Wisdom in the Comics
A recent comic strip by Hector D. Cantu and Carlos Castellanos starts today’s conversation. It quotes the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke and expresses the fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, as Burke suggests here, 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. It connotes the absence of restraints. And taken to the extreme, negative freedom is chaos — “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.
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 choices. 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 prevarication 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 last week.
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 this election.
I wrote some time back that November 8th would be a test to see if our democracy would survive in some form loosely resembling the ideal the founders had envisioned. And given that their ideal was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are further away from that ideal than we were before this election took place. Our system of government will soon be in the hands of a thin-skinned 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. Hang on to your seats, my fellow citizens, we are in for a rough ride.