In the previous post I brought into the open the implications of modern self’s claims about itself and its powers. It claims power to free itself from limits that stand in the way of full freedom and happiness. It thinks that if it’s bold enough, angry enough, clever enough or loud enough it can break through to freedom. It considers all limits to be external barriers and imagines freedom as the absence of those limits. It wants to create itself, free itself, judge itself and save itself.
In a sense refutation of such claims is superfluous, because once you hear them you know immediately they cannot be true. You may be somewhat skeptical about a person whose manner seems a bit too self-confident and whose stories sound a bit too improbable. But perhaps they really are extraordinary. However, if that person looks you in the eye and says, “Don’t tell anyone, but I am Superman on a secret mission”, you know immediately not to take anything else he says seriously. As long as the modern self remains implicit it may seem a plausible view of human nature. But as soon as it begins to claim God-like powers and prerogatives, you know it’s deluded. But just in case someone needs further help seeing the self-deception of the modern self, let’s examine two further points of refutation.
The modern self thinks of freedom primarily as a state in which it can to do whatever it wants. We know that no such condition is possible, but let’s assume for argument’s sake that there are no external limits on our actions. Would this kind of total freedom guarantee happiness? No, it would not. We’ve all done things we thought would bring happiness only to find unhappiness following in their wake. What is this? How can it be that I freely do something, believing it will contribute to my happiness, but having done it I am filled with remorse and disappointment?
The obvious conclusion is that external freedom is not enough. There are internal limits from which I need freeing. I need a clearer idea of who I am and what will actually make me happy. If can’t understand myself now, why think I will be able to free myself from my self-ignorance in the future? Can the dark illuminate its own darkness? Can confusion clarify itself?
As if confusion about myself were not enough, there is a second problem. Even if somehow I get free to do whatever I wish and no other hidden power determines my choices, I am limited by yet “other” forces. Suppose I set my heart on a certain goal and nothing stops me from going for it; still, I cannot know that I can make it happen as I imagine. Human beings have great powers of reason, and we can use these powers to predict future consequences of present actions. But these powers are limited, very limited. I may freely decide to take a trip and drive away in my car. But I cannot control myriads of other factors, such as driving conditions, the mechanical components in my car, and the behavior of other drivers. Hence my trip may not turn out as I imagine.
We want freedom so that we can achieve happiness, and the modern self is confident that with freedom to do as it pleases it can make itself happy. However, this is a great self-deception. Human beings simply do not have the power to make the future turn out as they wish or the wisdom to know how to make themselves happy. Such power and wisdom is beyond the human horizon. And every thoughtful person knows this. The modern self, then, is a fantasy, a wish, a dream of becoming like God.
I end with a very sobering thought from Søren Kierkegaard. In his deeply moving devotional book Christian Discourses, he reflects poignantly on how to prepare to take communion,
“I will call to mind that even if I had my soul concentrated in one single wish and even if I had it concentrated therein so desperately that I could willingly throw away my eternal salvation for the fulfillment of this wish—that still no one can with certainty tell me in advance whether my wish, if it is fulfilled, would still not seem empty and meaningless to me. And what is more miserable, that the wish would not be fulfilled and I would retain the sad and painful ideas of the—missed good fortune—or that the wish would be fulfilled and I would retain it, embittered by the certainty how empty it was!”
Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 7 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Some Unwelcome Limits on Freedom and Dignity”)
Questions for Discussion
1. The essay argues that making the claims of the modern self explicit is a first step toward refutation of those claims. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.
2. How does experience of regret or disappointment demonstrate that external freedom cannot secure the thing that makes freedom desirable, that is, happiness? Describe your experience of regret.
3. What are some internal limits on freedom highlighted by experiences of regret and disappointment? And what can free us from these internal limits?
4. What limits does experience of a freely chosen action’s failure highlight? Can the self free itself from this limit? How?
5. Evaluate this statement: we desire freedom because we desire happiness, and freedom seems like a necessary condition for gaining happiness. Hence we cannot be satisfied with any form of freedom that does not make happiness attainable.
6. What kind of freedom, if attained, would guarantee our happiness?
Note: The next post will begin the second half of the series on the theme of “The God-Centered Identity.” In this part of the series we will explore a different picture of God and humanity, one that no longer sees them as enemies and competitors.
The poem “Deceptions” by Phillip Larkin about a rape committed in Victorian London comes to mind as an apt illustration of the desolate futility and disappointment that can follow in the wake of fulfilled desire. Addressed to the victim, the poem concludes
“What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic”.
How true. How sad. And how telling of the human condition. We need help beyond the human horizon!
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