On Free Spiritedness

Steven Pittz’s plea for liberal attention to spiritual freedom and his account of the significant role that free spirits may play in a liberal polity belongs to a strain of liberal thinking encompassing Emerson, Thoreau, Tocqueville, and Mill, to which Nietzsche, at least in his middle period, has significant affinities. What unites these thinkers is the view that the very success of liberalism in realizing political and economic liberties creates the conditions of a further threat arising from within the free realm of civil society. Liberal society, as they might put it, is haunted by the spectre of social despotism exercised through the power of majority public opinion expressed as sanctionable social norms. Such a rule of conformity is both a form of liberal unfreedom in that it obstructs the formation and expression of free individuality—and a medium through which the wider liberties of the liberal state may be undermined or bypassed (for example, by demagogues mobilizing public opinion).

It is against this background that Pittz’s contention resonates that free spirits—who exhibit the (aristocratic) virtue of independence of mind within a commitment to spiritual fulness—are valuable and necessary figures for sustaining liberal society. Free spirits are thus conceived as a defense against the rule of conformity, against both the direct threat of social despotism and its use as a medium to support or enable political despotism, because they are personally resistant to propaganda and customary norms, and because they serve as visible exemplars of “living in freedom” (as we might put it). Spiritual freedom—or free spiritedness—then looks like a disposition that liberal society requires to sustain itself.

Although (or perhaps because) I am sympathetic to Pittz’s view, it is worthwhile considering a counterargument. This argument would contend that free spirits aren’t necessary to liberal society because living in a free society enables individuals to take up plural conceptions of the good and supports the emergence and flourishing of diverse voluntary associations based on shared interests or values as well as a plurality of political parties that express different value-coalitions. The claim here is that these forms of plurality dissolve the threat of social despotism through majority public opinion because they obstruct the formation of any stable majority view, and they do so in part because the diversity of voluntary associations and the plurality of political parties means that these bodies perform a functional role equivalent to that of free spirits in challenging the social norms and political ideologies of other groups. Why, then, would we need free spirits?

There is, I think, some force to this argument. Voluntary associations will typically be alert to those social norms that potentially limit or threaten their interests and values, and a diverse plurality of such associations is likely to help provide checks on the ability of any association (or groups of associations) to shape public opinion into a despotic power. However, I would submit, the force of this claim is limited by the fact that we have prudential reasons based on the history of liberal societies to doubt that their diversity and plurality is always effective as a counter to the power of majority public opinion—and, in such contexts, free spirits are needed. Consider, for example, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which played a central role in launching second-wave feminism in the United States by exposing “the problem with no name,” that is, the ways in which the oppressive power of patriarchal social norms functioned by making women feel there was something wrong with them in being unfulfilled by a purely domestic life as wife and mother. Or consider the essays of James Baldwin, so central to the continuing struggle for African American equality, which exposed and dissected the everyday operation of pervasive racist norms in American social life. The lives and works of such thinkers as exemplifications of free spiritedness illustrate how important this disposition is to the challenge of liberalizing society, and perhaps especially of liberalizing a society that already takes itself to be liberal. In such contexts, free spirits play the crucial role of displaying another way of relating to one another, of dispelling the myths that such societies want to tell themselves, and of exposing civic audiences to truthful recountings of their national histories and current conditions. A liberal society needs to be able to face its past and its present with honesty, to acknowledge its graces and disgraces, and yet this is something that nation-states, liberal or not, seem to find it hardest to do.

But how is this disposition of free spiritedness to be generated and reproduced in a liberal society? This question arises because the presumption behind the strain of liberal thinking that Pittz draws on is that free spiritedness cannot be supposed to be a spontaneous product of a liberal political order; if it could, then the concerns expressed by Emerson, Thoreau, Tocqueville, and Mill would be redundant. Rather these thinkers suppose that liberal society needs to cultivate and sustain a culture that supports the valuing of free spiritedness. How is this to be accomplished?

There are at least two components that are crucial to the generation of free spiritedness as a feature of liberal culture. The first concerns education and the cultivation of the disposition of free spiritedness. The second concerns the public sphere and the conditions of responsiveness to free spiritedness.

