You Might Not Be As Free As You Think: On the Meaning and Illusion of Freedom in Society

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Freedom is one of those terms that has infiltrated our daily language, and not surprisingly so since we live in a nation that prides itself on being the “land of the free”.  On many occasions, you might hear someone retaliate with a “we’re in America, this is a free country” when confronted for a perceived or real contentious act.  Freedom is one of those concepts you hear everywhere; from pop culture using it to justify a life of debauchery in lyrics like “…because we’re young and wild and free” to academics in the ivory tower premising their political theories with an idea on what it, in fact, means to be “free”. Freedom is one of those ideas with which we are all familiar, it is a given that we all just know what it means in our society, and it is simple, right? It is a great perk here, so great that some of us wish to export it overseas to places where it might be lacking – where the people might be in bondage.  Oh, but if freedom was as simple as 1) not being chained and 2) being able to do what you want, would it be such a quagmire of metaphysical proportions in some circles? And this is where I start asking you: are you free? What does freedom mean to you? Have you considered the thought of an illusory form of freedom? What, precisely, is the reality?

            Let us first get the simple stuff out of the way by revisiting freedom as we know it. Listed in the introductory paragraph is the freedom one enjoys in not being in chains. This is freedom from restraint; it is physical freedom, the freedom to move from one place to another, it is the freedom you enjoy when you are not incarcerated or held in captivity against your will. Some political philosophers call it “negative freedom” or “freedom from” to distinguish it from “positive freedom” or “freedom to”.  What, then, is positive freedom you say? The importance of positive freedom becomes somewhat clear when you think of a man who is completely physically unrestrained and dying of dehydration in a vast desert. That is, while this man is free from bondage, there are limits to what he can do. Namely, he is not free TO do much to appease his thirst though he is free FROM physical restraints. You can also think of a slave who just got his freedom FROM a master but is not in reality free TO do much else with that newly gained “freedom” in a society where opportunities are scant for people of his roots.

            The conception of freedom as the ability to move through space in time, as ownership of yourself, etc…is a no-brainer today; we are enlightened enough today to know that it is a universal good.  Therefore, what should be building an empire in our grey matter right now is this idea of freedom as being able to do whatever we want. It is this belief that so long as no one is getting hurt (this is about to sound a lot like JSM, John Stuart Mill), you are free to do as you please. You can smoke your cigarettes around non-smokers so long as second-hand smoking is not a myth.  In essence, it is that luxury of freedom which only ends when it is an impediment on that of your neighbors.

YET, sometimes that freedom to do whatever you want might just be the very temptress that seduces you into a lifetime of imprisonment. A proverbial cage masquerading as “freedom” might just be your condemnation. When you are living so “young, wild and free” to the point that you cannot resist the urge miss out on an eventful night (FOMO anyone?), you are not free. You are not exercising your freedom when something or someone other than you is controlling you.  You are not free if you cannot let your strongest desires go unfulfilled. Doing what you want is as much an indicator of your freedom as it is of your captivity. Abused freedom can become addiction and your liberty…well, a casualty.

Most of us is guilty of abusing that form of freedom; in a developed society, with so much access, with so many stimuli in the air, with so many temptations, with pop culture, and even with some progressive intellectuals justifying our behaviors, who could resist the urge to go wild sometimes (because we can!)? You see, that is why I admire priests, nuns, monks, or anyone who might be adhering to a lifestyle of that nature. I believe it takes an immense amount of self-control, which to me is authentic freedom, to turn your back on the worldly – on the world of lowest pleasures and most carnal desires. How do you say no to instincts? How do you deny what the body wants? How do you defy chemistry and biology? The answer is in true freedom.

Roger Scruton, a favorite of mine in conservative philosophy, derived from some of the musings of the great Hegel (my mannnn), and asserted that “freedom has obedience as its price”. It is so antithetical to the rebellious teenager’s—or a good portion of America’s, really—views of freedom, yet gospel to a great degree. You will thank Scruton later when freedom as “I do what I want” pushes you into a corner where you cannot do anything at all. When you bow down, when you obey certain values, when you obey certain principles, when you obey certain institutions, when you obey the rules and laws, you are not always conceding your precious freedom.  Au contraire, in so doing, sometimes you are saying that you are strong and mature enough to resist that which is outside of you that may want to hold you in its claws.  Sometimes it is simply admitting that you cannot handle all that freedom, so your parents, your institutions, your superiors, etc…know better from experience or what have you, and may help you cultivate what it truly means to be FREE.  To be free is to be in control, and sometimes that means going directly against exactly what you want to do…because you, sir or madam, are no slave to your passion…no slave of desire. 

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