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The Truth Shall Set You Free

In René Descartes’s philosophical declaration, “I Think Therefore I Am,” Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Bet,” and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the relationship between freedom and enslavement is characterized differently depending on the degrees of pessimism the author has regarding human nature.

The first vision of freedom and enslavement is found in René Descartes’ Cogito, Ergo Sum: “I Think Therefore I Am.” In his famous philosophical meditations, Descartes tries to find epistemic certainty by discovering that which cannot be doubted: “I thought … I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt.” Descartes goes about this endeavor by relying completely on his own reason and setting aside any former prejudices. However, Descartes supplies no explanation as to why he trusts only in his own reason in order to find the truth. He eventually comes to the conclusion that the only thing he is unable to doubt is his own existence. He cannot distrust that he exists because he is able to doubt that he exists: “I think therefore I am, Cogito ergo sum.” But how does this verdict help to uncover the truth? By coming to these conclusions, Descartes is enslaving himself to his own reason rather than setting himself free, and far from attaining an objective point of reference, he is bound by a prejudice against prejudice.

A second depiction of freedom and enslavement is found in Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Bet.” In the story, the main characters, a banker and a lawyer, have contrary views as to what constitutes freedom and enslavement. For the banker, freedom represents wealth, health, and opportunities to experience the pleasures life has to offer. When the lawyer voluntarily decides to spend fifteen years alone in a desolate hovel, the banker says: “But you are losing three or four of the best years of your life.” The banker believes that the lawyer is losing his freedom by confining himself to a life without earthly pleasures. Fifteen years later, when the banker’s health has deteriorated and he is without money or opportunities, he feels lost. The banker had thought that his fortune–what the philosopher Aristotle would call an “apparent good,” a thing we want as opposed to a thing we need–would bring him happiness and freedom. However, rather than bringing him happiness, his desire for earthly goods has enslaved him. At first, the lawyer agrees with the banker regarding freedom and enslavement, but after spending fifteen years alone studying the gospel and other great works of literature, the lawyer has a different opinion. Through his reading, he learns that worldly pleasures such as health and fortune are fleeting, later declaring to the banker in a letter that “I despise freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.” Here, the lawyer expresses his contempt for the banker’s worldly idea of freedom. The lawyer believes that freedom and happiness are found in the acquisition of real goods, goods that last, the only sort of possessions that can bring true happiness.

A third view of freedom and enslavement is posited by Plato in his “Allegory of the Cave.” In his famous allegory, Plato asks us to imagine several prisoners held captive in a cave all their lives, unaware and ignorant of the outside world. Eventually, someone arrives to free one of the prisoners; the prisoner, however, is unwilling to be released because he is frightened to realize that the world is different than he imagined it to be. Thus, the prisoner prefers his ignorance to the truth because it seems safer to him, and Plato asks us to consider: “Don’t you suppose he’d be at a loss and believe that what was seen before is truer than what is now shown?” Because he will not make the difficult journey on his own, someone must drag the prisoner out of the cave and force him to see the truth, thereby freeing him both physically and mentally from his bondage. The prisoner’s unwillingness to be set free seems to imply that human nature tends towards self-tyranny, and that Plato has a pessimistic view of humanity's desire for true freedom.

In Descartes’ “I Think Therefore I Am,” Chekhov’s “The Bet,” and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the relationship between freedom and enslavement is depicted differently. Descartes remained enslaved to the confines of his own mind. The lawyer was set free by realizing the importance of real goods, while the banker remained attached to the apparent goods he prized. The prisoner in Plato’s allegory is eventually set free of his delusion, but only by force.

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