Freedom In The Modern World

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: Paperback (1968) edition published by Faber and Faber (1st ed 1932). 224 pp.

(An edition with a new introduction by Harry A. Carson was published by Humanities Press, U.S.A., 1992.)

Foreword by C.A. Siepmann
Preface to the Second Edition
Preface to the First Edition
I. Is there a Modern Dilemma?
II. Science versus Religion?
III. The Dilemma in our Emotional Life
IV. A Faith for the Modern World
The Argument
I. About Philosophy and its Problems
II. On our Experience of Unreality
III. The Sources of Unreality
IV. On Being Real in our Thinking
V. On Being Real in our Feelings
VI. About Unreal People
VII. About What We Mean by Being Free
VIII. On Three Kinds of Freedom
IX. Mechanical Morality
X. Social Morality
XI. Personal Morality
XII. The Final Summary: Self-Realization Index

This book originated as two series of talks transmitted by the British Broadcasting Corporation during 1930 and 1932 when Macmurray occupied the Grote Chair of Mind and Logic at University College, London. In the book the most recent (1932) set of lectures is laid out before the earlier (1930) ones.

The thirties were a period of turmoil in Britain, Europe generally, and the United States of America. 1929 had seen the Wall Street Crash, Britain experienced the Slump of the early thirties, and Germany had known inflation galloping at breakneck speed. Indeed, many people at the time saw our problems merely in terms of economics. Part of the argument of this book is that important as economics was it was not the root cause of our malaise but, rather, a symptom of it.

Prior to the economic crises there had been a jolt to our social life and our perceptions of it occasioned by the Great War (1914-18) and people’s reactions to it. There was a feeling that an old way of life had come to an end and had not been replaced by a healthily vigorous alternative. There was much disjointed experience, from the hedonism of the wealthy to the despair of the unemployed.

I have written the above few words about the background to the production of the book so that the reader may better understand the form in which it has been cast. I do not, however, think that the book is of merely historical interest. Many of the issues it addresses are, alas, still with us, some seventy years on.

Macmurray considers that we are now a society without a genuine faith and that this paralyses us and prevents us from taking effective action to cure our disorders. We experience a split between head and heart, between our thoughts and our feelings. He wonders whether this has anything to do with the much-discussed struggle between Science and Religion. Unlike some of his contemporaries Macmurray agreed that there was such a struggle, at least between our science and our religion, whatever the formal position in the realms of abstract perfection might be. However, Macmurray maintained that if we were to put our faith totally in science and throw religion overboard we would have destroyed the support on which science rests; and he explains why this must be so. We find ourselves in our present position because we really believe in neither Science (except in the form of ‘cupboard love’) nor Christianity. The spirit of science is the expression as well as the creation of essential Christianity.

He goes on to speak against accepting a fatalism about whether Science will be put to good or bad use. Chance will decide for us only by default; if we do not decide what we want. We need to be able to feel what is worth doing before we can apply thought to doing it. We belong to a civilization which has set the intellect free and kept emotion in chains. Macmurray gives an historical account of how this has come about; an account which is given in more detail in the second section of the book, ‘Reality and Freedom’, and which itself prefigures what was said in The Clue to History, published six years later (1938).

European civilization (and for Macmurray this includes not only that of geographical Europe but also that of the United States of America and the self-governing British Dominions — cp. The Clue to History p. 215 note) has put a high value on intellectual training and development but a lower value on emotional training and development. Three main strands have gone into the making of this civilization: Roman, Greek and Hebrew (via Christianity). The Roman strand, with its use of Stoic philosophy, has tended to dominate our institutions and moralities, giving us a mechanical morality of obedience to a moral law in the teeth, if necessary, of our feelings. Macmurray points out that obedience is a legal rather than an ethical concept and that introducing it into morality leads to confusion. However, the impetus of the Christian spirit in our civilization, like the leaven in the lump, has led to a number of revolts of the emotions. After each the Roman spirit has reasserted itself but nonetheless the world was left significantly changed.

The first such revolt divided the Middle Ages from the modern world and consisted of the artistic movement of the Renaissance and the religious movement of the Protestant Reformation. The second revolt was the Romantic Revival towards the end of the eighteenth century. In politics it produced Rousseau and the modern democratic state. In social life it produced the educational and humanitarian movements. In philosophy it produced Hegel and modern idealism. In science it produced Darwin and evolutionary biology. In religion it produced the higher criticism and undermined the authority of the Bible. In economics it produced Karl Marx and socialism. But due to its compromise with the Roman spirit it produced sentimentality which poisons the life of Europe to this day.

Macmurray felt that the Europe of his day was gathering itself for a new revolt on behalf of emotional reality. Since he wrote those words we were overtaken by the Second World War. Was the permissive Society of the sixties, leading to our present much-criticized ‘touchy-feely’ culture, a delayed eruption of this revolt, I wonder? And was it similarly disappointing in its results, bedevilled as it was by the accompanying philosophy of individualism (of which Macmurray gave a masterly aetiology in The Clue to History)?

Part of the second section of the book is devoted to discussions about various manifestations of reality and unreality. There is discussion about freedom and constraint, and three forms of freedom are characterised: material freedom, organic freedom and moral freedom.

Macmurray goes on to delineate three moralities which confront us. The first is mechanical morality which talks of obedience to the moral law. It makes the mistake of thinking that human nature is the same as material nature. There is a material aspect to human life and there is the place for law — not in morality. The second false morality is social morality which treats human reality as if it were organic reality. It speaks of ‘service’, and subordinates people to organization. The third, and true, morality is personal morality. It is a morality of friendship and enables persons to be themselves for others.