The limitations of free will
The events of our future remain in a fluid state until a certain time. We have the free will to modify them during that period, although it is never an absolute freedom.
Inevitably and ultimately, will must prove stronger than fate because it is our own past will which created our present fate.
The awareness that they are weak and faulty makes some persons regard free will, not as the boon it is generally supposed to be, but as a danger. Saint Therese of Lisieux even asked God to take it away because it frightened her.
He who asserts that he is free to do what he wishes to do would more correctly state his situation by confessing that he is enslaved by his ego and goes up or down as its emotional see-saw moves.
It is not only the karma of a man which may oppose itself to his free choice and free will; there are also the possibilities of opposition by human institutions and organizations, natural calamities and catastrophes, genetic heredity and racial predisposition.
If a man's will were really free, he would have to think of using it before he actually did so, and then again to think of thinking of using it, and so on in an endless series. Since this situation never occurs, are we to believe that his will is never free? This is a question that no man can answer for it ought never to be put.
Even the man who believes that he possesses the attribute of free will finds himself forced to accept certain events just like others who do not believe they possess it.
Too many persons claim a freedom to choose and to will who in reality have only the very opposite--a captivity to their desires. These desires respond like a machine to the conditions which surround them and delude them into the belief that they are deliberately choosing from among those conditions. The moods and emotions of these persons are changed by every change of outer circumstance, provoked favourably or unfavourably by the nature of each change. Where is the freedom in this? Does it not rather show dependence?
Most human beings are so automatic and predictable in their habitual reactions that they are like machines. And where is the freedom of a machine? They are really helpless creatures, devoid of free will. Despite this, they do possess a latent freedom, even though they are not evolved enough to claim it.
A man imprisoned in the circle of his own ego still imagines he has free will!
Where is the freedom for the immense masses of men who are ego-bound? They are held hand and foot: it is only their illusion that they move freely. Where is the free choice for those who merely, unwittingly, blindly, express the tendencies with which they were born?
Even while he believes that he is making a free choice between two or three alternatives, a man is really obeying the strongest tendency of those which constitute his character. His "I" does what his tendency tells him to do; its freedom is only an apparent one.
A mistake in my published writing has been the emphasis on man's possession of free will. I did this deliberately to counteract the common impression that Oriental mystical teaching is associated with a paralysing fatalism and a futile inertia. Unfortunately, I overdid it. Consequently, I gave the impression that the quantity of free will we possess is about equal to or even more than the quantity of fate allotted to us. But, in their combination, the effects of our past, the pattern of our particular nature, and the influence of our environment govern our immediate actions very largely whilst the divine laws govern our ultimate direction within the universe quite fully. In such a situation, personal freedom must actually be less than we usually believe it to be. Again I have taught that no experience could come to us which we had not earned by our karma, which in turn was entirely the product of our free-will. But I have since discovered that some experiences can come to us solely because we need them, not at all because we earn them. This is an important difference. It increases the sphere of personal fate and diminishes the sphere of personal freedom. However, in self-justification I ought to point out three things here about the kind of fatalism now put forward. First it is not paralysing but, on the contrary, inspiring. For it tells us that there is a divine plan for us all and that true freedom lies in willingly accepting that infinitely wise and ultimately benevolent plan. Second, it emphatically offers no grounds for inertia for it bids us work with the plan--not only to secure our own individual happiness but also to help secure the common welfare of all. Third, it does not introduce anything arbitrary or despotic into God's will for us but retains the rule of intelligent purpose and restores evolutionary meaning to the general picture of our individual lives. If quite often the free will we imagine we are exercising does not exist outside such imagination, this need make no difference to our practical attitude towards life. It does not stop us from getting the best (in the philosophic sense) out of life. And it only reassures us that in deserting the herd and taking to the spiritual path we are putting whatever freedom we do possess to the most sensible use. Although I must henceforth correct the balance of my personal work and stress the inevitability of things, I know that in urging aspirants in the past to liberate themselves from the lower nature through exercising the consciousness of their higher self and its knowledge, I pointed to the only real freedom worth having and within reach. The mass of humanity exists in the deepest slavery, often unconsciously. All talk of exercising free will whilst chains clank round its thought and feeling and action, is unreal if not self-deceptive.
Life comes from a source beyond man's knowledge and outside his control. Only the expression is within it.
Whether we are in bondage to the body or to the intellect, we are still prisoners.
The life to which we are predestined from birth--which means the major events of the life we actually experience--is like a house. We are free to move about within its walls but not outside them.
The delusion of deliberate choice is easy to fall into, hard to escape from.
Out of his own nature and in conformity with the universal plan, a stream of influences flows over him out of the past and forces his acts and thoughts to take a certain direction. He may believe that he is following this direction quite independently and freely. In this incapacity to see how limited is his present freedom lies his subtlest illusion.
