The concepts of human freedom and radical questioning in the works of Plato, René Descartes, and Albert Camus

Essay, 2015

8 Pages, Grade: 1,3


The concepts of human freedom and radical questioning in the works of Plato, René Descartes, and Albert Camus

The human freedom and the human capability to reflect about the circumstances of our existence are phenomenons that have puzzled philosophers, anthropologists and other scientists alike, since we can think. Over the course of history, especially the art of philosophy has seen many great thinkers reflecting on the nature of human freedom: Three of them – Plato, René Descartes, and Albert Camus – are the material on which this paper will retrace the development of the interpretation of human freedom. In doing so, it is very important to, first of all, define how Plato, Descartes, and Camus saw human freedom. After that, we can have a look at the key differences that are – or maybe are not – findable when comparing Plato's “Republic”1 and Descartes' “Meditations on First Philosophy”2, as well as when comparing Descartes' work and Camus' “The Myth of Sisyphus”3. The goal of this analysis is to examine how the conception of human freedom changed from Plato over Descartes to Camus. This is crucial to completing the third and last part of this paper. That will be determining which thinker was most thoroughly committed to the radical questioning of things, that we nowadays hold to be the core value of philosophy. However, the goal of this paper is not to determine, who was the “best” philosopher, but rather to show how different their conceptions of human freedom and the human capacity to ask questions truly were.

Plato's understanding of human freedom: political freedom as the enemy of a good individual and a good society

In Plato's philosophy, humans are not equally well equipped in terms of their mental capacity to make morally and practically sound decisions. Plato starts with the assertion (that sounds logical, even to modern thinkers) that every human being has a specified talent and should therefore be assigned to a specific job.4 This logically leads him to the conclusion that there can only be certain people that are capable of ruling5. According to Plato's statement, not every citizen, but precisely only those who are fit to ruling, are capable of leading the society, and thus every individual, towards “the good”6. But what is the good? This question is probably too complex to answer in barely one page, but regarding our main question, we can work with the following explanation: Plato argues that there is a fundamentally good principle in the universe that gives sense and an order to life. He compares it to the sun that sheds light on the world, making it possible to see everything that is important7: “Furthermore, you also know that the masses believe pleasure to be the good, while the more refined believe it to be knowledge.”8 Knowing everything that is good is knowing the good itself9, and vice versa. This definition of the good is so important, because it shows us what Plato thinks about freedom: In theory, everybody is free to chose a profession, to vote for one party or another, to do one thing or another, etc. According to Plato, these 'free' decisions are all motivated by the desire to get “the good”10. But because the ordinary farmer or shoemaker or soldier, etc. does not know what is good for him11, a society relies on philosophers to lead it towards the good (or to make good decisions for it): the philosopher's job is to determine what is good for everybody. This becomes clear when we have a quick concluding look at Plato's thoughts on democracy:

Well, in the first place, aren't they free? And isn't the city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And isn't there license in it to do whatever one wants? […] And it would, it seems, be a pleasant constitution – lacking rulers but not complexity, and assigning a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.12

Philosophical freedom can only exist when true philosophers (those who know what is good) rule a society and prevent everybody else from making false decisions and enslaving themselves to what they believe is good, but what is in reality only their lowest desires.

René Descartes' understanding of human freedom: free will as a precondition to philosophical thinking:

Contrary to Plato, René Descartes does not see freedom as the achievement of philosophers, but rather as the necessary prerequisite to doing philosophy in the first place. But we will have a look on the exact comparison in the second part of the paper. For Descartes, the real question is not what is “the good”, but rather whether we can possibly ever find out about it. In order to find out, whether our hitherto accumulated knowledge maps on to an external reality, Descartes starts by clearing his head off any idea that could be false – he looks for a foundation to build his philosophy on, by doubting every idea that is not entirely self-evident.13 However, Descartes can be certain of the existence of at least one (entirely self-evident) entity: “[...] I must finally conclude and maintain that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true every time that I pronounce it or conceive it in my mind.”14 Even if nothing else is real – the thinking substance, called “I”, must exist, because thinking requires existence. Subsequently, Descartes concludes that we can also not doubt our ideas of corporeal things (we can only doubt whether they exist beyond the mind)15. So, he divides the world into minds (entities that think) and bodies (entities that occupy space)16. He goes on and claims that the existence of God – or an “infinite substance, eternal, immutable, independent, omniscient, omnipotent”17 that created him and everything else that may exist – would also imply the existence of bodies.18 Following from that, God stood in the beginning of a long and everlasting chain of causes and consequences, that (again) build the cause for the next consequence, etc. This applies to the bodies and makes up the main distinction between minds and bodies: While bodies rely on an external cause to move, the actions of the mind are determined by its free will.19 In this respect, the mind is equal to God20, the cause of (also philosophical) ideas is the human capacity to have a free and creative will.

