Thoughts from another shore

I am at the exit of the Parc Guëll now (paark-goo way), a park designed by Gaudí, situated in the hills overlooking Barcelona. The day was spent enjoying the cooler breezes, reading on the main terrace of the park that overlooks buildings of a very unique construction. The designs here may well have inspired the creators of Disneyland. Gaudí uses many elements of nature’s own designs, resulting in buildings with lots of curves and interesting textures, several parts reminding one of a cave, or a mushroom, or some other plant.

Nearby the exit here is a friendly mother cat lying in the breeze, with her timid children playing around her. How they run for cover when I approach! As I walk away and come back again, the fuzzy baby who looks just like its mother is playing with the mom’s tail. The mom looks at me with closed eyes beneath the sun, and the baby with eyes too big for its head – half of its body already under the shade of cover. The cuteness is off the scale.

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Quote from Atlas Shrugged

Here is one of my favorite quotes from Atlas Shrugged, which made me think of my time and feelings in the museum:

“I wouldn’t want to seek it from a painting. I’d want it real. I’d take no pride in any hopeless longing. I wouldn’t hold a stillborn aspiration. I’d want to have it, to make it, to live it. Do you understand?”

The word bright, by the way, along with dark, have become highly symbolic of many of my thoughts during this time. I find myself wanting to use them often in writing.

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In Villanova

Today, Friday, I am in Villanova, with the sounds of teenagers in bathing suits all around me, my thoughts of freedom and responsibility filling the moments. The beach is huge, with far fewer people than Sitges. This is simply a less visited town, though it is larger, and in some senses offers more than Sitges. It does lack the imposing tower of the church, and the quaint, small downtown, however. The walkways are broad, with many benches in the shade, and a cool breeze finds me on this hot day. An excellent time and place for reading and thought.

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Another moving quote from Atlas Shrugged, in the words of an industrialist who runs a steel mill:

“I used to watch steel being poured, tons of liquid steel running as I wanted it to, where I wanted it. And then I’d go to a banquet and I’d see people who sat trembling in awe before their own gold dishes and lace tablecloths, as if their dining room were the master and they were just objects serving it, objects created by their diamond shirt studs and necklaces, not the other way around.”

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After coming back to Sitges from Villanova, I learned that the girl who works in the Internet office is a fan of philosophy. She asked to read my thoughts on freedom, but all I had in my notebook were fragments. However, as I walked away it was like she had touched a fountain that I could not – did not want to – stop. The essay at the end of this letter is the result.

The talent of Gaudí

Now I write on Saturday from the inside of La Sagrada Familia, a huge basilica designed by Gaudí and begun in his lifetime. It was left unfinished, leaving an entire wall of the church open to the outside. I can hear the cars driving by, the sounds of the city’s respiration – intruding upon the spaces of a church still half-born.

It is a testament to Gaudí’s creative will that others’ hands are now placing the stones that his would have wanted to. As if his will had transcended the confines of a particular identity, and now wields a hundred pairs of hands across the distance of decades. Or maybe the person of Gaudí was merely a mind in which a light came to dawn, a fire he enkindled through his will to find beauty in the world, and so magnificent was its flame that its scattered embers still have yet to cool.

Which is more true, that one man can change the world, or that there is only one Man, one you can recognize by His qualities, whatever the face – and that we each arise to fulfill this Man’s design, once we have dedicated ourselves to the pursuit of great things. Like mirrors turning toward the sun, the many lights are one Light; like the drops yielding to the sea, the many waters are one Being. The will of a man who sees the whole of earth and the stars as his very own, is that Man who is capable – whatever the name of the hand or the foot – of reshaping that earth, of reaching out to those stars, of walking on the planets and discovering that space and time are his playground. A man must will to participate in such a destiny, and when he does, He will enkindle a splendor that others instinctively recognize, and have yearned to know all their lives.

So as I sit beneath the high pillars of Gaudí’s design, looking up through cracks at the burning sky, I am seeing the deeds of a single, joyous Spirit – the human spirit – and know that this cathedral is a dedication to that spirit, a call to worship, and that my only worthy response can be to further that Spirit’s wish to come alive – its wish for the quality and the glory of human nature to continue resounding throughout the ages.

