First, this summer I had occasion to study Supreme Court decisions bearing on freedom of religion and the public schools. The graduate students with whom I read these included a number of inner-city school teachers, who were both black and strong churchwomen. They were peculiarly alive to a jolting paradox powerfully suggested by these decisions. Baldly stated it is this: In the interest of freedom of religion, that is, in order to protect the possibility of living by one’s beliefs, it is required to keep the public realm, in which students and teachers spend the most strenuous part of their waking life, vigorously free from all particular beliefs and all religious exercises. In other words, freedom of religion requires freedom from religion. This quandary raised for me a general question concerning freedom as it appears in the external world. What is this notion which feels so exhilaratingly rich and yet requires so stringently enforced a void, which holds such promise of fullness, but presupposes the most carefully constructed vacancy?
Second, in one of my classes this term we are reading a work by lmmanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, which culminates in a consideration of human freedom. For Kant, freedom is entirely internal, our inner power to overcome all the natural laws of psychology by which we are determined and driven, and to act originally and independently as rational beings. Freedom is inner self-determination. It is a harsh view, for it means that the only clear index of the actual exercise of our freedom comes when we are opposing our natural inclinations and desires, when we do not as we want, but as we ought. Freedom is preemmiently self-control. It is a noble but negative test that it is neither possible to accept nor to forget.
And finally, the following observation gave food for thought. When I first arrived in Walla Walla, I discovered Pioneer Park as a lovely place to jog. You all know the place. The point is that it is a small park, but laid out on the lines of a grand European city park, and very handsome. Everyday I ran by a sign that read as follows. It said that the park was closed to vehicular traffic for a month in order “to determine the possible effects such an action might cause.” (I don’t need to tell you that the actual effects such an action did cause were dozens of letters to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.) I kept asking myself why the public prose writer hadn’t found it in him just to say “to see what will happen.” And it came to me that this magnificent prose had a point to make: The park is not just a place of beauty but also the scene of passionate contention and rational compromise, a microcosm of the double nature of the free world. Of course, I shall make my self clearer later.
Let me begin my inquiry, then, with a description of the sense of freedom, and with examples of the feeling of freedom, both to recall to you the familiarity of the notion and to have evidence for certain observations.
Case 1: When I first drove into the Walla Walla valley I was amazed by its—oddly unsung—beauty, by the contoured hills, colored mocha and mauve and mat gold, and the velvet-faceted Blue Mountains. With that sense of beauty came a feeling of expansiveness, of beckoning aspects and accessible vistas and magical destinations, in short, a sense of the freedom of the land.
Case II: Long ago, when I set off in my first car to leave home for graduate school—I was going from Brooklyn to New Haven, from the frying pan into the fire, a Westerner might say—I recall feeling, all love and gratitude to my parents notwithstanding, an enormous sense of being out from under, a ballooning feeling of freedom from constraint.
Case III: I have worked hard all week, and there is a friend on the phone wanting to know if I would like to go for an exploratory ride in the country and then perhaps tea. There is a little click of satisfaction. I’m exactly in the mood and free for the occasion.
Case IV: We’re in the car, ready to take off from Walla Walla, with the map before us. East to the Blues, west to Lake Wallula, north to the Snake and south into the Wallowas—each is a possible direction; all we have to do is exercise our freedom to choose.
Such personal examples are, I am sure, familiar to everyone. They are the small daily appearances of freedom in our lives, modest recurrent phenomena which add up to a free life. I could, of course, have begun with examples of unfreedom, of daily oppression, which can take an equally small, even trivial or absurd shape. For instance, I have been told that in a popular restaurant in Moscow ice cream dishes come in cosmic form: there are nine planetary choices named from Mercury to Pluto. But what a disappointment: if you order Pluto, you get vanilla-flavored state base with plum jam, and Mars turns out to be vanilla-flavored state base with marmalade, and so on; thus freedom of choice is covertly frustrated.
The trouble is that the relation of small personal freedoms to the grander notion of civic freedom is different from the relation of small deprivations to political oppression. Except on certain ceremonial occasions, freedom with a capital F does not itself make anyone wildly happy. It is its small consequences that we cherish. The obverse for oppression, however, does not obtain, for the political unfreedom from which those small frustrations arise is by no means innocuous; it can itself cause the most terrible suffering, suffering too great to speak of in a lecture like this. That, incidentally, is what refugees from oppression, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, some times fail to understand. They are so accustomed to the soul trying enormities of unfreedom that they cannot properly value the diffuse, unextreme, even unedifying appearances of freedom. But these are the ones with which a positive inquiry, the kind that is appropriately carried on among us, who daily experience freedom, should begin.
