Some of you will have read this post from two years ago. But I thought it especially relevant in light of the last post I passed along which takes “radical liberals” to task for going too far in their enthusiasm for freedom. I suspect many of them have not thought about what freedom is. Above all else, it requires restraint. I have expanded the discussion quite bit. I felt free to do so.
Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.
There are two sorts of freedom according to the philosopher Isiah Berlin: positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose any cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes, simply, the absence of restraints. But taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.” Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos. In the political arena it is law that makes freedom possible, as John Locke noted many years ago.
And that leaves the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied, or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.
One of the winning cards that was played in the most recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but somehow making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed about; they huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their political opponents and the power-brokers. All in the name of “freedom.” And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.
But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness,” because there is no suggestion that it will allow for restraint and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the din caused by the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who demand more and more freedom.
Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue at present who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. “Restraint” is not in his vocabulary. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.
Hugh, your last paragraph speaks volumes. “True freedom requires wisdom and restraint.” My freedoms must not infringe on yours and vice-versa. That is lost on people, especially with the Religious Freedom laws that want to give someone the right to unfairly discriminate. Keith
It’s part of the “me..me..me” phenomenon. Many folks don’t turn on their headlights when it is evening because they can see. It never occurs to them that perhaps they cannot be seen. My freedom counts. Yours does not. And we have completely lost sight of the fact that rights and freedom imply responsibilities. I have rights only if I acknowledge my responsibility to recognize your rights.
Hugh, your headlights example is excellent. Keith
And as we now know, the election of that magalomaniac (misspelling intentional) has indeed led to “folly, vice, and madness”. And the full fury has yet to be felt. Those who yearned for that ‘freedom’ are still waiting eagerly, but will awaken one morning to realize that the freedom they thought they were buying is not what is was cracked up to be. I second what Keith said … my freedoms end when they infringe on another’s. Wisdom and restraint seem to be sorely lacking in this country and in others these days. We will pay a high price.
Folly, Vice, and Madness, indeed. And the full fury yet to be felt. That’s a sobering thought.
Isn’t it, though? Now you see why I ‘sigh’ so much.
Hang in there. Keep your stick on the ice — as Red Green reminds us!
Burke lived in a world uncomplicated by the vicious outcomes of Capitalism and Party Politics, mostly, NOT such as America exemplifies today; so he is no Authority on anything relevant today in that respect. His virtues are long dead, whatever their virtue. Frankly, I hate Historical Thinking that pretends to compare one Age to the Next. You have to live outside your own body to believe such things. That is, outside of Reality.