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"FATED TO BE FREE"
THE question of fate and free will is hoary with age. In touching upon the subject here, I have little hope that I can put a youthful face upon it. But it seems to me that the question has been discussed mainly on religious and metaphysical grounds. I have in mind to see what light can be thrown upon the subject from the consideration of our relation to the natural world around us and within us. The moment we think of ourselves as a part of this natural world, with its laws and forces vital within us and an innate part of our essential being, the problem takes on a new aspect. The necessity that rules us is no longer foreign to us, but is the essence of our own wills. Our sense of freedom is as clear and secure as our own eyesight.
The phrase "fated to be free," is Emerson's, and well expresses the kind of contradiction and marriage of opposites that we find everywhere in nature and in life. "Man is fated to be free." The determinism of the nature within him and without him does not blunt or abridge his sense of absolute freedom of choice. He always feels himself free to choose between two objects or two courses of action, no matter how much in reality he may be in the grip of the necessity that rules in the sequence of cause and effect.
Our relation to the atmosphere well illustrates the principle of fate and free will. We live at the bottom of a great atmospheric sea in which we move with the utmost freedom, but which yet presses upon us with the force of many tons' weight. We are not conscious of this enormous pressure because our organizations are adapted to it; we are born and grow up under its influence as do the fish in the bottom of the sea under water pressure. It is not the pressure of a burden; our freedom is unhampered; the frailest bubble is not affected by it, because the pressure from within neutralizes the pressure from without. Herein we see the fatalism of nature, which presses upon us so heavily from all sides and yet leaves us with a sense of perfect freedom and spontaneity because it acts within us as well as without – in the mechanism of our bodies and in our inherited traits and dispositions, as well as in the external forces that constantly play upon us. The fatalism of nature working within us does not hamper us because, I repeat, it is a part of our very selves. We are always free to do what we like, because we never like to do what is contrary to the nature within us. In one sense, therefore, we are not free at all, because we are a part of that nature which is greater than we are, and which works over us and through us. In another sense we are absolutely free, because that nature is vital within us and is the pith and marrow of our own wills. We cannot separate ourselves from the world of forces that surround us, and set up on our own account as independent centres of energy, but what we call our wills give us power in a measure to direct and modify the very nature of which we form a part.
Nature works us cunningly as a machine is worked by external forces, and yet we know it not. How sure we are, for instance, that we draw the air into our lungs when we breathe, as literally as we put the food into our mouths! The universal mechanical principle involved, in other words, the involuntary nature of our breathing, we never suspect. Can we not breathe fast or slow, deeply or superficially, practice abdominal breathing or chest breathing, or even inhibit breathing for a minute or more? How free the act seems to be, and yet the chest is a bellows over which our wills have but slight control. Our freedom in breathing, as in many other acts, is freedom inside of a stern necessity. We are free inside of the iron circle of fate; or, to use a still better image, we are free to move inside the ship, or on the train that is carrying us along. We are free to obey our natures, our spontaneous promptings, but all these things are rings of fate around us. They bear us along, but we can move a little in other directions while, at the same time, we are moving with these currents. By an effort of will we can deny ourselves this or that, inhibit for a time this or that tendency, but no effort of will can make us wise, or happy, or angry, or in love, or hungry, or sad, nor can it make one temperament as calm, as patient, as sanguine as another.
We are more conscious of the pull of gravity because that is in one direction only; but we do not know that the force which our body exerts through its various complex movements is the force of gravity which the earth gives us. We overcome gravity with every step we take, only by using gravity. If our bodies were devoid of weight, how could we exert force? We are strong by that which opposes us, and which will crush us if we give it a chance. We are fitted into the complex of forces which runs this universe in such a subtle way that we are run by it without being aware of the fact. We do not know that the air is forced into our lungs when we breathe, the water into our mouths when we drink, and the force of gravity into our limbs when we walk. Life is that mysterious something which alone uses and rises above the material forces in this manner. Life makes servants of the energy of the non-living. It is a part of the fate which it triumphs over. It turns the material forces against themselves; it defeats gravity by the aid of gravity; it fights fire with fire; it outwits the wind by the aid of the wind. The organism is built up by the same chemical reactions that would pull it down; its strength is the strength of the forces it has overcome. Life has no capital but that which it draws from the non-living. The modus operandi of this drawing science may analyze and explain, but the secret of life itself – that impulse which lifts this wave of matter up into these myriads of living forms – is beyond the reach of scientific analysis.