So I will return to my cases, which I listed only in order to go from observation to theory. (When I speak of theorizing I do not mean the vigorous but dry exercise of attempting to find a definition of freedom, but rather the attempt first to articulate the perplexities contained in the phenomena and then to penetrate the appearances themselves.)
Notice, then, that in all the instances freedom is followed by a preposition: freedom of the road, freedom from parental supervision, free for tea, free to indulge my preference. (I omit such familiar phrases as freedom under the law, freedom through discipline, freedom in Christ, because these reflect on the conditions of freedom rather than on its nature.) These prepositions, “of, from, for, to,” seem to be almost unavoidable when we speak about freedom.
Now when used of ordinary situations and notions and things in this world, prepositions are not particularly mysterious; they usually express spatial relations: sitting under the apple tree, passing through the looking glass. But what about the case of freedom, which is nothing spatial?
I think the preposition of freedom also express situations and motions and relations, but not of bodies to bodies as when lovers sit under the apple tree, but of souls to the world.
Freedom of the road, or, more importantly, freedom of speech or of religion, then means being in a situation to take hold, to take advantage of the outer world. For example, we have the ability to utter words, which means literally to “outer” them, to make loud meaningful sounds. Freedom of speech means being in a position to appropriate this power.
Freedom from constraint, on the other hand, or those old freedoms articulated during the second World War, freedom from want and fear imply an aversive motion, a motion of shaking off the shackles of the world.
Again, being free for anything, from a talk to a new friendship, means being so well-ensconced in the world as to be receptive and ready for it, while being free to choose means being set up for action, ready to sally out and do things.
In sum all our feelings of freedom express various aspects of a relation we have to the external world as we range through its beauties, realize our powers within it, secure ourselves from its oppressions, ready ourselves to receive it and reach out to act on it.
The fact that this relation has a number of facets, expressed in the various prepositions “of, from, for, to,” must follow from the different ways human beings, souls, are in the world: they take possession of it, withdraw from it, await it, step into it. That is outer freedom.
How the world can be constituted so that our relation to it must have these half-metaphorical aspects is the subject of a different—and deeper—inquiry usually called phenomenology. But what is the relation of freedom itself?
Let me give a two-word answer. Outer freedom is real possibility, that is, power not over people but over things and circumstances. Again, I must leave aside the most abysmal question, namely, what the world is such that we, embodied souls, can have within it what in mechanical systems are called degrees of freedom. I shall assume that we all have a working knowledge of possibility.
Then external freedom is real possibility. “Real” is Latin and means pertaining to things. Real possibility is to be distinguished from mere, logical possibility. Let me take you through an example.
All of us have some property. Now it is logically impossible for all of us, legally and responsibly, to give that property up. For although it is in the very notion of property that we may sell it or give it away—alienate it, as the term goes—it is also part of its meaning that we are responsible for disposing of it to another person or quasi-person, like a government. We have no right, for instance, simply to abandon our house so that it becomes a dangerous neighborhood nuisance. Consequently it is logically impossible for all persons to give up their property at once, for each must, as I said, give it to someone: humanity holds property like a wolf by the tail—it cannot let go. But it is logically perfectly possible for half of all the people to give up what they own to the other half. The other half might, perhaps, be willing to receive it (though once they had the stuff they might be sorry). Yet is it not a real possibility. It will not happen because it is against human nature and worldly circumstances. Finally, that one or two people we know should give away all they own is both logically and really possible, though it takes a good deal of preparation and arrangement. Some people are free, by nature and circumstance, to get rid of the gear of ordinary life.
Now the point is that to be free, either from things, or for them, takes much planning and careful arrangement. A world of chaos and inchoateness, the tohuwabohu of the Bible, holds no real possibilities except for a divine creator, and we are not creators, but only organizers. A perfectly structured, motionless world, on the other hand, has no scope for action either. In Dante’s Divine Comedy there are two kinds of hopeless hell, the heaving horror of the upper circles of sinners, and the nethermost circle of perpetual ice in which Satan is suspended. Real possibility exists in a world which is at once organized and open.
