Individual Free Will in Society

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To what extent can an individual exist as a pure individual? This question, which upon first through may seem redundant, is central to the greater discussion of individual free will. We are born into distinct bodies, but from our first wailing breath as an infant, all of our primal instincts draw us toward the breast, toward sustenance, light, and air. We are comforted by, and indeed, cannot survive without the care of others. At the smallest unit, we are born into a family that is almost always part of a larger community. We are born to the awakening of our senses. In those first days, and continuing throughout our lives, our awareness is built through action and reaction. If I bring my face to the fire I will feel warmth; if I reach my hand into it, I will feel pain. How we come to know the world is through an amalgam of the senses and the way we interpret it is through conventions already laid out by society.

The same actions which give us awareness are validated by the consensually established norms of a particular culture. Thus, we come to know ourselves in relation to others, and in relation to our society and culture. Yet, we are still a being housed in our own body and have our own distinct consciousness. Wouldn't it be proper to assume that we operate as individuals? Plato's Crito seeks to evaluate the role of the individual within the city, through a conversation between Socrates and his devoted friend Crito. Scholars analyzing the text have drawn out issues of individual liberty, contending with questions of moral obligation and allegiance. One such critic, Rosalyn Weiss, asks “Is [Socrates] citizen first and man second?” already distinguishing the roles of citizen and man as separate identities (3). I would like to respond with another question: are citizens individuals, or only men? In order to define “individual,” its opposite must be present, so that it has a differentiating feature, and thus, a definition. If we take “group,” “society,” or “city” to be our opposites than an individual must be separate from this category. In Politics Aristotle defines a citizen as: “he who possesses the right to share in political or judicial office is a citizen of that polis, and a polis is a group of people that is sufficient to maintain independence of life” (1275b18-24). To be a citizen is to be part of a group, and to act as a part of that group.

Socrates, in fact, undermines his position as a free individual when he argues for the consideration of justice. To Crito, he invokes the voice of the Laws who, he says, may ask him why he is running away: “what do you think you're doing, if not destroying us laws and the whole city, as far as it lies in you?” (99). Weiss makes the claim that this proves Socrates is acting as “a radically independent moral agent: his moral choices are decided solely by his own reasoned calculations with respect to justice” (4). But in fact, Socrates is working within the logic of the laws and regulations which society has impressed upon him: his idea of justice conforms to preexisting social factors. He is not acting as his own man, but making decisions within that state and within the laws and logic of the established social order.

Law is perhaps the greatest form of social control. In a more contemporary example, George Orwell faced two pressures that wrested away his ability to act according to his desires. In Shooting an Elephant, Orwell describes his position as an officer for the British police force in Burma, “stuck,” as he says, “between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited beasts who tried to make my job impossible” (236). Orwell is bound here not only by law, which requires his performance as a police officer to be in allegiance with the British Empire but also by the contrasting social force: the Burmese people, who hated and resented his community's presence and by extension, him.

His position as an individual is nestled between these two pulls which exert a stronger force than his own will. Constraints of place, situation, and station all factor into the external forces which do not allow him to break free of his role as an officer, and to help the Burmese people. Though Orwell has no intention of shooting the elephant which has broken free and stormed the city due to being in “must,” he nonetheless grabs a rifle to defend himself.

On close analysis, none of these actions are stimulated by free will. He is acting to protect himself, one of the first laws of human nature: survival, which is as ingrained and instinctual as anything, and therefore does not require much active thought. Nor is his position as a protector one that he desires. He says, “I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary—and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you” (238). This foreshadows not only the events to come but the conclusion of a greater argument: that of free will. In the end, it is the goading crowd, the ferocity of the bull, the gun in his hand, the immediate threat to his person, and his role as an officer, that all contribute to his decision.

More factors than can even be discerned combine to make up an individual's act of will. In the case of war, altruism supersedes the innate desire to survive and the laws of war are just as binding as the laws of justice which Socrates decides to uphold. Thomas Hardy's poem, “The Man He Killed,” tells the tale of a soldier facing another in battle, whose thoughts run to happier times, when the man he meets is at a bar instead, and where the place and situation permit them to be friendly. However, like Orwell, each has a gun in his hand, each has a violent need to protect himself, so each will fire and kill against the real desire to take another man's life, but to protect the state of their community. Hardy writes, “He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,/ Off-hand like – just as I –/ Was out of work – had sold his traps –/ No other reason why” (13-16). This lack of reason highlights the individual’s loss of free will. They are both there due to circumstances. Without jobs, enlisting gives them the security they need to survive.

These three men have written about experiences which defined, for them, their relationship to individuality. Plato's Socrates decides that he will act according to his own moral principles, but what he cites as evil and unjust are definitions created from society. Orwell comes to know himself through the contrast of the communities in which he is immersed. And Hardy's man understands his forced hand.

Yet each of these men holds a distinct voice within themselves, and relate to the grip of societal constraints differently. Socrates seems wholly unconscious of his bounds and seeks to align his sense of individuality within the apparatus of the city. Orwell muses at the conclusion of his essay, “whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” by which he fully gives his free will over to the discernment and judgment of others (242). Finally, Hardy's unknown soldier, as we know from the poem's title, kills the man whom he imagines drinking with. His free will seems to have never existed except in the possibility of an alternate universe.

The concept of individual free will is an ideology that is born out of the system which ultimately denies it. Nonetheless, an individual's struggle against restrictive powers will always strive toward the ideal of free will, and the tension created is one of the most important and defining aspects of society and the individual will.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. Trans. Ernest Barker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. The Writings of Thomas Hardy in Prose and Verse: with Prefaces and Notes. New York: Harper, 1911. Print.

Orwell, George, Ian Angus, and Sonia Orwell. George Orwell: Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940. Boston: Cavid R. Godine, 2000. Print.

Plato. The dialogues of Plato. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. New York: Random House, 1937. Print.

Weiss, Roslyn. Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato's Crito. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.