Sunday, 10 March 2013

Freedom and free will

Chapter fifteen of Tischner czyta Katechism opens the third part of the book and considers what it means to be 'free'. Fr. Tischner cites Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski who also took it upon himself to examine the new post-Vatican Council edition of the Catholic Catechism. Kołakowski was looking for traces of totalitarian thought, analysing it through the prism of the history of idea. (Me, I will look at faith from the prism of human biology, but that's later on in this series of articles).

Fr. Tischner writes: "Kołakowski, as a historian of ideas, a witness of totalitarian times, is asking whether or not the new catechism doesn't have some totalitarian temptations. If there were, they'd be found in the definitions of the word 'freedom'." He asks Jacek Żakowski if he can remember the Marxist definition of freedom. "Freedom is necessity made conscious," replies Żakowski. "In other words," says Fr. Tischner, "to be free means to understand necessity."

"Until the French Revolution carried the word freedom on its standards, people generally lived their lives understanding necessity. Understanding their place in the feudal structure, where everyone had freedom within their own measure," says Żakowski, pointing to the historical roots of Marx's thesis.

Fr. Tischner compares freedom with a canoeist paddling with the stream. "You are free to turn left or right. But, according to Marxists, when you want to canoe upstream, you only have the illusion of being free. Leszek Kolakowski asks whether there isn't something similar in the catechism. Is there not a differentiation between illusory freedom and real freedom. Do you feel what consequences this would have?"

Żakowski replies that Kołakowski saw that in the world view that gave birth to the Holy Inquisition there is the source of 20th Century totalitarianism.

"You can say to people, listen, collective ownership is a good thing. Such is objective truth. And now, in the name of this good thing, I will force you to join a collective farm," says Fr. Tischner. "And they tell you that if you do so, you will be free - you will be objectively free.

"Do you remember the play Na pełnym morzu ('At Sea', 1961) by Sławomir Mrożek? he asks. "Three starving shipwreck survivors, one of them must be eaten to save the other two. Which one? They chose the runt. They could kill him, they had the advantage. But it would be better if he agreed himself - for only when he agrees will he truly be free. They'll eat him one way or the other, but when he accepts the objective necessity, then he will liberate himself. And so the runt agrees, because they convinced him. He stands on the stage and says to the audience: 'Where is there real freedom? It's where there isn't ordinary freedom. And where is ordinary freedom? Where there isn't real freedom.' Leszek Kołakowski heard this tone in the new catechism. He felt disturbed by one sentence in particular - 'the more good a person does, the more free they become'."

" 'Real freedom'," the catechism continues, says Fr. Tischner, " 'is only freedom in the service of good.' The clause 'real freedom' gives Leszek Kołakowski further cause for being disturbed. If there can be 'real freedom', it means there can be 'false freedom'. The catechism can talk us into believing that it will teach us this real freedom. Kołakowski is questioning the experience of freedom for external judgments."

Zakowski says "I rather feel unease when we ask who is to say what true goodness is." Fr. Tischner mentions that Giertych pere replied to Kołakowski in Tygodnik Powszechny saying that the Polish translation out of the French original text contained an inaccuracy; libre arbitre should have been translated as 'free will', and not as 'freedom'. Changing one word changes the sense of the whole."

Żakowski says that the unease he feels from the line 'real freedom [or indeed 'free will'] is only freedom in the service of good' comes from the fact that this is a document published by an institution with real political power to this day. "Bishops may want to impose their vision of freedom onto society, in the same way they have tried to imposer their convictions in many other ways".

Fr. Tischner replies that the text needs to be understood in a historical context. "Ideas of freedom are formulated somewhere on the abstract level, then then we see how they fall to earth from the abstract level to hurt people. Do you feel free when you act out of necessity? Out of a necessity that you understand? Do you feel free - or only wise?"

He continues: The experience of freedom - or lack of it - only takes place in the interpersonal context. Not in the inner struggle within yourself. Freedom is not within you, or within me - only between us. You go for a walk, you come across a physical obstacle blocking your path. You cannot continue. You do not feel that your freedom has been limited. But if you're going for a walk, and someone tells you 'you are not permitted to walk here', you do feel your freedom has been limited."

Here, I have pencilled a large, fundamental 'NO!' in the margin. For we are free within ourselves to gorge ourselves with fatty fast foods, drink bucketloads of alcohol and avoid any exercise. It is our free will to take control of our own lives or not. The notion that our own actions, in that they don't impinge on others, are not a question of free will, is highly dubious - and (as Fr. Tischner said in earlier conversations) is a distinguishing feature of Protestantism. Max Weber's concept of a 'Protestant Work Ethic' posits that hard work, cleanliness and self-discipline were notions promulgated by north-west European Protestantism, separating them from the less diligent Catholics of southern and central Europe. The difference between the notion of 'freedom' (wolność) as mentioned in the Polish translation of the catechism, and 'free will' (arbitre libre) in the French translation, is crucial.

Żakowski reads another fragment of the catechism. "The more submissive/ compliant/ dutiful/ deferential [the Polish word 'uległy' means all these] we are to the movements of grace, the more our internal freedom rises and our certainty in the face of difficulties which are imposed by the pressures and constraints of the external world."

We will go into the notion of 'grace' in the next conversation, says Fr. Tischner. "See how freedom does not appear as free will, but as a challenge. It's interesting whether in the human experience there is something as pure freedom. There is only challenge. The challenge from under external force, and also from internal constraint. And this is the root of the dialectic of grace and freedom. In metaphorical language, freedom is associated with wings. You're free when you have wings. You're free when it's not about whether you go left or right - but whether you can rise - go up. You experience freedom when you know 'you can'. Even when you don't make use of this freedom, you feel that you are free. You can say: freedom is a way of life; even when you're not doing anything, you either are or you are not free".

Phew. I feel Fr. Tischner has looped himself round in circles on this one. Freedom or free will? Freedom within one's own self - or only between people? Not clear. One word was missing from this important conversation - conscience. I wonder if the notion of conscience will be considered in forthcoming conversations.

This time last year:
Orwell's Politics and Language

This time two years ago:
A late start to Lent

This time three years ago:
Midway through Lent

This time five years ago:
Pace of spring's approach accelerates

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