Defining Free will

Do we seek liberty or do we simply seek fair masters? This short read explores the human concept of free will.


Going through a stack of books in my bedroom, I came across Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Empire by Tom Holland. There are two quotes in the epigraph. The first is from Julius Caesar:

“Human nature is universally imbued with a desire for liberty, and a hatred for servitude.”

The second is from Sallustius Crispus, a Roman historian of old:

“Only a few prefer liberty – the majority seek nothing more than fair masters.”

I Tweeted a picture of the page. The caption read, “Which do you want to be true?”

Zero of my followers replied. The two places where I’ve lived, the Bay Area and Austin, are liberal strongholds and the followers I’ve accumulated are gathered on the left. These people know that I sometimes lean right and when they see a Tweet like that they know what I’m getting at.

Those on the left, almost as a rule, advocate for government involvement in issues across the board and know regardless of how they try to frame it that this outlook diminishes the liberty they claim to uphold. They can’t speak in favor of Caesar’s quote regardless of their motives because through their actions they implore their masters to provide and provide fairly. And they can’t speak in favor of Sallust’s because none other than a tyrant would want to.

As a libertarian I agree with the left on many social issues and feel the right too promises little in regard to freedom. But where the right aims to amputate certain appendages of our liberty the left attacks the immune system: freedom is economic freedom.

Alexander Hamilton, whom the left has rediscovered whether accurately or not as a champion of their ideals thanks to the meteoric rise of the Broadway musical named after him, acknowledged this. “Power over a man’s subsistence is power over his will,” he said.

A week after sharing those two quotes I was about halfway through Slaughterhouse-Five, ironically a book critical of capitalism, and I came across a line that filled me with pride in the human race and fear of a future that may prove Sallust right. Talking about the nature of time, an alien from the planet Tralfamadore tells Billy Pilgrim we are all essentially bugs in amber. When Billy makes a retort about free will the alien says, “If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings, I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.'”

I’m reminded of another book, Life of Pi, where the narrator explains that despite our preconceived notions, animals in zoos, provided they have fair zookeepers, are happy. Once he explains it, it makes sense. Animals in quality zoos have sufficient food, mating opportunities and leisure time and they don’t have to fight to the death for territory. What’s not to like?

For any other animal, nothing; but for a human, plenty. We are not slaves to our biological imperatives to survive and procreate. We would have to be driven to desperate extremes to kill a fellow human over a meal. We are motivated by something more complex, something difficult to define or even recognize within ourselves. It is the something we refer to when we talk about free will. It is something different for everyone and something no fair master can provide. In Kurt Vonnegut’s world neither animals nor aliens partake in this something; when the Tralfamadoreans put Billy Pilgrim in their zoo, they place with him a famous actress and though the two Earthlings have a baby together they are quite unhappy. Of course we would project the desire for more onto other animals.

And of course I Tweeted that alien’s quote about free will and got no response from my followers.

I Tweeted it because I like it but also because, as I said, it worried me. I look around and see a great deal of veneration for lawmakers and government officials. I see people on both sides of the aisle, but especially the left, instinctively invite the state to solve our problems. Assuming they can even do so, they require more and more of our dollars to do it.

Whether one agrees with Caesar or with Sallust is beside the point and, for the purpose of considering these quotes, so is the fact that Caesar turned the Roman Republic into a dictatorship. But I know which quote I want to be true. And my purpose in writing these posts is to nourish the universally imbued desire for liberty whose existence I hope will be proven in the end.


This article was originally published on caesarsallust.com. The original article can be found here. His Libertarian blog was inspired by the words of a Roman emperor and a Roman historian, with help from a Founding Father and a fictional alien from Tralfamadore.

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3 comments

  1. It is indeed that man as conscious being, desires no less but to be free and happy – the greatest fulfillment of his/her very existence. Thank you for the article.

  2. I also choose Caesar’s quote.

    I reject the idea that all government needs to be made up of masters though and that more power invested in the government need always be to the detriment of personal liberty. The idea behind democracy is that those being ruled have a fair say in how they are ruled, thereby the ruled share in the title of master. Now I am not, nor are your other readers I’m sure, so naive to think that the system is achieving this lofty goal. After all “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms” and we would be hard pressed to even call our system a legitimate democracy.

    The point being that liberalism and conservatism share the same goal. To retain as much power over his or her substance, therefore will, therefore liberty as possible. A liberal is untrusting of others and their ability to make choices that won’t affect their own liberty. So they rely on their power to elect officials to then limit the damage that can be done to them by the folly of others through government policy. A conservative on the other hand trusts that market forces are the ultimate protection from the folly of others, so they seek to limit payments to the government as well as limit its interference in the market. In other words a liberal seeks to increase liberty though the long term investment in the community while a conservative seeks to increase liberty through short term gains in substance.

    If this is true, and I think it is, then neither liberals nor conservatives seek to find themselves with nothing more than a fair master. We all seek liberty, albeit by different means.

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