There are enough enforced limitations to each life that whoever claims he possesses complete freedom of will and choice is neither stupid nor wise--merely mad.
Deserting the ultimate level where all universes have vanished into the great Void, and coming back to the immediate level where they are actively existent, one finds there is no full freedom anywhere in the world. All are bound in some way and to some extent.
"I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul," affirmed W.E. Henley's brave lines written on a hospital bed. But the measure of truth contained in them is only a limited one: they need the counterbalance, "I am the creature of my environment."
It is only a wrong sense of values which could glorify such mechanical sense-reactions as expressive of a free will.
It is often not easy--but the sooner he does so, the sooner his mind will become less resentful and more tranquil--to recognize that this happening, this position or this person is part of his fate, that his only freedom in such a case is a moral one. He can select his mental attitude.
His moral response to a happening, as also his mental attitude toward it and emotional bearing under it, are largely free. It is in this realm, moreover, that important possibilities of further spiritual growth or else materialistic hardening are available. He may renew inner strength or fall back into sensual weakness.
"In The Spiritual Crisis of Man you say that everyone has a choice of action in life's situations. I do not understand this because, for instance, if I find a wallet on the street with identification and one hundred dollars in cash, it seems to me that the action I will take under these circumstances will be the result of my total experience (thinking) up to this point. I may feel that I make a choice between finding the owner and keeping the money because I am aware in my mind of the two possibilities but I feel that my life (or lives) up to this time would determine what I would do and so I do not really have a choice. I can see that as a person gains experience and grows towards a spiritual being that his idea tomorrow will not be what it was yesterday but the decision he makes is the only one he can make at the time.
"The idea of free will has always been hard for me to understand. What I have said above does not depress me because I feel that as we learn more our actions will be wiser but I would like to know what there is that I do not realize when you speak of man's free will." This is the text of a reader's letter. Here is my answer.
Many Orientals put all happenings under the iron rule of karma. There is no free will, no individual control over them. One has to accept them fatalistically and, if dismayed by their evil, turn to the Spiritual Source for the only real happiness. In mental attitude, in personal inward response to events, lies one's chief freedom of will.
It might, however, be questioned how far such freedom is illusory, since the response, the attitude, are themselves conditioned by the past and many other things. It is quite correct to state that the past inclines us to think and act in a certain way. But it is also admitted that we can grow, can improve our lives and change in the course of time. So this is an admission that we are free to choose to grow or to remain exactly as we were. A man who commits robbery with violence may say that he is fated to act violently. With each offense, he is arrested and suffers imprisonment. After this has happened several times he begins to change his course. Eventually he fears imprisonment so much so that he resists temptation and ceases to be a criminal. This change of mental attitude was an act of free will. His past inclined him to the old direction but it did not compel him.
One of my reader's claims that "the decision he makes is the only one he can make at the time." But the real situation is that it is the only decision he was willing to make. A man may not be conscious at first of conflict between two impulses inside himself. It is the presence of the Overself behind the ego which sets up the conflict. At first it remains in the subconscious, then in a dim vague way it becomes conscious. He may dismiss the alternative choice, but it was there all the time. Jesus said: "What you sow, you shall reap." The criminal chooses not to believe it, because he does not want to believe it. Inclinations from the past do not compel a man, but he unconsciously uses them as an excuse and claims he can do nothing else. The will is being expressed even when the man thinks he is, and seems to be, compelled to act in a certain way. It is expressed in the mental attitude adopted towards the situations in which he finds himself. Whenever he accepts the ordinary materialistic, negative, egoistic view of a situation, he is actually choosing that view. He is choosing even though he believes the contrary is true.
Where there is no choice, where circumstances make the decision, one must bow one's head to them. Fatalism is acceptable only in the sense of recognizing what is inevitable and what is not. But fatalism is unacceptable as a blind, unquestioning, helpless submission to every happening.
The Oriental way of putting responsibility for untoward happenings always on fate enables the individual to escape feeling any guilt for what he has himself done to bring them about.
Such is the power of suggestion, tradition, and environment that the average European and American does have a feeling of being free to make his own decisions and of being able to act in the world as he wishes, whereas the average Indian has no such feeling; the latter believes that he acts according to some unknown preordained pattern. Although these two feelings are so contradictory, there is a solid basis of fact beneath each of them. The contradiction arises because they are not sufficiently understood. In the Westerner's case, it is from the Overself's freedom that his feeling is originally derived. In the Indian's, it is from the Overself's allotment of karma that his own is derived.
Hemmed in as he is by inheritances not only from his personal past history but also from society's, it would be futile to talk of having complete freedom of choice. But it would be an error in thought and conduct to behave as if he had no freedom at all. Some measure of it does exist, since in most of his situations, if not in all, he is always faced with at least two possible lines of choice--a higher and a lower one.
