THEOSOPHY, Vol. 42, No. 11, September, 1954
(Pages 499-502; Size: 13K)


[Part 14 of a 29-part series]

A FEW words in the English language, at least, have acquired a deeper philosophical meaning with the passing of time, rather than the reverse -- as has unfortunately been the case with so many terms already discussed in this series. The word freedom, for instance, has certainly become a symbol for the intuitions of millions that each human has a right to find his own way to truth, goodness and beauty. Thus, to call freedom an ideal is to affirm the inherent nobility of the human mind, to trust the higher nature of each to eventually triumph in counsel, even as Krishna did with his reluctant disciple, Arjuna. Behind the word freedom echoes the voice of the human soul itself, sometimes speaking fervently for political autonomy, some times in favor of self-discipline rather than imposed moral standards, sometimes simply in terms of the spirit of high and fearless adventure, of which poets and artists sing. Even when scholars discuss the hoary issue of "free will," they honor the concept of freedom, to some degree, by the very persistency of their attention to this question.

The original meaning of free in old English -- apparently related to the Sanskrit priya, meaning "dear" -- is "beloved." As Joseph Shipley explains: "In the early home were those one loved, and the slaves -- hence free came to mean not enslaved." At one time the Central European races, save for the Franks, were in bondage to the Romans. Thus the word Frank referred to a tribe of men who had burst the bonds, and France first meant the land that was free and open -- just as we speak, today, of the "frank" man as one always clear and open in his manner; he is not enslaved, because not afraid. And it is interesting to reflect on the psychological fact that only one who is unafraid, frank, open, is capable of being "beloved," and that there is a very close relationship between the capacity to love and the courage which makes one free. For only those able to forget purely selfish desires in devotion to the needs of another can love truly, and only those who are capable of truly loving are capable of being truly "beloved." Thus the original limited meaning of free is still not altogether inappropriate today. It is, further, always some form of love or devotion which sets the inner man free from bondage to lower animal instincts. Arjuna's devotion to his preceptor, his love for a teacher and companion, finally enabled him to fight out the field with courage.

Webster's International supplies the following definition of free will:

Free will. Unhampered or uncoerced choice; specif., the doctrine that human beings are not controlled in their choices by physical or divinely imposed necessity.
If one is controlled in his choices by "divinely imposed necessity," he is, as both Theosophists and many psychologists have pointed out, but a "creature," bound to have a low opinion of his potential strength and virtue. In medieval times the fearsome visage of a personal deity prevented man from seeing himself as a virtual god in his own right, while in our age the idea of bondage to "physical necessity" similarly emasculates egoic confidence. This latter condition is the subject of Joseph Wood Krutch's latest work, The Measure of Man, which is, in its totality, a vital argument for "free will." Belonging to the same trend of revaluation as Krutch's writings are two works given considerable attention by Theosophists -- Macneile Dixon's The Human Situation and Dwight Macdonald's The Root is Man. Dixon cites the expressions of eminent physicists on the subject of "determinacy," showing that "science" no longer can be quoted in unqualified endorsement of mechanism:
Say what you please, the indeterminacy in nature cannot be eliminated. The mechanical world, the darling of the materialists, has been shattered beyond repair.

We may sum up in Schrödinger's words: "All chemical transformations, the velocity of chemical reactions, the processes of melting and evaporation, the laws of vapour pressure, everything, in short, with the possible exception of gravitation, is governed by laws of this kind -- statistical laws -- and all the predictions derived from these laws are of a statistical nature, and are true only within limits." Or we may take the words of Sir Arthur Eddington -- "the result of our analysis of physical phenomena up to the present is that we have nowhere found any evidence of the existence of deterministic law."

What bearing has all this -- the indeterminism of modern physics -- upon the problem of human freedom, so hotly debated from century to century by churchmen and philosophers alike? If physics cannot account for the activities within the atom, still less can it account for the activities of the organism. If determinism be set aside as unproven in the realm of nature, where evidence for it appeared overwhelming, where is warrant for it to be found in the more difficult region of the soul? If it be discarded in physics, it can hardly in the absence of evidence be adduced to buttress determinism in psychology, where it is in opposition the most flagrant to the universal, never-questioned conviction of the natural man. Denials of human freedom will no longer serve, save to betray the naked prejudice which gave the dogma birth.