Outer freedom therefore requires a land crisscrossed by paths surfaced with road metal, bridged by toll booths, edged with service stations, lined by fences, and marked by signs setting limitations and giving directions. And what holds for the freedom of the road goes for all the other freedoms. They all require multifarious physical and mental arrangements, arrangements for production of goods and prevention of evils, for delivery of services and collection of debts. But most of all our freedom demands the ten-thousand real constraints of the liberating law. (Incidentally, those pioneers who first found these paths, like the two local heroes, Lewis and Clark, had far fewer freedoms than we who follow them, though they had one in an irrecoverable degree: that of really acting in the world.)
One more observation on the character of external freedom: it goes the way of self-abrogation, of self-cancellation. Free time without engagements begins to hang heavy on our hands. Long aimless travels suddenly begin to pall and we want a destination. Too many options with no preference drive us crazy. It is the natural fate of freedom to terminate in commitment. We all know that perpetually free spirits, who fail to foreclose on their freedom, acquire a peculiar reek about them, as of stale ozone; a world fixed up for freedom compels us to take advantage of it. That is why we are all so busy. For, in Shakespeare’s words: “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
It is in the very nature of real possibilities, then, to compel us to realize them, and external freedom is secured by in numerable constraints. People who are not born free but released from slavery by human arrangements are called freed men. With respect to outer freedom we are all freedmen, for such freedom is established by myriads of positive contrivances.
But we are also free simply-not free to or for or from, not free as situated in the world, but simply free. This freedom—let me call it inner freedom—cannot be secured by external arrangements. For example, the law can protect freedom of utterance, but a legal freedom of thought is an absurdity: who could stop us? Nor does this freedom push us to take advantage of the world. On the contrary, its index is often a capability for serenely sitting it out.
What, then, is inner freedom? Let me begin by sketching out two extreme answers, not the most extreme answers possible, but such as will yield a useful framework.
The first is sternly and soberly deflating. It is that there is no such freedom. There is none because we have no inside, no interior. Our psychic system is continuous with or, at least, analogous to our physical organization. Our inner and outer natures obey the same mechanical (or statistical) laws. As in physics we rely on observations of motions for our theory, so in psychology we depend on the evidence of behavior (indeed, this view is usually called behaviorism), and that tells us that human beings are pushed by needs and pulled by incentives as bodies are moved by collisions and attractions, and that interpersonal behavior is as predictable as are the actions and reactions of bodies. This view is difficult to deal with in its own terms. It will not do to produce some unpredictable behavior because, first, such behavior would itself be a mere reaction, and second, because inner freedom does not display itself as erratic behavior. The freest people are also the most reliable. Perhaps the ultimate defense against this view lies in the difficulty this school of thought has in saying what it means by, and how it comes to care about, its stern and sober truth; but that development is beyond this lecture.
At the other end stands the Kantian view I mentioned in the beginning. It is also severe, but it is grand as well. Kant agrees that we are natural beings, subject to the pushing and pulling laws of psychology, to our wants, desires, and inclinations. But, he claims, there is also a universally acknowledged fact, a moral fact. It is not known through any outer or even inner evidence because it is entirely internal—internal even beyond our inner sense of ourselves. It is the fact that some times we determine and lay down the law to ourselves: we withstand our own nature, deny our own inclinations and do not as we want but as we ought. Freedom is an inexplicable fact; it makes itself known in moral action, which in turn is evidenced as rational opposition to our natural inclinations. Human freedom shows up as radical, reasoning resistence to human nature. It is a grand view because it assigns to us, as rational beings with a supernatural root, infinite responsibility for our actions. But it seems to me to make too harsh a division between our reasoning and our feeling self.
Let me, therefore, take a great chance and tell you what I think inner freedom, what being free simply, means. I think it means nothing more and nothing less than having an inside, that is, a place where one is genuinely and literally by oneself—though not alone.
One way to remind ourselves that we are capable of having such a space is to think of cases we know where it has become vacuous or obstructed. It has become vacuous in people who have gained the whole world and lost their own soul by allowing themselves to be entirely, hectically, absorbed in exterior business, especially the kind that has no solid substance. It appears obstructed in obsessed people, who have what is so graphically called a “hang-up;” that is to say, their own inner space is strung through with psychic barbed wire in which they have entangled themselves. Indeed, every loss of human interiority points to some personal or public pathology, as fearful as it is instructive.