What happens to us today is a necessary consequence of what happened in the past--not only to us but also to the others who are now concerned along with us. The amount of active free choice and free will that we can slip into this situation today is, however, not non-existent but of limited existence.
The circumstances in which he finds himself and the events which happen to him are not more to a man than what he thinks and does about them. For his reaction, his attitude are more often within his control than they may be.
A single decision may entirely shape the next fifty years of a young man's future.
We Westerners have made and kept such a strong mental habit of thinking our will and choice to be free that the Eastern belief in its opposite seems most unconvincing.
Men usually do not have the freedom to choose between two highly desirable things but only between two imperfect things.
Most of our decisions are what they are by necessity; only in a minority of them are they free choices in any real sense.
You are free to turn this page over if you wish, the choice is entirely your own; but what you do not see so clearly is that the choice was predetermined by all that has made you what you are and your environment what it is. Apply enough reason and you will see that freedom is fettered.
There are times when a man may boldly go forward and take his chance, when fortune's wheel will turn in his favour. But such times do not fill the whole of a lifetime and during the negative periods he should lie low and risk nothing.
When fate, or seeming chance, brings an opportunity that seems worthwhile or much needed, it is an error to put off its acceptance for a later time. By this very postponement it may be lost altogether; and anyway, the circumstances later will be different and may modify the opportunity itself.
The claims of physicists, like Jeans, that the new physics with its theory of indeterminism endorses the doctrine of free will, is not valid. For the idea of free will is a psychological or theological one and cannot be brought into a realm like physics with which it has nothing to do at all.
No situation in which we find ourself will ever repeat itself in precisely the same way. As a consequence of the changes brought about by time, the likelihood of the factors concerned reappearing in an identical combination is practically nil.
When he is presented by circumstances with two alternatives, the choice he makes will usually be the outcome of the collective tendencies of his nature. From the eventual results of that choice, whether pleasurable or painful, he will have the opportunity to learn how right or how wrong those tendencies may be.
If our independent choice is to play no part on the stage of events, then life becomes a mere travesty.
If it is to happen at all it will happen at the opportune moment--not a day too soon, or too late.
Introduce new factors at the proper time and you may influence the flow of events. The course destined for them is not rigidly destined.
The right timing of our actions is not less important than the right thinking which should precede them.
Life offers us only a single favourable chance of the same kind. If we throw it away, through bad judgement or blind handling, no one is to blame except ourselves when it never recurs again. The same chance never repeats itself. If it is not used when it comes, it is lost in that form for this lifetime.
Right timing and fit circumstance are necessary to right action, otherwise the latter may be premature and may even lead to failure instead of success.
In the hour of opportunity, we act according to the balance struck by our temperament and character, our nature and capacity, our knowledge and desire.
The materialistic scientist believes that man acts according to the chemical constitution of his physical body and that therefore he has no real freedom to choose which way he shall act.
There are even those among Orientals who consider any kind of self-help to be an endeavour to force the divine will, and therefore a blasphemy!
"There would be no utility in any particular commandment if the individual were not free to obey or disobey."--Maimonides.
The optimist sees large freedom of decision in man's possession whereas the pessimist sees little.
It is open to him to see each situation in two alternative and opposing ways, to take what is known in metaphysics as the immediate or the ultimate view. He can see it on the one hand physically and materially or on the other mentally and spiritually.
It is utterly beyond the power of man to perform an act of completely free will. In all situations he is presented with a limited series of choices and he must accept one of them, reject the others.
When good luck follows on good judgement, the result is sure.
Shakespeare: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. We must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures."
It is not enough to have ability. It must meet with opportunity too or it will waste itself in a vacuum. Nor is this couple enough. There must be judgement to recognize the opportunity as such.
The freedom we have to evolve
At a time when his destiny balances itself upon his decision, wisdom may be sorely absent if he has never sought it.
No man has free will if he is enslaved by things or affected by events outside of himself. He has it only when he is inwardly detached from them.
There is much talk by those who always want their own way, but who forget that self-discipline is not less necessary than self-expression.
"We ought to exert our efforts in all (things) as though they were absolutely free, and God will do as he sees fit." --Maimonides
Where is there freedom of choice for the man who, because his five senses rule him, reacts mechanically to his environment? Only where the man has attained objectivity towards his body, instead of being totally immersed in it, can we say such choice exists.
He may regard what happens to him as unalterable destiny or as usable opportunity. The future is not wholly beyond his control but it may be if he fails to use his will upon, or sometimes against, the instinctive and automatic tendencies inside himself.
