Renouncing One’s Autonomy

Do human beings really hunger for freedom, as so many thinkers over the ages have asserted? Or does freedom terrify them – is it something they would rather renounce? Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” and Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom make the latter case rather forcefully.

In his acclaimed work The Ordeal of Mark Twain, Van Wyck Brooks observed that in America there are rewards for throwing in one’s lot with the herd, for rejecting one’s autonomy. Here are a few passages from his literary classic:

"There is the complete philosophy of the moral slave who not only has no autonomy but wishes to have none, who, in fact, finds all his comfort in having none, and delights in denying the possibility of independence just because he does not possess it himself…

"If the great artist is the freest man, if the true creative life is, in fact, the embodiment of ‘free will,’ then it is only he that is born for greatness who can feel, as Mark Twain felt, that the universe is leagued against him. The common man has no sense of having surrendered his will: he regards it as a mere pretension of the philosophers that man has a will to surrender. He eats, drinks and continues to be merry or morose regardless of his moral destiny: to possess no principle of growth, no spiritual backbone is, indeed, his greatest advantage in a world where success is the reward of accommodation."

"The creative mind is the most sensitive mind, the most highly individualized, the most complicated in its range of desires: consequently, in circumstances where individuality cannot register itself, it undergoes the most general and the most painful repression. The more imaginative a man was the more he would naturally feel himself restrained and chafed by such a life as that of the gold-seekers. He, like his comrades, was under the necessity of making money, of succeeding..."

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