Will a Free Spirit Be a Liberal Spirit?

I want to thank Steven Pittz for his thoughtful comments on my response essay. He addresses a number of my concerns, and he provides much to reflect upon. That said, I think he slightly misreads my argument and my main concern with his thesis. Specifically, my main worry is not, as he claims, whether it is “appropriate at all to use Nietzsche’s ideas in defense of liberalism.” As I state in my initial response, there are resources in Nietzsche to do this, and Pittz rightly finds them in the early phases of Nietzsche’s free spirit project. Instead, my initial worry was this: depending on the precise nature of his claim, his thesis is either obviously true or potentially false. The thesis is obviously true if Pittz’s claim is that a free spirit with a critical-skeptical mindset, perhaps like Socrates, can help sustain and support the liberal order. In contrast, if Pittz’s claim is that free spirits or critical-skeptical thinkers will necessarily sustain and support the liberal order, then Nietzsche could be understood as a prominent counterexample that Pittz needs to address. In this sense, his thesis is potentially false.

After reading Pittz’s response, I think he can be understood as charting a middle ground between these two unsavory options: free spirits will tend to benefit the liberal order and sustain liberal society. Thus, the connection between liberalism and free spiritedness is neither a mere conceptual possibility nor a matter of necessity; instead, it’s the claim that critical-skeptical free spirits who resist the trends and fashions of the day will often, but not always, benefit the liberal order. Because this is a tendency of free spirits, it is still possible to have illiberal or bad or even dangerous free spirits, and the question is what to do about these. Here, Pittz begins his response by addressing this question head on: He points to the liberal harm principle that prohibits such free spirits from harming others in their quest for spiritual freedom. So far so good.

Pittz goes further with his response. What if the ideas of a free spirit like Nietzsche threaten political institutions, as some have worried? Pittz counters this by doubting whether Nietzsche had such a political project and distinguishing between the political and the cultural, arguing that most free spirits destabilize dogmas in the cultural realm but do so within a liberal political framework. In response, I worry about making such a sharp distinction between culture and politics, and I don’t think that Nietzsche needs to have a positive political project to cause problems for liberalism and therefore for Pittz’s argument. For instance, Pittz argues that “society” cannot allow a free spirit to violate the liberal harm principle. But what if free spirits like Nietzsche undermine society’s commitment—by way of influencing the beliefs of individuals that make up society—to the very principles that support the liberal harm principle? In short, what if these “bad” free spirits become culturally dominant? It is hard to see how they wouldn’t have a corrosive influence on liberal institutions and the ability for society to uphold and enforce something like the harm principle.

Pittz concludes his remarks with an attempt to show how one can both be a free-spirited skeptic and a liberal at the same time. To do this, Pittz distinguishes between liberalism in practice and liberalism as dogma, and he argues that one can be a liberal in practice without being firmly committed to liberal dogma. Again, I have no doubt that it is theoretically possible to be both a liberal and a free spirit. Indeed, the kind of dogma-free, practice-based liberalism Pittz sketches here reminds me of the sort of the foundationless, pragmatic liberalism Richard Rorty would espouse. On this view, to be a liberal—and here is a variant of the harm principle—is simply to believe that cruelty is the worst thing one can do: No grand narratives about freedom, equality, and human rights are required.

In his closing lines, Pittz subtly moves from a claim about the mere compatibility between free spirits and pragmatic liberalism to the stronger claim that the “general characteristics of the free spirit” make it “quite liberal in nature.” Although this is the kind of claim that Pittz needs in order to respond to my overarching concern, his claim here depends on a fairly narrow notion of what the free spirit is or can be. If it turns out that the free spirit is one of a Pyrrhonian flavor, then Pittz is probably right: apolitical Pyrrhonian skeptics, like Epicureans or even Cynics, will fit well with, or at least not undermine, the liberal order.

However, I fail to see why the quest for spiritual freedom tends toward this sort of skepticism. It’s clear that a critical attitude is necessary to liberate oneself from inherited beliefs and cultural dogmas, but it is not clear that this liberation will result in the sort of suspension of judgment that the Pyrrhonian skeptic advocates. In Nietzsche’s case, it is true that he advocates a suspension of judgment about the value of life at the end of the first chapter of Human, All Too Human, but, as I noted in my initial remarks, he later praises the free spirit who actively undermines customs and customary beliefs in a work like Daybreak (the second main work of the free spirit trilogy). In short, the idea that Nietzsche remains some sort of apolitical Pyrrhonian skeptic, even during the free spirit works, is dubious, and thus Nietzsche himself provides an image of the free spirit that differs from the one Pittz presents.

But even if Nietzsche did provide an image of the free spirit that is in line with Pittz’s characterization, I think it’s clear that the quest for spiritual freedom or fulness will not necessarily result in a form of Pyrrhonian skepticism and a corresponding pragmatic liberalism. In short, for Pittz’s argument that the free spirit will tend to support the liberal order to work, he needs, at the outset, to place limits or constraints on what the free spirit will become. In my view, once the free spirit breaks the chains of convention and escapes the cave of convention, there is no telling, in advance, where the quest for spiritual freedom will lead. She could become a hardline Platonist, a Pyrrhonian skeptic, a devotee of Dionysus, or even discover some new human possibility, and for this reason, it is hard to say, in advance, whether such a free spirit will be well disposed toward liberalism or not.

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.