Steven Pittz, assistant professor of political science, teaches, researches and writes on political philosophy, international relations and American government. His research focuses primarily on political liberalism and status of spiritual freedom in modern liberal societies.
Most recently, Pittz authored “Recovering the Liberal Spirit: Nietzsche, Individuality and Spiritual Freedom,” published by SUNY Press in 2020.
Pittz answered seven questions on the new book, which draws on Nietzsche and his figure of the “free spirit” to examine whether liberalism is, as critics often argue, a spiritually empty tradition – or whether it in truth contains an element of individual freedom best described as spiritual.
1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
Liberalism is often castigated for being spiritually empty and unable to provide meaning for individuals. Is it true that there simply is no spiritual side to liberalism?
Drawing from Nietzsche and his figure of the “free spirit,” as well as from thinkers as varied as Mill, Emerson, Goethe, Hesse, C. S. Lewis, and Tocqueville, I examine a tradition of individual freedom best described as spiritual. Spiritual freedom is an often overlooked category of the liberal freedom we have established in the West, and it provides a path to meaning without a return to communal or traditional life. Moreover, citizens who are “free spirits” deliver great benefits to liberal democracies, primarily by combatting dogmatism and fanaticism and the putative authority of public opinion.
2. How did you get the idea for your project?
I have always felt that our discussions about individual freedom focus a bit too much on political and economic freedoms, and not enough on our spiritual life. I was working in that direction when I came across Nietzsche’s writings on the “free spirit”, and the project began to take shape from there.
3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process?
Of course, I think anytime you work on a project big enough to eventually become a book, you will go down paths you didn’t foresee. I learned going through the process that it’s important to follow some of these paths to see where they lead.
4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
Currently, I am exploring the idea of wonder as a sort of unbeliever’s faith. In other words, I think that the experience of wonder is akin to the experience of faith that believers have. I also think that this conclusion is relevant to our modern, secular political regimes. I’m trying to explain why in my current book project.
5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?
I work best first thing in the morning. Before I had kids, I would spend two to three hours every morning thinking and writing, before I checked my email or got caught up in or distracted by anything else. It was a great routine, and I would highly recommend it. With two young kids that get up 6 a.m., that is no longer possible. So I guess you can say I am trying to create a new routine now.
6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?
“How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws and kings can cause or cure.”
– Oliver Goldsmith, “The Traveller” (1764)
7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?
Lots, but the relevance of wonder to our politics and spiritual life is the one I’m most concerned with at the moment.
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