Freedom and Responsibility

If a person is free to act, what are the consequences of such freedom? The range of choices is limited, otherwise each moment would be equal to the next. This limited nature of the present, and the cause of these limitations, does not effect the freedom to choose from among them. Thus, even if the number of options were reduced to two, a freedom of will is assumed to choose between one or the other. In this way freedom refers to the individual only, and not to the context of his choice.

If it is a free choice, it cannot be constrained, not even by the individual himself. This is the cause of internal crisis, as described by Sartre: the fear of one’s inability to predetermine his own choice, or govern his freedom in any way.

If this is so, there cannot be any form of obligation upon the will. The will, if it cannot bind itself, cannot be bound. All apparent honoring of contracts, or observance of laws, must be voluntary and chosen. The choice not to violate these agreements is no less willful than the choice to violate them, causing some to prefer to remain ignorant of the possibility of choosing, and thus emotionally relieved of their need to make a choice.

If such freedom is universal, then there cannot be any concept of rights as existing beyond the individual and applying to him from outside. One cannot owe anything to another, or any such concept that proceeds from a belief in a self-subsisting set of rights. A debt is something agreed upon, and the debtor must choose whether he wishes to pay. If he does not, he has made a choice, and the creditor must accept the consequence of his own choice in allowing the loan, and now choose his response.

The whole of human behavior, then, is reduced to one dynamic: The free will and what it desires to choose. It cannot even be weighted in favor of a determined category of choices. The only way of sabotaging this foundation of human life is to attempt to remove the possibility of choice itself, or to cloud the individual’s awareness of it until the moment of choosing has passed.

One manner of such clouding is to convince the individual that someone else will make the choice for him if he is patient and waits long enough – in other words, “Don’t make the choice, it will be made for you.” Then, when the moment has passed, there must follow an excuse for why the choice was not made. This structure causes the choice of non-action always to be made, by leading the individual to believe that the consequences will not be his fault – rather, that the clouding agency is willing to absorb the impact of those consequences.

The existence of consequences following choice creates the idea of responsibility, in that the actor must acknowledge that what results from his choice is no less right or sane than the world in which he lived before the choice. When a third party presumes to accept consequences on the actor’s behalf – provided he allows his choice to be “bought” and agrees to the contract – then if things do not turn out well the actor will believe that the world existing after his choice is not as right or sane as the world before it. He will say that justice has been violated – if we define justice as assigning to each action its described consequence. The perceived injustice of the dissatisfied actor consists in his not having receiving the promised consequence to his consensual choice.

However, since freedom applies to the instant of choosing, and not to the consequence, the idea of justice is likewise applied afterwards and is not inherent to the idea of freedom itself. Even the participation in a system of justice – a code of law – must be chosen, and cannot be demanded. This participation is the meaning of social responsibility: The willingness to accept the consequence of each choice, according to what the law has defined it should be, as apart from the personal responsibility of simply recognizing that every choice must have a consequence.

In a perfectly lawless state there can be no justice, since no law would be applicable to any choice. The only response to the actor in this state would be physical law and the subsequent choices of others – or pure anarchy. He would not be socially responsible at all, and could do as he wished.

Because such a state can exist in the absence of willful attempts to the contrary, then social law is constructed, and one’s responsibility to it must be chosen. Usually this becomes linked to a sense of personal morality, such that violations are internally punished as well as socially. However, the existence of reward and punishment apply to the choice, not to the freedom of choosing. This reward and punishment creates motivators that may seem to have the power of determining choice, but such participation by the will must always be voluntary, lest it fall into the same category as the clouding agency described above. Such a fear is, in a sense, promising to take the blame for the consequence of not choosing to violate the law, so that afterward the individual may state, “I couldn’t do it; I was too afraid.”

Insofar as we rent out our will to these internal and external agencies, we will find ourselves complaining when they do not deliver, and making excuses in order to redirect the negative results of our action or inaction into other channels. This collusion with a scapegoat is a hope to lessen the necessary pain of failure by spreading it around.

Whether, in fact, it can be “spread around”, or whether the mind somehow allows for the temporary creation of seemingly external agencies toward which it may direct the pain of failure – and then drain this feeling into recesses of the mind where it can be dealt with at longer intervals – cannot be said, and does not affect the idea that if freedom is not bound, any attempt to escape that freedom is fictional. What the mind does to cope with the pain of failure does not change the fact that it is the individual’s free choice which has allowed it.