In the very fact of time's illusoriness, in the actuality of the eternal present, there is our best hope, our finest opportunity. For it means that the future can be shaped, within due limits. We can help to make tomorrow, can contribute something to it, at least by bringing it into today. But all this remains only a mere possibility if we do not take advantage of the paradoxical and astounding truth. We must begin by clearing away some of the debris with which past habit, thought, feeling, and attitude have cluttered up our insides.
If freedom of will is utter illusion we have to ask ourselves why the Buddha, greatest of all advocates of the truth of inexorable karma, and whose enlightenment is incontestable, gave as his dying legacy to disciples the words, "Work out your own salvation." If this is not a call to the use of will, of a free will, what is? It is hard for Westerners to accept a doctrine of complete fatalism, and the difficulty is not wholly due to their ignorance of spiritual facts which are elementary to Indians. It is also due to their instinctive refusal to be robbed of their initiative, and to their insistence on moral responsibility for ethical decisions and actions.
Only those people are entitled to freedom who understand and accept the responsibilities involved in it. And even such people are entitled only to so much of it as accords with the extent to which they possess this understanding and yield this acceptance. Outer discipline may go only if, and only so far as, inner discipline replaces it.
The man whose weakness when confronted by temptation is so great that his yielding is plainly predictable, can not be said to have the same freedom of choice that the man of strong self-mastery has.
Most people experience events brought about by a mixture of heredity, environment, other people's influence, and karma; not many exert their will determinedly, use their thinking power correctly, and control their energy and time to create chosen results.
Freedom is not in itself a good or bad thing; the way it is used, whether wisely or recklessly, will determine its value.
An indiscriminate granting of freedom would, in the present condition of human nature, mean at least as much evil as good. Without going to the extreme of regimentation, some limitation upon it is absolutely needed.
What kind of choice, what different option, has the poor benighted victim of a criminal or lunatic heritage, set in the lowest of sleazy ugly slums?
We need a measure of outer freedom if we are to search after and find the inner freedom.
If you demand freedom you must accept the responsibility which accompanies it. This is not only a human and social law but also a divine and karmic law.
The disunited man will suffer from inner conflict as he feels the risk and the responsibility which come from his power of choice.
He who thinks freedom leaves him free to be undisciplined is a fool.
Because man surrenders his own will to God's will, this does not mean he should sit back and do nothing.
The reality of a man's freedom is measured by his acceptance of responsibility.
To say that environment, being the expression of thought, can be changed only by changing thoughts is correct only as the ultimate truth of the situation. And then to say that one feels too weak to change one's thoughts sets up a vicious circle from which there seems no escape. The immediate truth must be brought in as a counterbalance. And that is, that an outer change will make easier the inner one.
It is a narrow view which holds that acceptance of the doctrine of grace necessarily leads to rejection of the doctrine of free will. Christians like Luther and Augustine have held it, but not Christ himself. It dooms the sinner to his sin, predestines frail humanity to error and wrong-doing. The belief which wrongly denies human free will because it rightly affirms divine absoluteness, denies human responsibility for wrong-doing and affronts human dignity. Its moral results in feeling and conduct can only be deplorable when anyone feels that he cannot act freely or choose independently, when he believes that he is a mere puppet led about by forces outside his control, when he all-too-easily puts the blame for his own sinfulness where it does not belong or, admitting it, passes it on to God. He thinks he can do whatever he pleases and not be personally responsible for its harmful consequences upon others.
A real free will would not be the merely random upsurges of an irresponsible irrational being. It must be developed out of self-mastery.
The notions of some sects that inward spirituality confers immunity from outward trouble or bodily death need correction. Freedom, whether of choice or from limitation, is mental. The consequences of belonging to the human species include sharing human conditions. The body is born, grows, and dies. The people among whom a man has to live react to him according to their own character, affect him adversely or beneficially.
The really determined spiritual man has more powers of free will than others--powers to mold his life and to offset his karma and to create good karma to wipe out threatening or existing bad karma.
If the past is out of his hands, the future has fallen into them.
The possession and power of will are only assumptions, yet they are not altogether false assumptions. He who holds the reins still has a limited power of free choice left after the immense impulsions of temperament and environment, of character and society, of mental capacity and hereditary race have done with him.
In life we do not find man is entirely free to work his own way and will, nor do we find him entirely blown about by exterior forces and circumstances; both are present side by side though not necessarily equal in extent. Human existence is the resultant from their combination.
The ring of circumstances sometimes holds us too tightly to be slipped off the finger of existence by determined will.
Man is forced in the end by life itself to undertake disciplines he resents or resists. The neophyte in philosophy, for the sake of his own personal development, anticipates them, accepts them, and co-operates with them.
To the extent--which is often very large--that the future arises out of man's own character and capacities, it is both controllable and alterable, and yet at the same time bound to happen as if it inexorably had to conform to fate. What he is inhibits his freedom, yet if it were not there he would have remained as he was throughout all the reincarnations. But the changes of environment, the events of his personal history, draw out this freedom.
