on it directly. The argument which both the Jewish philosopher and the Greek make is that, once one has looked upon the raw truth of things, then the mere things of the world, its passions and politics, cherished delusions and half-baked verities, can no longer excite the heart or turn the eye. Freedom of spirit is thus, according to some of the greatest minds in history, philosophy’s first gift.

For many who have dabbled in philosophy, however, there is a clear lesson that they have taken from their studies: philosophers are unable to agree upon anything of importance. This is hardly a new observation; the very word ‘skepticism’ is a Greek one, dating back to the ancient skeptic schools of the Hellenistic era. The ‘sophomore’, that latter day Carneades, has studied little but knows much, and is frequently impressed by the fact that one can argue both for and against ‘justice’, or pretty much any idea, using the arguments of the great men and women of the philosophical tradition. Yet those who are willing to go deeper are quickly astonished by the capacity of the human mind to penetrate the real, and many are seduced by the allurements of Sophia, lady Wisdom, becoming committed to a disciplined search for that truth that hides beyond appearances. The exultant feeling of discovering the existence of new dimensions of reality that shine forth for the astutely probing mind is powerfully captivating, as is the piecing together of these discoveries into a system that unites these many dimensions into an ever more coherent whole. The temptation of the philosopher is to fall in love with this brainchild, and to dismiss all those who dare to question his creation to the nether dungeons of the unenlightened. 800px-Mandelbrot_set_with_coloured_environmentThe Principle of Non-Contradiction, that eternal bugaboo of those who would defend an easy compatibility between positions clearly at odds with each other, guarantees that there is, at the deepest level, only one truth about reality. That truth, nonetheless, clearly goes far beyond the capacity of any one human mind to comprehend. Vast like the ocean, it manifests the unfathomable complexity of the Mandelbrot set: we may fix on any part we like, and know it truly, but we cannot trap it in our grasp, for  greater depth is always available to one who would probe further.

For the philosophers in combat over an idea, each is resolutely certain of having the final truth on the matter: there can be no quarter nor truce given. An impartial observer, however, may see truth on both sides; here, all depends on the respect in which the two truths are considered. One may agree with Kant that all human experience is radically shaped by the ‘form of appearances’ in the ‘manifold of appearance’ and its ‘categorization’ by the reason, while not holding that this is any more than a reflection of extramental reality as built into our brains, rather than a pure construction of the reason Saint_Thomas_Aquinasonly loosely linked to the unknowable thing-in-itself. Thomas Aquinas, the towering medieval mind whose philosophy and theology have marked Catholic thought indelibly, is the unchallenged master of this kind of deep synthesis. And the success of his method, admired even today, is a testament to the ability of philosophy to guide us to a genuine encounter with the real. If we are wise, we will also be humble, and never claim that we have exhausted what truth there is to be found. Still, our partial grasping of the truth that has revealed itself to our minds nonetheless provides a foundation for our understanding of the world, and especially of ourselves, the only creatures in the cosmos whose minds are adequate to the task of receiving this self-unfolding of the real. If we mature sufficiently in this path, it will provide us with a perspective on the world, and how we must act in it, that is of incalculable value, and which can never be provided by the cacophony of voices competing for our attention in our society. And in this there is great freedom.

If one listens to the voice of wisdom, however, it will quickly become apparent that it is not merely there to instruct us in the hidden things of the world. Rather, both by virtue of our mind’s discovery of the truth about ourselves as human beings, and the quiet but insistent voice of our conscience, we are moved to better ourselves and to develop an inner freedom that is based upon, but not limited to, the freedom of the intellect I have discussed above. In this sense, philosophy can truly become a βίου κυβερνήτης, a guide of life. It is certainly not the case that virtue is the private domain of the philosophers; all of us, if we keep our eyes open, encounter outstanding examples of virtue among people who are not professional philosophers. This virtue is the upwelling and expression of our human nature, and hence is something we see in all cultures and at all times. But our experience tells us too that human vice is also an expression of this nature, if only as its perversion. While from a deep investigation of human capacities and desires we can come to the conclusion that freedom is, in some sense, the ‘natural’ condition of man, the winning of this freedom is the fruit of a rationally ordered development of many virtues, both cognitive and practical.

The key virtue, however, for attaining this freedom, and one which many philosophers across the ages agree upon, is that of self-mastery, conceived of as the dominion of the intellect, in some sense, over the will. There are certainly those who disagree, in a long chain of inheritance stretching from Callicles to Nietzsche, and who hold that Nietzsche187athe will ought to be unfettered and encouraged to pursue its object of pure pleasure and power. One might call this the ‘virtue’ of psychopaths: it pleases its possessors, but hoodwinks them, for they remain at the bidding of a ‘raging and savage beast of a master’ [2] whose urgings obey no reason nor brook any hindrance. It is for this reason that so many philosophers have recoiled in horror at such a life, for nothing can be so undignified and unworthy of man as to live as a slave to unreason. Self-mastery, then, involves the triumph, in some sense, of reason over the irrational forces within us that seek to toss us around like rag dolls. And philosophy comes to our aid in this endeavor, teaching us to recognize our true end and to act in consequence, building those virtues whose conquest results in a great strength to order our own lives, bringing us deep peace and the joy of knowing that we have lived according to the truth. This inner liberty, then, is the greatest gift of philosophy.

[1] María Antonia Garcés, Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), p. 11.
[2] Plato, Republic, Book I, 329c []

Photo / image credits: All images are from the Wikimedia Commons and are licensed for non-commercial use.


One thought on “The Wisdom of Freedom

  1. Dear Erik,

    You wonderful text brings to my memory George Santayana’s quotation: “Moral freedom is freedom from others, spiritual freedom is freedom from oneself”. With great affection,


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