In Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann identifies the inadequacies of thinking of freedom in terms of free will. The narrator describes the paradox of freedom as being only the ability to deviate from God’s will. If that were true, then freedom is only the power to do evil. That would imply that the devil represents freedom and God represents bland conformity and submission.
Those of us trained in philosophical thinking are so used to equating freedom with free will that Berdyaev’s disparagement of this idea, even contempt, can be disconcerting and puzzling upon first encountering it. The same unappealing picture of free will can be found in Kant as identified by Mann’s narrator. Free will for Kant is the ability to ignore nature and the empirical, and to follow the moral law – a moral law that is the same for all. Man is the maker or discerner of the law, the ruler, and also the subject of the law, the follower. In the process, Kant invents a new form of determinism that could be called rational determinism, or moral determinism. Nature provides the railroad of desire, pleasure, and “happiness.” The rational being can jump off the tracks, only to find himself immediately on new rational train tracks. A being first pressed upon as a piano key by nature and the laws of egotism, described by Dostoevsky in Notes From Underground, finds a new prison for himself created by rationality.
Berdyaev introduces the outlandish concept of the Ungrund, a word and idea from the mystic Jacob Boehme. Representing causeless freedom as the most basic metaphysical principle coming before Being, because predating Creation, Berdyaev once or twice equates the Ungrund with the Holy Spirit – that Person of the Trinity that is the most mysterious.
Since the Ungrund is the only metaphysical alternative to determinism it would be nice if it did not sound so strange; “a fairytale,” as one precocious, but morally deranged student put it. It is as though, having made a carefully logical persuasive argument, the last premise introduced relied upon your pet pink and purple polka dot dinosaur. Rhetorically, having to introduce the Ungrund as part of the argument for freedom, means explaining the obscure with what is necessarily, even by definition, obscure. The causeless ground of freedom has to be a mystery to function. If it were plain, light of day, and known, it could not be the source of anything.
Two instances of people trying to make a train of thought congenial to those unsympathetic come to mind. One, was Ken Wilber’s attempt to make spirituality more acceptable to materialists, by trying to equate the spiritual and mental with interior levels of brain development. Scientifically, that was probably never going to fly. But, those who try to understand what it is to be human by pointing at brain structure are just not going to be won over to the spiritual in such a manner. In fact, a mystical experience or similar conversion experience would be necessary – not just talk and discursive reasoning. Similarly, my father hoped to persuade his readers that St. Stephen had communicated a book’s worth of ideas via channeling by appealing to an utterance in an antique and now disappeared dialect of Thessalonian Greek that experts suggested could only have come from an inhabitant of that time and place. Those who hated the idea of dead saints communicating will not be persuaded by a snippet of an extinct language/dialect.
Berdyaev equates the Ungrund and Freedom with creativity and imagination much, much more fundamentally than mere “free will:” that paltry afterthought. Every conscious creature, and perhaps plants, and immune systems too, need to be creative to deal with the unexpected. And, then, continuing a marriage that is not hellish, requires creativity and flexibility. Even a moderately interesting conversation relies on each party improvising his answer, and not merely lecturing from a prepared script. That is why moral legalism cannot be sufficient, and why freedom is not simply the freedom to do evil. Freedom is related to Aristotle’s lesbian rule – the name of which made my dissertation supervisor literally blush when I brought it up in class once. The lesbian rule – from the island of Lesbos – was a flexible measure that could be used to measure the length of uneven surfaces, like the top of a Corinthian column. Aristotle was right that behaving well required taking the specific people and circumstances into account. The amount of force, for instance, that a police officer might have to use will depend on the officer and the reluctant arrestee, and what else is going on around them, such as a hostile crowd. Rules do not suffice for right behavior, so creativity is required.
Thus, it is God who is king and the source of creativity, at least the hidden part and source, not the devil. It is the third person of the Trinity residing within us, possibly, that connects us with the Ungrund – a part of God – the unknown part that is not the Logos – to be approached by the apophatic, not the cataphatic. Free will is not simply the ability to follow the law, because the law is often insufficient. We need to think and be rational, and to feel and to act, in order to have any hope of behaving in a successful manner. The metaphor of the Father with adult children does away with the image of train tracks upon which all must ride. The route to your salvation will not be the same as mine, except at the most abstract level. Your wife is not my wife, so what works great with her, will not work with mine. Your talents are not my talents, so you develop what is yours to develop and I will try to develop mine.
The idea that freedom is only the freedom to do wrong does indeed follow from the “normal” inadequate analysis of freedom, and equating freedom primarily with free will. What is needed is outlandish freedom and that unlovely sounding concept of the Ungrund – which can feel like an albatross around one’s neck. One can either be intellectually respectable and abandon the concept, or one can be right. Plato used to like to write, “at least something like that might be true.” This could be amended, in this case, to something like that must be true. If it is not, then Mann is correct, that freedom is only the freedom to do wrong, or the materialists are correct, and there is no freedom at all. The materialists, by the way, love to point out that freedom cannot be fully explained, or defined, and the ground of which cannot be identified, they think. This, they take it, means the idea of freedom is incoherent. What materialists never admit is that without the concept of freedom, their attempt to persuade us of their point of view, is also incoherent. We, the reader or interlocutor needs to be free to agree or disagree based on reasons – something not permitted by physical determinism. Better the mystery of the Ungrund, than the mystery of the stupidity of materialists who entirely negate the ability to think rationally and without contradiction – a contradiction that immediately cancels any assertion they might choose to make.