Positively speaking, it is in this inner space that imagination and thinking have their place. Or perhaps better, it is in this place that we think things out in the imaginative presence of everything we care about. I feel sure that everyone here knows just what I am talking about, and why one might say that the possession of such an inner place is identical with being free: here, inaccessible to the world’s manipulations but not isolated from its gifts, we fulfill our most intimately proper function, which is—I think—to think. By thinking I mean simply our episodic efforts to recover and clarify our life within ourselves.
But this inner freedom is not a set of real possibilities, that is, possibilities supported by things, but an actuality within the soul. For when we are within ourselves we are already in the act of being what we were meant to be, whether we are shaping images, or pursuing a perplexity, or reaching a resolution. This freedom is not in what we might do but in what we are. And that has important external consequences, for what we are issues in what we do.
For, although this activity usually takes place in secluded and quiet episodes—what Shakespeare calls the “sessions of sweet silent thought”—once it is done, it consolidates into conviction and clamors quietly but insistently for expression, for communication and common action. And that is the source of the problem which made me attempt this lecture.
Let me revert here to those Supreme Court decisions I mentioned in the beginning. They were concerned with religion in the public schools, and they were all based on that section of the First Amendment which says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is usually understood to have two clauses. One says that no government, federal or state, shall push or prefer one religious organization over the others. The second says that no government shall make difficulties for individuals over their religion. The author of these clauses, Madison, was crystal-clear about their purpose: they were equally intended to protect and to strengthen the expression of the life of conscience, and so of religion, since that is precisely what religion, in one of its aspects, is. Conscience, a Latin word which James Joyce rendered in English as “inwit”, or “inner knowledge,” is, of course, a principal mode of inner freedom.
So far so good. But recall that worldly freedom demanded not only constraints to keep us from interfering with each others’ enjoyments of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but, even more, conveniences and facilities to make such enjoyment a real possibility. Chief among such facilities are, of course, the schools which are generally considered to be the great public facilitators of opportunity. (“Opportunity” is, evidently, another word for real possibility.) So, naturally, the Court was eventually asked to decide whether the governments, particularly state governments, might facilitate expressions of the inner life through the schools by making it easier for parents to send their children to religious schools, or by releasing children to attend religious instruction, or by giving them opportunities to say a non-sectarian prayer. By and large, the court has held that all such facilitations were unconstitutional, since they tended either to establish one religion in special benefits or, by sanctioning religion in general, to interfere with the consciences of non-believers. Consequently, in the interests of conscience, religion must be banished from the ever-expanding public scene. And that is what my students found at once persuasive and perplexing: that the public scene, which is full of means for the enjoyment of outer freedom, requires vacancy with respect to the expression of inner freedom.
I think we succeeded in formulating the resolution this country has worked out. It consists in the fact that we all lead double lives, sometimes exhilarating, often dangerous, always wearing. This is our double life: we are all, always, both members of factions of interest and participants in fellowships of conviction.
Factions—the word is Madison’s; we would say interest groups—are the numerous shifting collection of externally free people who band together to get the public to facilitate their rationally selfish way; they have a perfectly legitimate, if not very noble, common cause. Indeed Madison thought that a well-constituted polity was precisely one which gave these inevitable groups scope by exerting themselves to delimit each other. Parties, unions, business organizations are examples of factions of interest. The space of factional activity is the public realm in its official and civil forms.
Fellowships of conviction, in contrast to factions of interest, are communities of people who draw together as internally free human beings, that is to say, as human beings whose inner lives have some agreement and who are therefore in some manner friends. Churches and private schools are examples of fellowships of conviction. The place where the life of conviction is carried on is the inward looking, semi-private association.
Of course, parties, unions, and chambers of commerce are based on some principles and will, insofar as they recall them, be communities of conviction. Conversely, churches and schools are going businesses, albeit very much non-profit businesses, and have interests to defend. Indeed, how communes of conviction behave as interest groups is a fascinating matter. For example the Maryland college where I ordinarily teach was founded in the year after the Revolution, in 1784, as a non-sectarian, secular state school with the eager support of the local Catholics, who, in the absence of a Catholic seminary in which to train their priests, were anxious to send them to a school that required no religious test and attendance at all; in this they obviously acted as an interest group. There are, incidentally, some associations that have lost all sense of this distinction. Those are called movements, that is, ideological interest groups. Let me interject a very biased remark: the recent tragedies of Europe are the consequences of such unsober politicizations of faith (which is precisely what totalitarianism is), and this country doesn’t need them.
