Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 23, No. 1, 2024
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Jason McDonald
  Contributing Editors
Louis René Beres
David Solway
Nick Catalano
Don Dewey
Chris Barry
Howard Richler
Gary Olson
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editor
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
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Chantal Levesque
Emanuel Pordes
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Mark Kingwell
Charles Tayler
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Human war has been the most successful
of our cultural traditions.
Robert Ardrey


Just how free are we? The short answer has to be unprecedentedly free since we are the only species on the planet capable of exercising freedom of choice. However, we duly note, as it concerns the most important event of our lives – where we are born – we do not choose the place that provides the grid for the political, economic and cultural environment in which we are raised. So on the one hand, it is Sir William’s good fortune to be born into plenty in England, while the luck of the draw has Ravi being born in a squatter’s colony in the outskirts of Delhi. Thus speaks the luck of the draw.

Determinism, the doctrine that argues that all human action is underwritten by causes external to human will, collapses in the real world where human transaction consists in having to choose on matters large and small, from the number of children we want to the kinds of food we consume, and in our leisure time, choosing to read a novel instead of watching the Gong Show, or deciding to play poker instead of tennis. And yet according to a Scientific American survey up to 40% of the surveyed respondents believe in determinism.

Eighteenth century thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau, from the famous opening lines of The Social Contract (1762) writes: "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau was referring to modern man who, for the sake of a more orderly and secure existence, forwent the happiness and freedom he experienced in the state nature. The chains in Rousseau’s opening salvo accuse our systems of governance which, with our consent, restrain our desires and behaviour. As Rousseau would have it, we are free to choose to be less free.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that Rousseau had only scratched the surface of what he believed was man’s schizophrenic relationship with the concept of freedom and free will. In 1882, based on the observable repetitions in human history, he introduced (The Gay Science, 1881) the notion of “the eternal recurrence of the same,” inferring that Rousseau’s infamous chains fail to identify what is untameable in the human spirit, and that the constants in human history force the conclusion that the artificial constraints man imposes (government places on the individual) on his behaviour are powerless against human nature – and thus the recurrence of the same, in particular, territorial conflicts.

In Civilization and its Discontents (1929), Freud sides with Rousseau and concludes that man’s innate aggressivity (bellicosity) is hamstrung by his institutions and their statutes and laws which renders him unhappy and neurotic. He then proposes that the individual resorts to three means to temporarily relieve himself of his neurosis: through distraction (attending a sporting event, game-playing etc.), sublimation through the arts (especially music but also painting and writing), and intoxication (a favourite drink and/or drug of the day). But Freud forgot to mention the biggie, to what Nietzsche alludes in the previous paragraph in the formulation of “the eternal recurrence of the same.” What we learn from history is that war -- that immaculate constant among the constant turnover of human populations -- has been the prime mover of history, and that all wars, ideology notwithstanding, are territorial. Since the faculty of choice is the man’s distinguishing attribute/feature, prior to every war ever waged, he could have chosen not to wage it. Which begs the question: in light of the fact that there has always been a next war, what does the condition of war satisfy such that choosing not to go to war has zero purchase?

Of the 3,400 years of human history, only 268 of them have been peaceful. According to Wikipedia, there have been 10,624 battles in the history of mankind. Another source (Conway W. Henderson) estimates that 14,500 wars have taken place between 3500 BC and the late 20th century, costing 3.5 billion lives, leaving only 300 years of peace.

In the modern era, to qualify as a legitimate war, a minimum of a 1000 lives must be lost. So not included in the already bloated (indictable, shameful) stats are the thousands, if not tens of thousands of massacres and mini pogroms (when a tribe eliminates every man, woman, child of another tribe) that haven’t been registered in the ever-expanding book of the massacred. And while the numbers vary according to the source, there can be no doubting of man’s unrelenting and apparently unreformable bellicosity. Not unlike the sweet tooth, war is in the bloodstream and it speaks through every generation; and what every generation must learn anew is that we don’t learn what history teaches: that civilization, its elegant laws and heavy-handed injunctions, is no match against the imperatives of human nature.

So how free are we? In respect to the most recent conflagrations the whole world is watching 24/7, turning us all into unwitting participants in the war of the ratings, did Hamas choose to invade Israel, did Putin choose to invade Ukraine or are they simply instruments of desires and passions over which they have no control, which would mean they are not free, a notion, a viewpoint no leader would truck? Which is why, without exception, all wars are preceded by an elaborate rationale used to justify what human nature bids. “For the sake of the people” is the favourite alibi of tyrants observes Albert Camus.

In African Genesis, Robert Ardrey proposes that “We are the sons of Cain,” the killer of Abel. And from The Territorial Imperative, “What could not be denied was that in vast segments of the animal world natural selection of the most qualified individuals took place not by competition for females but by competition for space.” Both references speak to the supremacy of human nature -- our intransigent combativeness and lust for territory -- and the minor role of reason when push comes to shove.