Who possesses complete independence? Who has all the freedom he wants? Who is able to make his choices freely, unaffected by his circumstances, by social pressure, by events, or by heredity? The answer, of course, is no one. But, to the extent that anyone learns to control his thoughts, to become master of himself, he begins to control his fate.
It is the ego that lives in time and experiences these different abstractions of past, present, and future; but the real being behind the ego is on a different plane altogether. Now if mentalism throws light on the problems of time, of the real and the illusory, it also throws light on the question of free will and determinism. Since all is within the mind, to the extent that we learn to control mind we are able to exercise free will. But there it stops.
The destiny of an entire lifetime may be set by a single mistake, itself the consequence of ungoverned emotion or passion.
As Fortune's wheel turns up or down, man himself contributes to its movements. Without ambition, for instance, the poor youth would remain hopelessly immured in the miserable monotonous existence of the slum where he happens to be born.
Fate hands him the opportunities and the difficulties: what he does with them is his choice, for which he is responsible.
In what manner are men free who, in some way, to some extent, are enslaved by sex, society, ambition, swelling desires, possessions, neighbours, associates, and family?
Coaxed by pleasure in some incarnations and driven by pain in others, man slowly learns to use his faculties and powers aright.
Can we wonder that some men have rebelled against the passive suffering which a misguided religious instruction bids them endure? Why they become impatient with their guides and begin to look elsewhere for teaching?
The saying that "experience is the best teacher" is one I often thought should be altered to "experience is most often the only teacher." It is surely better to be taught by reflection and intuition.
The method of disposing of personal difficulties by trial and error is risky and faulty, whereas the method of disposing of them by calm, impersonal, and dispassionate reflection is safer and surer.
There is a shorter and better way to practical wisdom. What the ordinary man arrives at only after the several events of long years, the wiser one will arrive at earlier by intuition and reflection.
Because men have been given some freedom to choose between alternatives, they have been given the chance to evolve capacity and develop character through trial and error, thought and action.
Even the most obscure and insignificant person, who feels that he can do little or nothing to change his destiny in the future, because it is the consequence both of his life in the past and his surroundings in the present, is not quite correct. He may be powerless to move away from its major trend, but there is within him a creative force and an untapped knowledge, only it must be sought for and found.
If in the larger sense free choice is illusory--or cosmos would become chaos--in the narrower sense it is real enough in reference to mental attitude, to spiritual standpoint, to the thought we have about a situation. The World-Idea must be fulfilled, but within that limit there is some amount of personal freedom.
The principle of indeterminacy which governs the deep centre of each atom in the universe assures man of freedom of will in his own centre. But just as the atom's behaviour is unpredictable only within certain limits, so man's freedom is operative only within certain limits. In neither the case of the atom nor of man is there absolute freedom.
Nothing in life is so rigidly ordained that man cannot influence, modify, or even divert it in some way. This is because the preordaining factor is not wholly outside himself: it exists in his own past, which through the law has been brought into his present. If he will really make the present a fresh experience, and not merely a copy of the past, he works creatively upon his inheritance. For instance, a man who is destined to die at an early middle age because he neglects his body, is careless about his health, toils so over-ambitiously to increase possessions or improve position that he fails to rest as well, will certainly die then. But a man in a similar case who awakens to his danger, takes life more easily and learns to relax, does not try to do too much for his strength or time or dissipate his energies in other ways, will lengthen the number of his years.
A man may move to a given point by crawling or walking, running or swimming, driving or diving; it is largely his free choice in the matter. But karma dictates where the point shall be and here his freedom ends.
The belief that man can do nothing to improve his lot is unworthy of man!
The whole debate of fate versus free will for which has continued since centuries and is just as active in our own, would be dropped if the debaters knew and understood where both forces had their habitat. They are in time, relative to it: what they bring about lies in the past, present, or future, whereas they take their rise out of an eternal NOW. Time is in the mind and to assume its complete and ultimate reality is to falsify the experiences and the happenings in it.
In itself the will is free but in its activity it is not. This is because the effects of past acts and the necessities of evolution incline it toward a certain course.
There are two things in life before which a man must bow in helplessness. One is the Irretrievable; the other is the Inevitable.
As to how far a man may direct the course of his life, and how it is directed for him by overriding destiny, the answer has been given variously by the wise.
The movement of personal destiny is beyond man's control so far as it is part of the World-Idea, but it is not totally beyond his control. To some extent, varying with his own development, with his own knowledge of and obedience to the higher laws, his own intelligent or intuitive foresight, it is possible to control this movement.
