Prometheus stole the gods’ fire. Creative individuals steal the gods’ thunder by exercising free will. (Image: public domain.)
Resistance Is Not Futile
“It is the possibility of resistance to the needs of desire, on the one hand, and the dictates of intellect and reason, on the other, that constitutes human freedom.” The quote is from Hannah Arendt’s Willing. My own rewording of the idea goes like this: Human will is able to steer a course between the powerful urges of instinct on the one hand and the incessant petitioning of reason on the other. It reminds me of the old Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis. Will is like a ship traversing the narrow strait with the devouring monster of instinct on one side and the drowning whirlpool of nagging reason on the other.
Do We Want to Steer Our Own Ship?
The critically important idea describes the freedom human beings may enjoy because of their will’s autonomy. Sounds good in theory, but how many of us actually manage to exercise our wilful freedom. How many of us even want to?
Will must be distinguished from desiring, striving, and wanting. The key difference is the element of command. To will something is to command that it be so. This is quite different from passively wanting the government or God to provide. It is easy to hope, pray, wish, and want. It is another thing altogether to take wilful charge of one’s life.
Uncertainty Scares Us
Back in the Middle Ages, philosopher and theologian Duns Scotus claimed contingency (uncertainty) is the “price gladly paid” for freedom. I think most modern people, especially those who have voted for cradle-to-grave socialism or who fervently believe in an all-powerful God, are definitely not glad to accept uncertainty as the price for freedom. In fact, I would go so far as to say the security-obsessed peoples of the West are not willing to pay this price for anything!
Creative People Are Rebels
There are, however, rebels. Scotus also said, “Creative men would be mortal gods.” The driving force behind this audacity is human will, the ability on the part of humankind to transcend everything. Scotus attributed a sacred element to creativity and saw creators as using their powers of invention to rival the gods. Creative individuals thus acquire a Promethean quality. They are stealing the gods’ thunder.
Action and Progress Are Chaotic
Unfortunately, no human-initiated action ever fully attains its intended (willed) goal. Will can steer between our own instinct and reason, but there is the physical world to be dealt with – and the will of other people. Willed progress does happen, but plays out amid a senseless “mixture of error and violence” (Goethe). There is blundering and conflict. Progress takes place with a “melancholy haphazardness” in the “meaningless course of human affairs” (Kant). In other words, will-driven action and progress tend to be erratic and chaotic.
Coincidence Shapes Reality
The uncertain nature of willed action and progress allows coincidence to play a role. I am sure Jung would enjoy Arendt’s claim that a plurality of causes must coincide for change to occur. That is, one cause is not enough to incite some particular thing to happen. Thus, coincidence, the coming together of a number of circumstances, is an important factor in determining the character of reality in human affairs. Those who look for the significance of the coming together of factors call the coincidental situation synchronicity and make use of what they have observed.
Humans do have free will but, preferring the greater ease of coaxing gifts from governments and gods, often choose not to make extensive use of the capacity. Further discouragements to wilful behaviour include the reality that personal will has to advance in the face of physical obstacles and the opposing will of other individuals. Progress will inevitably be uncertain, there may be conflict, and the entire project will be subject to coincidence. Creative people form a minority of wilful rebels who struggle to have things their own way regardless of how difficult the path may be. These intrepid pursuers of freedom willingly face uncertainty and welcome coincidence as an aid to creativity.