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Freedom, Aesthetic and Ethical

Human history and the human psyche reveal two conditions that we describe with the word freedom. They are, however, very different conditions.

Aesthetic Freedom

The first is what I will call, borrowing the word from Kierkegaard, “aesthetic freedom.” This is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the right to avoid making choices.

For example, the unmarried man is free to let his eyes and mind wander among the unattached females of the species, the uncommitted quasi-philosopher is free to wander among schools of thought, pretending to “not want to narrow himself to one position,” the undecided music critic is free to say, “I like all kinds of music.”

In each case, what the person is saying is that he is guided by his emotions or immediate needs, which, in turn are guided by his appetites. He is functioning slightly above the powers of an animal, but, in a way, not very far. Neither his will nor his reason have been decisively engaged.

To summarize, aesthetic freedom is the freedom of the adolescent and is characterized by the absence of willful decisions.

Ethical Freedom

The second kind of freedom, and here again I borrow the word from Kierkegaard, is ethical freedom. Ethical freedom is characterized by the act of choosing. For this reason, it is outside the cognitive reach of the aesthetically free person. To the aesthetic, choice is naturally limiting and limitation is the opposite of freedom.

For example, the married man has eternally forfeited the right to let his eyes and mind wander among the unattached females, the committed philosopher does not pretend he can live in an eternal doubt but boldly selects an affirmation of life by choosing a school of thought, the decisive music critic boldly asserts that some music is unworthy of the performer and the audience and that it is not enough to submit to something because it pleases you.

Above all, the ethical man fears any form of adultery, but especially the harlot. The Adulterer seeks to deny his own choice, but inasmuch as that choice has determined him, the adulterous act is an act of suicide. The turn to the prostitute, the turn to the one who offers sacred pleasures for the apparent price of a few hours wages, is a denial of reality so deep and a destruction of the self so profound that only the most profound soul-cleansing tears of repentance can heal it.

The Eternal

Choices are all eternal. The human spirit longs for the eternal, as we can easily see in the exhausted cliché that calls on us to “change the world forever,” as though you could change it temporarily. Choices are all eternal. Every decision places us on the abyss of the infinite. To decide is to choose an eternity.

The aesthete feels this in his bones, as it were, and draws back. Only he cannot draw back from the eternal for the simple reason that it abides within him and he abides within it. Refusing to choose the eternal positively, he chooses his eternity negatively.

The ethical man embraces the eternal is in his choice. That is why it is our choices that set us free. In choosing we embrace our nature and our limitations. We embrace reality.

Only in reality we really live. Only in reality can we have real freedom.

Willing oneself

The ethical man, therefore, decides for himself the kind of man he is and will be. He arouses, cherishes, nourishes, strengthens, and honors his will. Anything that weakens it weakens him. He flees this sort of weakness.

He is angry when his right to choose himself and to honor his decisions is taken from him. He knows that when his responsibilities (choices) have been taken from him, when he has been treated like a child, his liberties have been robbed and he has been dishonored.

Nothing frightens him more than the discovery that those in power are given their power by the aesthetically free around him. He knows intuitively that it is a slave mentality and he knows that the aesthetic is his enemy. His soul knows that they inhabit two incompatible worlds and that the freedom of the aesthetic will destroy the freedom of the ethical.

For this reason, he strives to ensure that nobody can remain in the aesthetic stage for long. He knows that children must grow through it, but he wants those children to make and live with decisions as early and frequently as possible. He knows that every such choice enables the child to become a man and to give life to the powers of will and reason that separate him from the animals and their aesthetic brothers.

Willing Freedom

When too much power or too much indulgence enables too many people to remain in the aesthetic stage for too long, the ethical knows his freedom is under siege. He knows that the aesthetic, who needs others to make his decisions for him, wants to remove from the ethical the power to decide for himself.

The soul of the aesthetic knows that too many ethical people with too much power will undo his freedom and force him to make choices, to deny some appetites, to arouse his will and reason. Nothing terrifies him more. So he wants only a few to be granted the right to decide. He wants those few to decide for all the rest. He wants us all to commit suicide together.

Ethical freedom is the act of choosing oneself. Aesthetic freedom is the act of indulging oneself. The former leads to finite, but real, life (Paradoxically, in the act of an infinite choice to love another one is bound to the infinite). The latter is the negation of the self by virtue of the disempowerment of the will and reason.


The aesthetic is defined by his fear of the infinite and his rejection of the sublime. The ethical is defined by his commitments, which arouse the faculties in his soul that touch the eternal and make him a man. That is why Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima told the “woman of little faith” that the means to certainty is not through proof but through “active love.”

You cannot prove to an aesthetic that he is eternal. You can only hope that he will will the flourishing of another and in that will choose to act on the other’s behalf. This is active, ethical love. It is an infinite act. Aesthetic love is finite and seeks to consume the beloved for one’s own pleasure.

What is left of the beloved after the consummation is of no matter to the aesthetic lover. Fornication is the destruction of two embodied eternities. They can be healed only by its transformation into an eternal act of genuine love.

The foundation of ethical freedom is honor to one’s parents. The foundation of aesthetic freedom is dishonor of one’s parents.


Aesthetic freedom negates itself because it is the negation of the aesthetically free person. He never finds out what he is, he never exercises his crucially human faculties. He becomes bored and tyrannical. The longer he endures without making a decision, the deeper he slides into despair and its corollary: the lust for power. He is characterized by idle talk, using words as a tool to express himself and impress others, but not for their natural purpose: to build relationships and to live in truth.

The aesthetic self is chosen for the aesthetic man. He neglects his will and lives for his insatiable appetites. He is unsteady and unpredictable. Lacking will, he demands much and offers little. Lacking will, he demands little of himself and offers much to himself. But he can give himself nothing. Therefore his self is negated. He dies.

In his despair, he seeks laughter. He laughs at virtue and cannot be persuaded of its beauty. He lives for the moment. Failing to cultivate those faculties within him that are eternal and that can see the eternal, he cannot perceive the eternal. He thinks of himself as a sophisticated animal and boasts of his courage in his great confession.

But he thinks it courageous because he feels its agony in private. He feels he is broken, but he will not know why.

When a people choose to deny the hardships that enable others to walk the ethical path, they despise themselves and each other. When a people choose the aesthetic path as a way of life, they enslave themselves out of fear of the defining character of the eternal. When a people suppress the freedom of the ethical for the freedom of the aesthetic, they have chosen to negate themselves and to resist the affirmation of all. They have chosen death and slavery.

Because he fears the eternal, the aesthetic denies the existence of a free will. He constructs around himself a philosophical fortress called determinism, in which all is material and nothing chooses anything. All is appetite, nature is “red in tooth and claw” and the best we can hope for is self-serving social contracts.

Being determined, he cannot be held responsible for his sins. Being afraid of the infinite, he cannot be asked to respond to non-material urges. He is amoral, a non-ethical being. His rulers fulfill their function when they use material and efficient causes to regulate his behavior and to keep him safe.

In the name of freedom he destroys the liberty of everybody in his world. Beginning with the refusal to suppress his appetites, he ends in the suppression of his humanity. Beginning with a fantasy of freedom, he ends in the realization of slavery.

He is, above all others, the enemy of humanity.

Yesterday he played his pipe to us. Today he rules.


But when he chooses to love his neighbor, the whole world is set free.

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