He is free to identify his own purposes with the pattern of the World-Idea, or to disregard it. In both cases he must take the consequences. In the one case he will have again and again, voluntarily if reluctantly, to subordinate his ego. In the other, he will seek to satisfy it and may at times succeed in doing so. But then he will meet those consequences because the law of karma has to give him back his own.
Law rules the universe: the latter could not have been conceived as it is, so mathematically, so orderly in numerical values, unless all things were in conformity with and obedient to the World-Idea. Functioning as part of this cosmic necessity is karma. But within this condition there is some freedom to choose and to act--very limited but there.
We are part of a process whose course and outcome are alike determined by the will of Heaven. In that sense the vaunted freedom of man is a mere chimera. But within those limits there are always two or more possibilities open to him and there lies his free choice. The philosopher and the fool have been flung upon this star; both must walk the same course and arrive at the same goal. Yet each may do so in his own individual way, may proceed more circuitously or more slowly or more swiftly as his inclinations decide.
Where is man's free will? He is free to choose whether he will conform to the pattern of the World-Idea, whether he will obey or not obey the higher laws.
The larger pattern of destiny is already traced for us but the smaller patterns which fit into it are left for our own tracing.
The structure of the physical brain contributes largely to the way a man acts. This leaves him less room for free will than he thinks he has. But the brain (and the whole body) structure is itself the product of past self-made karma now functioning.
The activities of the present life necessarily make their contribution towards the results now being experienced as destiny from previous lives. They may even go farther than this and may influence, modify, or altogether offset a destined experience which is reserved for the future and has still to materialize. Thus, there is no room for a hopeless fatalism in this teaching. Destiny is alterable. It is made more pleasurable by our good deeds, more bearable by our wise decisions, more painful by our bad deeds, and more unbearable by our foolish decisions.
If circumstances cannot be changed, they may be modified. If they cannot be modified, they may be viewed with a changed attitude of mind.
The man who wins is the man whose dice are loaded with invincible optimism, with unfailing effort, and with creative thought.
True freedom must include freedom from what has come into being previously.
Since the gift of creativity belongs to all of us and is usable in all spheres of a man's life, he can do much to mold that life if he exerts strength and holds to determination.
The planet's future is written in the divine World-Idea and this necessarily includes the future of all dwellers upon it. But within this general preordained pattern there is some latitude for human dwellers.
He acts out of his own free choice yet at the same time that very choice was part of the universal pattern, the World-Idea. His personal freedom does not stand alone, isolated, absolute. It is inseparable from a helpless determinism. Such is the paradox of the human situation.
Those who talk of human freedom to alter the course of things should beware of their words. They are constrained not only as adults but as children and still more as embryos. Only the measure of their freedom and the extent of this constraint varies. Inwardly there is more freedom for thoughts to create attitudes, but outwardly there is more constraint. Basically all situations are subject to the World-Idea, that is to say in popular religious language, The Divine Will.
Each is limited by what is possible for his own particular personality, but as against this each has untapped inner resources.
If anyone believes in complete fatalism, if he feels that he is being carried on to the fulfilment of a preordained destiny in every particular point, then it may be so. But it means that he denies the creative power in the deeper level of his being. It means that he has drugged himself by misconceptions about himself and about the purposes for which he has been put on earth.
No human creature dare claim to be free: such an attribute--if a descriptive term dare be used at all--can only be assigned to infinite and transcendent incomprehensible Mind.
The truth is that both are present in life, the destiny ordained by karma and the freedom towards which we are struggling. Both are present in each human existence, but it is only the advanced soul who has created that fine equilibrium between them which unites them both in harmony.
The power of karma is matched by the power of personal effort, and out of the balancing of the two supported by wisdom a better result will always be obtained.
Fate, necessity, destiny, determinism--these are inexorable, compulsive, and inescapable in reference to the broad general evolution of the whole race. But within that larger circle the small circle of an individual is relatively free to rotate in its own course. This is the great secret, the final solution of the enigma of man's freedom.
Human will in the World-Idea
If men were really free to choose and decide, to will and to act, then God would be limited to the very extent that they were free! In other words, God would not be God at all! This is the final argument which reason can propound on the subject.
A man's ignorance and helplessness is in proportion to what he feels about the Universal Mind. If he denies its very existence, if he is an utter materialist, then he has set himself at cross-purposes to Nature and will one day discover that his power and knowledge are as nothing. If he believes in the existence of a Universal Mind, but regards it as something utterly apart and separate from himself, then his position is much safer. If he recognizes that he is rooted in the Universal Mind, and seeks to develop his awareness of it, then he will become strong and wise in proportion to this development. In the first case, the man's attitude will constitute a permanent danger to him; in the third case, it will constitute a deliverance for him.
We find life in this world thrust upon us. Thus the very beginning mocks at arrogant men who claim that human will is free.
