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.