We are not as free to choose as people once thought. Science has brought old ideas of free will into question. However, we live as though we have free will. Ethics, morality and spirituality depend on a sense of free will, the core of which is in the emotions.
The emotional component of autonomy is the will. Philosophers will continue to debate whether it is real but no one can afford to live as though it is not.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Robert Kane, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2011).
- John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom and Manuel Vargas, Four Views on Free Will (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).
- Derek Pereboom, ed., Free Will (Hackett, 2009).
- Robert Kane, ed., Free Will (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).
- Gary Watson, ed., Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2003).
- Chris Evatt, The Myth of Free Will (Café Essays, 2010).
I was taken away from my mother, and hired out to labor for various persons, eight or ten years in succession; and all my wages were expended for the education of Harriet White, my playmate. It was then my sorrows and sufferings commenced. It was then I first commenced seeing and feeling that I was a wretched slave, compelled to work under the lash without wages and often, without clothes enough to hide my nakedness. I have often worked without half enough to eat, both late and, early, by day and by night. I have often laid my wearied limbs down at night to rest upon a dirt floor, or a bench, without any covering at all, be- cause I had no where else to rest my wearied body, after having worked hard all the day. I have also been compelled in early life, to go at the bidding of a tyrant, through all kinds of weather, hot or cold, wet or dry, and without shoes frequently, until the month of December, with my bare feet on the cold frosty ground, cracked open and bleeding as I walked. Reader, believe me when I say that no tongue, nor pen ever has or can express the horrors of American Slavery. Consequently I despair in finding language to express adequately the deep feeling of my soul, as I contemplate the past history of my life. But although I have suffered much from the lash, and for want of food and raiment; I confess that it was no disadvantage to be passed through, the hands of so many families, as the only source of information that I had to enlighten my mind, consisted in what I could see and hear from others. Slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper to improve their minds. But it seems to me now, that I was particularly observing, and apt to retain what came under my observation. But more especially, all that I heard about liberty and freedom to the slaves, I never forgot. Among other good trades I learned the art of running away to perfection. I made a regular business of it, and never gave it up, until I had broken the bands of slavery, and landed myself safely in Canada, where I was regarded as a man, and not as a thing. [Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1849), Chapter I.]
He went on to say, "I have seen very little of you of late, but my interest in you is unchanged. When I said I would have no more mercy on you I was rash. I recall my words. Linda, you desire freedom for yourself and your children, and you can obtain it only through me. If you agree to what I am about to propose, you and they shall be free. There must be no communication of any kind between you and their father. I will procure a cottage, where you and the children can live together. Your labor shall be light, such as sewing for my family. Think what is offered you, Linda—a home and freedom! Let the past be forgotten. If I have been harsh with you at times, your wilfulness drove me to it. You know I exact obedience from my own children, and I consider you as yet a child."
He paused for an answer, but I remained silent.
"Why don't you speak?" said he. "What more do you wait for?"
"Then you accept my offer?"
His anger was ready to break loose; but he succeeded in curbing it, and replied, "You have answered without thought. But I must let you know there are two sides to my proposition; if you reject the bright side, you will be obliged to take the dark one. You must either accept my offer, or you and your children shall be sent to your young master's plantation, there to remain till your young mistress is married; and your children shall fare like the rest of the negro children. I give you a week to consider of it."
. . . .
On the decisive day the doctor came, and said he hoped I had made a wise choice.
"I am ready to go to the plantation, sir," I replied.
On what a monstrous chance hung the destiny of my children! I knew that my master's offer was a snare, and that if I entered it escape would be impossible. As for his promise, I knew him so well that I was sure if he gave me free papers, they would be so managed as to have no legal value. The alternative was inevitable. I resolved to go to the plantation. But then I thought how completely I should be in his power, and the prospect was apalling. Even if I should kneel before him, and implore him to spare me, for the sake of my children, I knew he would spurn me with his foot, and my weakness would be his triumph.
"Have you thought how important your decision is to your children?" said he.
I told him I had.
"Very well. Go to the plantation, and my curse go with you," he replied. "Your boy shall be put to work, and he shall soon be sold; and your girl shall be raised for the purpose of selling well. Go your own ways!" He left the room with curses, not to be repeated.
As I stood rooted to the spot, my grandmother came and said, "Linda, child, what did you tell him?"
I answered that I was going to the plantation.
"Must you go?" said she. "Can't something be done to stop it?"
I told her it was useless to try; but she begged me not to give up. She said she would go to the doctor, and remind him how long and how faithfully she had served in the family, and how she had taken her own baby from her breast to nourish his wife. She would tell him I had been out of the family so long they would not miss me; that she would pay them for my time, and the money would procure a woman who had more strength for the situation than I had. I begged her not to go; but she persisted in saying, "He will listen to me, Linda." She went, and was treated as I expected. He coolly listened to what she said, but denied her request. He told her that what he did was for my good, that my feelings were entirely above my situation, and that on the plantation I would receive treatment that was suitable to my behavior.
My grandmother was much cast down. I had my secret hopes; but I must fight my battle alone. I had a woman's pride, and a mother's love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should rise for them. My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.
[Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Chapter XV, Continued Persecutions.]
Film and Stage
- Ruggles of Red Gap: an ultra-obedient manservant learns the joys of having his own desires and point of view
- The Third Man: what are they up to?
