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Freedom: The paradox of Freedom

The paradox of Freedom

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'Freedom'. What is this word that has the power to stir us so deeply, to lift the heart, to inspire men and women to great deeds and even to lay down their lives? No-one who saw the film Braveheart can fail to have been moved by its triumphant cry on the lips of the dying hero William Wallace. 'Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains,' wrote Karl Marx in the middle of the last century, inspiring millions to sacrifice everything for a new world order. Yet, while great strides have been made in some areas, freedom remains elusive.
The truth is that freedom means different things to different people. For the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo it means an end to Serbian rule. For Marxists it means an end to economic exploitation when the workers own the means of production. For black people living in countries where power is held by the whites, it means equal rights and opportunities, regardless of colour. For many adolescents it simply means an end to parental tyranny.
The late Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that there are basically two types of understanding of freedom - negative and positive. The first kind sees freedom as the absence of some kind of restriction - freedom from something. The second sees freedom as an actual condition - for example Marx defines it as 'realised necessity' - having (and knowing) what you need, while some religions have defined freedom as serving God. Berlin preferred the first option, pointing out that the second has led to totalitarian regimes in places like Russia or Iran. Yet, there are problems with the first too. I remember a conversation with a student from Moscow who thought that freedom was a bad thing for Russia. As he saw it, freedom meant a breakdown of law and order, freedom for some people to become obscenely rich at the expense of others, freedom for the fraudsters, gangsters and drug pushers.
There is an old Sufi proverb that when God wants to drive a man insane he gives him what he wants. When you stop to really think about it, it's obvious - because what we want is never really straightforward. Things we want often contradict each other. I want to eat that chocolate, but I don't want to get fat. I want to get good grades but I'd rather go out and party than study. I want the government to spend more on the things I care about, but I don't want to pay more taxes. Short-term desires often oppose long-term goals. This is a vital moral lesson which we learn as children - in fact it's more than a moral lesson, it's a life-skill. And you only need to look around you to see that it's equally true for institutions - whether governments, businesses or sports clubs.
So, if freedom means to do what we want, then we first need to know what we really want. What are our values? Many of our most important goals in life involve other people. Despite the Western myth of individualism, we are not superheroes who can manage on our own. Whether we know it or want it, we are playing a team game.
When people play football it is vital they know the rules. Without them there is no shared understanding of what the aims are and nothing makes sense - one person might be trying to sit on the ball, another might be ignoring the ball and trying to swing from the goal. The rules are not there to stop people from enjoying themselves, they are simply part of the game. In the game of life, instead of 'rules' we have morality and values.
For centuries in the West, our ideas about freedom have been shaped by people who found they didn't like the game they found themselves playing. In the name of freedom they shrugged off the tyranny of the state, or the church. More recently, Nietzsche and Sartre wanted to break free from social conventions and attitudes which they didn't share, and their ideas were taken up in the 60s by a whole generation, most of whom had never read a word by them. Values and morality were considered to be anti-freedom.
The result is a new game with winners and losers, but no clear consensus on the rules. Money, which can only be a means to an end, has been proclaimed as an end in itself. The tragic life of Howard Hughes is a kind of parable of the results of worshipping idols of gold. One of the richest men in the world, he became increasingly isolated and paranoid and died miserably, probably of starvation. One of the Rockefeller dynasty was once asked by a journalist, 'How much money is enough?' He replied, 'Just a little bit more.'
In the end, our freedom is very much about living up to our deepest values. Society no longer tells us so clearly what these should be so we often have to discover them for ourselves, which can be hard work. Without values it is too easy to dissipate our lives in pursuing short- term pleasures. Even if we know what we value, there is still the problem of overcoming the inner compulsions which may pull us in a different direction, no matter how hard we try. There are no easy answers, only the silent mystery which Christians call 'Grace' and which others do not name but simply experience.

Mike Lowe, UK


Last update: 2000-02-06 15:37:15 (EEST).
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