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.

 

Freud’s Take On Civilization

In a number of my blog posts I have made much of the importance of doing whatever we can to preserve Western civilization. And this at a time when the word “civilization” has come under fire. We have become aware in recent years that so-called “civilized” peoples have committed all manner of atrocities against so-called “uncivilized” or “barbaric” peoples — many of whom are superior in a great many ways to the civilized people who look down on them and seek to colonize and exploit them. This is true, of course. But there is much more to be said on the subject that has been ignored in our tizzy to right past wrongs, and, despite its shortcomings and the greed and avarice of so many of its leaders, civilization is highly desirable and preferable to its alternative in which lives, as Thomas Hobbes said, are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

No one has studied the strengths and weaknesses of civilization more carefully than Sigmiund Freud who defines it in the following way:

“. . . the word ‘civilization’ describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes — namely, to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.”

Now, as Freud is quick to point out, in “adjusting” our mutual relations with other humans in civilized society we pay a price. We give up many of our freedoms and we develop various neuroses. It would appear that our animal ancestors, and presumably more primitive people, are happier than we are because they have greater freedom. They have no “hang-ups” as we would now say. But this is something of a fiction, as Freud goes on to point out, because in primitive cultures only the men at the top — and certainly no women — have all the power and the rest of the society simply does as it is told. And there are numerous tribal taboos. So the freedom that a few may have is bought at a price paid by the majority of the rest of the culture. Civilized men and women, on the other hand, not only lose their freedom, they have many “discontents” to live with. We pay a price.

In the end, Freud suggests, the price may be well worth paying. There are three major benefits from civilization that are stressed in Freud’s excellent book Civilization and Its Discontents. There is, to begin with, the development of character. Without social restraints and the need to accommodate one another persons would not develop character. We find this in children who, when allowed to behave in any manner they wish, suffer character flaws. Unlike neuroses, character flaws cannot be corrected through therapy: they are permanent. These people are spoiled and unable to undertake and finish difficult projects. They wander aimlessly through life with no apparent purpose or goal.

This brings us to the second benefit of civilization, which is what Freud calls “sublimation,” borrowing a word from Nietzsche. This word means the ability to restrain ourselves and redirect the energy that would otherwise express itself in aggression toward others and channel it into creative outlets. As Freud says in this regard,

“Sublimation of instinct is an  especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life.”

In a word, by sublimating what he called the “cathexis” of energy that would otherwise be spent needlessly or even violently, civilization, for all its faults, makes it possible for humans to create and grow intellectually and emotionally, to create and invent.

And this brings us to the third benefit of being civilized persons, and that is the suppression of “powerful instincts” that would otherwise result in violence toward our fellow humans. As history has shown, and which we are finding out for ourselves of late, this benefit has not been fully realized. Humans, even in so-called civilized societies, are still given to rage and the release of aggressive instincts toward their fellows. But, Freud would insist, this release of impulse is of lesser extent in civilized societies than in primitive ones since law enforcement helps to restrain aggressive impulses. What we are finding out is that law and order are less effective than we might hope and as increasing numbers of people become armed with deadly weapons and numbers of those pledged to enforce the laws break them resulting in increasing disrespect for law itself we can look forward to even greater violence in the future. As Freud would have it, civilization is a battle between the impulse toward happiness (pleasure) and the aggressive instinct. In his words,

“This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species.”

In the end, there are discontents in civilization, to be sure. But there are benefits that help to humanize us. As we lose those benefits we become less human, more like “our animal ancestors.” This is why I point to such things as the loss of good manners which, in itself, seems trivial, but is in fact, together with the growing disrespect for the law and those pledged to enforce the law, a sign that the ties of civilization are loosening and we are slipping back into a more primitive way of life — the life of our “animal ancestors.” Surely, this is something to be aware of and to seek to avoid.