Archive for 3 December 2011

What’s Freedom For? (Part III)

[Updated 1 July 2020]

[Part 1 | 2 | 3 ]

More freedom – can I handle it?  Can there be too much freedom?  I don’t mean lack of restraint – I mean freedom. Is there a difference?  What is it?

In his baccalaureate address at Earlham College from about a quarter-century ago (1987), philosophy professor Peter Suber distinguishes among several freedoms:

There are many kinds of freedom. I do not wish to speak about all of them, or to give the impression that all of them reduce to one type. There is political liberty, or the freedom from coercion by public power. There is the political freedom of enfranchisement, or the distribution of public power through the vote. There is freedom as independence, or freedom from the power and opinions of others, which tends to reinforce and isolate individuality. There is freedom from pain, hunger, cold, illness, violence, and ignorance: a freedom that can only be purchased by institutions that limit independence and liberty. There is the freedom to enjoy one’s time or friends in peace, which requires cooperation more than independence for, as James Branch Cabell said, you can live at peace only as long as your neighbor chooses. There are freedoms, then, that individuals claim against communities and freedoms that only communities can create for their members.

These are freedoms of the body, and they’re vital.  Without them, our lives reduce to an animal struggle, below the level of anything one calls civilization.  Think of films like The Road or any of a growing number of post-apocalypse films and novels over the past century.  Without some basic physical freedoms, it’s true, we’re too occupied with survival to accomplish much else.  They’re some version of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But they’re also necessary without being sufficient.  There are further freedoms we eventually learn we need with an almost instinctive bodily hunger.  Without them we’re malnourished.

A neighborhood elm — free in autumn

Suber goes on to make an important observation about kinds of freedom from a different perspective, one sometimes downplayed or ignored in current discussion of rights and freedoms.

“A distinction first made explicit by Kant is that between positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from —from coercion, constraint, compulsion. Positive freedom is freedom to —to guide oneself from within without taking one’s rule from outside, to be one’s own master and legislator.”

Negative freedom is the kind of freedom many people seem to mean, if they talk about freedom at all.  It’s the kind of freedom that libertarians typically build their platforms around.  However, one kind doesn’t automatically guarantee the other will arrive with the burgers and the beer, so we can all party.  As Suber notes,

“Kierkegaard seems to have been the first to notice that one can attain negative without positive freedom. One can cut oneself loose from enslaving influences and yet have developed no internal or home-grown sources of guidance at all. Kierkegaard in fact finds this state, beyond negative freedom and short of positive freedom, to be a recurring predicament for human beings in the modern world. He calls it hovering, to be free from everything, hence to have no basis for the choices one is then free to make; to be independent but empty.”

“A basis for the choices one is free to make.”  Now we’re getting a little closer to what freedom is for.  And I’m setting the stage for one kind of freedom we’ve neglected so far and Suber at first seems to leave out.  This is spiritual freedom.  The word “spiritual” gets bitch-slapped around a lot, so let me explain what I mean here.  When people are centered on “a path with heart,” they can endure remarkable physical setbacks and obstacles and still achieve their goals, or die trying without feeling they have failed.  Throw them in jail, torture them, exile them, they just keep rolling and rising back up, like the old 70s “weebles wobble but they won’t fall down” ads.  Think Gandhi, think Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, think any number of freedom fighters, rebels (whether we like their politics or not), ornery patriots, and similar cussedly independent folks.  There’s an integrity to their choices we can admire, even if the choices themselves happen to be abhorrent to us.

Yes, we can call to mind great spiritual heroes — some of them end up as founders of religions – but we have examples closer to home.  Most of us know, or know about, people who are “survivors.”  They get ill, they go broke, their families desert them, business goes bad, marriages fail, kids land in jail — but they bounce back.  They have what an older generation called “inner resources.”  We don’t hear about those kinds of resources much, maybe because we don’t have them much in evidence.  But the seeds of them are still in us (and seem to emerge most often in hardship).  The rest of the time they just make us restless, usually because we’re often living less than authentically.  Face it, I get lazy when my life is easy.  I want things to stay the same, which they almost always resolutely, infuriatingly, refuse to do.  Like they’re refusing to do right now in the West, not to mention many other parts of the world.

What is needed, then, is the judgment to decide what to do with the freedoms we already have, and Suber proceeds to examine what that kind of judgment looks like.