If the man in you is held down by his body, his surroundings, his karma, the godlike in you is not: it is free. But through this freedom it chooses to be in harmony with God.
If one's previous ill-marked history cannot now be rewritten, and if one's future history is to be affected by it, then his best recourse, and indeed his only true one, is to turn to the Eternal NOW. But to do so he must take the middle way.
Oriental fatalism, which makes God's power and will the only power and will, leaves man's power useless and renders his will superfluous. This is somewhat disheartening to the Occidental's mind and enervating to his hand. But he need not accept it; it is also the unbalanced half-dangerous fatalism of half-knowledge. Man is intended to grow up into consciousness of his Godlike essence, and through that into joyful co-operation with God and deliberate participation with God's World-Idea.
No man is really and fully free since all men are carrying out the World-Idea. The feeling which he usually possesses that he is acting under his own power and making his own choices is due to his ignorance.
If the earth which carries us through space has no freedom of choice but must fulfil its role in the World-Idea, that is, has no free-will to wander in and out of its prescribed orbit even for one second, how unlikely is it that we, the tiny creatures on its back, have been allowed what has been denied it!
Life is presented to each individual in a pattern that is given by a higher power--call it karma or God, destiny or divinity. He may be able to put in the smaller details, but the larger outlines are preordained. The freedom he thinks he has is illusory. But where he does not suspect it, he does have freedom, and that is his higher self, his Overself.
A man's attitude toward the question of free will changes after he has surrendered to the Overself. It has to change. For henceforth he is to be loyal not to the ego's desires but to the Overself's injunctions. If the two coincide, it is well and pleasant for him. If not, and he obeys his higher self as he must, then it can no longer be said that he has full freedom of will. But neither can it be said that he has not. For the Overself is in him, not outside, not something alien and apart; it is indeed himself at his best and highest level. Because the Overself is under no other law than that of its own being, which it always obeys, both freedom and fate are harmoniously united in it. Hence, the truly wise man will reconcile and unite the tenet of karma and the tenet of free will. He knows that only a limited vision will range them against each other.
The sun, planets, and stars must move in their regular orbits. They are not free to change their course each day. Can this little creature, man--a mere speck on one of them--claim a larger freedom than theirs without being insane?
In the end the only freedom we have is to conform to the order of the universe and be what we have the possibility of being, and that is to move upward, transcend the little ego, and discover the hidden greatness of Overself.
Man's free will and God's preordained will are simultaneously coinciding, acting together. It does not matter what man's freedom leads him to do: in the end it will be turned to the accomplishment of God's evolutionary purpose. His evil will even be turned, by God's laws of karma, to good. He will be forced to evolve ultimately.
As I emerge from a trance of self-realization, the white sun sets in golden bars across the Thames. My body is seated in the half-Buddha posture on a grassy bank of the river. I find the solution of the problem which has weighed on my mind all day. I, hapless victim of a hard fate, I have communicated with myself! But now, I am conscious of the truth, for I have been lifted like a babe out of all anxiety for the future, all regret for the past. In the spiritual self, I feel a timeless life: I breathe the calm air of the Eternal. I feel safe and I could not worry even if I wanted to. To live in the true Self is to be released from all cares concerning what the morrow may bring. This is real freedom. Even if fate is all-powerful, even if an unpleasant fate be in store for me, yet, if I cannot change it, I can change myself. I can enter into my inner self and therein take refuge from my fate.
If perfect freedom of the will is impossible, at least that man is nearest to it who acts entirely from his innermost being, not from passional drive, emotional pressure, or physical necessity, who is guided by wisdom, not enslaved by the ego's desires or the animal's ignorance.
Those who have vaunted man over fate should remember his powerlessness over recent world events. Only with his attainment of life in the Overself will the solution be reversed; only with his achievement of power over himself will his history become more amenable to his will.
Jesus had a passion to urge every man to live up to his higher possibilities. The man who is living a lower level than his best is not performing his proper function in life. This attitude of Jesus was in direct contrast to the widespread fatalism of the Orientals.
What he wills in his highest moments is both a free act and a necessary act. In these moments the conflict vanishes, the paradox appears. In them alone the ego attains its fullest power yet falls also into complete powerlessness.
When troubles descend or desires are frustrated, it is easy to lose faith in the higher power, to doubt its very existence, or to question its goodness. This is because we want our own will to be done, even though God's will may be better for us in the end.
The peasant who plants corn does so only because he expects to profit by his work in the form of a harvest. He relies on Nature's law. He knows it is implacable, that if he will not sow, he will not be able to reap.
The Overself's foreknowing of the ego's line of action is not the same as the forcing of it. The limited element of human freedom remains intact, the divine element of grace still remains possible.
The infinite wisdom of the World-Mind is behind the world and rules its course, which is not left to the accidents of chance.
