To David Owen on Free Spirits, the Liberal Temperament, and Liberal Education

In his response essay, David Owen presents a counterargument to the question of whether society needs free spirits, as well as offering insights into how spiritual freedom might be cultivated in a liberal society. On the whole, there seems to be more agreement than disagreement between myself and Owen, but I will take this opportunity to address some of the issues he raises.

First, the argument that liberal society already promotes value pluralism, and that voluntary associations provide diversity enough to challenge powerful social norms and political ideologies, is one that looks different in theory than in practice. I strongly support voluntary associations and hope for genuine pluralism—like all liberals—but also have doubts about their efficacy in combatting norms and dogmatism in practice. Conformity within groups is certainly as strong, often stronger, than conformity at the level of society (would anyone suggest that fraternities and sororities promote independence of mind?). Thus, free spirits are needed within groups as well. I suspect that on this point Owen agrees, and his mention of figures like Betty Friedan and James Baldwin is illuminating. Both liberal society and the plurality of associations within it need individuals who challenge their norms and susceptibility to groupthink. Relevant here, as well, is the distinction I make in the book between liberal institutions and liberal culture. Liberal institutions, including freedom of association, provide the political framework for pluralism and for spiritual freedom. A free spirit should have no need, in my view, to revolt against liberal institutions. Liberal culture, on the other hand, is prone to the same suffocation of spiritual freedom as any other regime (some, Nietzsche and perhaps even Tocqueville and Mill, would argue the problem is more acute in liberal societies, where many wrongly believe they have “achieved” freedom and no longer need to guard it). The free spirits’ role, then, is to check these ever-present tendencies of liberal culture to stifle genuine independence.

I was grateful for Owen’s discussion of cultivating spiritual freedom and the conditions necessary for it to be accepted in liberal society. I do, however, think that we must consider Nietzsche’s focus on the will when we think about the emergence of free spirits. A proper liberal education is a strong support for spiritual freedom, but for Nietzsche I don’t believe it is decisive. Whereas Mill and Tocqueville subscribe to a view of the independent spirit consistent with the ideals of the Enlightenment and the use of one’s reason to arrive at knowledge independently, Nietzsche identifies temperament and an uncommonly strong will as key components of the exceptional individual. Unpacking this idea of Nietzsche’s is complicated, as one must analyze and disentangle several exceptional types that Nietzsche discusses (free spirit, philosopher of future, ὔbermensch, genius). I suspect that any readers who are not Nietzsche scholars have little interest in such an unpacking, so I will refrain from attempting that here (although I am sure both Professors Owen and Meyer could have much to say on that subject, and I welcome any comments they may have outside of this forum). Suffice it to say here that the free spirit is marked by an unusual temperament, one that is not primarily cultivated through education (which is not to say education has no effect on it). For Nietzsche, they are stubborn, skeptical, and cheerful by temperament and they desire above all other pursuits to remain in a condition of independence.

Thus, while I agree with Owen’s emphasis on a genuinely liberal education, and support its ability to encourage spiritual freedom broadly, I also argue that free spirits are simply out there—in various domains and possessing differing degrees of the characteristics of spiritual freedom, to be sure—and that their presence demonstrates spiritual independence to others. This notion connects to Owen’s later query about whether free spirits are, as Nietzsche contends, the exception rather than the rule. The short answer is yes, but this does not preclude all individuals from working towards spiritual freedom. As I argue in the book, “despite our liberal “rights” to thought, speech, and expression, true independence of mind is a rarity in our society…it is not the norm but the exception. The norm is borrowing thoughts others have generated, and if we are honest, we are all guilty of this from time to time. It takes hard work to form one’s own opinions and to actualize independence of mind—it is a goal we ought to aspire to, not something which we automatically possess once we are provided with a corresponding ‘right’.” Free spirits model the pursuit of genuine independence of mind, showing others the possibility of detaching from widespread norms and conventions.

I will conclude by briefly addressing one more issue that Owen raises, namely what precisely consists in the quest for spiritual fullness. On this point I fear I cannot answer in a satisfactory manner, partially due to the limited space available and partially due to the multitudinous ways in which one might approach spiritual fullness. I claim no ability to either pinpoint the nature of spiritual fullness or to exhaust all the options for its pursuit. Owen suggests the independent development of one’s capacities—away from the conventions and customs that would limit such development—in the manner in which both Emerson and at times Nietzsche prescribe. I would be a fool to reject such a noble ambition, but I approach the question of spiritual fullness differently. In the book, I focus on aesthetic experience as a path to fullness (with the adjoining argument that independence of mind loosens the hold of authority upon us, opening a space for wonder and aesthetic experience in general) and present it as a positive orientation for a free spirit, who otherwise is often in a detached or negative stance relative to the conventions of society. This idea clearly requires much more development to be convincing, but I will leave it at that for now because any attempt in this short space will likely raise more questions than it answers.

Yet I still wish to emphasize the importance of spiritual fullness, in whatever way one might pursue it, to theorizing about liberalism. It seems to me that almost all liberals—from classical liberals and libertarians to Rawlsian liberals—have become accustomed to emphasizing economic and political liberties when they promote or defend liberalism. As necessary as that endeavor is, it leaves a gap through which critics of liberalism push the idea that liberal individuals are lost and spiritually empty. They point to the loss of connection to community, to other sources of meaning (tradition, religion, family, etc.), and to the general spiritual isolation of the modern liberal individual (as an aside, I do think isolation is increasing, but I believe that is due much more to the ubiquity of the smartphone than to any form of political organization or as a result of any political philosophy). In short, liberals are “atomized” and spiritually empty. The idea of spiritual fullness as a component of spiritual freedom is meant to push against such criticism. There is a spiritual dimension to liberal political philosophy as well as a positive orientation for liberals to go along with their “negative” liberties, and I think liberals need to develop these more. I have no illusions that I have precisely resolved this issue or even offered the best way for liberals to do this, but I hope it is a start.

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.