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Alexander Scriabin, Symphony No. 5, “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire”, Op. 60 (1910) (approx. 20-25 minutes): “For the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), Prometheus’ fire symbolized searing creative energy and an ecstatic expansion of human consciousness. . . Scriabin believed that music held the power to unlock a transcendent level of consciousness.” “. . . under the spell of Nietzsche, Madame Blavatsky, and theosophism–he came to believe that his music had to power to bring mystical unity to a fragmented world.” “One reason for including light elements in the Poem of Fire is obviously ﬁre, which occupies a central position in Russian culture both for its comforting value in cold winters and forits destructive force. Scriabin studied and prized Aeschylus’ Promethean Trilogy and Dante’s Divina Commedia, and kept Sophocles’ Tragedies and Plato’s Symposium in his library . . . He interpreted Prometheus as the disobedient venturer who, besides bearing ﬁre to humans, also presented them with the ﬁre of intelligence, enabling them to be superior to God . . . Scriabin had absolute faith in the unlimited power of human free will . . .” “He once said, ‘I am God! I am nothing, I’m play, I am freedom, I am life. I am the boundary, I am the peak.’ Moreover, he thought that art had the ability to change the world, ‘enhance’ humanity and bring human beings to ecstasy, therefore treating art as something intellectually higher, more extraordinary than rationality.” Performances are available through the links for the title of the work, above.
Jean-Philippe Rameau’s operas mark the emergence of the human will. Whereas previous operas had presented the gods in god-like form, Rameau either presents humans with their concerns, or has the gods absorbed with the same concerns as humans have, and none too nobly. This development foreshadowed, yet fell far short of the Enlightenment. “in 1733, a relatively obscure, 50-year-old composer named Jean-Phillipe Rameau came along with a new breed of musical drama. Instead of appealing to the senses with magic and spectacle, Rameau's operas went straight for the heart. In cinematic terms, Lully's works might be compared to special effects blockbusters, or elaborate costume epics — while Rameau's operas were more like intense, art-house psycho-dramas. Controversy ensued, with vehement confrontations between two, warring musical factions — the conservative 'Lullistes' and the cutting-edge 'Rameauneurs.'” (Grout and Villiams offer a different view.) Examples include:
- Castor et Pollux, RCT 32 (1737, rev. 1754) (approx. 115-150’) (libretto begins at p. 13): the gods are absorbed with romantic jealousies and other passions but make one set of passions seem more noble than another. Performances are conducted by Rousset, Harnoncourt, Niquet, Pichon and Mallon.
- Dardanus, RCT 35 (1739, rev. 1744 and 1760) (approx. 120-195’) (libretto begins at p. 9): heroic male kills a monster and wins fair maiden. Performances are conducted by Minkowski, Pichon, Leppard and unidentified conductor.
- Hippolyte et Aricie, RCT 43 (1733, rev. 1742 and 1757) (approx. 184-185’), presents the same theme as in Castor et Pollux, with a happier outcome, for some. Performances are conducted by Christie and Haïm.
- Platée, RCT 53 (1745) (approx. 105-150’) (libretto begins at p. 5): again, the gods are absorbed with romantic jealousies. Performances are conducted by Christie, Minkowski, Rosbaud and Rosbaud.
- Les Boréadas, RCT 31 (1763) (120-170’) (libretto begins at p. 40): the queen must choose a husband; the gods are not pleased. Performances are conducted by Christie and Luks.
- Les Indes galantes (The Amorous Indies), RCT 44 (1735, rev. 1736) (approx. 180-205’) (libretto), is an opera about choices of youth. Performances are conducted by Christie, Paillard, Vashegyi, Bolton and Christie).
Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, WWV 70 (1845) (approx. 175-185’) (libretto), presents a story of gods and goddesses, all of whom worship Wagner’s Christian God. In an apparent fit of madness, the protagonist Tannhäuser sings a song of worldly love instead of a worshipful song to God. Duty-bound, the Pope refuses him absolution, and he and his beloved both die. However, in the end he has salvation – from what is not specified but only because Wagner assumed that everyone knew what he meant. What is a story like this doing in a Humanist musical liturgy? Simply this: the story is about the human will. This opera argues, poetically, that human will and spirit are more important and more powerful than arbitrary dictates from a church. The story elevates the power of the will to supernatural proportions but even so, it argues – again, poetically – that the human will can produce great things. With that, we Humanists heartily agree. Though not Wagner’s best, this is a fine opera that tells a part of our human story, unintentionally highlighting one of the most prominent warts. Here are links to video-recorded performances conducted by Davis, Stutzmann and unidentified conductor. Top performances on disc are conducted by Konwitschny in 1960, Sawallisch in 1962, Solti in 1971, Haitink in 1985, and Sinopoli in 1989.
You observe the carven hand / With the index finger pointing heavenward.
That is the direction, no doubt. / But how shall one follow it?
It is well to abstain from murder and lust, / To forgive, do good to others, worship God / Without graven images.
But these are external means after all / By which you chiefly do good to yourself.
The inner kernel is freedom, / It is light, purity — / I can no more, / Find the goal or lose it, according to your vision.
[Edgar Lee Masters, “Marie Bateson”]
Music: songs and other short pieces
It’s true. We don’t choose to fall in love. We meet someone, and the brain processes what it perceives. Next thing we know, we’re in love.