In The Soul of the Marionette John Gray draws together the religious, philosophic, and fantastical traditions that question the very idea of human freedom.
A puppet has no will of its own
A puppet may seem the embodiment of a lack of freedom. Whether moved by a hidden man or pulled about by strings, a puppet has no will of its own. All of its movements are directed by the will of another–a human being who has decided what the puppet will do. Entirely controlled by a mind outside itself, a puppet has no choice in how it lives.
This would be an unbearable situation, if it were not for the fact that a puppet is an inanimate object. For Heinrich Von Kleist, on the other hand, puppets represented a kind of freedom that human beings would never achieve.
In modern thinking freedom is not much more than a relationship between human beings. Freedom in this sense may come in a number of varieties.
There is the freedom that consists in an absence of human obstacles to doing what you want or may come to want, sometimes called negative freedom; the kind that implies not just an absence of impediments, but acting as a rational human being would act; and the sort that you exercise when you are member of a community or a state that determines how it will be governed.
For Kleist and others who have thought like him, however, freedom is not simply a relationship between human beings: it is, above all, a state of the soul in which conflict has been left behind.
Many people today hold to a Gnostic view of things without realizing the fact. Believing that human beings can be fully understood in the terms of scientific materialism, they reject any idea of free will. But they cannot give up hope of being masters of their destiny. So they have come to believe that science will somehow enable the human mind to escape the limitations that shape its natural condition. Throughout much of the world, and particularly in western countries, the Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can posses has become the predominant religion.
Whether ancient or modern, Gnosticism turns on two articles of faith
First there is the conviction that humans are sparks of consciousness confined in the material world. The Gnostics did not deny that order existed in the world; but they viewed this order as a manifestation of evil to which they refused to submit. For them the creator was at best a blunderer, negligent or forgetful of the world it had fashioned, and possibly senile, mad or long dead; it was a minor insubordinate and malevolent demiurge that ruled the world. Trapped in a dark cosmos, human beings were kept in submission by a trance-like ignorance of their true situation.
Here we come to the second formative idea: humans can escape this slavery by acquiring a special kind of knowledge, and for Gnostics knowledge is the key to freedom.