“Men make their own history,” wrote Karl Marx, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
On this view the past imprisons but never educates or enlightens us (except, of course, in the case of Marx himself). It determines what we think, what we do, and what we are. There is no escape from the circumstances in which we find ourselves: the past not merely affects but also determines the future.
The diametric opposite of this view, that circumstance matters not at all, that we are utterly free to be anything we like without any constraint whatever, that each moment is in effect separate from the one that preceded it, that we are in effect limitless, is equally unrealistic. It arises from the desire to escape Marxian and other forms of determinism, but it is based upon a misconception of our freedom. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
In like fashion to the past, which is neither unimportant to what we are nor its complete determinant, our bodily constitution is neither unimportant to us nor constitutive of us. We cannot simply wish bodily differences away. For example, there are good physical reasons why I cannot break a record running a hundred yards. I am too old and was not made for it in any case. Osteoarthritis is, because of my age, beginning to weaken my manual grip, meaning that there are some things I now cannot do at all that I once could do with ease. But the whole catalog of the things that I cannot do, which is and has always been of infinite size, does not exhaust or diminish the infinitude of what I can do. Limits do not mean that I am unfree. Infinity minus one is still infinity.
Indeed, limits are not the opposite of freedom, but in some circumstances at least the precondition of its exercise. I did not choose the grammar, syntax, or vocabulary of my native language, for example, any more than I chose my native language itself, but that does not mean that I am either predetermined or limited in what I can say in it. A language without rules, if there could be such a thing, would be a language without the possibility of meaning. But meaning, thanks to rules, is itself infinite in its possibilities. We each of us make many unique utterances every day.
In normal circumstances, then, that is to say assuming a lack of brain disease or destructive outside interference with his brain, man in general, and each man in particular, has an ontological freedom to think what he likes, and this exists even under the most tyrannous of regimes, say that of North Korea, however much his thoughts have been molded by circumstances. Of course, political freedom is another thing entirely: the more tyrannous the regime, the more of life is lived under physical coercion, threat, and terror. Psychologically speaking, it is unrealistic to expect people to say “Down with the leader!” when they will be shot for doing so, but they are nevertheless still ontologically free to do so.
People often allege coercion by oppression or by circumstance when they wish to escape their own responsibility for their predicament (they wish to avoid their responsibility, of course, only when their predicament is unwanted or unenviable, never when it is just what they want). To evade our responsibility, we ascribe our undesired predicament to limits that never existed, and by so doing may well fashion what William Blake called “the mind-forg’d manacles” for the future.
On the other hand, the wise person accepts limits that genuinely have been imposed on him by circumstances beyond his control. Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? Nor can anyone become Mozart merely by trying—which is not to say, of course, that Mozart did not try extremely hard. If you cannot become Mozart by trying, neither did Mozart become Mozart by inadvertence, that is to say by what Edmund, in King Lear, called “an enforced obedience of planetary influence,” by the passive object of forces acting upon him to which his choices contributed nothing.
A large part of wisdom (and no doubt one of the secrets of a happy life also) is a knowledge and acceptance of the unavoidable limits of one’s existence, not least among which are one’s physical constitution and mortality. It requires judgment to distinguish between the true limits of existence and the false. A possible meaning, or an aspect of the meaning, of the gnomic injunction over the entry to the Temple of Delphi, namely to Know thyself, is that it is essential to know and accept one’s limits, the better to make the most of one’s freedom.
Theodore Dalrymple is the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. He is a retired physician who, most recently, practiced in a British inner-city hospital and prison. Dalrymple has written a column for The Spectator (London) for many years and writes regularly for National Review. Denis Dutton, editor of Arts & Letters Daily, called Dalrymple the “Orwell of our time.”
Complement with Doug Bandow on the relationship between freedom and virtue and Jane Clark Scharl on trusting your five senses in the gender neutral bathrooms debates.