Albert Camus' understanding of human freedom: freedom as the meed for a thorough philosophical inquiry

For Albert Camus, as for Plato, there are also two different ways of interpreting human freedom: There is the freedom that everybody has to chose between options, to do/think/refuse/etc. one thing or another, and then there is the “Absurd freedom”21, that is in his view the only kind of true freedom. What does he mean by that? By freedom, Camus obviously (again) refers to the human capability of choosing between options. But the word absurd has a surprising meaning here: The absurd (or rather the absurdity of life) results from the human need to find a meaning in life and the universe's constant silence facing those human questions22. Camus does not ask, what the meaning of life is, or whether we can possibly know it – he wants to know how “to live without appeal”23 - without a meaning in life. According to Albert Camus, the only way of overcoming the Absurdity of life is to be defiant towards it, to revolt24. The individual that has truly overcome the Absurd lives according to the motto “now more than ever”. And from this results the Camusian “Absurd freedom”: Because the individual can see no sense in life, it can literally do whatever it wants – as long as it is willing to take the full responsibility for its actions (as there is no more sense in life, there can also be no external justifications). And as there are no external motivations – religions, ideologies, politics, etc. - the individual can live only according to its very own innermost motivations. For Camus, this is pure freedom: “One of the only coherent [that is to mean honest towards oneself, not rejecting what you already know is true: the Absurd] philosophical positions is thus revolt. […] That revolt gives life its value.”25

Differences and similarities in the three thinkers' views of human freedom:

Plato and René Descartes:

So far, we have seen that all three philosophers, Plato, Descartes, and Camus, acknowl- edge the human capacity to chose between multiple options. What distinguishes these thinkers from one another is, whether they call this “freedom”. This becomes especially clear, when we compare what Plato asserted to what René Descartes said. Plato acknowledges – as already stated – the human (political) freedom to chose26. But he does not see it as true freedom, because there is no free will! According to Plato, political freedom inevitably leads to chaos: When a human being is free to pursue whichever desire it wants to pursue, the weaker humans chose to fulfill their lower desires27, thus enslaving themselves to always satisfy their hunger for more and ultimately going insane. Only those who know the good know whether any desire is contained by the “form of the good”28: Hence, they have to constrain the lowest desires of the weak, in order to lead them to the good.29 For Plato, there can only be freedom in knowing the good and pursuing one of its elements.

René Descartes came over thousand years later and was confronted with the legacy of this antique philosophy – which is why he decided to start anew. Contrary to Plato, Descartes does not admit any corrupting force to the free will. Decisions can be false, but only because of our imperfect knowledge30, that may cause us to draw false conclusions. But, according to Descartes, we are equal to God in our free will:

[...] our free will consists only in the fact that in affirming or denying, pursuing or avoiding the things suggested by the understanding, we behave in such a way that we do not feel that any external force [like Plato's 'lowest desires'] has constrained us in our decision.31

Following this, we can see the clear confrontation between Plato's unfree (because philosophically not capable to live freely) lower classes and Descartes' claim that the minds have a free and uncorrupted will, and thus are free.

René Descartes and Albert Camus:

Regarding Descartes' and Camus' perspectives on human freedom, one can already tell that there is no real fundamental difference between them. Descartes insists, on the uncorrupted and God-like human free will. Albert Camus does not really oppose this. According to him, humans can only constrain themselves. Unlike Plato, who diagnosed an unfree mind to weaker humans, Camus shows us that humans have the capability and possibility to become the “Absurd man”32. Descartes and Camus both share with us the modern notion of the free will, that humans can do what they want. The only minor difference is that Camus sees the rejection of all totalitarian religions or ideologies (be it Christianity, Communism, or a radical faith in science) as a necessary precondition to stripping off all external motivations or constraints and to making adequate use of that free will.

Now that we had a detailed look on the conceptions of human freedom and free will that the three thinkers postulate, and how the may (or may not) differ from each other, it is time to address the following question:

Which conception of freedom is the biggest commitment to the radical questioning that we hold to be the core value of philosophy?

Before we tackle the question, it might be worthwhile to pause for a moment and reflect on what the question is actually asking for. By “the biggest commitment to radical questioning” we could understand two things: Firstly, which philosopher is committed the most to radical questioning? As this question is not related to the philosophers conception of human freedom, it is obviously not what the question above is referring to. But we could also interpret it this way: Which philosopher does best inspire radical questioning in other people? If we give this question a moment to unfold, we see that it must be what the question above meant. The more thorough the conception of human freedom is, the greater should also be the call to people to question the sense and functionality of their surroundings.

