I always hear Mel Gibson’s voice shouting this from that final, heroic scene of Braveheart when I think of this word.
Freedom is such a powerful thing. It is the thing most cherished by those who do not have it, and the thing we hold as one of our highest ideals, and yet I wonder how much we are aware of the weight that this freedom brings.
Existentialist philosophers warn us that freedom carries with it a tremendous weight; in fact, Jean Paul Sartre writes that we are “condemned to be free.” In Paradise Lost, God says of man that he was created “freely to stand or fall.” In Sartre’s novel, Nausea, the main character suffers violently once he learns that indeed he does exist in complete freedom.
What, then, seems to be the problem? Why would freedom affect us so? I believe that, were we to really take into consideration what free will means for us, we too might stagger from the blow.
Here is what I mean.
I often ask my students why anyone would willingly make a bad decision given what we know about the consequences of our choices. Why would I engorge myself on more food than I need, knowing what it does to my health, self-image, and the general feeling of malaise I feel after doing so? Why would I do something I know is illegal, unethical, immoral, or damaging either to myself or to others? The simple answer, I believe, is that we live to gratify our basest instincts in the moment. Aristotle was right when he said that evil is the weak-willed refusal to be virtuous.
The problem is this: I must choose. I am condemned to make of my own existence what I will. I have never once, in 37 years of living, made a bad decision because someone forced me into it. I have never done anything I regretted because someone held a gun to my head or forced me against my will. Rather, every decision came when I chose my own self glorification or self gratification in the moment over doing the difficult work of abstaining for a future vision of wholeness. It’s easier to eat donuts, fast food, and candy bars than it is to say “no” to those things, make time to hit the gym, and count my calories.
Free will is the tremendous burden we each bear. We are free to stand or fall. And this applies to little things as well as big. I am free to choose wisely or selfishly, free to eat healthily or not, free to be kind or not, free to satisfy my base desires or choose virtue, free to spend every night lost in mindless tv/internet time or interacting meaningfully with my kids, free to read a good book or take an art class or learn a new skill or to make another excuse, free to say no to “desires” and yes to deeper “longings”; in short, I am free to make of my life what I will. There is no “future me” awaiting me ten years from now; there is only the me I chose to make out of the choices I take now.
The great question of free will is this: now that I have it, what will I do with it? It is the great burden of humanity and the reason I think we spend so much money on entertainment–we seem to prefer a numbed existence to one that requires thoughtful engagement in our own creation. (See my previous blog post “The Cost of Entertainment” for more on this).
The grandfather of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, says that it is not until we stare into the abyss of our own mortality that we know how to find that one thing in life for which we would live and die.
Do we have the courage to face the abyss of our existence? Can we learn to bear the weight of our freedom? Will we do the difficult work of choosing virtue and wisdom? Will we use our free will to make of ourselves better persons and thus a better world?
I pray it so.