Our breathing and drinking, I have said, are on the principle of the bellows, but the bellows implies the man working it. So our breathing implies the life-principle working the respiratory apparatus; but working from within, not from without, sustaining a vital and not merely a mechanical relation to it. Of this we have no parallel in our mechanical contrivances. The nearest we can come to it is in the electromagnetic world, where the active and potent principle is inseparable from the ponderable body which it animates.
A man may repeat the type of character of his father or grandfather – the main course of his life may be determined by his unconscious inheritances, or by his race, and the nation of which he forms a part, and yet have the utmost sense of freedom, because these things do not act as external or foreign forces, but form the body and substance of his inmost personality; his identity is one with them.
How can we separate the energy that acts within us, giving power to our muscles and all our movements, that is the source of our weight and the strength of our hands, from the energy that acts without us, that checks or restrains all our movements? They are both one and the same. We overcome gravity with gravity. We break its pull whenever we lift our feet, or hurl a weight, or raise any object from the ground. The cyclone that lifts your house from its foundations, and levels forests, and heaps up the waves could do nothing without the weight which gravity imparts to the air. The force that sets the air in motion – thermic or electric, a steep gradient of temperature or an electromagnetic strain – is probably not of gravitational origin. In vegetable life what we used to call a vital force lifts matter up in opposition to gravity – lifts tons of water up into the trees, and tons of lime and potash and other earth salts, but does it by mechanical and chemical means.
The vital and the physical are inseparably united, and play into each other's hands. In animal life, mechanical and chemical principles are equally active in all living bodies. In the higher forms a psychic principle comes into play. The will of man through mechanical means reverses or controls the action of gravitation and directs chemical reactions – in every instance two contraries work together and make one whole.
Life and nature and philosophy are full of contradictions. The globe upon which we live presents the first great contradiction. It has no under or upper side; it is all outside. Go around it from east to west, or from north to south, and you find no bottom or top such as you see on the globe in your study, or as you apparently see on the moon and the sun in the heavens. A fly at the South Pole of the schoolroom globe is in a reversed position, but the discoverers of the South Pole on our earth did not find themselves in a reversed position on their arrival there, or in danger of falling off. The sphere is a perpetual contradiction. It is the harmonization of opposites. Our minds are adjusted to planes and to right lines, to up and down, to over and under. Our action upon things is linear. Curves and circles baffle us. My mind cannot adjust itself to the condition of free empty space.
Transport yourself in imagination away from the earth to the vacancy of the interstellar regions. Can you convince yourself that there would be no over and no under, no east and no west, no north and no south? Would one not look down to one's feet, and lift one's hand to one's head? What could one do? – no horizontal, no vertical – just the negation of all motion and direction. If one rode upon a meteorite rushing toward the earth, would one have the sensation of falling? Could one have any sensation of motion at all in absolutely vacant space no matter at what speed with reference to the stars one might be moving? To have a sense of motion must we not have also a sense of something not in motion? In your boat on the river, carried by the tide or the current, you have no sense of motion till you look shoreward. With your eye upon the water all is at rest. The balloonist floats in an absolute calm. The wind does not buffet him because he goes with it. But he looks down and sees objects beneath him, and he looks up and sees clouds or stars above him. Fancy him continuing his journey on into space till he leaves the earth behind him – on and on till the earth appears like another moon. Would he look up or down to see it? Would he have a sense of rising or of falling? If he threw out ballast, would it drop or soar, or would it refuse to leave him?
Such speculations show how relative our sense standards are, how the law of the sphere upon which we live dominates and stamps our mental concepts. Away from the earth, in free space, and we are lost; we cannot find ourselves; we are stripped of everything but ourselves; we are stripped of night and day, of up and down, of east and west, of north and south, of time and space, of motion and rest, of weight and direction. Just what our predicament would be, who can fancy?
The belief in free will is like the belief that the earth is a plane instead of a sphere. For all practical purposes the earth is a plane – a plane which has no boundaries; and for all practical purposes the will is free. We feel at liberty to do what we like, to go here or to stay there, to vote for this candidate or to vote for that. We live our lives without any sense of the sphericity of the globe, and without any sense that our power of choice is not absolutely free.
