Freedom: A Paradox

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my persistent attempts to understand the nature of human freedom. It seems such a simple concept one might well wonder why anyone would spend time trying to grasp it. But it a slippery notion and one not easy to understand fully. I dare say this  latest attempt will also leave questions. I do, however, note that the complaints folks have that they are not free because they can’t have what they want strike me as totally wrong-headed. This inspires me to forge ahead!

In  the end, it seems to me that freedom requires restraint, and with that paradox I shall begin. Complete freedom, complete absence of restraint, is not freedom at all. It is chaos. Those who scream loudest among us that they are not free because there things they want but cannot have are really demanding a life without restraints at all. What they want it chaos, but they don’t know it. If they did they should shut up. And the man who claims the top political office in this land would stop telling them that it is an unmitigated good thing and a thing that only he can deliver to them. But, then, that claim got him elected. So there you have it.

The point was driven home to me in reading Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution in which he noted the demand by the people of France for “freedom.” To be sure they wanted equality as well, but above all else, they wanted freedom. Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1860, realized that Americans who already had freedom preferred equality, that we would abandon our freedom completely as long as we had equality. God forbid that anyone might have more than I do! But the French people wanted Freedom. They lived in a Monarchy and among wealthy aristocrats who had everything. They had nothing. To make matters worse, they were the ones who had to pay the taxes while the wealthy were allowed to relax in the lap of luxury. Whenever it was suggested that perhaps the wealthy might bear some of the expense of running the ship of state they shouted “No!” and the tax burden was shifted back to the poor — who had little or no money. The results were predictable: the poor became sick and tired of bearing all of the weight of the political state on their backs and they rose up and initiated the “Reign of Terror” — the likes of which humans have seldom seen in their entire recorded history.

In any event, their notion of freedom, like that of a great many of the rest of us, simply meant the absence of restraints, the shifting of the burden of  taxation elsewhere — the ability to come and go as they pleased and to throw off the shackles of poverty and have it all. For a while they seemed to have succeeded, except that it brought with it the constant fear that they might be the next poor soul suspected of conspiring against the political body, sent to prison and there wait for their name to be called and their ghastly and untimely end to arrive. In any event, they achieved something like the freedom they craved but it brought with it the chaos of unrestrained terror. Because if I have complete freedom then so do you — and do I know if you can be trusted or whether, these days, you are carrying a weapon?

If an unruly crowd wants to take a rope tow to the top of a hill in order to ski down and there is no order at all, only complete freedom, there will be chaos. Without law and order we cannot expect to be free. It’s a quid pro quo.Without the willingness to give up some of our freedom we can only expect to be in something resembling what the eighteenth century philosophers imagined a “state of nature” to be — a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to live together with others we must restrain our impulses and allow that freedom cannot be absolute. John Locke saw the paradox and stated in no uncertain terms that freedom requires law and it requires order. We must all restrain ourselves in order to be truly free.



8 thoughts on “Freedom: A Paradox

  1. Freedoms taken away for The Many, but purchased back by wealth for The Few. Isn’t this a core parallel of the Federalist Papers? I may have missed the boat on the intent of your post…but I’m seeing a nugget of truth, nonetheless. We seem awfully close to a tipping point.

    • The Federalist Papers are full of warnings about the dangers of unfettered wealth and many colonies had laws against unrestrained greed. But that was then…..we now see the wealthy running the show and the rest of the population with its collective head buried in electronic toys!

  2. Excellent thoughts, my friend. My own take, typically, is that one man’s freedom extends only to the point right before his freedoms infringe on another’s. Or, to put it more bluntly, your freedom ends at the tip of my nose. The problem today is that we have a contingent in this nation who believe their own freedoms should be unlimited, and therefore other people (blacks, Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, LGBT) must be deemed inferior, so it is justifiable or acceptable to infringe on their freedoms. Very good post, my friend!

    • As I say, “unlimited freedom” is chaos. Those who demand it simply don’t know whereof they speak! But it is certainly the case that if I demand absolute freedom it means that someone else must loose theirs entirely. And it simplifies things considerably if I label others somehow in order to convince myself that they are not fully human. History has shown that we are very good at that sort of thing. We do it to promote our own agenda — whatever that happens to be at the moment.

      • Do you think we will ever come to the point where we can just all live together in peace and harmony, with no one person believing that he is somehow better and more entitled than another? I don’t see it … if it hasn’t happened yet, if we haven’t learned from our mistakes after thousands of years, I just don’t see it happening. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop striving for that goal, but I cannot see us ever reaching it.

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