And one may, perhaps, be allowed the hope that we have heard the last of this tiresome and unprofitable controversy, this spider's web of dialectic, and are permitted a return to common sense. The strictest determinists act as if they possessed the freedom they deny, and cling to it in practice as the pivot of human intercourse. We must continue to believe that the soul or self is not a piece upon the chessboard of time, moved as a wheel or lever is moved. Our thoughts are our own, mine mine, yours yours, and if our thoughts, then also our acts. The soul stands for itself, and is in its own nature a purposive mover, however limited and conditioned a factor in the origination and passage of events. The individual self, the finite centre of impulse is, as Nietzsche held, both determined and free, limited by the presence of the other individuals, in itself free and creative.

One notes here a recognition of the fact, also mentioned by Webster, that "Free stresses the absence of external compulsion or determination rather than the absence of all restraint." We are, certainly, enslaved by our own habits, by emotional and mental conditions. But these we have had our own part in making, since they neither stem from "mere physical necessity" nor from "necessity divinely imposed."

The rise to considerable power of a nation professing belief in the Marxist doctrine of "economic determinism" has impelled many to examine the sources of their own faith in "free will." Critics of political theory, like Mr. Macdonald, have thus pondered the question of the "doctrine of economic necessity," noting that it has actually long held sway even in those democratic countries which pay lip service to the ideal of "self-determination." Thus, in one of the closing sections of The Root is Man, the author digresses pertinently by attacking the ancient philosophical problem of "free-will," striving to find, for the word necessity, a karmic rather than a mechanical meaning. He writes as follows:

The course which our society is taking is so catastrophic that one is forced to rethink for himself all sorts of basic theoretical questions which in a happier age could have been taken for granted. Questions which formerly seemed to me either closed or meaningless are now beginning to appear open and significant. Such questions are those of Determinism v. Free Will, Materialism v. Idealism, the concept of Progress, the basis for making value judgments, the precise usefulness of science to human ends, and the nature of man himself.

If there is no Free Will, then there must be a cause for every result; but how does one arrive at a First Cause -- what causes that? (Religion answers this with God, but this seems to me more an evasion than an answer.) But if there is Free Will, complete and unforced, then how can one explain the influence of scientifically determinable factors (glandular, sexual, climatic, historical, etc.) on every choice that one makes? One must conclude, and I do conclude, that although vast areas of human motivation are determined, there is a certain area -- a vital core, so to speak -- where we have a free choice. (A determined choice is a contradiction in terms.) So far as action goes, this core is the "point," since the rest is determined -- i.e., we re act rather than act. Whether Free Will exists or not, it thus seems necessary to behave as though it did; just as whether or not values exist independent of scientifically explainable causes, it also seems necessary to behave as though they did.

From Dixon's and Macdonald's contributions it is but a step to easy appreciation of H.P.B.'s words in the section, "Cyclic Evolution and Karma," in The Secret Doctrine:
Those who believe in Karma have to believe in destiny, which, from birth to death, every man is weaving thread by thread around himself, as a spider does his cobweb; the stern and implacable law of compensation steps in and takes its course, faithfully following the fluctuations. When the last strand is woven, and man is seemingly enwrapped in the net-work of his own doing, then he finds himself completely under the empire of this self-made destiny. It then either fixes him like the inert shell against the immovable rock, or carries him away like a feather in a whirlwind raised by his own actions, and this is -- KARMA.
So the vexatious "problem" of free will is not to be solved by debate, but only through psychological understanding. For many men, nearly every thought and act of a lifetime is determined by a strong chain of consequences linking them to prior lives. But if each problem be regarded as potentially inspirational food for the mind, as suggested by Theosophy, the realization of one's power to choose will lead one away from "Nemesis." Man's estate on earth, for the vision of the Theosophist as well as of the poets, is a time of repeated inner awakenings -- prompted by the intuition that Prometheus may become unbound, and the human soul both "beloved" and "free."

Next article:
[Hypothesis. Body of Knowledge.
Skepticism. Materialism. Hypothetical.
An Underlying Thesis. Opinions. Beliefs.
Convictions. Foundation. Theory.
Supposition. Proposition.]
[Part 15 of a 29-part series]

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