Monday 18 March 2019

The Idea of Freedom in the Modern World

By Simon Thomas

Soul Freedom Chained, by Khalil Gibran

Freedom is a magnificent idea, yet it is much misunderstood. Some claim freedom in the idea that you should be able to express yourself as you wish, without restraint (which is positive freedom).  It is the idea of mind over matter, reality over unreality, which has its roots in RenĂ© Descartes.

Descartes takes it further, noting that there is a materialistic type of freedom where you have the means to meet all your material needs (which is negative freedom). Maslow’s hierarchy gives us an idea of the needs concerned. If a person feels that their need for security, food, shelter, and some creature comforts are met, then they can live a satisfactory and contented life. It is true, therefore, that the fulfillment of such needs is a type of freedom.

However, that is only half the story. Jean Jacques Rousseau put it aptly when he said, ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ Rousseau‘s starting point is that man is inherently good, and therefore freedom is possible – provided he is not unduly restrained by unjust laws to protect the wealthy. Yet common sense, and experience of the modern world, seem to indicate the opposite of Rousseau's Utopian idea. It seems a fallacy that people are inherently good. If they were inherently good, they would not enforce their will on others, and thereby enslave them – in Rousseau’s terms, put them in chains.

Now there is another type of freedom, which is more a matter of the mind. Philosopher Richard Rorty said that what you put in your mind – which is, the way you interpret the world – that’s what there is. Therefore if you have a subservient mind-set, you cannot be free – regardless of the kind of liberty your accumulated wealth brings you. He continues by saying that the only true freedom we can enjoy is metaphysical in nature, because humanity cannot find lasting meaning purely in material needs being met.

This is exactly the mind-set we are contending with in society today – and does not to resound with previous generations. I have recently been talking to people who were children during World War 2. The mind-set out of that era was by and large, work hard, fight for liberty and justice, and accumulate wealth, no matter the personal cost to home and family. We have seen the effects of this unfold since the 1960s till the present time: rebellion against authority by younger generations, and ever increasing hostility against law and order.

Breaking free from law and order in society has never been a workable idea. Anarchy has never produced freedom. Instead, it has produced tyrants and addicts. Neil Postman, in his novel 'Entertaining ourselves to death', makes the point that our society has produced people with a mind-set which needs to be entertained all the time. Yet this produces addiction to visual media, harmful cravings for the next high, or more recently, cyber addiction.  Again, there is no freedom in that.

Related to this, the notion has become epidemic that having what you cannot normally afford will bring lasting satisfaction. Thus people get themselves into inordinate amounts of debt – and often, instead of freedom, it brings financial ruin. Having said this, however, it is not just a problem of the individual, but of nations. There is a huge debt bubble – which, while it caused the demise of some leading banks in 2008, was just cosmetically treated.

On point with these examples is that freedom in the Western world is a fallacy, because it is built on an idea that we are entitled to have whatever we want, regardless of how we get it – and regardless of those who are injured along the way.

Freedom, as Rorty said, is metaphysical in nature. A person can be in dire circumstances, yet still be free. The martyr Polycarp, of distant memory, said this to his persecutors when they demanded his freedom of religion: ‘You can take my life if you wish, my property if you want, but you cannot make me deny the faith that saved me.’

That is freedom. It is the grand idea that freedom is only attainable when you let go of the idea of materialistic happiness, and learn to be content in whatever circumstance you find yourself. As the sages of old often said, ‘Bloom where you are planted.’ In this is freedom: to be at peace with yourself.


Keith said...

Thank you, Simon, for much to reflect on here. I enjoyed your essay. Let me put into the mix just a few thoughts, if I may …

Regarding the last two paragraphs, I agree that many people become ‘at peace’ with life through their heartfelt religious faith. I wonder, however, if you’d agree that many other people do likewise — that is, become ‘at peace’ — through secularist convictions. Might they, in their own fashion, gain insight into and acquire satisfaction from such matters as purpose, self-worth, mission, community, benevolence, ethical persuasions, and so on? I suggest, therefore, that the means for attaining equanimity may be plural, not singular; and that, to the point, the means perhaps matter less than the ends.

In some respects, freedom may indeed be ‘metaphysical in nature’; I see such an aspect. Yet, I’d hesitate to discount the standing of humans’ more prosaic physical needs in freedom’s equation. How ‘free’, for example, are the billion or so people living off a dollar or two a day — where disease and hunger are rife, living conditions are squalid, child mortality spikes, environmental extremes prevail, and security is daily at risk due to social unrest? I suggest that such ‘dire circumstances’ may, distractingly, obstruct people from flourishing and enjoying unmitigated ‘freedom’. Might freedom, therefore, not be entirely ‘metaphysical’?

Martin Cohen said...

Isn't the choice not between anarchy as a vicious 'Hobbesian' world of competing interests, and 'law and order', b ut rather the kinds of laws and the type of order? The difference between societies in which the rules are arrived at via mechanisms of consent, and those in which they are imposed by brute force against people's wishes? As you say, there is a sense in which people are free if they simply accept the rules and never challenge them, but there is surely a superior freedom in those societies where at least in principle the rules can be challenged.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Keith adds some valuable perspective: freedom, or the experience of it, is not all metaphysical. At the same time, his answer looks a lot like the answer of Privilege. While he does acknowledge poverty, he writes that such poverty 'obstructs' people from the other kinds of freedom (negative and positive, in philosophical terms). The implication, it would seem, is that we should focus on the removal of the obstacle to 'unmitigated freedom'. If so, this is pie in the sky to people for whom it matters now. One could object that the acceptance of metaphysical freedom dulls one to the need for freedoms of the other kind, an opium of the masses. Yet one would need to assume then, too, that there is something else, or that something else is in the making. I myself live in a country where more than half the population live in poverty. They do not have anything else, and by and large, likely never will.

mylearningsimonthomas said...

Thank you Keith yes studying what the philosophers say about freedom has proved very challenging. I find myself then having to look at my own worldview. I think that faith cannot be tied strictly to religion. Even a secularist needs to believe in something even if it is only in their own abilities

Keith said...

“The implication . . . is that we should focus on the removal of the obstacle to ‘unmitigated freedom.’ ” Yes, Thomas, to a large extent I agree. The good-news side of the story is that there has been impressive progress toward those very ends — that is, measurable, meaningful improvement of people’s living conditions. The kind of distracting, soul-grinding conditions and multifarious consequences that, in my opinion, render ‘freedom’ a secondary good.

Without my getting into the alphabet soup of actual group names, many supranational organizations, national agencies, private institutions, and nongovernmental organizations have made great strides in ever-so-gradually mitigating disease and the manifold causes of poverty. (As well as headway on many other fronts, such as resistance to girls’ education, that hold back progress.) I would hesitate to label the principled efforts of these organizations as ‘the answer of Privilege’.

Just one data point among myriad: The World Bank estimates that what’s referred to as ‘extreme poverty’ has declined significantly in recent years. Other organizations back that up. A search on the Internet comes up with many other credible sources of information on the successes, thus far, in the contest to uproot endemic disease and extreme poverty. Much is being done, with tangible achievements: to my mind, not just lip service, not just ‘pie in the sky’. Who knows: Maybe these achievements will eventually reach a threshold and set freedom free.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It is still the 'pie in the sky' solution you speak about. What of people in the interim? May the optimism of so many tend to represent a comforter for themselves? The answer is in fact yes -- optimism has been shown to reduce care.

With regard to your 'good news story', the World Bank among others have a vested interest in the statistics. These are questioned. For instance, 55% of South Africa (my home country) is said to live in poverty. The World Bank says 19%. They may be 'systematically underestimating the extent of global poverty'.

Among my required reading at seminary in the USA was a book 'God of the empty-handed'. The class took it to refer to the poor, yet it was about their own empty-handedness -- an in-depth analysis of why the efforts of NGOs among others fail to solve the problem.

But the efforts of many is good, and helpful, and I myself have been engaged in them on some scale.

My reference to privilege is taken out of context.

Keith said...

‘Even a secularist needs to believe in something, even if it is only in their own abilities’. I would suggest, Simon, that what you describe here — the need to believe in something (minimally, a personal set of principles around matters of thought, intent, and behavior, perhaps) — is an intrinsic nature of human beings. It’s a thirst that’s arguably never fully quenched. As you say, believing in one’s ‘own abilities’ is a wholesome slice of this calculation. For secularists, however, that ‘something’ being sought typically isn’t anything ethereally transcendent.

There are probably as many flavors of secularism as there are secularists, so it’s impossible (unfair, even) to pretend to speak for them all. But perhaps one universal fundamental is ‘benevolence toward one’s fellow human beings (humanity)’, for its own sake — and how, quintessentially, to express those principles in particular ways, subscribing to matters of ethics, global community, responsibility, generosity, betterment, and much else.

Your essay, in its own way, points to much of this.

Tessa den Uyl said...

IMHO, freedom can only be achieved inward. Everything you perceive turns inward, and it is there, within the body you live, where the only freedom can happen.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I think, there is an assumption here? That we live in an imperfect world, which is inadequate to sustain us on its own?

Tessa den Uyl said...

We sustain the world from within ourselves, the only reference we have is our being, the body that gives raise to all perceptions you can experience. In this sense the whole world is within you. You generate what you live, it is created within the body through which you are. Nature makes us possible, but once we become we have to sustain the world. ( I am afraid this idea can be misread)

Keith said...

This is an interesting aspect you’re introducing, Tessa. Are you proposing that reality stems from perception, and is therefore an invention of the mind? Is the former what you mean by ‘the whole world is within you’? Does this model still in any way allow for an underlying, objective aspect to reality, even if subject to personal interpretative experience? Or is reality exclusively and totally a mental fabrication — bordering on an illusion — with no independent basis?

Tessa den Uyl said...

I wouldn’t say an invention, you are there, not? Objectivity can therefore exist within that thinking body. Though if obstructed with emotions and knowledge it cannot be objective. If the mind continues to believe in its mental constructs, then that is the big illusion. And how could such a mind be objective? It cannot but compare everything to constructions that the mind should overcome, i.e it should tempt to become aware that all is created within you, and you carry the whole world within therefore. First you have to live, then you can think. Though when you’re programmed to perceive in rigid codes one cannot see further, and you will not give space to use the mind in another way then you are used to. What happens in such case is repeating the same things. If this is the general mindset nothing will ever change. Freedom cannot come from anything but within the body that gives you form. This is where change happens, not at the U.N. or the world bank. ( For the moment).

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