The Definitive Guide to Freedom
The Most Important Lesson of Political Philosophy
By MARTIN REZNY
Do you believe that people should be free? Do you want to be free? Do you think that you are? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then I have to ask you one more — what do you mean, free? This question is arguably the fundamental question of politics and perhaps of history, and it is far from figured out. As time progresses, more answers to it are being discovered.
To my knowledge the most definitive overview was written by the champion of republican ideas (in the classical sense, not the American nonsense), the enemy number one of totalitarian regimes everywhen, one of the rare female philosophers, Hannah Arendt. The following diagram is a little something I’ve made to conceptualize all of the freedoms that she identified throughout history:
The real question is which of these freedoms you have and which of them you don’t, and if you don’t have all of them, then there’s some measure to which you aren’t free. You may not give much priority to some of them, and it’s a near certainty that no regime on Earth at any time in human history managed to ensure total freedom in every sense for all of its people. Let’s break it down.
Freedom for the Willing
Probably the simplest way to understand freedom starts with choice, a choice to do or not do whatever the hell you want. But immediately, freedom begins to complicate itself. Most people accept many restrictions on their actions and have a strong sense of obligation. Still, as long as they accept those restrictions willingly or ideally choose them out of options, they’re quite free.
Immediately, you don’t have to be a philosopher to notice that even at the most basic level, acting on our desires may be seen both as absolute freedom and as being a slave to our desires. Accepting restrictions on our actions may be seen as increasing our freedom in other ways. Clearly, there’s more to freedom than acting on desires. Even so, will is a fundamental element.
Without actually wanting or not wanting something, all of the other kinds of freedom are empty, theoretical, unreal on a personal level. Arguably, the will to be free, regardless of all the philosophical subtleties of what being free actually means, is the foundation for any freedom being realized by human beings. This is the basis for the drive to rebel and this is how we humans are.
If you realize on an existential level that you want or not want something, you’re free to express yourself, uniquely and creatively. By doing that, you are being yourself, as long as your wants have not been manufactured by someone else. Be very suspicious of everyone who’s trying to tell you what you should want. Maybe what you want is a freedom from that want instead.
The Cost of Thinking Freely
While acting of your own free will is how you may come to fully realize your freedom, there are legitimate reasons for concern if acting is all that you’re doing or having control over. Not being actively and directly pushed to do something you don’t want or prevented from doing what you do want is the cornerstone of freedom, but there are subtler ways to keep one imprisoned.
On the level of pure will and action, the way to limit your freedom is to use violence or a threat of force against you, but what you want starts either in your mind or in your heart way before then. Some more clever oppressive regimes, especially in the modern day, have used propaganda, indoctrination, and public relations management to stop people from wanting from within.
Wanting from within could be a base desire, but it can be more than that. If you have time and capacity to think for yourself, on your own, you can come up with your own ideas about what it means to be a good person leading a good life, or how other human beings should be treated. One of the everyday miracles of human existence is that these ideas may clash with the status quo.
In other words, you don’t have to agree. Even if you’re forced by violence to submit in your actions, you still don’t have to agree. The established power will often want to make you agree, not just being content with you doing what you’re told. Not letting yourself to be told what to think and not letting yourself to be silenced is a very basic capacity that every free man must have.
Indomitable Freedom of Spirit
When the worst had come to pass and the dominant imperial power was enslaving whole peoples left and right, controlling their actions, words, and means of survival, a new form of freedom emerged to spite it, and arguably, that freedom in the face of total enslavement has won in the long run. If nothing else is left, only you can rob yourself of your inner freedom of belief.
When you have nothing and you can do or say nothing, when reason fails you because everything seems objectively hopeless and to resist power is utterly irrational, much like original Christians facing the Roman Empire, you can believe freedom to be transcendental. In this sense, everyone will be liberated if by nothing else then by death itself, salvation for the soul which is eternal.
While this way of being free shares something with the freedom of thought, it does differ precisely in the use of reason, or lack thereof. If you’re thinking, you’re still bound by logic and your ego. Mind still tethers you to objective reality, and that reality is by itself limited by laws of nature and those of men. While no one should be forcing you to believe anything, you need this option.
If you cannot internally, just for yourself, refuse to follow any kind of logic that you feel is wrong, you’re still unfree, even if you can act however you want and speak your mind openly. This kind of freedom is impossible to take from a person by force, so you’d have to succumb to some sort of peer pressure or evidence, forfeiting concepts like afterlife, love, or hope.
The Realities of Freedom
All of the above are conceptions of freedom that in some way originate inside of human beings and their nature is fundamentally ineffable. You can’t really argue with desire or faith, and even logic is infinitely mutable in its intangibility. The only way of looking at freedom that’s clear cut and uncomplicated is the one that seems to be preferred nowadays, the means.
To a pragmatist, all the other aspects of freedom are just talk or wishful thinking, while the only question that matters is: But can you, actually? Can you have the things that you desire? Can you influence politics of your society? Can you travel? Can you do a job that you want to be doing? If all you can do is want, think, talk, or believe, then you have no actual freedom at all.
Of course, this doesn’t really invalidate any internal freedoms. You’re still much more free if you can freely want, think, talk, and believe than you would be without any of these things. But it’s important to make sure that everyone can actually do what they’d really want to do, within reason. The only fair objective limitation is availability of resources, whether we can.
If we can let people be free to live, work, or travel, but do not, then we really need to ask why, and the answer better be something more substantial than because the power said so. Cleverly, the powerful would often not say that they simply don’t want the people to have a chance to live a decent life. Rather, they’d say that there’s not enough money. Which is made up. By them.
Makers and Breakers of Chains
How do you fare? Do you know what you want, and why? Did you ever act on it? Have you ever said no? Do you think independent thoughts? Do you speak them? Is there anything that you believe that no one can take from you? Can anyone rob you of your livelihood on a whim? Wherever you live and whoever you are, any of your freedoms may sooner or later be under attack.
It’s generally not in the interest of governments to increase or even ensure the freedoms of the governed. It’s the governed that through constant struggle against the government ensure their own freedom. This struggle is not always successful or straightforward, but in regards to freedom, there does seem to be a direction to history aimed towards less violence and oppression.
Most of the time, there’s simultaneously both progress in some aspects or at some places and regress in other areas, and there will always be people pushing both to undermine and foster the freedom of others. In the developed world, you can’t really just use violence anymore to suppress protests without any justification, and slavery, sexism, and racism have been delegitimized, if not eradicated.
If you wish to learn more about the complex relationship of power and freedom, I’d recommend you to read any works of Noam Chomsky or David Graeber, or listen to any of their many talks that can be found online. It’s not a coincidence that they’re both anarchists, because freedom is kind of a big deal for those, and if you’re against the use of force, you are one too.
Thank you for reading, and good luck, now that you know.