Although I have emphasized the belief in free will in my writings, I have done so only to refute the prevalent criticism that mystical philosophy inevitably leads to inertia and lethargy. However, from the standpoint that all existence--including our own--must ultimately conform to this plan, I am able to give only very limited room to free will. In this sense, I am more of a determinist than a libertarian--but please note that this should not be confused with the materialistic interpretation of determinism.
People are not so far apart in their thinking as sometimes appears. A man may think of himself as a spiritual determinist while maintaining a flexible, rather than a rigid form of determinism. Such flexibility must allow for the introduction of Grace, which, to the advanced mystic, is a very real thing. This idea, of course, might not yet find its place in the thinking of one who has made a purely intellectual analysis.
Thoughts come to a man without his trying to bring them on, without his willing them into existence: they are there as a part of his human conditioning. The same applies to feelings. Where then is his freedom of choice, and what then is the use of preaching to him that he should be good or aspirational? What is the use of teachings which lull him into the belief that he is free to create his own mental states, both good and evil, when moods, emotions, and ideas happen of themselves or come to him by themselves? Is it not better for him to understand his limitations and not deceive himself, to know what he can and cannot do and thus not fall into illusions about his spiritual progress or spiritual failure? Moreover, if all is happening by the will of the World-Mind and all is comprised in the World-Idea, he himself is really doing nothing, thinking nothing, for all is being accomplished irrespective of his ego. To understand this situation and to accept it and to free himself from the idea that he is thinking, he is feeling, and he is doing, is to free himself from the illusions of personal agency, doership, and egohood as being the ultimate truth about his own experiences.
The World-Idea will work itself out in any case, or as people say, Nature will take its course. The World-Idea has been operative through all past centuries, is operating now, and will operate through foreseeable time. Whatever man does, he cannot obliterate it nor alter it and whenever he thinks he is doing so he is merely carrying out unwittingly the World-Idea.
With reference to your second point, fate and free will, what I meant was that ordinarily man is subject to fate simultaneously with the fact that he is also operating his will. The two factors are ever present. But as the same fate was made by him in former lives, and he had the freedom to make it as he wished, ultimately there is freedom. You ask why "the dilemma is self-created and does not exist in Nature?" I plead guilty to having been deliberately obscure. I could not explain the problem without going at length into the esoteric philosophy, the study of which proves that where everything is ONE the individual will and fate fall out of consideration from the standpoint of the ONE, or Nature. The Sage is the man who has realized this oneness and hence for him such questions do not arise.
The truth is that we are both free and not free. The one is illusion because the hidden factors, the karma in the situation, shape its history. The other is actuality because knowing that, you demean yourself unnecessarily. The ego is surrounded by truth and goodness. Why not reach out and up to the Overself?
There are some actions a man does not for a moment include in his planning, yet when the time comes he does them. Why? Is he driven by a higher power? Is it in fulfilment of the World-Idea?
To claim that because he did not ask to be brought into the world, he is not responsible for himself or for his behaviour to parents is a short-sighted assertion. It is the consequence of ignoring or rejecting the idea (itself a part of the World-Idea) of reincarnation.
K.S. Guthrie, Plotinus' Philosophy: "His position on free will is almost exactly that of Kant. Virtue and the motion of the soul in the intelligible realm are free; but the soul's deeds in the world are part of the law of continuity. Plotinus has no taste for the crude predestination of fatalism, and like immoral doctrines. . . . The soul is, in respect to her three lowest faculties, which belong to the World Order, rigidly conditioned: yet in the higher self is as free as self-existence can make it; and the soul will therefore be free exactly according as to whether she identifies herself with her higher or lower faculties. Man is therefore a slave of fortune when his reason has identified itself with his sense world, but free when his reason has identified itself with his individual Nous, turning all things to intellect."
The power which operates the World-Idea is the same power which operates the processes of what the Asiatics call karma. The law of karma, or come-back of consequences, of causes and effects, is inseparable from the World-Idea. Behind the World-Idea is the World-Mind. Behind karma is God.
Are we mere figures in a dream and therefore deceiving ourselves, or are we mere puppets on a stage and therefore playing ourselves? If either of these be true then it would seem that the value of choosing right over wrong seems discredited and the freedom to choose good over evil becomes lost. If so, where is the need to carry out the moral precepts of religion and philosophy? Why submit to the disagreeable conditions which the Quest imposes upon us if the very end of the Quest is worth no more than its beginning? The answer is that these are half-truths which, taken alone, dangerously falsify the whole truth. The human being is not the victim of his own illusory living in a world of utter make-believe; he is ultimately and in his true selfhood a ray of the Divine Mind. It is his thoughts about himself that live in their own illusory world of make-believe, but he himself lives in a world of truth and reality.