What Use Has Society for a Free Spirit?

What do free individuals do for a society? I am grateful for the opportunity to answer the question, as I also explore this theme in my own work, principally Recovering the Liberal Spirit: Nietzsche, Individuality and Spiritual Freedom (SUNY 2020). This question also compels us to talk about freedom in a somewhat unusual way. That is, rather than focusing on the liberating effects of rights and liberal institutions, we will focus more on the lived experiences of individuals in society. We do this by contemplating what I call spiritual freedom, which I consider a species or category of liberal freedom. The discourse on freedom in liberal societies is usually dominated by questions of economic and political liberty. These categories are undoubtedly important, and I do not mean to suggest that liberty lovers should cease discussing and defending economic and political liberties. But freedom extends past economic and political dimensions; it extends to our spiritual life. Spiritual freedom is an additional category of liberal freedom, which does not supplant but instead complements the economic and political liberties that we enjoy in the West.

I define spiritual freedom as intellectual freedom plus a concern for spiritual fullness. In the book I explain these terms in detail, but here I will provide just a brief sketch. Intellectual freedom is a good that almost everyone—and all liberals—are wont to affirm. If we are not intellectually free, then our thoughts are not our own, and our thoughts are not self-generated—we are prisoners to the thoughts of someone or something else. We might be in the grips of ideology or under the spell of an authoritative figure, but in any case our minds are not free to gain knowledge independently. Spiritual freedom contains intellectual freedom—which is often tied to the ideals of the Enlightenment—within it. Yet it further contains a concern for spiritual fulfillment. To be spiritually free is not as desirable as being spiritually full. Spiritual seekers pursue some sort of satisfied, or full, spiritual state. I call this a state of “spiritual fullness.” This sketch of spiritual freedom is quite abstract, and to make it more concrete I describe the free spirit, the embodiment or model of spiritual freedom. A free spirit is someone who is both intellectually free and one who pursues spiritual fullness on his/her own terms.

Who are these free spirits? After all, “free spirit” is a bit of a hackneyed term in modern culture, as they appear in Hollywood movies, pop culture and the vernacular. The “free spirit” tends to be portrayed as one who lives an alternative lifestyle, an escapist, one who refuses to follow the basic rules of social convention. They refuse to face “reality,” they are disenfranchised by the “system,” they cannot or will not work a “regular” job, and often they dabble in mysticism. In short, the popularized “free spirit” is generally taken to shun the “real world,” and to live instead in a world of dreams, illusions, and mystical intuitions.

The free spirit I discuss is quite different from the popularized “free spirit.” He is precisely concerned with avoiding dreams and illusions. Our free spirit is not an escapist; rather, he is concerned with avoiding the common pitfalls of escapism. Our free spirit, which borrows much from Nietzsche, is a skeptic who seeks above all to be free of illusions about the world. He desires to interact with the world on his own terms, and using his own faculties. Free spirits are skeptics, and here we see the emphasis on independence of mind or intellectual freedom. Our free spirit is also remarkable in the way she pursues meaning and fulfillment in her life, namely in her quest for spiritual fullness. She is able to face reality without falling to despair. Free spirits welcome a world without obvious rational meaning and without authoritative doctrines. These are a cause for wonder rather than crushing doubt; as an invitation to create meaning rather than as a terrifying abyss. The free spirit affirms life and creates value in it—that is, she achieves spiritual fullness—through independent discovery and through aesthetic perspective (which I will not discuss here for brevity’s sake), as opposed to traditional perspectives such as communal or religious doctrines, or through belief in a teleological human progress of some sort. Consequently, a free spirit is likely to be detached, to a large degree, from the traditions, morals, and general ethos of the community in which she lives. They wish to be free from custom and convention; free from groups and associations, and communities, that interrupt their solitude and create harmful attachments; and free from dogmatic claims to truth and authority.

Free spirits, then, will always be to some degree opposed to society as it exists around them. They require detachment from many things that others believe in and value most highly. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they are often treated with suspicion by the majority of people. As thinkers like Mill, Tocqueville, Emerson and others have observed, society (particularly democratic society) doesn’t like difference. Conformity is the norm, and independent individuals are pressured in myriad ways to go along, at times even threatened. Emerson pithily explains this tension between society and “independent spirit”: “Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declares all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate.”[1] There will always be tension between free spirits and society, but this tension is not merely adversarial. Each needs the other, for reasons we can just briefly discuss here. Free spirits are free compared to others in society; one is more or less spiritually free than others in a relative, not absolute, sense. Moreover, the independence of mind and aesthetic perspective characteristic of the free spirit are aspirational rather than permanent, and they admit of degrees (i.e., some are more spiritually free than others, and individuals themselves are more or less free at different times). Thus, a free spirit experiences and exercises spiritual freedom within the norms and conventions of the society in which they live, in what is an ongoing process of acceptance or rejection of what society presents to them.

