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.

Uneasy Civilization

In 1929 Sigmund Freud wrote his famous and truly remarkable book Civilization and Its Discontents. The latter term, in German, is “Unbehagen,” which means, literally, “uneasiness.” In any event, Freud pointed out that civilization is bought at a price. He never suggested that the price was not worth paying, but those who followed him and had a much less penetrating insight into the trials and tribulations of civilized people decided that the price was not worth paying. Freud worried about repression and sublimation (which actually resulted in creative activity) whereas his acolytes preached that mental health consists in the absence of restraint in order to foster increased pleasure and “realizing one’s potential.”

What followed in this country within a decade or two was a plethora of pop-psychologists telling Americans that repression was a bad thing and the values that had created what we call “civilized society” were a sham. Following Nietzsche, they reduced virtues to values and then reduced values to subjective feelings. Gone were notions of hard work, diligence, courage, self-control, discipline, duty, and responsibility in the name of what was loosely regarded as emotional honesty, encouraging people to feel whatever they wanted to feel and eliminating inhibitions in an attempt to throw off the shackles of a restrictive culture. In the 1960s this movement bore the fruit of the hippy rebellion against “the Establishment” and the rejection in our universities of such things as history which was regarded as “irrelevant.”

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset told us some time ago that civilization is above all else the will to live in common. To the extent that we want to throw off the “shackles” of restraint and self-control and become fixated on our own self-improvement, we become more self-absorbed and less willing to preserve and protect what must be regarded as the remnants of civilization, the will to live in common and direct attention toward the common good. We worry less and less about others and regard them, for the most part, as avenues to or away from our own happiness. In the process our “lesser natures” are brought to the surface and the urges that were restrained are turned loose to wreak havoc on others around us. Recall that Freud never said that repression was a bad thing. It merely brought about an “uneasiness.” He would later call this “neurosis,” its clinical name. For Freud neuroses are treatable. Lack of character is not treatable: it is permanent.

Thus, we have inherited a view of human nature that is, in large measure, the result of a misreading of Freud and at the center of this view sits the figure of Donald Trump, the reductio ad absurdum of the “let it all hang out” mantra. He rails at the media for insisting that his alternative facts are complete lies and, lately, he rails against the court system that would restrain his hatred of culturally diverse peoples around the world — all in the name of saving this country from terrorism (which he is convinced only he can do). This man is the embodiment of the lack of restraint that has come to characterize this society in which civilization, as we know it, is in danger of withering away. He embodies the lack of restraint and “honesty” that increasing numbers of people have come to regard as the only prizes worth having. Welcome to the New Age of Barbarism with the King Barbarian at its head! Small wonder that he has so many devoted followers. Never say “no.”

I have sworn not to write about this man any more and in this post I am obviously breaking my promise to myself and a few others who care about such things. But I do believe it is necessary to point out that we have arrived at a new age in which the values that created civilization have all but disappeared and the green light has been given to our baser instincts to go forth and eradicate. With his narcissism, vulgarity, fractured language, bigotry, contempt for those who disagree with him, and his determination to strike out against any and all who might thwart his will, the man is a symbol, a token, the personification of the decaying core of a civilization he would help bring down about our very ears. He has nothing but contempt for those few among us who might urge restraint and self-control in the name of a willingness to live with others, a determination to protect and save civilization (not to mention the planet) — for all its “uneasiness.”