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Steven Pittz joins the show to discuss if liberalism has enabled us to be free spirits.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Steven Pittz is assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado‐​Colorado Springs. He specializes in political theory and international relations.


Steven Pittz defines what a free spirit is in addition to detailing how liberalism affects our ability to connect to our spirituality. Some argue that liberalism has detached us from a sense of meaning, but is that true?

Has liberalism made us detached from spiritualism? What is spiritual fullness?

Further Reading:



00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:11 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Steven F. Pittz, he’s Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and he’s the author of Recovering the Liberal Spirit: Nietzsche, Individuality, and Spiritual Freedom. Welcome to the show.

00:24 Steven Pittz: Thank you very much for having me.

00:25 Aaron Ross Powell: You mount a novel defense of liberalism against a particular kind of criticism, which at the beginning of the book you characterize like this, “Few, including critics of liberalism, doubt the material benefits that the modern liberal world has made possible. Despite these benefits however, liberalism ultimately leads to the spiritual impoverishment of citizens, or so the story goes.” What’s this spiritual impoverishment that the critics are getting at?

00:50 Steven Pittz: Well, I think there’s a couple of ways to look at that, but I think the primary way that I do is that there’s a sense… And this is mostly an academic debate, but of course, it can get filtered through public discourse as well. There’s this idea that in the modern liberal West, human beings or individuals are atomized, they’re somehow… They’ve lost their connection to all sorts of communities, traditions, sources of meaning that give them ultimately spiritual fulfilment.

01:25 Steven Pittz: So, I’m trying to work against this idea that the liberal individual, who is in some sense a product of the modern liberal project, which puts the individual at the center of political theory and our creation of government, the self‐​governed individual who has rights and is then able to join in government, in a democratic government.

01:53 Steven Pittz: They’ll say, “Okay, that’s all worked.” And then in some sense, the economic liberties that have come with this and free markets that have raised prosperity, all this stuff has worked really well, but what’s falling through the cracks is our spiritual life. So these sources of meaning, whether it’s community, tradition, history, nation even, all of these things have gone away, and therefore liberal individuals are spiritually impoverished.

02:26 Steven Pittz: And I wanted to try to come up with a way of looking at this so‐​called atomized individual. I reject that language, but look at the so‐​called atomized individual and say, “You know, is it really the case that they’re spiritually impoverished?”

02:43 Trevor Burrus: You say that there’s this criticism of liberalism along these lines, but aside from it being a criticism, isn’t there data that shows that this is true, or this kind of atomization, I know you don’t like the word, some sort of maybe normlessness, we had started maybe with Bowling Alone, and a bunch of other works have come out saying that this is actually a problem?

03:03 Steven Pittz: Yes, there certainly is data to talk about that, and in some sense, it’s a matter of perspective, but I think what I try to focus on is whether we can find spiritual fullness, as I call it, fulness, fulfilment, I use those interchangeably, without attachment to all of these things that let’s say Bowling Alone talk about. Which is the social body, the political community, and he talks about social capital.

03:36 Steven Pittz: Those things matter though in different ways. So if you look at Bowling Alone, and he talks about social capital, a lot of that is a polity’s ability, whether it can be in a different level, or local level or state level to engage in cooperative projects and to govern itself. I’m looking very much at the individual, him or herself, and say, “What does this person need to reach spiritual fulfillment?” Which I think is a choiceworthy goal for everyone.

04:05 Steven Pittz: And is it the case that liberal politics, liberalism in general, precludes or harms the individual’s ability to do this. So I kind of think it’s a different question, and then there are… I’m sure there’s strong evidence to suggest that we actually need more institutions or associations to help us in self‐​government and to maybe decentralize government, to actually achieve the goal of federalism, that sort of thing, but that’s not precisely what I’m asking.

04:39 Steven Pittz: I’m asking, is it true that liberalism has just made us sort of detached from all these sources of meaning and lost at sea? Charles Taylor, a communitarian, calls the liberal individual who is atomized, pathological. That’s pretty strong language. And I think it’s that question I’m focused on.

05:01 Steven Pittz: And I do believe too, you can look at things happening right now, and you can look at the resurgence of some sort of nationalism and increase in identity politics, as something that people are engaged in, in ways these all are… It’s potentially individuals trying to fill that void in a way that, in my mind, is both illiberal and in the long run, ultimately harmful and it’s a bad, bad path to go on.

05:28 Steven Pittz: But in any case, I’ll end it there, but just say, I think it’s slightly different questions that I’m asking versus someone like Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone.

05:38 Aaron Ross Powell: You’ve hinted a bit at this in your answer to the first question, but because the term is gonna get used a lot in our conversation, can you clarify or just nail down exactly what you mean by “spiritual”?

05:50 Steven Pittz: Sure. Well, so on the one hand, I mean spiritual to be inclusive, I’m trying to use it in a way that’s fairly non‐​denominational. I start out the book and actually spend a lot of time defining spiritual fullness in the introduction, and I try to use thinkers who have talked about this sort of idea that are both theistic and atheistic. So for example, I look at St. Ignatius of Loyola who talks about spiritual desolation versus spiritual consolation.

06:22 Steven Pittz: Consolation, of course, being fullness, desolation, being emptiness. And it’s just, really it’s this idea that you can be attached to some source of meaning that give your life, a spiritual content that keeps you more or less satisfied. And not satisfied simply in a physical sense, but a life in which, while of course, that’s gonna be punctuated by highs and lows. There’s a richness or a fullness, and there’s a general sense that you’re grateful for your life, you’re grateful for what happens to you on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, and you’ll certainly take the bad with the good.

07:02 Steven Pittz: And Charles Taylor, I also use him here. He’s a modern day contemporary communitarian. He talks about spiritual fullness as this sort of orientation for individuals. But so, that said, it’s meant to be inclusive. In the St. Ignatius example, his spiritual fullness comes with connection to God. And I don’t wanna rule that out, many people would probably talk about their spiritual fulfillment in terms of their relationship to God.

07:27 Steven Pittz: I also use Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau, and he talks about a sentiment of existence, and really this sense of gratitude and wonder at simply being alive in the world. For Rousseau it was very important to sort of peel off the layers of socialization to get to a very, very raw and authentic sort of connection to the universe and to the world. That’s another way.

07:51 Steven Pittz: That’s another way that someone might experience spiritual fullness, I mean it to be inclusive, but the important thing is, is that you are reaching some sort of spiritual state, that’s satisfactory, and that it’s not ephemeral, it lasts. So it’s not hedonistic, in other words.

08:07 Trevor Burrus: It seems that if liberalism produces wealth, which I think that we probably agree it does if properly instantiated, then there are things sort of inherent to liberalism that will pull people apart. For example, just to use one that is literally true. The ability to move across borders or within your borders becomes a lot easier when you’re more wealthy, and so you have…

08:32 Trevor Burrus: As opposed to having communities, say in 1550, where it’s not easy to move, and so you develop communities that have long‐​standing commitments to each other, familial commitments to each other, accents, different types of traditions because of that movement. Now you can live in a world, say in America, where my grandma was born in North Carolina, my parents were born in Oklahoma, and I was born in Colorado, and I live in Washington DC now.

08:56 Trevor Burrus: All those things would seem to be sort of pulling apart people to some extent, but they are a consequence of at least the wealth and freedom that liberalism brings.

09:05 Steven Pittz: Yes, I would definitely not disagree with that general view. In fact, anecdotally, my own family, I came from a large family, I’m one of five children, and we all live in different parts of the country, Seattle, DC, Tampa, Florida, Colorado. And now especially that we have children, you realize how important it actually is to be closer together, and being far apart does tear the fabric of the family in a very, very real way. So I actually don’t disagree with that.

09:35 Steven Pittz: Whether that’s the liberalism I’m talking about? If you’re talking about liberal economics and free market economics, I don’t talk about that much in the book, so I’m focusing more on liberal political institutions which do in a sense align or are quite compatible with free markets and mobility, but I’m more focused on things like freedom of expression, tolerance, freedom of speech, etcetera, those sorts of liberal institutions, are what I talk more about in the book.

10:05 Trevor Burrus: Well, on that point, if we’re taking about freedom of expression for, say, trying to keep some communities together via a shared belief structure and say a church structure, then possibly the use of blasphemy laws and not allowing people to speak against the church or to contradict the dogma of the church is beneficial to the church in that way, and therefore beneficial to the church as a community institution.

10:33 Trevor Burrus: So if we’re talking about more civil rights kind of liberalism, is that… Do you think that’s… Well, maybe this is a way of putting it, that kind of concern that you articulated in the first question, where you said people who believe that liberalism atomizes people and to some extent, pulls them apart of community structures.

10:50 Trevor Burrus: Well, one of those things could be free speech, it actually pulls people apart and creates say, a dynamic system where you can challenge authority and you can challenge the existence or the beneficial‐​ness of something like the church.

11:05 Steven Pittz: Right, okay, okay. Yeah, and so my view in the book, and the concept of the free spirit as well, coming from that standpoint would be that any sort of coerced coherence, or coerced attachment to orthodoxy isn’t worth very much to begin with. So I don’t think liberal institutions necessarily force people to detach, let’s say, from their church, because you still have freedom of association, you still have… Can very easily be a voluntary member of the church, and you can be as doctrinaire as you would like to be.

11:45 Steven Pittz: So I think that liberalism can accommodate that sort of way of being. But I also think in my book, about the free‐​spirited ideal, it’s generally anti‐​dogmatic, so it’s skeptical, it’s skeptical in a more ancient sense of skepticism, which we may or may not talk about in this podcast, but it’s anti‐​dogmatic and in general, the free‐​spirited individual will not be just adopting authoritative or dogmatic claims without a lot of independent verification, you might say.

12:22 Steven Pittz: Or an independent pursuit of, if not truth, then at least intellectual and spiritual honesty, and that then there is a chance that you go through a very free‐​spirited pursuit of your own values and beliefs and desires. And those happen to align incredibly well with the Baptist Church down the road, it’s possible, but it’s unlikely.

12:44 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, maybe let’s then turn to the free spirit and that sort of spiritual freedom, because your argument is essentially that liberalism is good in part because it enables such people to exist and thrive. So what is a free spirit in this context?

13:04 Steven Pittz: Yeah, thanks, that’s a good way to set it up, I think. And I’ll say a few things about free spirit, then I’ll say what the characteristics are. First, it’s aspirational. The free spirit is an ideal. It’s something we aspire to, without ever fully achieving or finally realizing. So it’s a sort of pursuit.

13:24 Steven Pittz: Second, it’s a relative concept. So you’re more or less free spirited than somebody else, and you’re more or less free spirited at different times, simply because that’s just the nature of human cognition and human consciousness, I believe. So what I mean by a relative concept, it doesn’t make sense to call the Robin Crusoe deserted on a desert island a free spirit.

13:48 Steven Pittz: Even though all Robinson Crusoe would be doing… Well then, let’s imagine Robin Crusoe without a family entirely. All that he’d would be doing is independent thinking and independent living. But it’s still not free spirited because there’s nothing else to be done. I’m talking about it in terms of you’re free spirited relative to others, meaning you are more or less detached to conventional norms, contemporary ways of thinking, and that’s very important.

14:17 Steven Pittz: Then in terms of the actual characteristics of a free spirit, first they’re skeptical, they’re skeptical, and I mentioned before, it’s a particular type of skepticism that the free spirit adopts or practices rather. And I don’t wanna go too far into it ’cause it might be a rabbit hole, but there’s a distinction between the sort of modern sort of Cartesian idea of skepticism, which for short means we can really doubt everything. I can doubt that I’m actually speaking into a computer right now. I can doubt that you exist. I can doubt that the table exists.

14:52 Steven Pittz: It’s not that kind of skepticism we’re thinking about. But there’s an ancient Pyrrhonist skepticism, where what they really… The Pyrrhonists were really, in a sense, they weren’t contrarians they were skeptics that challenged the dogma of the times. So they were more anti‐​dogmatic than they were skeptical in the sort of modern sense. Meaning they didn’t have cause to doubt many simple truths about, “What’s gonna happen if I throw a ball? Is it gonna go forward or is it gonna go backward?”

15:26 Steven Pittz: They just thought that the dogmatic claims of science, religion, philosophy of the time needed to be challenged. That was the sort of skepticism they chose to practice. And that’s the sort of skepticism of the free spirit. And then as I mentioned before, the free spirit will be detached from contemporary and conventional norms. But not because they simply want to set themselves up in opposition to society. There’s no resentment or rebellion. It’s not a teenage angst sort of idea here.

16:00 Steven Pittz: They’re actually detached from contemporary and conventional norms, because they are filled in a sense with independent drive, a sense of meaning, and a sense also, a cheerful temperament, as Nietzsche would talk about. A temperament that is conducive towards independent discovery and really independent living and solitude, not as a means of escaping the world, so much as it is to pursue one’s own spiritual goals. So therefore, the actual detachment is elevated.

16:35 Steven Pittz: What Nietzsche says, a free fearless hovering over convention. And this is something that the free spirit does in order to become spiritually fulfilled, and it actually is the path to that fulfillment. The final thing I’ll add to that, which is a little bit more optional, but in the place of all those conventional traditional norms and associations that most people will likely go to for their spiritual fulfillment, the free spirit can choose aesthetic experience and aesthetic appreciation.

17:08 Steven Pittz: This is a means of filling… To spiritual fulfillment. And it fills the void of meaning that’s created by detaching from all those other things.

17:17 Aaron Ross Powell: I believe all three of us have at one time attended school in Boulder, Colorado. And so all three of us are quite familiar with hippies. And are you describing hippies here? Is a free spirit someone who, among all these other things, is just someone who’s incapable of living in the real world, or at least incapable of holding a job?

17:43 Steven Pittz: Yeah, that’s a great question. But in fact, it’s actually closer to the opposite. And I do speak about this in the first part of the book, that the sort of modern day understanding of the free spirit, it’s a bit of a hackneyed term. And we get it mostly from Hollywood, also just the vernacular, but probably some other cultural mediums as well. But I’d say primarily Hollywood.

18:05 Steven Pittz: And it’s this idea of the sort of overworked, overstressed middle class person, who… You can think of the movie, Office Space, for example. And they just say, “You know what, I’m gonna go get away from all this crap that I don’t wanna do,” and they generally are mystical about it. Maybe they’re reading tarot cards or doing astrology. But they’re definitely going out, having a good time and leaving the stresses of life. And there’s actually, maybe there’s something to that.

18:40 Steven Pittz: I’m not gonna say that that’s completely foreign to this idea of the free spirit that I brought up, but the one very key difference is that that’s an escapist attitude that says, “We’re not gonna work a real job. I’m not gonna deal with reality as it’s given to me.” But then there’s no real substitute put in its place, the modern day hippie or the Hollywood hippie just goes and blows off steam and has a good time.

19:07 Steven Pittz: Whereas the free spirit, and this follows Nietzsche’s version of the free spirit, is interested precisely in ridding themselves of illusions, avoiding the common pitfalls of escapism. And of course, for Nietzsche, those pitfalls of escapism come in a lot of these places we talked about. In religion, in tradition, in even in this public opinion and trends and fads, and the need to talk and act in a certain way.

19:39 Steven Pittz: These are all escapist phenomena, you might say in the Nietzschean sense, and the Nietzschean free spirit and the one that I talk about, wants to rid him or herself of this and be free of illusions about the world. And also be able to face reality as it is, without falling into despair. I wanna save your listeners from a big, long explanation of this, but Nietzsche writes a lot about what the truth of reality is, and frankly, he says, in so many words he says, “The truth is terrible.”

20:15 Steven Pittz: This comes from the whole Schopenhauer influence that he has. And it’s actually not as bleak as it sounds when I just say that truth is terrible, but it’s a fact that we are here, we know we will die, we’re not exactly sure what we’re supposed to do while we’re here. We can’t actually have complete and solid faith in the knowledge that we do have. There’s all sorts of, we fall prey to illogic and injustice routinely.

20:45 Steven Pittz: And the free spirit is able to face these truths and still in a way, surpass them, I hesitate to use the word transcend them, but I think it’s fairly descriptive, you can get above these even while accepting them.

21:03 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting ’cause the way you describe… I had the same question in my head as Aaron about hippies, also having spent time in Boulder and around a lot of musicians and stuff. But you said in your answer about… Your first answer about free spirits, that it’s not sort of simply rebellion for… It’s not the sort of wild one, like, “what are you rebelling against? What do you got?” And maybe that’s what Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary and hippies are often doing.

21:28 Trevor Burrus: So does… Is it mean that the free spirit in some sense… Did it have to stand for something? Or do they just have to peer through illusions. I don’t know if I’m, makes sense? It sounds like ’cause they have to be…

21:42 Steven Pittz: No, it does.

21:43 Trevor Burrus: Positive in there, as opposed to just reactively negative in how they are sort of going against the trends.

21:49 Steven Pittz: Yeah, okay. Not to split too many hairs, but I would say, yes there’s a positive orientation, but you do not have to stand for something, right? That’s actually something that we never force a free spirit to do. There’s no need to let’s say, “Okay, here’s some of the most burning political and cultural issues today, and you need to take a stand on them.”

22:11 Steven Pittz: But to go back to your question about hippies, which I think is a very good one. It’s not rebellious and it’s not resentful. For anyone who’s read Nietzsche out there, you’ll know that ressentiment, where he uses the French but it’s really resentment, is what he believes drives a lot of cultural shifts and change, and it’s the sort of… I’ll oversimplify a little bit.

22:35 Steven Pittz: It’s the sort of resentful class that tries to overthrow the so‐​called oppressive class, and that’s sort of the nature of politics in a big way. And the free spirit is not driven by resentment of who’s in power and what’s in fashion. Though the reason that they are detaching is precisely because they’re full or pregnant of meaning and interest and wonder about the world, but they’re also very independent‐​minded and they wanna see things the same in their own way.

23:07 Steven Pittz: It’s not as if they just, they wanna reject everything they’ve been taught or everything they encounter, but they actually have a pretty strong sense of self and a strong temperament, and they also wanna figure things out for themselves. And that just naturally brings them into conflict with a lot of conventional norms and orthodoxy of all sorts.

23:32 Steven Pittz: That’s just the way… That’s just a fact. The more independent‐​minded you are, the more likely you are to be at odds with some of the stuff that’s happening around you. And I think that’s pretty clear. Nietzsche had certainly thought that was clear as well. And then that positive orientation I was talking about is, there is a space that opens up when you do take leave of…

23:56 Steven Pittz: Let’s say the things, whether it’s religion or popular culture, these different ways that people are telling you, “Yeah, here’s the stuff of life, here’s the stuff that’s gonna make you spiritually fulfilled.” And you say, “No, that just doesn’t seem right. It’s not working for me.”

24:09 Steven Pittz: When you do do that, it opens up a space for other ways of pursuing meaning and spiritual fulfillment, and that positive orientation, I find in this idea of aesthetic experience. And I actually, in another book, I’m gonna talk about the experience of wonder, but that’s something that I think the spirit… The positive orientation for the free spirit that I was mentioning.

24:33 Trevor Burrus: You mentioned Hollywood hippies, and I think that if, listeners, if you’re like me, you’re listening to what Steven is saying about the free spirit and thinking about how there seem to be a lot of movie characters who might sometimes satisfy this, but at least on a broader level, it seems that especially American media kinda pushes the free spirit a lot as a heroic character and is trying to sell us in a sense on the values of being a free spirit or finding a free spirit.

25:03 Trevor Burrus: I’m thinking in particular of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but I’m thinking of a lot of different things where they say, “You need to be an individual.” But then you get a counter‐​criticism to this that says, trying to sell you on being a free spirit individual from the Walt Disney Corporation, might be a little bit oppressive in its own way, it might be its own sort of false message, because of the source.

25:30 Steven Pittz: Yeah, I agree. I think I agree with that. I’m not familiar with that… The reference you made earlier, but…

25:37 Trevor Burrus: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s the character in a movie, usually some guy who’s kind of withdrawn and sullen, meets some girl who’s free and open. And she shows him how to be… The classic example is Garden State, is the original one, but it’s like a trope. So they meet a free spirit and she breaks him out of his shell, is the story.

25:58 Steven Pittz: Right. Right. Yeah. It’s really… No, I’m very familiar with that trope. Yes. I think what you’ll get a sense from reading the book and especially from Nietzsche himself, to bring it back to him a little bit. He’s a severe and serious thinker. His free spirit is also a sort of severe, and serious thinker.

26:17 Steven Pittz: Which doesn’t mean they’re not… That the free spirit isn’t open to more light‐​hearted moments. But I think that the sort of Hollywood version of the hippie or the free spirit, it’s sort of this, be so open‐​minded, that there’s no evaluation thought or judgment even occurring.

26:39 Steven Pittz: And it’s this idea that all of your problems are there because you’ve just been too closed and too insular and you’re not just opening yourself up to everything that’s out there. And that’s not really the picture that I paint in the book. And that becomes clear very early on in it.

27:00 Steven Pittz: But it’s something where… I’m trying to think where should I go with this. But it’s something where the free spirit is, generally speaking, gonna be a serious‐​minded person who finds their way of thinking, and their way of being, just hard to completely measure, finesse and jive with, with maybe what’s expected of them by society.

27:25 Steven Pittz: But I’m also not trying to paint these people as totally out there without any associations or any friends or anything like that. So that’s another thing that comes in later on in the book.

27:37 Aaron Ross Powell: If the free spirit is playing a central role in this particular defense of liberalism that you’re setting out, what is the value of the free spirit? So I can see being like, if you’re the kind of person who wants to be a free spirit, living in a system that enables you to do that and supports you in doing that, is good.

27:58 Aaron Ross Powell: But what you’re describing doesn’t sound like the kind of life that a lot of people wanna lead. And it also sounds like the kind of life that a lot of people, even in liberal societies would find threatening. Or if not threatening, maybe just irritating. But I could see a lot of Americans saying, “You’re not convincing me, because if what you’re telling me is liberalism allows people to do this, then maybe that’s a knock against liberalism.”

28:30 Steven Pittz: Fair enough. Yeah, I’d like to think in the book, this comes out more fully, so you can get a better sense of the free spirit than maybe I’ve been able to give just in the last few minutes. But that is certainly a fair criticism. A couple of things that I might say to that in terms of the benefits of the free spirit, let’s say to people on a personal level, I mentioned at the very beginning and throughout that spiritual freedom is an ideal, it’s aspirational and it admits of degrees. So there are degrees of spiritual freedom.

29:02 Steven Pittz: Now, I don’t think anyone would argue that, let’s say, you have a continuum of spiritual freedom. And on the far extreme, you have the most open, free person ever, and on the other extreme, you have someone who’s more or less a prisoner of other people’s actions and thoughts.

29:22 Steven Pittz: They simply adopt everything they hear and they stick to the orthodoxy and they don’t question anything. I don’t think anybody sees that as an ideal. I don’t think anybody actually wants that. This doesn’t mean that sometimes obedience isn’t important, but I don’t think anybody sees that as an ideal. So you have this continuum, but I’m putting free spiritedness up as an ideal, and I do think many people would aspire to have some degree of it. And as I said, certainly it admits of degrees.

29:51 Steven Pittz: And then there’s two other things I wanna mention. So the benefits of free spirits. There’s a practical argument here, and there’s a theoretical argument. So the practical argument is for liberal societies, I think free spirits provide two very important benefits.

30:05 Steven Pittz: The first, is just a general loosening of the knot of ideology. The ability of certain citizens to be curmudgeons, to be contrarians, and to really push against what can be sort of mass… In the worst sense, it can be mass psychosis. But this mentality that we get when there’s a strong movement occurring.

30:30 Steven Pittz: I think we’ve all seen these throughout our lives. And people are sort of joining on, in lock, stock, and barrel. It’s really important to have that person whether it’s in your peer group, whether it’s in media you consume that is questioning this stuff and can loosen the knot of ideology.

30:46 Steven Pittz: And then on a similar note, I talk about this a lot. Both John Stuart Mill and Tocqueville, Alexis de Tocqueville, were very concerned with the power of public opinion in liberal democracies. So this idea that liberal institutions with their guaranteed rights, rights of expression, rights of speech, rights of assembly.

31:07 Steven Pittz: They grant us these freedoms to be a certain way and to be whatever way we wanna be, and then even broadcast that. However, it’s a mistake to look at liberal societies and say, “Oh great, with an individual they’re just more free there,” because public opinion or what Mill calls collective opinion, is so strong, that it can actually be more damaging to an individual’s spiritual life or individual’s freedom, than authoritarian institutions sometimes can be.

31:38 Steven Pittz: And I think that free spirits are especially important here. I talk in the book about how it’s important to have people who not only are willing to express contrary opinions, but also able to demonstrate, “demonstrate” being the keyword, demonstrate different ways of life and different ways of being. Because it can be powerful.

32:00 Steven Pittz: Think about just being a student growing up, and maybe for some reason, you’re not even sure why, but one of your teachers or one of the people… One of your people who are mentors in some sense, they’re just different, they seem really authentic, they seem to be acting in a way that makes you think, “Oh. Maybe there are more possibilities for how I should think about my morals or my direction in life, or what I should be doing at any given time.”

32:25 Steven Pittz: So I think that practical demonstration is a powerful check on ideology and public opinion. And I know I’m getting long here, but there’s also the theoretical benefit, which maybe we can talk about more. Like in the academic literature, the critique of individual autonomy, that liberalism rests, especially classical liberalism, rests on this idea of individual autonomy.

32:51 Steven Pittz: That we can be autonomous as individuals, and therefore, we can consent to government, we can legitimate government through our consent. We can also self‐​govern, we can actually practice that later on, and that this is necessary for liberal government. And those communitarians and progressives who attack the very idea of individual autonomy, that’s a problem for liberalism as a political theory.

33:19 Steven Pittz: And I also try to take on their critiques on the basis of the free spirit, saying, “This is a person who is practicing autonomy, we can see it. It’s real.” Excuse me. It’s real and it bolsters the case for individual autonomy, which is ultimately the bedrock of liberal political theory.

33:39 Trevor Burrus: It seems like… Some free spirits can be damaging to a liberal society. Even in the end, I don’t know if we would say that in the beginning, Hitler would qualify as a free spirit. Or some other sort of revolutionaries, Che Guevara was someone who came up and tried to go their own way and revolutionize the society, and then did.

34:04 Trevor Burrus: Or if we think of someone like Jim Jones and cult leaders who also do that too, which I think if you look at illiberal societies, that’s some of their fear, ’cause you get both sides of this coin. Take China, for example. China does not want free spirits, it actively works to undermine them, I would say, and make sure they don’t come out and undercut their order. But that’s certainly possible that free spirits can undercut that order that could be beneficial to society as a whole.

34:34 Steven Pittz: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And you know to maybe… To rephrase that question a little bit. It’s just the question, what about bad free spirits? What about Jim Jones? What about Ted Kaczynski? These people clearly differ, they’re independent thinkers, they had very, very strong ideas about what they were doing, and they were willing to buck the norm. They were also, of course, charismatic. And that’s a very real issue, but I try to couch that in the tradition of liberalism. So there’s two things I would say about it.

35:05 Steven Pittz: Number one, and if you think about John Stuart Mill and the harm principle, the basic liberal idea, and then we have institutions that are built around this, but the basic liberal idea that you can be free to do whatever you’re gonna do as long as it doesn’t interfere or threaten my freedom to do the same. And then the harm principle, you can’t punch me just ’cause that’s what you feel like you wanna do and you wanna have the freedom to do it, because then that affects my own.

35:32 Steven Pittz: So I think just in a typical liberal society with liberal institutions, the harm principle still… And of course, the legal system and the police force and everything that enforces this, this can deal with the bad free spirits. I mean, the bad free spirits are gonna come up, but we’re gonna deal with them as the way, in the same way we would deal with criminals, or any criminal. And so you’re right that there is this, the sense where this could go either way, but I would say we have the apparatus necessary to deal with the bad free spirits.

36:07 Steven Pittz: But it’s also in my interest, and I do throughout the book, I try to promote this positive version of free‐​spiritedness, and of spiritual freedom, and I do it in many ways. It’s both being skeptical, being a check on the power of public opinion, pursuing your own goals, also this positive orientation of aesthetic experience and aesthetic appreciation as well.

36:33 Steven Pittz: So I’m focusing on the positive and saying that the liberal political or… ‘Cause remember, this is part of it, partly a defense of liberalism, is already set up to deal with the bad cases.

36:45 Aaron Ross Powell: If liberalism supports free spirits, it would seem then that free spirits ought to support liberalism. But if I imagine the kinds of people who I think a lot of us would think of when we hear the way that you’re describing free spirits, it feels like a lot of them are on the political left, if not the political, very far left, who… To the point where like the illiberal left.

37:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Certainly in terms of economics, but also increasingly in terms of turning against free speech in the service of preventing “harmful speech” and so on. Is there a tension there? Like why… Or are those kinds of people, am I misreading what the free spirit is?

37:42 Steven Pittz: Maybe. I’m not sure. I was with you at the start when you said, “Well, it seems like a lot of these people would be on the left.” Which I would say maybe, maybe not. Nietzsche himself is on the right. He actually goes the opposite way. But he turns illiberal. Nietzsche turns illiberal later on.

38:01 Steven Pittz: In fact, after he writes about the free spirit, which is in his middle period, and he writes a ton about the free spirit in and three books, then he turns to his later writings, which people know more about, where you have the Ubermensch, the Superman, and all that stuff, right. So he turns illiberal.

38:18 Steven Pittz: But when you then… But when you talk about going to the far left, that sort of illiberal left, I’m not sure. Maybe you could elaborate there what you’re thinking?

38:29 Aaron Ross Powell: I guess I’m thinking the kind of people who we tend to see talking about spiritual and aesthetic experiences, let’s limit it to the United States, the kind of people who we tend to think of as spiritual leaders, the ones who are active in counter‐​culture movements.

38:51 Aaron Ross Powell: My general sense, and maybe I’m simply mistaken about this, is that they tend to be much more left than they are right or libertarian. That certainly, I know we’re not talking about hippies, but the like kind of counter‐​culture that hippies were a part of, gave rise to the modern left among the boomers, and then on into today. That there seems to be a real embrace of… They’re the people wearing the Che Guevara t‐​shirts and so on.

39:24 Aaron Ross Powell: And so there seems to be this spiritual freedom means fighting back against the man, and the man is the corporations, it’s the traditions, it’s the so on. And the way that you do that is by empowering the government to push back on this stuff.

39:44 Trevor Burrus: Or may… [39:44] ____ Maybe the man is the liberal order, in the small L sense.

39:50 Steven Pittz: Yeah. Okay, yeah. So I’m gonna try to answer this in the way that I’m thinking about, and you guys can just let me know if you’re satisfied with it. But I think in general I wouldn’t put those people in the free‐​spirited camp, and I would say that they’re mostly a little misguided and a little confused about what they’re doing, if they think they’re acting in a free‐​spirited matter.

40:13 Steven Pittz: But one thing that this book is about is that these people are going to exist, and in fact, because I say it admits of degrees, I think there’s almost anyone who’s a thinking person probably has some decent qualms, like some fairly significant qualms about society and social forces that are bearing down upon them at different times in their lives. There’s gonna be some tension and some conflict there.

40:40 Steven Pittz: And then the free spirit is gonna be the type that is more in conflict and more willing to push against those who are actually not necessarily is pushed against, but detached. But this idea of detachment is critical here I think because I understand what you’re saying about the free‐​spirited, independent sort of pioneer, who then all of a sudden has a social following and is now a social disruptor, potentially the leader of a resistance movement of some sort.

41:08 Steven Pittz: This is actually precisely what I’m trying to argue against, that the free spirit should be able to detach themselves from these worldly concerns, and liberalism allows them to do it to the extent that they don’t need to try to overthrow the order. That’s the goal, is not to have to need to do that, be able to live this independent life without a need to actually overturn what’s happening before, or what’s happening around you, and I think that’s very important.

41:36 Steven Pittz: One other tidbit I might mention, it’s been a long time since I’ve read this book, well over 10 years, but Colin Wilson is the author, I think something like, The Outsider, I think is the book’s name. But the idea is this. Let’s say you’re a Jesus, or a Socrates, or I don’t know, a Beethoven. Pick some kind of great person in history that clearly was independent, clearly was exceptional in many ways.

42:06 Steven Pittz: His point was, you have two options if you’re exceptional. You can try to retreat into your private life and actually work on your inner life, and I talk a lot in the book about your inner life. Or you need to try to overthrow the social order to somehow align better with your own preferences.

42:26 Steven Pittz: And I’m very much on the liberal former side, which is, I think the liberal view of this is, you live in a society that’s open and free enough that you can work out these spiritual things in the private world, and you don’t have to resort to try to overturn the public world, you know, or make a big splash in it, to come… For it to align more with your way of being.

42:52 Aaron Ross Powell: Does that detachment of the free spirit end up potentially being self‐​defeating when it comes to liberalism? So if you’re a free spirit, liberalism is supporting you, but there are counter liberal forces in society, so people who don’t like free spirits or have other objections against it.

43:08 Aaron Ross Powell: And the free spirit is then someone who detaches from politics, which you speak about, repeating the book, as one of the good things about them. But doesn’t that detachment then essentially cede the political sphere to the non‐​free spirits, to the people who have less of a desire for the liberal institutions that the free spirit benefits from?

43:34 Steven Pittz: Perhaps, perhaps, and I don’t have a very optimistic answer for this. Because I think that may be true, but I also think that it’s realistic and inevitable. I think, and I was following maybe something like John Stuart Mill here, which is this idea that freedom and power rarely are aligned in history.

43:56 Steven Pittz: There’s generally a big tension between those who have power and those who want freedom. Or just in general, the two concepts of freedom and power. And power keeps down freedom for much of history. If you look at most of history, power has kept down freedom in different ways.

44:14 Steven Pittz: If you’re a liberal and you care about freedom, sometimes I think social forces are just too strong, but I would at least say if you’re a free spirit today, and you’re worried about, let’s say non‐​free spirits who are running politics maybe on both sides of the aisle, and illiberal forces on both sides of the aisle, which seems to be more and more what we have now in the United States.

44:39 Steven Pittz: It is not a satisfactory answer, but maybe the best thing you can do is retain the tradition, maintain your own spiritual force and spiritual independence by not engaging. And if you see in the book, this is a big part of what I write about with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hermann Hesse, Goethe, all of these people were surrounded with political conditions that they were asking them, they were prodding them, they were pushing them towards engaging more intensely in politics.

45:11 Steven Pittz: And they all knew there was a huge price to pay to do it if they did do that, which means their inner life and their spiritual freedom would be harmed, if not eliminated. And that’s a more general rule of painting with a broader brush, I guess I would say. Liberals today, maybe it’s a time to sit on the sidelines a little bit, maybe it’s a time to cede that political space.

45:36 Steven Pittz: Make sure that you can be as persuasive as possible when conditions change, to come back in and say, “This liberal project never died, and its promise was always there and its promise continues in the future,” etcetera, etcetera. But I think there’s gonna be times when liberalism, and in particular free‐​spiritedness, are just no match for the social forces that are out there.

46:05 Trevor Burrus: One of the consequences of the Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening in the United States has been observed, when you have the liberal principle of no state involvement with religion or established church, free exercise of religion, you create something like a free market in religion.

46:22 Trevor Burrus: And therefore you get this bubbling up of religious entrepreneurs, so to speak, providing different spiritual services to different people, and no overarching religion that everyone has to be a part of. And so, as people have argued, which I think correctly, this means that you had greater religious fervor in the United States because they were not offering a one‐​size‐​fits‐​all religion solution.

46:45 Trevor Burrus: It kinda sounds like in some sense, this is similar to your argument about the free spirit, even outside of the religious context, that liberalism creates, essentially if you do it correctly, it creates a burgeoning free market of people and ideas, and people who come up with new ways of being and new ways of thinking, and that overall is beneficial to human well‐​being. Is that an accurate characterization, you think, of your thesis?

47:13 Steven Pittz: Yeah, I do think so. I do think so. And that’s also a pretty accurate characterization of Mill’s position as well, about energetic and strong individuals, and they need to have more, to get to truth and to get to freedom, just to have more experience in living, more people doing different things, more voices out there. Yeah, so I think that’s a very fair characterization. Yes.

47:38 Trevor Burrus: And so in that regard, if you look at the world today and say, “Alright, free spirits, everyone doesn’t have to be a free spirit, but you should support the ability of other people to be free spirits and not override their preferences and choices by pursuing illiberalism,” is I guess, maybe the moral of the story?

48:00 Steven Pittz: Certainly one of the morals of the story. Yeah, I would agree with that. And one thing that I do towards the end of the book is talk about liberalism as being able… This is against the progressives and communitarians who wanna tell us that all of our meaning and all of our spiritual life should happen in the community and in public in a sense.

48:19 Steven Pittz: You know, I’m saying, look, liberalism and freedom of association can accommodate those who would like to join groups of any sort to pursue their spiritual goals, but liberalism can also accommodate this free‐​spirited individual as well, and I think that’s its great strength. And yeah, so I think that pretty much answers or goes along with what you’re saying. And that’s a very, very important takeaway from the book.


49:01 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.