That we all belong to these two kinds of groups, and usually in a somewhat fused and simultaneous way, is a fascinating fact of American life. But how in the world do we do it?
For these groups are not merely different in flavor—life-style would be the current word—but evidently incompatible in mode. Let me sketch out how that is.
Interests are eminently negotiable. A friend of mine, who used to be high in the councils of government, Robert Goldwin, says that a really brilliant negotiator is not one who finds a compromise, a middle ground, but who devises an alternative that gives the parties something different but more attractive than they had ever thought of demanding. But who can compromise, not to say negotiate, his genuine convictions? In the early Christian church a long and even bloody battle was fought over the littlest letter in the Greek alphabet, the iota. The iota’s difference was between the words homoi-ousios and homo-ousios which mean respectively “of like substance” and “of the same substance.” The issue was whether Christ was merely like God the Father but not equal with him, or whether the godhead was a trinity of equal persons. This battle between the so-called Arians and Athanasians has been the laughing stock of moderns (though so great a scientist as Newton was still deeply involved in it). But is it really so comical that people should be unable to compromise their convictions about the nature of God?
There are numerous other contrasts between the worlds of conviction and interest, which show themselves, and are very familiar to us, in their different atmospheres. Let me briefly delineate these appearances.
The world in which we associate by interest is on occasion brutal but ordinarily impenetrably bland. It is calculating and civil, hard-headed and reasonable, selfish and serviceable. In accordance with the evanescent character of external freedom, it shifts constantly to provide new means, but it also requires accretions of the most rigid emptiness, like bureaucracies. We all recognize its various dialects. For example, we all understand and, I think, approve of the calculations that go into the instructions which the girl at the check-out counter in the super-market has to say: “Have a pleasant day.” It is a bland civility which is intended to give a tiny edge on the competition by lubricating the shopper’s exit.
Or, again, take the park prose I cited in the beginning. It signifies that Pioneer Park is not only a little paradise for the recreation of the soul, but also the scene of contending interests, namely of those who want it to be free to cars and those who want it to be free from cars, interests to be satisfied by objective experimentation and compromise. This broad and multifarious, but at bottom uniform, world in which we float fairly free, as in a medium, secures us the means for what Hobbes called “commodious living.” It is therefore not to be despised. There are even occasions when it becomes a community full of pride in the rational decency, reciprocal respect, and staunch reliability which founded and which preserves it.
The world in which we unite primarily by conviction, in contrast, is intimately exclusive and inevitably quarrelsome, alternately stagnant and ardent, intense and durable. This is the world of expressed interiority, of “spiritual substance” or, rather, of many substances, for the very way such communities float in the free world tends to multiply and even competitively differentiate them, both from that world and from each other. That is the blessing and mystery of pluralism.
That pluralism is a blessing because it permits us to live at once in both worlds, the outer and the inner. That it is a mystery is plain when we ask ourselves how in the world we emerge from the concentration of our convictions to live civilly and reciprocally with those who think otherwise or not at all or, again, how we ever succeed in collecting ourselves out of the dispersion of the external world into communities for furthering the life of the soul.
Of course, there are perfectly practical circumstances that make for toleration of each other’s secular selves: the steep loss of interest, like a rapidly diminishing field of force, which comes from the distance a big continent affords; our mandatory public affectation of fallibility (we might be shocked to hear a minister declare in church that “I’m probably wrong, but I feel that we may well have immortal souls,” but we would not be utterly amazed to hear him say it on a talk show); the fact that the follies of the wide world are grist to the mill of faith and as such induce a certain fondness.
Of course, equally, there are human-all-too-human reasons for joining communities of conviction: for social purposes, out of convention, as a kind of insurance.
But when we look beyond these circumstantial explanations, there is still the undeniable fact that we—all but the most lukewarm—have found a way to exist, like doppelgangers, in two ultimately diverse worlds. You must forgive me if I have done little more than to formulate an inquiry. I do know one thing though: the attempt to resolve this mystery must always run concurrent with the preservation of the fact, the fact, namely, that in this country we can live a life both of outer and inner freedom.
This essay was originally published here in August 2013, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was originally published in The St. John’s College Review (Volume 31, No. 1, 1979) and is republished here with gracious permission
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Doorway in Meissen” (1827), by Caspar David Friedrich, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.