But why does society, which views such individuals with suspicion, need free spirits? In short, because they are a bulwark against spiritual and political oppression. Such oppression may take the form of political propaganda, which free spirits will clearly resist, internally at the very least. In modern liberal democracies, the power of public opinion requires a check. Free spirits are consistently resistant to public opinion and the putative authority it can possess. Many political thinkers, such as Hume, Tocqueville, and Mill have cautioned liberal societies about the dangers of public opinion. Modern liberal societies are often not, in practice, as tolerant of freedom of thought as they are in theory. Tocqueville warned of the democratic “tyranny of the majority”; Hume worried that a politics of opinion would be run by parties running on extreme, and especially abstract, speculative principles that were in reality merely prejudices. And Mill: “Protection against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose…its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” He continues, “there is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.”[2] Free spirits have a role to play here: they demonstrate how intellectual and spiritual freedom in theory—i.e., freedom of thought protected through political rights—also becomes intellectual and spiritual freedom in practice. It is not merely the skeptical outlook of the free spirit that checks oppression, it is the way in which they live. Their independence, stubbornness, and resistance to social pressure in many forms provide a visible alternative to conventional norms. I stress this practice of spiritual freedom, perhaps obnoxiously, because the freedoms we do enjoy in the West are worth very little without exercise. We too often take for granted our freedoms, when they only reap rewards if we use them. A remark by Soren Kierkegaard makes the point plain, “aren’t people absurd! They never use the freedoms they do have but demand those they don’t have; they have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech.”[3] Genuine freedom is something we all must continually work towards—it is aspirational.

I hope this brief sketch of the free spirit does justice to the idea, and I look forward to an opportunity to answer whatever questions come from readers and the other contributors to this forum. To conclude, I have suggested here that one important way to answer the question of what freedom does for a society is to look at the effects that genuinely free individuals have on that society. On the one hand, the lived experience of free spirits clarifies and expands what freedom can mean for us, as it evinces the aspirational quality of independence of mind and spiritual fullness. On the other hand, these same free individuals demonstrate these qualities and resist the power of conformity and the putative authority of public opinion. In so doing, they provide a check on dogmatism and fanaticism, and they loosen the knot of ideology. Put differently, what freedom does for society is enables the individuals within it to achieve spiritual freedom—these individuals in turn demonstrate and protect genuine independence of mind, supporting and furthering the freedom of society. These effects of free individuals seem to me beneficial in any age, but are perhaps even more necessary over the last century and to the present. The catastrophic damage caused by the mass movements of the 20th century, both fascist and communist, point emphatically to the need for independent figures willing to resist the growth of collective ideology, like our free spirits. Today, illiberal movements on both the left and the right are forming rigid ideological doctrines and seeking to enforce conformity to them through a variety of methods, some more coercive than others. Individuals willing and able to resist these forces—to remain spiritually free despite great pressure to go along with the crowd—are crucial to the maintenance of a free society and should, in my view, be encouraged and admired. My humble goal in writing about spiritual freedom is to clarify what these individuals do for society and remind the rest of us why we should be grateful for them.

Finally, I wish to re-iterate the complementary, even symbiotic, nature of the categories of liberal freedom mentioned at the beginning of the essay. I focus on spiritual freedom, but insist also on the importance of more recognizable categories of freedom as part of a sort of liberal recipe. Our economic freedoms (freedom to work, engage in contracts, etc.) and political and civil freedoms (First Amendment protections, due process, etc.) combine with spiritual freedom to constitute genuine individual liberty (as I see it, economic, political, and spiritual freedom are all necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the proper exercise of each other). This liberal combination is a robust and sophisticated recipe for freedom, and remains the greatest intellectual defense that lovers of liberty have against a whole host of political theories and movements that seek to diminish or eliminate the freedom of individuals.


[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (EWRWE) ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Penguin/Random House, 2000), 87.

[2] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 63.

[3] Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1992), 43. At the time of Kierkegaard’s writing, Denmark was still a monarchy, and freedom of speech was not a protected right.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Steven Pittz describes spiritual freedom as a kind of intellectual freedom that is concerned chiefly with achieving spiritual goals. In a liberal society, a free spirit may also stand as a bulwark against oppression, provincialism, and mindless conformity. As a result, those who are willing to rethink their society’s received wisdom are both vital and often persecuted.

Response Essays

  • David Owen offers two challenges to the claim that spiritual freedom is necessary for a free society: First, he suggests that voluntary associations and value-coalitions will naturally emerge in a free society and break up social despotism all on their own. The free spirit may not be all that necessary. But in his second challenge, he argues that it could be the case that free spirits do best with a degree of perhaps paradoxical social support, especially in the areas of education and the media, which are crucial to the production of free spirits and the spread of their ideas and examples.

  • The free spirit—unbound by social norms and received ideas—may or may not be an asset to liberalism, says Matthew Meyer. The fearless investigation of norms and ideas may lead an individual to reject liberalism itself. Meyer argues that, on a careful reading of Nietzsche, that philosopher’s free spirit ideal may even have more of an affinity with authoritarianism and empire than liberals like Steven Pittz would like to admit.