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 “hasty, 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.



A Thin Veneer


“Alas then, is man’s civilization only a wrappage through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever?”

Thomas Carlyle

In order to answer the question whether our civilization is weakening, threatening to crumble under the weight of indifference, self-interest, and greed, one might well reflect upon the condition of ordinary citizens during times of great stress. Beneath the shiny surface of civilization, our language, religion, laws, science, history, art, and manners, there burbles a cauldron of potential turmoil.  Freud was one of the few who could look into the abyss without flinching. But no one listens to him any more: he’s a “dead, white, European, male.”

Another dead, white, European male, Thucydides, wrote about the revolution in Corcyra during the lengthy Peloponnesian War many years ago. For the time, that revolution set the standard for kinds of atrocities and the cruelty that humans are capable of once the veneer of civilization is scraped off. As Thucydides tells us, revolutions and civil wars transform ordinary people into something quite extraordinary:

” In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and proves to be a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. . . .[During that revolution] reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; the ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . such [transformations] as occurred [will] always occur as long as nature of mankind remains the same.”

But it took a writer like Thomas Carlyle to fully describe the atrocities that men and women are capable of when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away. In his monumental study of the French Revolution Carlyle tells us of the countless cruelties that human beings can inflict on one another.  As he has noted, “there are depths in man that go the length of lowest Hell as there are heights that reach highest Heaven.” He describes at length the depths. In a massacre at Nanci during that terrible war, for example, he tells of the slaughter of 130 men, women, and babes in arms by the “Patriots” in expressing their distrust and even hatred of the nobility. There followed the infamous “September Massacre” in Paris involving over a thousand men and women followed by countless hangings and decapitations, including Regicide. At Arras mothers were forced to stand and watch “while the Guillotine devours their children.”  Blood flowed in the streets, bodies were piled up everywhere and stank as the flies feasted. Carlyle describes the aftermath of the attack on the Tuileries early in the revolution:

“A hundred and eighty bodies of Swiss [ who sought to protect the royal family] lie piled there, naked, unremoved till the second day. Patriotism has torn their red coats into snips and marches with them at Pike’s point: the ghastly bare corpses lie there under the sun and under the stars; the curious of both sexes crowding to look.  . . . Above a hundred carts, heaped with the dead, fare toward the cemetery of Saint-Medeleine . . . . It is one of those carnage-fields, such as you read by the name of “Glorious Victory,” brought home in this case to one’s own door.”

Echoing the words of Thucydides, Carlyle describes what the chaos surrounding revolutions does to nations and individuals:

“Very frightful it is when a nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations . . . must now seek its wild way through the New Chaotic — where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Unbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated — in that domain of what is called the Passions. . . . Horrible the hour when man’s soul, in its paroxysm, spurns asunder the barriers and rules, and shows what dens and depths are in it!”

The point of all this is to aid us in understanding the thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted and which is so easily peeled away during times of crisis, when law and order disappear and chaos is embraced in the name of liberty. We must pause as we look around today and see the gradual deterioration of respect for law (in many cases deserved), the call to arms brought about by the terror that has been turned loose in our churches and schools, the fear that seems to dictate action, and the tendency of each to claim the “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do without any regard for the “rights” of others to whom we once insisted we have responsibilities.

As Carlyle notes in passing, “without good morals Liberty is impossible.” And yet so many today insist that “good morals” are a fiction, that ethics and morality are simply a matter of personal opinion and gut feelings. The moral high ground disappeared with the death of Martin Luther King, some might say. So we arm ourselves and we demand the freedom to do whatever we want without restraint. And to assure us of this liberty we elect a clown whose only claim to the highest office in this country was his promise to provide his followers with unlimited liberty to do as they want, without the interference of governments and restraints of any kind.

Surely, as we face the prospect of all citizens, including teachers of the young, arming themselves out of the very real fear of sudden terror and total chaos, the handwriting is on the wall: we must consider the possibility that we are at present witnessing the birth of a new barbarism. Civilization which is above all else the will to live in common is all but withering away –unless we refuse to allow it to happen!

Carlyle worried that the revolutionary spirit would infect the English where there were thousands of disenfranchised people, downtrodden and poor, and a government that had lost the trust of the citizens. England avoided that revolution for a number of reasons, but it remains a possibility not only for that country but for any country that wallows in fear and hatred, insists that freedom viewed as the absence of restraint is a paramount value, and ignores the poor — where bloated politicians promise everyone that complete freedom and prosperity are theirs for the asking when, in fact, there cannot be any as long as those who hold the purse strings keep them tied tight and we hate and fear one another.


Freedom Revisited

Once again, dear readers, I give you a  tid-bit from past blogs that will be included in my upcoming book! Enjoy!!

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 Isiah Berlin, positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose the cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties of cereals. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes the absence of restraints. And 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.
And that suggests the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom, the freedom the liberal arts are concerned with, 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 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 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 at them, huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their opponents and the power-brokers. 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 restraints and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who happened to win the election.
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 who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. 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.