Freedom and Fate in Western Thought

I’ve observed a constellation of ideas that has been a part of Western thinking for a long time, but became most influential beginning with the Enlightenment.

It has to do with notions of freedom and determinism (specifically in terms of materialism and mechanism, environmentalism and communitarianism/socialism) along with heretical views about God and Nature, specifically such views as deism and pantheism/panentheism. It, of course, involves criticisms of biblical literalism and the rise of modern biblical studies in general, the Enlightenment idea being that faith and revelation doesn’t trump reason.

An early origin of this constellation has to do with the Stoics. They dealt with the problems of human fate. It was from the Stoics that the early Christians inherited natural law.

Freewill was a major issue for Christian theologians in those first several centuries. Augustine was heavily impacted by his experience as a Manichaean, and through this he introduced elements of Manichaeism into Catholicism. He particularly struggled with evil and freewill. This led him to a compromised position of Original Sin and the necessity of the Church as a proxy to enforce God’s will and hence enforce social order.

Later on, the Reformation era was a major factor in setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Take Erasmus as an example. He helped form modern biblical criticism and the humanistic tradition. He also was involved with a famous debate with Luther about freewill.

My focus on these ideas, however, isn’t as directly related to religion. The specific constellation of ideas can be seen in Hobbes’ writings, but more clearly takes form with Spinoza and Locke (the latter two born in the same year).

Spinoza and Locke represent the two sides of the Enlightenment, radical and moderate. Locke isn’t part of my main focus at the moment, although he forms an obvious context for most people in thinking about the development of the Western tradition. Instead, the more radical Spinoza has been on my mind. This constellation of ideas can be seen in the entire Enlightenment tradition and represents a core element, but it is most clearly manifest in the radical Enlightenment with its tendency toward deism.

In light of Spinoza, Hobbes has come to my attention. Hobbes is a precursor to the moderate Enlightenment, but he does share at least one thing in common with Spinoza. Both were determinists.

Hobbes saw human nature as dangerous. So, he put forth a secularized version of the Leviathan/Commonwealth where government takes on the role once held by the Church. 

Spinoza, however, saw human nature as having the individual capacity for moral good. So, he saw a kind of freedom to be had in knowledge and self-awareness. Certainly, Spinoza was the first advocate of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and democracy. Spinoza was also an early materialist which was related to his views of mechanism and determinism.

About a century later, Paine came on the scene. Paine was indebted to Spinoza, at least in his later work but probably in his earlier work as well (Spinoza’s influence on English deism was well established by the time Paine was born; the influence on Paine probably being a combination of direct and indirect as Spinoza’s influence was wide-ranging across all of the Western world, including influence on Locke). Paine’s radicalism, maybe more than any other single factor, inspired the entire revolutionary era from Europe to North America.

Many early American radical thinkers had notions of America’s destiny. Paine saw it as being a revolutionary fire that would spread across the world and so a destiny not limited or owned by just Americans. Others have seen this destiny differently such as an American Manifest Destiny. Either way, it forms the background to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and freedom.

Lincoln was inspired by Paine. Also, Lincoln was involved in a social circle that included many radicals: spiritualists, communitarians, free-soilers, abolitionists, feminists, left-wing revolutionaries, etc. Lincoln developed a more determinist view of humanity and history which he at least partly got from Robert Dale Owen, the son of the famous socialist. It was because of Lincoln’s determinism that he thought that slavery was fated to end.  Lincoln believed in natural law which closely relates to the deist Nature’s God which is the divine imminent in the world and in each person, hence all are equal (Lincoln was aware of Jefferson’s deism and his original draft of the Declaration of Independence that declared all people equal, no matter their religion, race or gender).

If freedom is part of natural law, then it is destined to be. God isn’t arbitrary. God’s will is the law of this world, i.e., natural law. As such, all of the world chafes at the reigns of oppression for, from this view, it is unnatural and unsustainable.

During Lincoln’s life, Marxism and socialism were having great impact. Many of the left-wing revolutionaries in Europe had immigrated to America, some even joining Lincoln’s administration or the leadership of the Union army. More of Marx’s writings had been published in a Republican newspaper than anywhere else in the world and that newspaper was regularly read by Lincoln. Marx was another thinker who was influenced by Spinoza, and some Marxists today have attempted to rehabilitate Marxism by way of Spinoza.

Socialism is closely related to environmentalism for the environment includes both the social environment and the natural environment. This also brings us to the whole deep ecology angle which relates to the Nature’s God of the deists and so goes back to Spinoza. The original influence on deep ecology came from a philosophical pessimist, Peter Wessel Zapffe.

There is the common idea of the environment influencing or determining human behavior, an idea that was implicit if often submerged in the Enlightenment project. Different theorists go in diverse directions about this environmental influence, but it has becoming increasingly central to the ideas most clearly formulated by the first Enlightenment thinkers.

Ideas about freedom have a close history with ideas about fate.

This reminds me, as many things do, of the Trickster archetype. There is the liminal space between seemingly polar concepts. They are secretly connected and can’t be divided for it goes beyond mere philosophy.

This is moreso about human nature than about any particular ideology. This constellation of ideas can lead to many ideologies. What makes me wonder is the factor that causes these ideas to constellate in the fist place. What is their affinity?

In the Trickster archetype, there are issues of egalitarianism in terms of bringing the high down low and there are issues of charisma that offers a vision of egalitarianism and empowerment. Thinkers such as Paine and Lincoln certainly weren’t lacking in charisma.

I’m not sure what all this adds up to. Just some thoughts rolling around my head.

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