The excuses and complaints that occur, from a belief in cooperative agencies that lessen our degree of freedom, result in a belief that the world itself has a degree of power to which we are entitled: the accumulated power of all the wills who seem to cooperate with it. Life owes us, in effect, as a payback for all the choices we have lent it. Whether it is other individuals, or groups, or whomever else that owes us, the belief is there that our just due is coming and should be here any day now. Each day is does not arrive is irksome. If circumstances actually worsen, it is downright infuriating. Haven’t we done enough? At this point, life is thought to be unfair because it hasn’t paid up on its side of the bargain.

It is easy to see how this feeling comes to be so universal, because we are born into a situation in which the consequences of failure are so great that we must form a cooperation between ourselves and our parents, and then with society. There is nothing unnatural about such partnerships, so long as they are based on a mutual recognition of the freedom to choose otherwise. It is only the belief in the possibility of conceding one’s will, and thus the idea of an imposed obligation that can be guaranteed, that we find the contorted situation where each side expects the other to assume responsibility for the condition of his or her life.

The other kind of partnership, a collaboration of equally free persons, never deviates from the fact that the life of each is the result of his own choosing. If one partner defaults on an agreement, he is free to do so, and now the other must accept the consequences of having trusted in an individual willing to make such a choice – and must then choose whether to cancel the agreement, sue, beseech the police, or maintain the agreement, recognizing the possibility of future betrayal.

In fact, the latter is the only possible relationship, since there is always a mutual freedom. What the first arrangement – that assumes a bound will – implies are the futile emotions stemming from the hope that another’s bound will might free them in certain cases from having to choose. They are disillusioned in their wish to escape freedom, and put the blame on the other, still not accepting that they are equally, at every moment, responsible for the arrangement itself.

Human action, then, falls into three categories, two of them active and one passive:

  1. The choice to act, and the form of that choice, which must conform to the context of the choice itself.

  2. The choice not to act, which sometimes requires real effort, also conforming to context.

  3. The choice to numb the mind to its necessity to choose, believing that the resulting consequences will be the responsibility of another.

Considering Hamlet’s great question, “To be or not to be?”, the third choice follows the negative: It is an attempt at existential suicide, wanting to be alive yet not having to live. The only difference between that and death is the continuing experience of perception in the mind of the escapist.

Many of the tools of society can be misused in support of the escapist’s cause. For example, the law not to murder is one that people follow because they do not want to kill others, preferring a world in which their enemy is allowed to live; or, they prefer the consequences of not murdering to the consequences of doing so, and so, when meeting others they intensely dislike, they make the choice not to kill them. Not because they must, but because they want to, whether directly or indirectly. Desire is the will’s only motive.

On the other hand, the escapist claims that the law has constrained his actions, and that he cannot kill because the law prevents him from doing so. He believes in the law as something greater than himself, and that somehow this abstract entity can govern his actions. And so, when someone is killed in society by a murderer, he is incensed, angry, feels shocked and dismayed, and cried our that an injustice has been done. He expected the law to prevent others from killing, just as he believes it prevents him from doing so. And it failed. Who is to blame? Yet, there is no injustice if the murderer accepts his punishment.

And now, if we say that the will is not entirely free, that it is to some extent determined – thought by what, in what manner, to what degree, only the individual could ever know – then what are the consequences of this idea, and how does it affect our picture of society?

Firstly, the idea of blame implies that while one person was incapable of making a free decision, yet another person was, so that the loss of freedom must relate to the individual, or the individual and his connection to the act. In order to assign blame the question of who was free must be decided, and at what times and to what degree. If we blame anyone, then we assume this capacity, or that someone else has such a capacity and can inform us.

If person A was not free, and person B was, then the idea of conferred will is that B acts through the agency of A, and that in the matter of choice there is only one will involved. Then comes the possibility that A may face the consequences of B’s action-through-A. Justice demands that B instead receive those consequences, with blame being the complaint by which A notifies the deliverer of said consequences to direct them at B. If the consequences occur immediately, then A must request reparations from B, and if B does not respond, then A must sue him, or defame his character such that others will not allow him to use their will.

