Imagine two scenarios.
In the first scenario Jack stands upon a plain, which reaches off into the far horizon. Leading out beneath his feet are a hundred paths. He can see nothing but the plains and the thin little roads leading off to nowhere.
In the second scenario Jack stands at the top of a commanding hill. He is at a crossroads: the path to the north leads into the forest. The path to the west leads to the mountains. The path to the east leads to the coast. The path to the south leads back to where he came upon the plains.
Who is more free?
In the first scenario Jack has a hundred potential pathways. He has a dizzying array of choice. But he knows nothing of where they lead. The paths simply lead off across the empty plains. There are no point of reference or landmarks, making his return to the crossroads all but impossible.
In the second scenario Jack has only four directions he can go. But he is stood upon a hill and can see where the paths lead. This gives him some idea of what lies ahead. He may not be a woodsman, but he knows what to expect from the forest. Trees, streams, birds, folks living in cabins, maybe a bear or two!
Despite the seeming lack of choices in the second scenario, the freedom Jack has is greater. His choices have more context and have more meaning. He can make an informed decision. And if the forest does not work out he can always back track to the hill and try a different direction.
The first scenario is more like a nightmare. It is flat and featureless. With no context to those hundred choices, Jack will have to choose one at random. This might be exciting and ‘adventurous’ at first, but it will quickly grow tiresome and anxiety-inducing. As the paths lead nowhere, what is the difference between them? They might as well all be the same.
These are idealized scenarios, thought-experiments to get our minds thinking. But they are not merely abstract mind-games. The society of individualistic values and consumer nihilism is more like the first scenario. For instance there are hundreds of TV channels, but they are mostly awful. The promise of quality is false – advertising cuts programmes into three and wastes hours of your life each week; producers have to constantly churn out shows to meet voracious demand, so the quality is low. A hundred paths, but they all lead nowhere.
It is possible to have genuinely meaningful choices in life, but these require context and purpose. This should be our criteria of liberty – ‘meaningful liberty’. We should do away with any notion of ‘maximizing liberty’ as some indicator of moral good. It is hardly better than tyranny to live in a meaningless society.
So where do we find meaning?
Many of the things that are part of our ‘destiny’, things we do not choose, give us a massive sense of meaning. They are a context around which to build our lives. I think of my old friend, a philosopher of great ability, who sticks by Spurs FC through thick and thin. As goes the tradition, you find the nearest football club to where you were born and then you support them. You do not ‘choose’ a team, it is given to you. Meaning and belonging is found within that context.
Likewise with your family. Your first relationships are with them. This has a massive shaping effect on your later relationships, even if you do not consciously realize how. It is a lifelong journey of discovery to work through these depths and there are no easy answers. But we do not choose our blood-family. Would we be better off if we did? Would the term family be able to maintain its meaning if we did?
And we can pull back further. The society we are born into and dependent upon, the culture that has been created for us, the first languages that we speak; these are part of our ‘destiny’, not of our choice. Yet without them we are nothing. Meaning comes when we realize that our choices effect not only ourselves, but also other people. To find meaning in society we must realize how our choices and desires are patterned by society – our dreams and aspirations do not emerge out of thin air. Knowing the sources of ideas, we can understand the forces that shaped who we are. Knowing humility, we can then create things for others as much as for ourselves; to live for others as much as we live for ourselves. Someone isolated from society, in an individualist bubble, can find no meaning. They are at the hundred empty pathways, every single one leading nowhere. Every adventurer they meet on those paths is going nowhere.
And then we can pull back even further, for society is dependent on Nature for its survival. Without the living world, we could not exist. The ultimate challenge of meaning goes beyond our lives, beyond our civilizations. It is to discover our place in nature, how our culture interacts with it, how we live sustainably within it to ensure a living world for future generations. This is our ‘destiny’.
Our deepest connection to nature is coded into us, evolving with every generation, yet continuous, leading back to some impossibly distant history which should lead us to nothing less than awe. The seasons and cycles of nature, the creatures which populate the environment around us, the plants and trees; all in incredible variety and multitude. We could not, given all the faculties of our minds, create a more enthralling landscape which can satisfy that natural urge to belong to something real and greater than us.
This is what is meant by the four paths upon the hill. The scope of choice is not so large, yet this is why those choices are comprehensible and have meaning. Where they lead is more clear, what they are is visible. Embracing our finitude and the parts of us that are determined is the key to meaningful liberty. And let us also give liberty its due, for what freedom we can have, we ought to have.
Jack shrugged his shoulders, hoisted on his pack and headed for the coast. He always wanted to try going on a fishing ship and with Spring a few weeks away, this was his chance.