By Maria Popova
“Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom,” James Baldwin admonished as he considered how we imprison ourselves, for he knew just how limited our freedom is and how illusory our choices. And yet we must move through the world with a feeling of freedom, necessary for our sense of agency, for making our existential helplessness bearable, for making our lives of consequence. More than that, freedom — the sense of it, no matter the fact of it — must be at the center of our being, if we are to be. Ursula K. Le Guin’s understood this when she insisted that freedom “must remain a quality of the mind or spirit not dependent on circumstances, a gift of grace.”
That is what Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914–April 19, 1998) explores throughout The Double Flame (public library) — his uncommonly insightful inquiry into love as “a knot made of two intertwined freedoms,” at the center of which is his insistence that “there is an intimate, causal relation between love and freedom,” that freedom is the fundamental necessity of being.
And yet the entire premise is haunted by the abiding question of what place freedom can possibly have, as Paz himself recognizes, “in a universe governed by immutable laws” — the same disquieting question at the heart of the paradox of free will.
Paz twists our existing assumptions into an ouroboros, intimating that the question itself is a prison of which we must break free in order to comprehend freedom:
Freedom is not an isolated concept nor can it be defined in isolation; it is permanently wedded to another concept without which it cannot exist — necessity. But necessity in turn is impossible without freedom: each exists only in opposition to the other. The Greek tragedians saw this with greater clarity than did the Greek philosophers. Since that time, theologians have not stopped arguing about predestination and free will.
Noting that modern scientists have returned to this concept, he considers Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking work on black holes and its consequent concept of the singularity, which Paz shorthands as “an exception, a place within space-time where the laws of the universe cease to apply.” Triangulating between what is, what can be, and what must be, he writes defiantly:
An unthinkable, inconsistent idea. It resembles Kant’s antinomies, which he regarded as insoluble. Nonetheless, black holes exist. In like manner, then, freedom exists. Knowing that we are setting forth a paradox, we may say that freedom is a dimension of necessity.
That we are both a function of the universe and its functionary makes all the more vivid our elemental need to feel free, without which we cannot function as human beings. Paz puts it succinctly:
Without freedom, what we call a person does not exist.
Complement with Toni Morrison on the deepest meaning of freedom, Iris Murdoch on the its five layers, and Maya Angelou’s magnificent conversation with Bill Moyers about it, then revisit Einstein on free will and the power of the imagination.