For Nietzsche, a key component is an education system that differentiates between what we might call “liberal education” and vocational training. The former is focused on cultivating the skeptical disposition, intellectual capabilities, and courage for truth required for sounding out idols and contesting customs, whereas the latter is oriented to enabling individuals to earn a living. It was already apparent to Nietzsche in the context of Bismarck’s newly formed German national state that education was being oriented to serve the needs of the state and that the Gymnasium and the University, formerly the sites of genuine education, were now machines of what we might call “flexible vocational training” for government service and the “liberal” professions. The modern state as a provider of public education funded through general taxation has strong utilitarian reasons to favor vocationally oriented education over liberal education and to subordinate culture to the ideological legitimation needs of the state. In this context, the role of universities in sustaining liberal education becomes key and, hence, the importance of maintaining the independence of universities from the state (and particularly from full dependence on state funding) in order to resist the external pressures of the “employability” agenda, in which liberal education is judged against vocational standards (“How much do graduates of Classics earn after graduation?”). This is not to say that free spiritedness is limited to graduates of a liberal education, but rather to say that the valuing of liberal education in the education system and most visibly at universities plays a central role in sustaining the cultural commitment to the disposition of free spiritedness and the material conditions for its reproduction. A culture that values liberal education will also value institutions such as public libraries that make the materials of a liberal education available to all and an organization of social life that ensures that there is sufficient leisure time for individuals to have real, rather than merely notional, access to such materials.

Free spirits can, however, only perform their idol-dispelling role under conditions in which they can make their voices public and in which their arguments are not simply ignored. The publicity condition requires that a liberal society is characterized by a diverse and plural media environment. Such a culture will resist concentrations of media ownership as a threat to liberal society. The uptake condition entails that this environment is characterized, at least in part, by a commitment to intellectual conscience, to the force of the better argument, not merely to pre-determined editorial lines or partisan positions. A basic respect for facts, however inconvenient they are for one’s own views, is a fundamental requirement for such an environment.

As these brief reflections on education and public media suggest, free spirits do not come free—and the demands of a culture of free spiritedness have implications for the arrangement of civic institutions and of economic life that are liable to stand in tension with the logic of the modern state, which is concerned with its own ideological legitimation, and with the logic of a capitalist economy, which is concerned with its rate of profit. In this respect, though, sustaining free spiritedness entails enacting limits on the modern state and on the capitalist economy that social liberals should endorse anyway. The price of a liberal society is vigilance against the threats that the state and the capitalist economy pose to liberal freedom and while spiritual freedom may, as Pittz argues, complete the idea of liberal freedom by adding another dimension to economic and political liberties, the cultivation of free spiritedness also puts constraints on the expression of these liberties.

But here I think it is important to pause to note a feature of the argument that I have developed thus in relation to Pittz’s concern with spiritual freedom, namely, that my remarks have really only focused on the instrumental role that the practice of independence of mind plays in a liberal society, and Pittz’s idea of spiritual freedom appears to encompass more than this. Free spirits are on a quest for spiritual fulness for Pittz, but what this spiritual fulness consists in remains somewhat unclear. It seems plausible that the relevant notion is that of realizing one’s genius (in Emerson’s terms) or “becoming what one is” (in Nietzsche’s), which we might gloss in terms of embracing life as a challenge, of challenging oneself to develop one’s capacities (and particularly one’s capacity for directing one’s own agency) and of challenging conventions and customs that would limit one’s ability to shape one’s life. Such an ideal is demanding—and can be variably realized as Pittz notes—but its relationship to the cultivation of independence of mind is clear. If I have grasped Pittz’s point correctly, the claim is that it is only if liberals endorse this ideal as an intrinsically valuable form of life that liberal society gets the instrumental benefits that free spiritedness brings. But is this an ideal for everyone? And how are those who are not attracted to (or simply reject) this ideal viewed in a liberal society? Pittz acknowledges that free spirits will stand in an agonistic relationship to society, but doesn’t this require that free spirits are, as Nietzsche supposed, the exception rather than the rule? And doesn’t a culture than promotes and values free spiritedness thereby devalue those who embrace tradition and conformity? How exactly is a liberal society to privilege the ideal of spiritual freedom while acknowledging that this is an ideal that only a few will be able to exemplify fully? For those like myself who are in sympathy with Pittz’s claim concerning the vital role that free spirits play in a liberal society, these questions cannot but be pressing.

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.