Whose Service is Perfect Freedom

by jdavidcharles

Whose Service is Perfect Freedom:
Thoughts on Free Will, Historicity, Finitude, and The Graduate

Each moment declares I am free. As I sit and type this I reach for my espresso and I know it is me reaching and that I very easily could have grasped the book or pencil in front of me, or done anything really, but I did not and instead I grabbed and drank my espresso. Time presents us infinity—the possibility of doing nearly anything with myself: take a shower, read St. Augustine, go to church, eat breakfast. All of these meanings seem and are infinite in that at the moment, the event, I could will any of them. However something happens after I drink my espresso. I start writing these sentences, am filled with its caffeine and goodness and suddenly narrate into my personal history that I have drank and am drinking espresso. It could not be any other way. I drank it—and suddenly the infinity of the situation slips back into the finitude of my history that I declare with every action that I do from thenceforth.

This short essay is the product of my having drunk espresso, and if I had read St. Augustine I should not have written it. This is the essential point that the exclusivist approach to free will and determinism fails to grasp, namely, Time. For it is only in light of my having a history and situations by which to define myself and see myself and grasp myself that I can know myself as a grounded, determined thing. Once something is grasped, that is brought into my existence, formulated, comprehended, it has already fallen away from the infinity and transcendence of the absolutely free and into the finite and determined.

In the Christian tradition both these exclusive standpoints are exemplified in the Calvinist and Arminian positions. Both ultimately deny the primacy of Time as the father of freedom. The Arminian glorifies the moment to the whole of existence while the Calvinist glorifies history into the whole of existence—and both are right from a certain standpoint. At the time of salvation, baptism, marriage, or any defining event of the self, a narrating force that gives shape and meaning to a life, one is faced with the terrifying freedom of the choice. I cannot help but think of the marriage scene at the end of Nichols’ The Graduate—what is Ben to do? What about Elaine? Mrs. Robinson? One is faced with an infinity of possibilities depending upon the actions of the individuals, the outcome of which will define their lives and project them each to their respective futures. It is a defining moment. Once, however, we are left with Ben and Elaine running out together we are left with the outcome and ask how could it have been any other way? The whole of the movie retroactively seems to have only been possible in light of Ben and Elaine’s running out of the church, crucifix swinging and all. The event has been reified and brought to meaning in light of the narrative just as the events of our lives, our “religious” experiences, bring meaning to ours.

Freedom then is only possible in that it will eventually be seen as a given, something fixed; Calvinism and Arminianism imply each other and are co-dependent in this way. My actions and choices can never be separated from their history and context and reduced to propositions—today I made curry, love, I made the bed, I ate eggs—all of these are reductions of a historically grounded individual presenting his life’s narrative in these moments. This is why we say I made the bed, for the “I” is short hand for the whole of my existence as it was presented at the moment I made the bed or love or curry. To be free to choose is precisely to define the self in action, to take up my determined history and project it to an indeterminate future. The glances Ben and Elaine cast one another at the end of the film declare this—the escape from the wedding has been narrated, they have done it, but now what to do with it? One is always taking up one’s history and presenting it to the world. And it always slides back into a history. Man is bound up by his history and yet man is always declared free by each and every event in it.

And as the caffeine leaves me, having gone to breakfast, had some coffee, come back, typed, edited, and had another cup of coffee, I cannot imagine having done anything other than having eaten eggs for breakfast and making and drinking coffee. Thus another essay gets written and, having written and drank, written and drank, I find myself with an insatiable urge to make curry.

Or maybe read St. Augustine.