When we then put the question this way, it becomes fairly obvious that Plato is not inspiring people to pose questions. He instead claims that the majority of people is not fit to question. They would rely on philosophers to free them from their lower desires. Any attempt to do philosophy on their own would result in chaos – as would the philosopher's attempt to run a farm.

As we progress, it should become clear that also Albert Camus does not really inspire us to question. Now this statement might come rather surprising, because Camus does warn his reader not to be seduced by any easy-to-comprehend ideologies or religions that want to tell people what to do (after all, the book was written in the 1940s). This obviously requires some questioning. However, his method to overcome the absurdity of life – to revolt and be defiant – is just a recommendation to live one's life as pleasantly as possible, while it lasts (as beautiful as he may put it). He might as well have said: “If you find pleasure in doing philosophy – go ahead and do philosophy! But don't expect to get definite and clear answers for your burning questions. Otherwise you'll get 'undermined'33.” If everybody followed Albert Camus most radically, philosophy would become irrelevant: If the absurdity of life can not be resolved, why should we continue to ask questions, when we could have a good time instead?

After considering Plato and Camus, only René Descartes remains to examine. Descartes sees the human free will – and thus human freedom – as the basic human quality. He encourages us to find out how things work as they do34, and why they work as they do. After all, Descartes laid the foundations for modern science by his mechanistic philosophy: the distinction between minds (of which we know how they work) and bodies (of which we should find our, how they work), as well as his cause-and-consequence theory encouraged many scientists to question established opinions in their particular fields and laid the foundation for the epistemology. Although modern science widely refuted Descartes' assertions about God, he shows us the essence of philosophy: asking questions and inspiring answers without fearing those answers.



1 Plato, Republic, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis, USA: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2004).

2 René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Laurence J. Lafleur (New Jersey, USA: PrenticeHall Inc., 1997).

3 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus: And other Essays (New York, USA: Vintage International, 1991).

4 Plato, Republic, 370a+b.

5 He explains this in his so-called "noble lie" (Ibid., 414c) – a metaphor to explain weaker minds Plato's reasoning: "Although all of you in the city are brothers [...] when the god was forming you, he mixed gold into those of you who are capable of ruling, which is why they are most honorable; silver into the auxiliaries; and iron and bronze into the farmers and craftsmen. [...] the first and greatest command from the god to the rulers is that there is nothing they must guard better [...] than the mixture of metals in the souls of their offspring." See Plato, Republic, 415a-c.

6 Ibid., 504e.

7 Ibid., 504e-509a.

8 Ibid., 505b5.

9 Or as Plato would says: the "form of the good". See Plato, Republic, 509a.

10 Ibid., 505b.

11 It is good to have a look at Plato's Analogy of the divided line here: Ordinary people are not capable of understanding more than mere beliefs. See Plato, Republic, 511b.

12 Ibid., 557b5-558c.

13 In detail, Descartes says: "Everything which I have thus far accepted as entirely true and assumed has been acquired by the senses. But I have learned by experience that these senses sometimes mislead me, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those things which have once deceived us." See Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 18.

14 Ibid., p. 24.

15 Ibid., p. 29f.

16 Ibid., p. 30.

17 Ibid., p. 43.

18 Descartes claims that God must exist for a number of reasons. The most important reason however, is that the humand mind would not be perfect enough to account for the idea of a perfect God. In detail, he says that a perfect idea can not be caused by an imperfect mind. For a more thorough explanation, see Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 44-46.

19 Ibid., p. 68ff.

20 Only our limited options to pursue our will differentiate us from God, see Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 55.

21 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 51.

22 Ibid., p. 15.

23 Ibid., p. 53.

24 Ibid., p. 54f.

25 Ibid.

26 Once again, it is helpful to consider Plato's description of democracy. See Plato, Republic, 557b5-558c.

27 See Plato's description of the tyrant for more details: Plato, Republic, 571a-576e.

28 Ibid., 505b.

29 This is illustrated in Plato's allegory of the cave: the non-enlightened prisoners in the cave, who worship mere shadows of forms (equal to illusions in the real world) rely on the more refined to free them, and bring them to the outside world. See Plato, Republic, 514a-520e.

30 Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 55.

31 Ibid.

32 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 66.

33 Ibid., p. 4.

34 Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 67f.

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The concepts of human freedom and radical questioning in the works of Plato, René Descartes, and Albert Camus
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Ulrich Roschitsch (Author), 2015, The concepts of human freedom and radical questioning in the works of Plato, René Descartes, and Albert Camus, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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