Educate” derives from the Latin educare, “to lead out.” All education promises an exodus from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge. All education proclaims liberty to captives. The question is, whose slavery? Whose freedom?
We cannot answer by defining slavery as “whatever inhibits my will” nor freedom as “the power to do whatever I like.” Such absolutist notions of freedom are self-contradictory. If freedom is limited by anything beyond individual will and desire, then freedom is no longer absolute. But desire is itself a limit. When I hunger or thirst, I seek particular satisfactions—food and drink. Sexual desire impels toward sexual gratification. Desires can be diverted, repressed, masked, but they retain the same teleological structure. Desire is ordered to ends, tethered to a telos. “Freedom to do whatever I desire” shatters this structure. It leaves desire end-less.
The Russian poet, Vera Pavlova, concisely expresses my point about freedom and desire in an arresting poem. In a translation by her husband, Steven Seymour, she writes:
I am in love, hence free to live
by heart, to improvise caresses.
A soul is light when full,
heavy when vacuous.
My soul is light. She is not afraid
to dance the agony alone,
for I was born wearing your shirt,
will come from the dead with that shirt on.
Pavlova begins by linking being to freedom: “I am . . . hence free,” but she doesn’t suggest a Rousseauian natural freedom. A specific experience links being and freedom: love. The translation neatly captures the connection with the alliterative “in love . . . to live.” Contrary to cynics of all ages, Pavlova insists that love need not be bondage, but can liberate. Liberated by love, she is free to live “by heart” and to “improvise caresses.” Her spontaneity isn’t spontaneous, but a byproduct of love.
As the poem continues, “heart” modulates into “soul,” and the poet introduces a paradox of soul and body. Full bodies are heavy, empty bodies light. Souls, by contrast, are not weighed down by being full; rather, the fuller they are, the lighter, airier, and more ethereal they become. Love lightens the soul, freeing it to live by heart, while a loveless soul is as heavy and earthbound as a full body. Even the prospect of death and separation doesn’t weigh down the lover’s soul. Death will leave one or the other in a solo dance, but the soul that loves in the face of death remains light and free. Love will bring her from the dead wearing her lover’s shirt.
This seems constraining, but Pavlova insists it’s the opposite. Desire is liberating not in spite of its fixity but because of its fixity. “Follow your heart” is paralyzing advice to someone whose eyes are dazzled by every passing beauty, whose vacuous soul is blown about by every Twitter notice. Living by heart is freeing only for someone whose heart is already taken. Lovers alone are free to act spontaneously without any danger that spontaneity will collapse into absolute freedom.
At base, Pavlova sees love as liberating because she doesn’t count her lover as a constraint on her freedom, as an apologist for absolute freedom might do. Of course, some loves do enslave. Some lovers are sadistic abusers. But, Rousseau to the contrary, society doesn’t have to manufacture chains.
The beloved other can be a vehicle for freedom, an opportunity to spin off fresh verbal and bodily expressions of love.
We’re in Augustinian territory now, where the key is to order our desires rightly, to direct our loves at lovable things, things that deserve our fixed love. From this Augustinian perspective, education is genuinely liberal—education for freedom—only if it’s willing to train desires, conducting students out of the Egypt of self-love to embrace proper objects of love. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. Education is treasure hunting. It’s learning where to place your heart, seeking those treasures that lighten the soul.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.