A surprising test for freedom of judgment, in fact, is whether complexity overpowers, intimidates, and defeats us, or challenges, arouses, and incites us to comprehend it. In our spiritual apprenticeship complexity prevents us from feeling our power or wanting to control our own fate. We are happy to learn more first. Freedom before this point is merely self-assertion without the foundation of judgment needed for making choices. But as Hobbes said, if he spent his life reading books by other people, he’d never know more than they did. When we emerge from this dependency into our own freedom it is because we are ready to direct ourselves and make the decisions that this requires.

Bald Eagle — flight as freedom

So are we really free in the U.S. right now?  Ignore for a moment whatever your local conspiracy theorist or naysayer or grumpy partisan has to say.  The vast majority of Americans have food and shelter.  Most of us have a car, won’t get stopped at state borders, and so have freedom of movement (if we can afford the gas).  We have freedom from pain and suffering to a larger degree than any other time in history, with all the painkillers and routine buffers from the hard corners of reality that our heated and air-conditioned and work-saving-device-crammed houses and cars and buses and planes can provide.  Most Americans live better and longer than medieval kings and queens, with a vast array of entertainments at our command.

Are we free?  Material things are enjoyable — you don’t see me volunteering to give mine up just yet — but they can’t help us “emerge from this dependency into our own freedom … because we are ready to direct ourselves and make the decisions that this requires.”  When our things get threatened, we complain out of a supposed “freedom” that is “merely self-assertion without the foundation of judgment needed for making choices.”  We have the freedom to complain and criticize.  But where is the judgment for the choices and changes we need to make?

There is one more factor I want to consider.  I mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi earlier, the Myanmar freedom fighter and legally elected official confined to house arrest for years.  One of her most famous speeches is her “Freedom From Fear” speech, which begins: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”  This is one of the last great “unfreedoms” we face.  Think how much fear there is in headlines, on talk shows, in the news, in people’s faces.  Suber observes:

The larger kinds of unfreedom abroad in the world and within … are not affected in the slightest until people who recognize them as unfreedom rouse themselves to challenge them.

Religions aren’t always up to the job of helping people wake up and “recognize unfreedoms,” either.  I’m including Druidry here along with the rest.  One problem with Christianity (to pick on a religion I know and which has had longer to make an impact) is that it has defined freedom theologically and thus very narrowly.  That is, until I am saved, I am a slave to sin and subject to its penalties of wasted chances and dissatisfaction and emptiness, and ultimately to damnation.  After I am saved by the substitutionary atonement of Christ, who died in my place and paid the price for sin that otherwise I would have had to pay myself, I am free from the penalties of sin, and therefore able to go to heaven at death.  But I am no more free immediately after salvation than I was before from the responsibility of judgment, and the consequences of my own and others’ bad and good judgments.  My dissatisfaction with Christianity isn’t that it doesn’t save people; it’s that it seems to transform too few of them into better versions of themselves.  Where’s the “new creature” promised in the New Testament?  A saved jackass or a damned jackass is still a jackass.  Salvation may get you to heaven, but we have to live with you till then.

To offer you any kind of definitive “answer” to what freedom is for is to promote an unfreedom.  I’m working closer to my own answers, but you need to find your own.  Suber acknowledges this:

To take one’s judgments from others is exactly the unfreedom to be avoided. To negate the judgments of others, without more, takes one just as directly to dependency and enslavement, though by a path that is one step longer. To judge by standards that one finds inescapable is still bad faith, for one has chosen to adhere to them, and is not taking responsibility for that choice. To recognize that we are responsible for all our judgments, including our standards of judgment, is the beginning of positive freedom and self-direction. Then we will recognize that all the noisy certitudes of the world are not primarily candidates for truth but appeals to our judgment.

That is, all these supposed “certitudes” are jumping up and down, waving flags, cheering and whistling and shouting and saying to us, “Here I am.  What do you think?” rather than “Here I am. Do what I tell you.”

For me, more and more I find as the years pass, freedom is for loving more.  Nothing else matches up, noting else offers the challenge and delight and fulfillment.  It’s life-long.  I’m most loving of myself and others when I’m free, and — paradoxically? — I’m most free when I’m loving.  What’s freedom for in your life?

/|\ /|\ /|\

Eagle image credit

%d bloggers like this: