BEDFORD, IN—The Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department confirmed Wednesday that Jessica Paulsen, a 15-year-old who went missing last month, has been freed from the home of two men accused of kidnapping her, although isn’t freedom itself, as both a figurative concept and a state of being, merely another kind of prison, one that entraps us all?
Paulsen, who disappeared on October 10, is reportedly in good health and has returned to her family’s home, where she will begin the process of healing and where, though she will no longer be held in physical confinement, she will nonetheless remain a prisoner to the uncertainty, doubt, and inexorable agony of existence, insofar as these emotional states are universal constants of the human condition.
“This rescue was made possible through the coordinated efforts of law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels,” said Sheriff John Montague, who, yes, helped to rescue Paulsen from the torment of her human captors, but is she not still subject to the psychological imprisonment we all experience as beings endowed with moral agency? “We have arrested two male suspects and are questioning them at this time.”
According to police reports, officers searching a home on the 1400 block of West Depot Street in Bedford found Paulsen locked in a bedroom in which she was allegedly held against her will, although of course this inevitably begs the question as to what kind of “will” she possesses now that she has been released, beyond the unwanted, unasked-for burden of self-determination? Moreover, how is “will” defined in a greater universal sense, and how is it altered in light of the vagaries of life in a secular, post-industrial Western civilization?
“We’re just happy our little girl is alive,” said Jessica’s father, Michael Paulsen, as though the state of being alive were itself a sufficient cause for happiness and not a prison of its own, at least in a phenomenological sense. “There were some days when I honestly thought I would never see her again.”
“These last few weeks have been a living nightmare,” he added, failing to adequately wrestle with the themes of impermanence and meaninglessness that have troubled theologians and philosophers for millennia.
Moreover, to put the issue of Ms. Paulsen aside for a moment, what is the essence of freedom? Is not freedom’s very nature a fallacy when defined against the ephemerality of existence, a basic definition that cannot be abrogated through an act of kidnapping and subsequent release? Are we not endangered at every moment of our lives? Must we not confront thousands of mortal, irreversible choices each day? Is the pressure of these choices not devastating?
Indeed, it is a misguided mindset that emphasizes negative liberty—that is, liberation from outside interference and coercion—but ignores the notion, put forth by Hegel and expanded by Isaiah Berlin, of positive liberty, understood as mastery over the self, so that, for example, while Jessica Paulsen’s rescue no doubt increased her negative liberty, it did not free her from certain tendencies latent in her mind and body that collectively circumscribe her existence more completely than iron bars or shackles ever could.
What we are faced with, it becomes clear, is a crisis of self. Nietzsche elucidates his thoughts on the concept of free will, or rather the fallacy of free will, thusly:
The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one's actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness. (Nietszche, 21)
However, are we to take Nietzsche’s statement as a repudiation of the existence of free will outright? Scholars Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick’s analysis seems to conclude that, in Nietszche’s formulation, one’s “will,” defined as a set of drives that act in coordination as a causal agent, do indeed exist as a cause of action, albeit not a sufficient cause of action capable of negating other factors, both internal and external:
Ignoring that fact that willpower only brings about action if the commanded drives are willing to obey, allows one to ignore all of the moral luck—the influence of “the world, ancestors, chance, and society”—that goes into having one's drives exist as a “well-constructed and happy commonwealth,” and thus to believe that one has total causal responsibility for one’s actions. (Clark and Dudrick, 263)
Thus, the question becomes not whether freedom or free will can exist, but whether its existence or degree of causality is sufficient to the task of self-preservation. To the degree that it is not, and cannot be, one must then ask whether the human awareness of this insufficiency is experienced in a fixed, universal sense, or whether it varies demonstrably according to personal predicament. Moreover, is self-knowledge, as defined in this inquiry, truly possible? It is our conclusion that while self-knowledge may in fact be achievable by some degree of measurement, it is certainly not possible to the degree that true freedom, as it has been traditionally posited, is in any way tenable. While the illusion of true freedom may have numerous practical applications, vis-à-vis the causality of certain commanded drives, its existence as a universal concept is purely theoretical, and may only be valued as such.
Ken Gemes and Simon May (eds.), Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy, Oxford University Press, 2009
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Vintage, 2010