Some Final Replies to Owen and Meyer

I would like to begin this final reply by thanking Professors Owen and Meyer for their thoughtful comments on my initial essay. I also thank Jason Kuznicki at Cato for the opportunity and for so expertly managing the conversation. In this brief response I will not be able to address all that Owen and Meyer proffer in the way of criticism, but I am sure that their ideas will help shape my continuing work on these themes in the near future. For that I am especially grateful.

Professor Owen urges that we consider the importance of a “calling” and of evaluating our lives in terms of an “ultimate value” when we discuss spiritual freedom. I’ll confess that, after reading and re-reading Owen’s remarks, I am still struggling to find a satisfactory approach to this issue. On the one hand, the notion of spiritual fullness requires connection to something outside of ourselves, some source of meaning and attachment. Committing ourselves to a value that orders our lives and helps us “become what we are” certainly fits the bill. On the other hand, emphasizing such commitment or the idea of a “calling” when evaluating spiritual fullness also moves us away from understanding spiritual freedom as a category of liberal freedom.

When I talk about spiritual freedom, I couch it primarily in terms of negative liberty (I’m thinking there of Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty). I think of it more as freedom from social pressures than as freedom to pursue a particular spiritual life. This is not to say that I don’t also discuss the potential positive orientations of a free spirit, but I choose not to over-determine what these orientations might be. I am wary of using the language of positive liberty—thinking of our freedom in terms of our possibilities or capabilities of achieving certain ends—because I believe it devalues the importance of individual choice and underestimates the number of ways that individuals might pursue spiritual fullness. It also tends toward a rank ordering of ultimate values, something that Nietzsche wants to do more than I do, and of course he also thought that liberal orders destroyed higher values and ways of being. I depart from Nietzsche here, as I am less gloomy about the possibilities for spiritual pursuits in the liberal age. I think the spiritual dimension of liberalism is weak and ought to be fostered and grown, but Nietzsche seems to find this dimension of liberalism irredeemably barren.

All that said, I am sympathetic to Owen’s claim that spiritual freedom requires hard choices and real commitments. It cannot be easy aesthetic pleasure and escaping societal pressures all the time. I personally find Nietzsche’s claim that we must find meaning in and affirm our suffering to truly affirm life to be something of an existential truth. As Owen notes, we must be able to affirm the “mundane, tedious, and often dispiriting tasks” that go along with our personal commitments. However, I’m not sure that we should emphasize these ethical questions when we talk about a liberal category of spiritual freedom. That is the best response I can muster, while recognizing that I might not be following Owen’s line of reasoning all that closely. I’d welcome any further comments he has on these issues (outside of this forum, of course).

To Meyer I might start by thanking him for articulating my approach more clearly than I have: yes, my view is that free spirits will tend to benefit the liberal order. Moreover, it is this beneficial consequence that warrants the risks inherent in the promotion of spiritual freedom, which Meyer lays out for us and which I will attempt to address. Before I do, however, my quick answer to the warning that free spirits are not certain to stay within the bounds of the liberal order is simply this: it is worth the risk.

Meyer is certainly right that spiritual freedom might result in destabilization of liberal principles themselves. I rely on the harm principle to protect other citizens from “bad” free spirits, but Meyer understandably raises the concern that free spirits might “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.” Meyer has convinced me that I need to think more about this problem, but my initial defense would be an empirical one. In short, while there is no theoretical limit against a free spirit’s destabilization and potential overturning of liberal principles, I just don’t think there is enough spiritual freedom operating in society to completely overturn the power of any widely held principles, including liberal ones. In my view, free spirits destabilize and weaken—perhaps in the end improve—the norms, conventions, and principles that are in favor at any given time, but they very rarely (do they ever?) win the argument in the end.

Meyer further asks, “what if these ‘bad’ free spirits become culturally dominant?”, and my response is largely the same. For one, and I follow Nietzsche here, free spirits will always be the exception rather than the rule (as Nietzsche insists, the “free spirit is a relative concept”, Human, All Too Human). But the more salient fact is that social power will always be stronger the power of individuals in liberal societies. Here I follow J.S. Mill’s assessment of the balance between individuals and social power in the modern liberal age: “There has been a time [in history] when the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess, and the social principle had a hard struggle with it. The difficulty then was to induce men of strong bodies or minds to pay obedience to any rules which required them to control their impulses…But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.” (On Liberty).

I plan to spend more time thinking about this question as well as to further investigate Nietzsche’s changes to the free spirit ideal between Human, All Too Human and Daybreak. I’ll look forward to using Meyer’s recent book on the free spirit as a guide in that investigation. I’ll conclude, however, by restating my view that despite the possible dangers of promoting spiritual freedom, I remain confident that the benefits will greatly outweigh the costs.

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.