But it is as easy to prove that the will is not free as to prove that the earth is round. In the realm of material things fatalism abounds. Everything is held in the iron law of cause and effect. Only life is spontaneous. We speak justly of the spontaneity of the great poets, of the great orators, of our own best acts, while yet we do not take into account the subtle and hidden physical forces at work. The flower blooms spontaneously, but not independently of the long chain of forces at work there in the soil, in the air, in the sun. Heroic deeds and poetic thoughts are spontaneous in the same sense. Without thought or calculation heroic deeds flash out in the lives of men, noble thoughts are born in our minds and hearts, as spontaneous as the rain or the dew, – and no more so; which is to say that they are the result of an intricate complex of causes at work in unison with the creative force of Life.
Something cannot come from nothing. Some force in the man impelled him to the heroic act. All that had gone to the making of his character up to that hour impelled him to it. Something in the poet bloomed or flashed out in his lyrical burst, but perhaps if he had had a headache, or had just lost a friend, the lyric would not have come.
In terms of science every effect has its cause, and there is no life except from antecedent life. When we fix our attention upon matter, and the laws of matter, the belief in free will is impossible. We are in the land of fatalism. We are not here by our own will. We are not of this type or family or race by our own will. We are hardly more of this or that political or religious creed by our own will. We did not choose to have red hair or black hair, blue eyes or gray eyes. We have no power of choice in the main things of our lives and fortunes. And yet to us it seems that our wills are free. When we appeal to the natural scientific order, we are held in the iron bonds of necessity or determinism. The natural order is inviolable. The river is free to flow where gravity directs or pulls it, or rather, where its inherent mobility allows it to flow. Each thing is free to obey the laws of its own nature, which means it is not really free at all. "Free as the air" we say, but the air always behaves the same under the same conditions; it is controlled by its own laws. The wind does not blow where it listeth, but where its laws decree that it shall blow. Human nature is free in the same way – a vastly more complex affair than the air, yet it cannot transcend its own limitations. You and I are free to act according to our natures, modified by our training and by the times in which we live. This modification is not voluntary, at least only in part. Our times, our environment, our proclivities, shape us insensibly and involuntarily. How, then, is the will free?
A scientific analysis shows that it is not free when looked at objectively, but free when looked at subjectively. We do not ordinarily feel the bonds of our own natures. In the moral order we are free; we are unconscious of restraint or control. In our own thought we seem to do what we like, though what we like has been determined by forces or conditions far older than we are. What we like and dislike are inherent in our own natures, and with our own natures – our mental and spiritual constitutions – we have had little to do. With our physical natures likewise we have had little to do, and how closely our mental and spiritual make-ups are dependent upon the physical, we are coming more and more to realize.
We like a fine day because we thrive best on a fine day, but all fine days would grow monotonous, and we should sigh for cloud and storm. We like kindness, gentleness, good nature, a cheerful spirit, because these things are conducive to our well-being. We prefer truth to falsehood, because our nature demands it.
We are not free in the physical order; how, then, are we free in the moral order? We cannot be wise at will, or always choose the best course, or always speak the right word, but we are free because we feel that we are free. We have moral freedom. We are willing to be held responsible for the choice we make, though that choice be in reality not so much a matter of our wills as a matter of our characters – a vague, non-scientific term with a very uncertain content.
The big man who marries the little woman, and the little woman who accepts the big man, both feel that they had perfect freedom of choice, yet is it not clear that there is a law in such matters? In fact, is it not clear that most marriages are complementary, – black eyes with blue, slowness with quickness, weakness with strength, – though the contracting parties yielded, as it seemed to them, to the utmost freedom of choice? Their wills were free – to do what Nature wanted them to do. Her purpose was deeper than theirs.
A man is free to elect heaven or hell, if heaven or hell have a mortgage upon him. But if it have, he never will know it, and will credit himself with absolute power of choice. Hence, we say the will is free, though freedom only means the absence of any conscious restraint.
In the pride of our wills we boast that we are masters of our fate, and so we are in a very limited sense. In a large way human history is under the same law as natural history or biological history; is subject to the same haphazard, hit-and-miss process, the same waste, delays, failures. The only sure thing in either case is the law of progress – evolution in a general broadcast way. We do not know that the great historical characters appeared when most needed. When they did appear, they did their work, filled their places, but how many epochs have come and gone without their redeemers and leaders! In how many cases the great leader and savior may have been there, though conditions and events have not favored his appearance! Grant would have died unknown had not events brought him out. So would Washington and Lincoln and Lee. Opportunity is half of life.