That all modern nations enshrine free choice but apparently cannot choose not to go to war, must surely constitute one of the great contradictions, antinomies of the species. We convince ourselves (self-propagandize) that reason, which appeals to ideology, is calling the shots, when in fact reason’s role is strictly servile, playing second fiddle to human nature. Has there ever been a war that has not been waged over territory?

It seems that in respect to the relatively inconsequential aspects of our lives, choosing one film genre over another, one food over another, a classic over a detective novel, we are in fact free: we are making a choice. But as it concerns the major events in our lives, the majority of them are not subject to human willing. Yes, a mother can refuse to suckle her new born but as a practical matter, her behaviour is pre-determined. Yes, to a certain extent, depending on proclivity and talent, the individual can choose a career among several options, but in respect to the various pyramids of life he finds himself in (corporate, athletic) he doesn’t choose to want to excel, to fight his way to the top, to want to succeed, be admired and respected.

If we are to qualify to what extent or degree we are free, it must always be in consideration of the activity or pursuit. Certain aspects of our behaviour are genetically determined (defending personal property) while others are strictly subject to environmental pressures (fashion).

Human beings are territorial and there is no circumventing or squashing the gene sequence that prefigures it. So we need not ask if there will come a time when the next war won’t be waged. Not a chance in hell, which just happens to be the place man has been creating and inhabiting for as long as he has been king of the beasts. And as history tells it, when man has been away from the hells of his own making for too long, he begins to feel decomposed, out of sorts, which is why every generation has to get its territorial war out of its system. During our lifetime, we’ll be either involved in or be following at least three major wars.

I remember as a kid growing up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan wanting to be a professional baseball player. But I wasn’t good at it. If most of us end up doing what we are good at, or not doing what we do poorly, how free are we? Are gifted people free or hostage to their exceptional abilities? In those rare instance where vocation and avocation are in perfect alignment, it can be argued that these very fortunate individuals would have chosen their career had it not been (genetically) chosen for them. But for most of us, we end up doing what we are good at whether we like it or not, and this is especially true of people who aren’t good at anything, who can be bent into any serviceable shape in respect to the many mundane tasks required of orderly community life (waste disposal, green space upkeep, snow removal etc).

But however hostage we are in respect to human nature, we can to an uncertain extent reach out into those domains where we are not free, and through the power of mind (reason), develop our mental faculties such that powers once strictly subject to human nature can be subject to human willing. Freedom isn’t a fixed category or quantity; some people are more naturally disposed to exercising freedom of choice, others work it harder.

Freedom and choice can be taught and cultivated, and when the reasons we provide conform to human values that everyone can embrace (choosing to eat healthy; to resolve differences through debate over violence), we need not succumb to the neurosis predicted by Freud, nor the next lethal conflict. However, we must distinguish between self-imposed individual and societal restrictions and these same restrictions imposed from without. If human willing is to prevail and endure in situations normally ruled by human nature, the pedagogy upon which that transcendental outcome is scaffolded must be allowed to evolve and articulate its mission as well as its limits. And like learning a new language, the younger the young are exposed to the challenges of developing their faculties of choice, of developing both a philosophical and practical understanding of what it means to exercise freedom, the more likely the adult will be poised to choose wisely as it concerns his community and nation.

Freedom is not merely an acquisition through happenstance. Being free to choose is a faculty that has to fine-tuned in order to serve time-tested traditions and life-affirming values that are constantly evolving.




also by Robert J. Lewis:


Meditation on Anger

To Birth a New Religion

Entertainment Addiction

Descent into Language Barbarism
Who Owns the Moon?

Why Do We Daydream

Argument & Disagreement

Smashing the God Particle

The Decline of Reading

In Praise of Useless Activities

When Sex Became Dirty
Blood Meridian: (McCarthy): An Appreciation

Trump & Authencity

Language, Aim & Fire

One Hand Clapping: The Zen Koan Hoax

Human Nature: King of the Hill

The Trouble with Darwin
The Life & Death of Anthony Bourdain
Denying Identity and Natural Law
The Cares versus the Care-nots
Elon Musk: Brilliant but Wrong
As the Corporation Feasts, the Earth Festers
Flirting & Consequences
Breaking Bonds
Oscar Wilde and the Birth of Cool
The Big
Deconstructing Skin Colour
To Party - Parting Ways with Consciousness
Comedy - Constant Craving
Choosing Gender
Becoming Our Opposites
Broken Feather's Last Stand

Abstract Art or Artifice II
Old People
Beware the Cherry-Picker
Once Were Animal
Islam is Smarter Than the West
Islam Divided by Two
Pedophiling Innocence
Grappling with Revenge
Hit Me With That Music
The Sinking of the Friendship
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene










Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


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