Very few notions are simultaneously evident and hard to grasp. Liberty is one of them.
If we look around it is self evident that some things are freer than others.
For instance wheel-chairs can be moved a lot easier than table chairs on a flat surface but are harder to be carried up and down the stairs or on rugged terrain. Or, on a different level of discussion, chained dogs are less free than stray ones.
Yet nobody in his right mind wastes a thought on whether wheel chairs might be concerned about their lack of ‘upward mobility’ while some of us, but not so many, do think about how come the vast majority of chained dogs usually come back after having accidentally been set free and wonder about why dogs which have grown up on their own can indeed become good companions but would never accept to be tied down for very long.
So what is this ‘liberty’?
Is it objective – a fact that exists irrespective of our will or wish – or nothing but a construct of our busy minds?
And how many kinds of liberty are there? After all the freedom ‘enjoyed’ by the wheel-chairs surely is a lot more different from that enjoyed by dogs than the latter is from that experienced by us, conscious people, right?
I’ll come back to this at the end of my post.
Three definitions of freedom are currently in fashion.
– Being free means being able to do whatever my (fucking) mind/imagination comes up with!
– “Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others.” (William Allen White)
– “Freedom is the consciousness of necessity” (Karl Marx)
You’ll notice very easily that they all have some things in common yet each of them is slightly slanted towards the central pillar of the philosophical school it belongs to.
The commonalities are there precisely because all three definitions are about the same thing while the different slants come from the different scopes of those philosophical schools – each of them, or more precisely the figure head of each school, having their ulterior motives behind the apparent explanation/definition.
Hence different uses.
Yes, liberty has uses. Otherwise why bother? Without our ability to consciously use our freedom there would be no difference between us and the dogs I mentioned earlier!
So what could be those different uses?
Nietzsche – you recognized his ‘ghost’ behind the first definition, didn’t you? – used the notion of freedom to explain the reasons for which he coined the concept of the Uebermensch. He went berserk afterwards, maybe after realizing that what he did was nothing but giving theoretical explanations about why the likes of Genghis Han and Pol Pot did what they did throughout the entire human history. Simply because there was no one to stop them. For the moment at least.
Most of the libertarians continue the natural trend that was so brilliantly described and then completely misunderstood by Marx – that human history is nothing else but the story of how the individual human being became progressively more and more autonomous from the community to which it belongs and how the entire community becomes more and more viable exactly because of this process.
And finally the totalitarians, of all ‘flavors’, use the concept of ‘assumed necessity’ to cloak the fact that all their teachings are nothing but ‘propaganda’.
OK, let me keep my promise and come back to ‘what is liberty’.
Since I couldn’t find a philosophical explanation to suit my ‘necessities’ I’ll try a different tack.
“You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief. But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.”
Am I trying to convince you that liberty is something that has a simple psychological explanation? Believe in it and that’s sufficient cause for it to exist?
Yes and no.
Individual liberty has indeed an important personal/psychological component. Until a person understands what liberty is and assumes for itself that ‘state of grace’ that person cannot be free.
Yet no individual can be free by itself. Besides the primordial condition of having to be born first, in order for an individual to become a consciously free person it needs to be raised into a fully functional adult with a reasonable understanding of the world around it. It needs to learn at least a language which he/she will use both to communicate with its peers AND to think, about freedom amongst other things. It also needs to learn the necessary skills for survival – from how to walk, eat and drink to how to earn its keep. Only after these ‘prerequisites’ – or, in Gibran’s terms, ‘cares’, ‘wants’ and ‘griefs’ – are met, the individual may try to ‘rise above them naked and unbound’.
And even then it would be extremely helpful if it had an example to follow. Spartacus, for instance, tried to become free precisely because he was in close contact with people who considered themselves to be free – his master, for one. Now consider the state of those third or fourth generation of African slaves who toiled the ground in the deep South, born in a barn to a slave mother, who came in contact exclusively with fellow slaves and with some white ‘supervisors’, half drunk most of the time and who from time to time sexually assaulted their mothers. Or even the situation of the modern children who come to this Earth only because their parents want to get free housing and some more food stamps from the government.
The way I see it ‘liberty’ is something that has two ‘parents’. On one side there is the ‘community’, the environment into which each individual is born and where it is raised. On the other side it’s the individual itself who, at some point of its becoming of age and if the circumstances provided by the community are right, understands what freedom is and decides to ‘declare’ its personhood/freedom.
Personal contribution is indeed huge. In particular circumstances that declaration might be made ‘in petto’ (for itself only) or, contrastingly, in plain knowledge that it would lead to that person losing its life.
I’m thinking now of the free spirits of the Antiquity – for instance of Epictetus, who had freed his mind long before he was ‘freed’ from slave-hood – and also of the freedom fighters who streaked the skies of human history: the early Christians who professed their creed even though they knew that it would lead to they being fed to the lions to the lonely Chinese man who single-handedly stopped, for a while, the tanks charging the Tienanmen Square in 1989.
In any case both conditions must be met simultaneously. The individual itself must reach first a certain level of ‘intellectual sophistication’, with the help and in the environment provided by the community to which that individual belongs, and then that individual must do its part: ‘open its wings and start flying on its own’. No further than the ‘natural limits specific for that community’, of course, but nevertheless bearing full responsibility for the outcome of its acts.
Or, in a different spelling, freedom – just as language and consciousness – cannot be achieved by any individual on itself nor be maintained/developed without the willing and ‘jealous’ diligence of all those involved.
And the sooner we understand, individually and collectively, that the well being of both individual members of the community and of the community itself depend on each of us developing its own liberty and on each of us respecting the liberty of all the others, the brighter our future will be.