"To be free is to be capable of thinking one's own thoughts - not the thoughts merely of the body, or of society, but thoughts generated by one's deepest, most original, most essential and spiritual self, one's individuality." - Rudolf Steiner
One otherwise ordinary day in 2011, three neurology registrars debated their futures in a cafe in Melbourne, Australia.
These three were not only colleagues, they were friends; an everlasting bond had been forged between them, a bond established by the sometimes onerous demands of their training. They hailed from disparate regions of the globe - the first had grown up in Brazil, the second in Australia, and the third in Canada.
Their plans for life after training were as varied as their backgrounds.
The Brazilian planned to work at the apex of clinical neurology; he had accepted an esteemed position as a neurologist at one of Melbourne's most illustrious hospitals. For many long years, he had trained heart and soul in the Brazilian and Australian medical systems, and he was ready for more.
The Australian planned to make a dent in the universe; he wanted to pursue a path of entrepreneurship while training as an interventional neurologist in New York. He had a vision and the courage to act on it, and he was ready to take on the world.
The Canadian, well his plan was different - he simply wanted to be free. This provoked a degree of discussion. The Brazilian and the Austrian both asked, "What do you mean, free? You're free right now, you goose."
The Canadian replied, "No, I am not free nor have I been for many years. True, I chose this training path at the outset and technically I can therefore choose to abandon it at any time. However, to finish it requires that I suppress my will to the wills of my superiors, who hold my future in their hands until my training is complete. Moreover, if I accept a position as a neurologist anywhere after all is said and done, it seems to me that I simply trade one slaver for another - instead of a superior it will be a hospital board, or something of that ilk."
The Canadian paused, then continued, "No, my friends, I choose to escape the matrix, and I...will...be...free!"
One year later, the Canadian sold nearly all of his possessions, including his phone and computer, and bought a one-way ticket to South America. At long last, he was off the grid. Finally, he was free.
Or was he?
Transitions Of Freedom
Since then, my conception of freedom has undergone several transitions.
Two yearsbefore the Melbourne cafe day, I had considered myself free so long as I went with the flow of society - that is, followed the rules of society and strove for accolades as defined by that society. For most of my life, it had been repeatedly affirmed to me through a variety of media sources - news, television, movies - that I was a free person living in a free country. Yet in retrospect, I considered that perhaps I had been subtly coerced to think, speak, and act in ways that were not entirely my own; at some point in time, I had "woken up" to find myself involuntarily submitting my will to the wills of others resulting in a life that was not really of my making, a life where my true dreams would never be realized.
During the years immediately before and after the Melbourne cafe day, I refuted this first version of freedom and considered that I could only be free so long as I did what I wanted - that is, pursued my own pleasure or happiness without conforming to the coercions or demands of society. Yet as I travelled in South America and immersed myself in this new concept of freedom, I realized that perhaps I had once again merely traded one master for another; instead of submitting my will to the will of others, I found that I was now enslaving my will to my own desires and in pursuing the elusive rainbow of desire it soon became clear to me that to continue down that road would mean a life of endless cravings that could never, ever be fully satiated.
Two yearsafter the Melbourne cafe day, I discarded this second version of freedom and contemplated that perhaps I could only be free if I abandoned my desires - that is, ignored the coercions or demands of society while at the same time not allowing my own fleeting desires to dictate my actions. Yet as I did so, as I searched for that emptiness, it seemed that at times I teetered on the precipice of surrendering my will entirely, that I was in fact killing my will in my efforts to detach myself from all desires and that to continue down that road would culminate in a life of universal laziness in both thought and action.
I do not regret undergoing these transitions – at the time, it was necessary and valuable for me to immerse myself in each of them. However, I now have a different take on the concept of freedom.
The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner may be one of the most under-appreciated thinkers of all time. One major reason for this is that in 1921, towards the end of Steiner's life, his ideas were attacked on several fronts by Adolf Hitler and a number of other prominent German nationalist extremists who declared a "war against Steiner" resulting in many of his ideas getting blitzkrieged.
Not all of Steiner's ideas were good, however his portrayal of freedom resembles the way I see things now. Steiner defined freedom as the ability to perceive and follow spiritual intuitions, which he depicted as rare moments of revelation when a person "knows" that a certain act is a good and moral thing to do even if they cannot explain how they know it. To follow spiritual intuitions, it is not necessary for a person to submit their will to the will of others, or enslave their will to their ego, or even kill their will - all they must do is change their will, chisel and sculpt it in a way that allows them to best strive towards their spiritual intuitions which culminates in a spiritual life task, the completion of which ultimately leads to the greatest hopes, adversities, and enjoyments that can ever be known.
Steiner believed in a kind of spirit world, but in my opinion that's not compulsory - spiritual intuitions can arise from this world, this reality, so long as one believes that there is some kind of weird order, force, or "spirit" to the universe. It’s not necessary to be able to articulate it, only to be able to perceive it. Furthermore, I have no problem with perceiving this order, force, or spirit in either a religious or scientific light, nor did the German-born physicist Albert Einstein:
“Behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force is my religion. To that extent, I am in point of fact, religious.”
“Every scientist becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men.”
So, perhaps real freedom is not to go with the flow of society, or do what one wants, or abandon one's desires. Perhaps real freedom is to seek a deeper awareness of the spiritual intuitionsthat this world is whispering to you, and then to strive to fully accomplish the spiritual life task that this world has laid out for you.
References (1) Steiner R. 1894. Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom.