The Lie of Free Thought by Jacob McAuley

Not long ago, I watched a video in which an eight-year-old girl professed to evangelical atheist Christopher Hitchens that she believed herself a  ‘free-thinker.’ I nearly wept at the tragedy. It felt as if I were watching a train that had just been set in motion, full of innocence people conversing gaily while unaware their track was heading toward a cliff, and myself too far away too help. When I remember the innocence of children, I consider the effects of damaging philosophies and philosophers with even more gravity; I often spend some time mediating on millstones. The lie of this modern philosophy entitled ‘Freethought’1  is twofold: it is neither free, nor is it thought. G.K. Chesterton appropriately labels this sort of thinking “the suicide of thought.”2  At this point, it seems best to define the notion I have portrayed so heinously; Free Thought is “thought unrestrained by deference to authority, tradition, or established belief.”3  By definition it is a contradiction in terms: the venerable tradition of human logic is accepted despite tradition having been rejected. That said, I hope to show that it is much worse than a mere contradiction: it is obliteration.

In the rhetoric of Free Thought adherents, there is a sense of heroism. They speak as if they are pioneers leading men out of an archaic captivity. Suited to their name, freethinkers, they act like one freeing men from subjugation, specifically subjugation to irrationality. The problem lies in that, in the denial of ‘authority, tradition, and established belief,’ one’s ‘freedom’ allows him or her to think all sorts of ruinous thoughts; this is the exact thing that authority, tradition, and established belief have often sought to truly liberate the thinkers from. As Chesterton declares, “there is a thought that stops all thought.”4  For instance, when one begins to question whether human thought can ever be valid, one has rendered all thought inconsequential. They have forbidden the commonsense of old, the practical, good sense that we can think. When this is castoff, it is only a matter of time before they discard common-reason, too. For this reason, I say it neither entails freedom nor thought, for one cannot have free-thought when one is unable to first think.

Tradition has kept us from insanity. Our forefathers have taught that we can think. To destroy us, they only had to utter one thing in our ears as children: “question everything.”5  Thankfully, most of us have had parents who gave us a foundation, whether or not misguided, a foundation nonetheless. The freethinkers deny Solomon’s wisdom and have subsequently rejected their fathers’ instruction and forsaken their mother’s teaching.6  In an effort to be freethinkers, they open their mind so infinitely that they are unable to close it again on anything solid.7  Thus they begin at the finish line: the end of thought. “This suicide of thought” transpires, and in attempt for freedom, one is left decapitated.

Not only is thought sacrificed, and consequently beheading occurs, likewise universal morality is forfeited, and accordingly men are “without chests”8  (i.e. they suffer the loss of their hearts). Universal virtue falls under the category of both tradition and of established belief as well as having been taught by authority for millenniums. For a discussion of this, I turn to one of my first loves, C.S. Lewis. In The Abolition of Man, he argues that when traditional values are eradicated, all foundation for ethics absolves. He calls traditional values, “the Tao.”  When moral philosophies contrary to the Tao are closely observed, they can be seen to be simply “fragments from the Tao itself.”9  Lewis gives the example of an extreme nationalist10  (something we see in America, still); they hold that their people’s betterment ought to necessitate greater attention than that of all other people’s. They borrow from the Tao the virtue in caring for their kin, but in neglecting all other people, they impose an innovation. And Lewis questions exactly what should be inquired, “whence comes the Innovator’s authority to pick and choose?”11  The Tao is a foundation. It is an age-old tradition. It is not a conclusion one arrives at, but a premise by which right thought can flourish. Like the subject of Logic, when one axiom is rejected, all logic is rejected. Therefore in the freethinkers’ overthrow of the poor souls who lived before them, they lose any foundation for morality.

The predicament of the freethinker can be compared to the boy who found himself on a frozen pond. Bothered by the ice that he could only see as cold, rigid, and dead, he began to strike it with his boot. After much effort, his desire was satisfied: the ice broke. With his base gone, he fell in and began to drown. Thankfully, a stranger, who did not think it ill to impose his will to save the boy, fished him out of the pond. The point being, our forefathers have felt that limitations, especially ones that keep us from intellectual and moral death, liberate. For worthy reason their teaching remains. Tradition is like a piece of architecture that does not fall easily. Some buildings stand the test of time because they have never been attacked, and others because they have been skillfully built. Thus we must never disregard the long-standing established beliefs simply because they are such. If we do so, we may miss the fortification that protects both commonsense and common-morality. The freethinker who wanders past this edifice, into the ‘freedom’ of the wilderness, will end dissolute, in a desert lacking both logic and morality, without head or heart. If Chesterton and Lewis are correct, to spot a freethinker, one must simply look for a person missing both a head and a chest.

Further Reading:

• Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York: John Lane Company, 1908. Particularly the chapters entitled “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought;” these chapters, and this book as a whole, were exceedingly instrumental in helping me form my thought on this article’s subject.

• Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001. This was my first introduction in defense of traditional morality and I highly recommend it. If you would like to know more about C.S. Lewis’ idea of the Tao, read the chapter entitled “The Way”.

• Plato. The Republic. Trans. Tom Griffith. Edit. G.R.F. Ferrari. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Specifically book 8, where he discusses a democratic people whose excessive desire for no restraint leads to their demise.

End Notes

1. Also called “Freethinking”

2. Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York: John Lane Company, 1908. 52. Print. 

3. http://www.dictionary.reference.com/

4. Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York: John Lane Company, 1908. 58. Print.

5. Somewhat ironically, to me, this is the slogan of the Science Channel (http://science.discovery.com/). I cannot imagine one’s boss at a professional lab would appreciate that attitude. 

6. Proverbs 1:18

7. Chesterton, G.K. On Tremendous Trifles London: Hesperus Press, 2009. Print.

8. Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001. Print.

9. Ibid., 44

10. Ibid., 42

11. Ibid., 43

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