“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free.” – Nelson Mandela
The following is abridged and adapted (meaning I’ve edited the heck out of it and added to it and taken away from it liberally in order to smooth it out, make it more punchy and seamless) from Erich Fromm’s “The Heart of Man: It’s Genius for Good and Evil,” pp. 130-138. (This is a fantastic book, by the way, I heartily recommend it; in many ways it’s really a companion volume to his more widely read “The Art of Loving”).
The problem of free will or freedom of choice is not that of choosing between two equally good possibilities. It is the problem of being faced with two opposing alternatives, one better and one worse, and having the freedom (or courage and discernment) to choose the better instead of the worse.
And better or worse is always understood in reference to the basic moral question of life—that between love or fear, growth or stagnation, progressing or regressing, what is truly is good for us versus what only feels good and serves to numb us.
Freedom, ultimately, is nothing other than the capacity to follow the voice of reason, health, well-being, love, conscience, and to do so in the face of fear, temptation, irrational passions, regression.
When ruled by fear, irrational passions, escapism, self-numbing, and avoidance of challenge and difficulty, a person is in bondage. When ruled by reason, courage, conscience, wisdom, love, a person is free.
The problem of freedom is the problem of choosing between an action dictated by reason (by wisdom, growth, resilience, love, courage, health, freedom, compassion, what’s best in us) against an action dictated by fear, anxiety, reactivity, past baggage.
The problem for each of us is how free are we to follow what’s best in us, how free are we to follow those intentions when they arise in us, and how active what’s best in us actually is?
We can imagine a person of whom we can predict with near certainty that he (or she) will not be able to follow an intention dictated by what’s best in him (or her). The person may be anxious, unaware, frightened, wounded, discursive, dependent, attached, unthinking, unreflective, avoidant of difficulty, a safety-first person, a person who craves comfort and security—and whose craving for these things is as strong as his or her fears and anxieties and desire to avoid difficulty and pain.
We can say of such a person that he or she is, for all practical purposes, not free to choose a course that he or she has recognized as possibly being better. Though a path to the better there might be, this person is condemned to chart a course to what’s worse.
On the other hand, we can imagine a person of such maturity, productivity, goodness, lack of greed, that he or she would not be able to act in a way that is contrary to reason or his or her deepest and wisest interests.
Such a person would also not be free either.
For the vast majority, free will—freedom of choice—is not an abstract capacity which a person either “has” or “has not.” It is a function of a person’s character structure.
There are some people—a minority–who have no freedom to choose because their character structure has lost the capacity to act in accordance with the good—they have played it safe too often, surrendered too often, hid out reality too often, lost too much courage, so they no longer hear and obey the dictates of their conscience, and thus they are lost because they have lost their sense of right and wrong, better and worse, their sense of what leads to strength and growth and what leads to atrophy, stagnation, regression, avoidance, weakness.
Conversely, there are some people—another and even smaller minority—who have lost their capacity to choose evil precisely because their character structure has lost the craving for what’s worse, for what weakens, for what would cripple or atrophy them.
In these two extreme instances, we may say that both types of people are “determined” to act as they do because the balance of forces in their character leaves them no choice.
But the majority of men and women, however, deal with contradictory inclinations which are so well balanced that a choice can be said to be viable and to be made.
Again, freedom is not a constant attribute which the vast majority of us either “have” or “have not.” The reality is that there is only the act of either freeing ourselves from, or further enslaving ourselves to, what’s worst and weakest in ourselves as a result of the making the choices we do.
Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my transparency, my conscience, my character, my depth, my reason, my wisdom also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative, until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose what would weaken and undermine me, the undesirable rather than the desirable action.
On the other hand, each act of surrender or cowardice—each time I give into fear and anxiety and playing it safe—weakens me, opens the door to further acts of surrender, strengthens what is undesirable in me, until eventually freedom is lost.
Thus our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice in life. The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions (choose from what’s weakest and worst and least courageous and most dishonest in us), the more our heart hardens.
The more we make the right decisions (choose from what’s best and most courageous and resilient and transparent and honest in us), the more our heart softens, or better put, comes more alive.
Most people falter or eventually fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot live a better life; they falter or eventually fail because they do not wake up and recognize when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. They are not aware when life asks them a question—and when they still have some flexibility and, hence, still have alternative answers. Then with each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are in fact on the wrong road, often only because that admission would compel them to backtrack and go back to the first wrong turn, own their mistake, correct it, and accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time—much more than if they had just admitted it much earlier.
Moreover, our real moments of decision often come well before those moments we tend to recognize as moments of decision (a “fork in the road”). By the time we reach those ultimate moments of decision, the freedom to choose has often, if not usually, already vanished—most of us become aware our moments of choice only at the point when it’s too late to actually make a decision. Much like a game of chess that is in its latter stages, at the last point in the chain of decisions a person is no longer really free; at an earlier point he or she might been free and been able to act courageously had he or she been aware of all of the little decisions to be made then and there (all of the alternatives/possibilities) and the consequences of those “choices” (possibilities/alternative moves) down the road to the person’s character structure.
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And this excerpt by C.S. Lewis dovetails perfectly with what Fromm is saying: Our character structure (our capacity to choose) is altered with each choice we make.
There’s no neutrality.
We’re either growing stronger and wiser and more brave and free and healthy and clear and better able to choose what is good and decent and right for us and others in the future; or we’re weakening ourselves, becoming more practiced at being defensive, unloving, dishonest, self-deceptive, surrending and giving into fear and anxiety and what’s worst and weakest in ourselves, becoming more practiced in our defenses and running away from the full intensity of life and intimacy, and less able and less likely in the future to be able to choose differently than this. . . .
Again, there’s no neutrality. Every choice affects us not only now, it also affects our very capacity to choose the next time; it affects the way we will make choices in the future, slanting/moving us either slightly left or right, toward being better able to make healthy choices (red pill), or more likely to be unable to do so (blue pill).
“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.
“And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.
“To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.
“To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.
“Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
(C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87)