We cannot jump off the sphere; no more can we free ourselves of the idea of a final cause. This idea of causation is developed in us by our experience in life; if we forget it, we speedily come to grief. But it does not help us in dealing with the final mystery. We can find no end to the causal sequence. We simply rest in First Cause.
Two opposites may make a whole. There is often the larger truth with the lesser truth inside it. The larger truth is the law of causation; the lesser truth is the freedom of the will. Fate is true and, within limits, freedom of choice is true. If my temperament, or that complex of forces and tendencies which I call my disposition, impels me to act thus and not otherwise, if my Irish blood, or my Dutch blood, or my English blood, if my maternal or my paternal grandfather, if my small brain or my large brain, rule the destinies of my life, I am still free, because these things and influences are my very self. They are not something external which lays a guiding and restraining hand upon me; they are the me. Hence, with the utmost sense of freedom I go my way in life.
Gravity makes the stream flow, the lay of the land determines its course, but if the water were conscious, would it feel that it did not flow where it had a mind to? It has a mind to flow where gravity and the lay of the land permit it to flow.
The joy of free choice is in us all because the forces that choose for us are a part of our very selves.
In choosing our way of life we are controlled by many factors, but these are all vital in our characters. In choosing our wives, we unconsciously choose a woman who is mainly complementary to us, and yet, she is the choice of the heart the heart chooses in obedience to this law of nature; in choosing our bosom friends, we are in the same way guided by influences we wot not of. In choosing our walk in life, we are guided by our talent, our attractions, and the like. The father chooses the profession of his son through his blood. Our constitutions play a part in all we do or think or choose, and our constitutions are complexes of forces that date from the past as much as, or more than, they date from the present.
Determinism is only a name; free will is only a name; the reality is our joyful and conscious obedience to the promptings of our own natures. That our individual natures are a part of the general nature, and subject to its laws, is the fact above all.
At times we are conscious of struggling against a tendency in us, but this struggle also has its natural history. We are pulled two ways, and the stronger pull wins. We yield to it because it is the strongest.
Freedom of will means freedom to lift the arm, to open the eyes, to close the mouth, but not freedom to lift the hair, or to close the nose or the ears, or to abolish hunger, or any of the other things we might enumerate as against nature. All the little but fundamental acts of our lives, all the movements of our bodies, are immediately under the control of what we call our wills. But the movements of our spirits, the promptings of our character, our temper, our dispositions, are not in the same sense under the control of our wills.
Only so much of a man knows itself and is under the control of the conscious will as is necessary to his dealing successfully with outward things. By far the larger part of every one of us is the subconscious self. The body runs itself. Our minds have but little to say about it. All the physical functions are so important that they could not be left to the hazards of the forgetful and sleep-indulging mind. In health the body does not forget to breathe, or the heart to beat, or the stomach to digest.
In all our human relations and enterprises we are no doubt under the influence of general, impersonal laws to a much larger extent than we ever suspect. Our destinies are shaped more or less by the geography of the country, by its geology, by its climate. A great river, a great lake, the coastline, a mountain-range – all set their stamp upon our lives. We are independent of our environment only within very narrow limits. The mountains beget one type of character, the plains another, the sea another. These influences work over and beyond our power of choice. Men in masses and tribes are subject to influences and courses of action that the individual members composing them are exempt from. There is a rule of the multitude, and a rule of the individual. Men collectively will be guilty of deeds and crimes that the separate units would not stoop to. In a crowd we escape the feeling of individual responsibility. In mobs man reverts to more primitive and savage conditions; he becomes more like the irrational forces of nature. Is there any ground of hope that international morality will ever reach the standard of individual morality? – that the nation will ever be as unselfish and fair-minded as the individuals composing it? The experience of most of us with individual Germans has been of the most satisfactory kind – an honest, sober-minded, fair-dealing, humane people is our verdict; but the nation embattled and fired with the thirst of conquest and in the grip of a military despotism, reverts to the temper of the original Hun: the atrocities their government and armies are guilty of shock mankind. The history of all other nations shows similar contrasts, but not, in our time, to the same degree.
The streams and rivers all find their way to the sea; the conditions and influences that shape their courses are few and constant; but once they are united in the ocean, a new set of influences is called into play: the tides appear and the vast ocean currents begin to flow and modify the climates of the globe. The laws of water are not changed, but new laws or forces, that have their sources beyond the earth, at once begin to operate. An application, not too precise and literal, of this fact to the nations of the earth may throw some light upon their behavior.