When A decides to enter into contract with B, that is one thing; when it is forced upon A is another. Then A is said to be at the mercy of B’s good graces, and may lack entirely an executive force to apply to for restitution. When this happens on a large scale, it is called tyranny.

But how and when is the person’s freedom lost? By internal factors alone, or can it be imposed? At what point is it resumed, and can the decision to forgo freedom be reversed mid-way? All of this complexity rests upon the assumption that somehow the freedom of the will, in certain cases, can be suspended.

If it can be suspended externally by the force of an idea, then indeed the abstract idea of a potent law could be true. If by another individual, then dictators could be said to possess this power. If by one’s own self, then it would be possible to enter into contracts which one simply could not violate.

The question, then, is: Can the will be suspended? It seems to be so when we are asleep, and certainly after death. Is it possible to mimic the condition of sleep while remaining awake, as though this life were nothing more than a waking dream?

If we allow this capacity, then human beings must be divided into two categories: Those with the freedom to choose, unfettered and unbounded, for whom the association with life is fully voluntary and they answer to no one but themselves and the consequences they are willing to accept; and those without freedom, chained and bound, so to speak, whose association with life is that of a passive observer being carried along by the current. The first looks to himself in cases both of joy and sorrow; the latter is in a position to blame or thank life, the degree of these two reactions being directly related to his expectations of what life owes him for his complicity.

It might be appropriate to term these two conditions as awake and asleep, since the one who is asleep cannot properly respond to a stimulus. Of course, they are only asleep with regard to the domain of their suspension of will, but in that respect they are determined, and cannot of themselves respond to any change of circumstance.

Is it possible for the mind to be partially asleep? Asleep only with respect to specific areas of life? “Asleep” here carries a pejorative sense, but it does describe the condition.

The above implies that business partners wilfully go to sleep with regard to their contract, in order to subjugate their will to it as to a third entity. Then, if one breaks the contract – although how would seem impossible – then the one who has not may demand the right of contract, and apply punitive force against the other partner. Yet, if the will was subjugated to the contract – thus creating the third entity and the concept of an inviolable right – then how was it broken?

Here we see the contradiction which makes the idea of suspending the will impossible: That people can and do break their agreements. The law has no power of control. If A defers to B, then B should receive the consequences of A’s actions. That is the whole intention of the deferral. If C also defers to B, then again B agrees to receive those consequences. Thus A and C are able to make an agreement through B, such as the citizen and the policeman both holding to the law against murder. Or let us say that B is a tyrant, who commands the actions of his citizens A and C. In all these cases, B is to blame, and A and C can complain to others that they should take up their issue with B.

If this structure is in fact possible through the suspension of will, then B is said to control the will of A and C, and this permits a feeling of security for A and C, and of power for B.

And yet, A or C can and do break the contract, as history shows. First, this should be impossible, or else B does not in fact command, and all parties are at all times completely free. Second, if A does break the contract, it is B that deserves the consequences, since he was the commander. Why, then, does C direct his complaint toward A instead of at B? If the law can prevent people from murdering one another, rather than functioning by the mutual agreement of free wills, then when someone does commit murder our rage should be directed at the law, and not at the murderer. Even if we suggest that the murderer was free, this still shows the ineffective nature of the law to govern society, and people should be angry at it instead. After all, the whole purpose of deferring the will is to transfer consequences. Why does no one accept that C may turn around and blame the law for his breach?

If the suspension of will applies to the lawful citizen, who honors the contract, how can it not also apply to the one who has broken it? If breakage is possible, no one can trust in the deferral of will, and must resign themselves to a hideously unfair world in which the deviant misuse the trust of the law-abiding. Either the contract does not have the power to govern the will, or there is no such possibility – and we return again to the initial proposition, that human beings are entirely free at all times. The existence of “temptation” alone refutes the idea that the will may be deferred or suspended; instead, all this refers to a consensual illusion, freely chosen at each moment, and maintained by a psychological warping of the mind that would seem to make happiness unachievable.

In sum, it has been said that freedom is absolute within the limitations of context, and from this it has been shown that there can be no concept of responsibility which is not at all times willful. Therefore, the will’s desire is the only determinant of human behavior, and there exists no basis either for excuse or complaint in the name of some supra-human right to which it is believed that human beings are obliged and bound.1


  1. Written a bench in the Plaça Industria, Sitges.