Only God is Free

The other day I was listening to Stravinsky’s neo-Classical opera A Rake’s Progress (a morality tale based on a series of paintings by William Hogarth, with libretto by W. H. Auden), and I was struck by a very apt illustration of the notion of free will.

In this scene, Tom Rakewell and Nick (the devil, who is intent on leading Tom into ruin and stealing his soul) discuss true freedom.

Nick: (handing Tom the broadsheet [advertising Baba the Turk]) Do you know this lady?

Tom: Baba the Turk! I have not visited Saint Giles Fair as yet. They say that brave warriors who never flinched at the sound of musketry have swooned after a mere glimpse of her. Is such a thing possible in Nature?

Nick: Two noted physicians have sworn that she is no imposter. Would you go see her?…

Tom: Would you see me turned to stone?

Nick: Do you desire her?

Tom: Like the gout, or the falling sickness.

Nick: Are you obliged to her?

Tom: Heaven forbid!

Nick: Then marry her.

Tom: Have you taken leave of your senses?

Nick: I was never saner. Come master, observe the host of mankind. How are they? Wretched. Why? Because they are not free. Why? Because the giddy multitude are driven by the unpredictable Must of their pleasures and the sober few are bound by the inflexible Ought of their duty, between which slaveries there is nothing to choose. Would you be happy? Then learn to act freely. Would you act freely? Then learn to ignore those twin tyrants of appetite and conscience. Therefore I counsel you, Master — Take Baba the Turk to wife. Consider her picture once more, and as you do so reflect upon my words.

…For he alone, for he alone is free / Who chooses what to will, and wills / His choice as destiny. / No eye his future can foretell, / No law his past explain / Whom neither Passion may compel, / Nor Reason can restrain.

I find it interesting to read this through a Calvinist lens, noting how this demonstrates the “wretched” (depraved) bondage of our will, by highlighting the absurdity of trying to escape that bondage sheerly through will. It’s also interesting to reflect on how our bounded freedom contrasts with God’s free freedom, for it is indeed true to say of God that “for he alone, for he alone is free; [for he] chooses what to will, and wills his choice as destiny” (see WCF 3.1 “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass”). Compare also “whom neither Passion may compel” with WCF 2.1 God is without “passions”.

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3 Responses to Only God is Free

  1. Matt says:

    Great stuff. The “Must (capitalized) of their pleasures”.

  2. RubeRad says:

    Yes, Auden breaks into two categories what I think applies variously for all of us; we are all of us sometimes giddy, driven by the Must of our pleasures, and sometimes sober, bound by the inflexible Ought of our duty. Only the Gospel secures for us victory over the Law (i.e. “those twin tyrants of appetite and conscience”) — I wonder whether Auden understood that? I”m going to listen to this lecture to try to find out!

  3. Matt says:

    Yes the Gospel is thee greatest news ever. And as you say, the active obedience of Christ, no chance without it.

    I’m sick to myself when I lay my head down every night rummaging through the innumerable piles of sins and the Musts of pleasures (and the failure of Oughts of duty – those sins of omission) commited throughout the day in thought, word and deed; but then simulaneously my heart weeps and aches in joy, sometimes I get tears, knowing Christ did what I could never do and really reflecting on the guilt, grace and gratitude. I daily gotta remind myself I’m free to not sin.

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