Mortimer J. Adler on Three Kinds of Freedom

“It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize.”


How to Think About the Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler (2000, Open Court)

Just search for the word “freedom” on Google News. At the moment – I can find articles on “press freedom”, “freedom of navigation”, “academic freedom”, “freedom of worship”, “freedom of information request”, among many others. How can we “think” better about this issue that obsesses us so much? The American philosopher, educator and popular author Mortimer Jerome Adler (December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001) gave a few guidelines in his book How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization (2000). “Freedom” here is just one of the topics discussed – along with “truth”, “knowledge”, “opinion”, “good and evil”, “evolution”. Adler, interestingly, was the only Ph.D. in America to obtain the degree without a master’s, bachelor’s or even high school diploma! He was hired as a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago at the young age of 27. 

Adler – who, according to Time was a “philosopher for everyman” – believed that every individual was a philosopher in their own right and did well when allowed to cultivate and sharpen this natural proclivity. He wanted to encourage the masses to engage with the Great Books of Western Civilisation – for in them he found ideas that were “basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live.”

So “freedom.” Adler begins:

There are few words in the English language, or for that matter in any language, that have more meaning than the word “freedom.” There are few words or few notions that can cause us greater perplexity, because as one reads the vast literature on this subject, it is very difficult to tell who disagrees or who agrees with whom.

Then he briefly indicates the “different things, different objects” that men [and women] have in mind when they use the word freedom:

First, they have in mind a freedom that men have in relation to one another in their action, in society, and in relation to the state. This might be called a social freedom or a political or an economic freedom.

Examples: the cases of slavery (when one is totally mastered by another) and monopoly (which prevents competition in the market).


Slaves working on a plantation in America (c. 1862–1863), Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

After social/political/economic freedom, comes psychological freedom:

A second and totally different area which carries the notion of freedom is that of the freedom a man has within himself in deciding what he is going to do…And here conventionally what we have in mind is what is referred to as the freedom of the will, a free will, a will that itself determines what a man is going to do and exempts a man from being determined in what he does by his background or other external causes.


“…the freedom a man has within himself in deciding what he is going to do.” (Photo: Pixabay)


Last is moral freedom:

And there is a third area of freedom, that freedom in which a man is said to be free from conflict within himself and to have the development of a perfection in his nature so that he becomes what he ought to be. This freedom is sometimes called moral freedom. And an example of what is meant by moral freedom is given us by the theologians when they talk of freedom from sin. And in modern times psychiatrists will talk about the freedom of an integrated personality as opposed to the lack of freedom, the compulsiveness, of a neurotic.


“…the development of a perfection in his nature…” (Photo: Pixabay)


Similar books by Mortimer J. Adler include How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century PaganHow to Speak How to Listen and How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.


Featured Image: Great Books by User “Rdsmith4”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Preview How to Think About Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler.

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