Freedom, real or illusion?

Freedom, a magnificent idea, but a much misunderstood principle. Some people claim freedom in the idea of being able to express yourself as you wish, without restraint.

This idea has its roots in René Descartes notion that freedom is a matter of mind over matter. Of reality over un-reality.

Descartes takes this even further, and says first you get a materialistic type of freedom where freedom means basically to have the means to meet all your material needs. This is one type of freedom, it is true that financial independence, freedom of religion and thought is one type of freedom. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that states that if a person feels that that their need for security, food, and shelter and some creature comforts are met, then the person can live a satisfactory and contented life. 

But that is only half the story, Jean Jacques Rousseau put it very aptly when he said, ‘man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains’. Rousseau‘s starting point is that man is inherently good, and therefore freedom is possible. Providing that he is not unduly restrained by unjust laws to protect the wealthy.

Common sense and experience however of the modern world seems to indicate the opposite of this Utopian idea. It seems to be a bit of a fallacy that man is inherently good. If man was inherently good then he would not enforce his will on another and thereby enslave him in the process.

Which bring us to the second idea of the nature of freedom. That freedom is more a matter of the mind. As philosopher Richard Rorty said, ‘What you put in your mind, that’s what there is’. If you have therefor a subservient mind-set, then you cannot be free never mind what kind of liberty your accumulated wealth brings you. He continues to say that the only true freedom we can enjoy is metaphysical in nature, because man in essence cannot find lasting having meaning in purely material needs met.

But this is exactly the mind-set we are contending with in society today, the notion of contentment seems not to resound with the generation of the last 40 odd years. I have recently been talking to people who were children during World War 2, and the mind-set out of that era seem to have been, was work hard, fight for liberty and justice and accumulate wealth no matter personal cost to home and family. The effects of this we have seen unfold since the 1960s till the present time. Rebellion against authority by younger generations and ever increasing hostility against law and order.

Breaking free from law and order in society has never been a workable idea, anarchy has never produced any freedom, instead its produced tyrants and addicts. Neil Postman in his novel Amusing ourselves to death makes the point that our society has produced a people with a mind-set which needs to be entertained all the time. Whether the addiction is to visual media or an incessant craving for the next high whether the poison of choice is drugs, alcohol or the much more recent problem of cyber addiction. Again there is no freedom in that. 

The other issue which has become epidemic in our time is the notion that people get themselves into inordinate amounts of debt, thinking that having what you could not normally afford would bring lasting satisfaction. But instead it just brings nothing but financial ruin. There is a huge debt bubble that caused the demise of some leading banks in 2008, but it was just cosmetically glossed-over. 

On point with these examples is that freedom in the Western world is a complete fallacy because it is built on some idea that we are entitled to have whatever we want, regardless of how we get it. And regardless of those that get injured along the way. 

Freedom as Rorty said is metaphysical in nature, a man can be in dire circumstances but still be free. Polycarp of distant memory said when he was to be persecuted during the time of the Roman Empire he said this to his persecutors, ‘You can take my life if you wish my property if you want, you can but you cannot make me deny the faith that saved me.’

That is freedom. A grand idea, but one seems only attainable when you let go of the idea of materialistic happiness and lean to be content in whatever circumstance you find yourself. As the sages of old often said, ‘Bloom where you are planted’. In this is freedom being at peace with yourself.

By Simon Thomas

Image credit: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

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