What is Freedom?

26 Feb

In this (hopefully brief) post I want to explore the concept of freedom, specifically two conflicting understandings of the concept of freedom.

The first understanding of freedom I will call the modern understanding of freedom.  Influenced by Western modernity’s strong emphasis on individualism, this understanding of freedom is simply unrestrained choice.  Freedom means doing whatever the heck I feel like, without anyone or anything coercing me to do otherwise.

The second understanding I will call created freedom.  This understanding of freedom holds that true freedom cannot be enjoyed without discipline or healthy constraints.  For example, I am not truly free to play the piano until I take the time and discipline myself to learn the piano.  Simply being able to push any key I want does not make me free to play anything I want.  The analogy of speaking a language is apt as well.  I am not free to converse in French until I have disciplined myself to learn the language.  Just because I am able to make any sound come out of my mouth that I want (modern freedom), does not make me free to speech French, only through discipline am I truly free to speech French (created freedom).

Modern Western society largely understands freedom only by the first definition.

The problem is that this understanding is simply a parody of real freedom, it is anarchy.  Take for example the drug addict.  He may be free to use heroin, but does anyone think that man who is enslaved to addiction is truly free?  It is only by limiting his choices to exclude the use of that harmful drug is he free to enjoy his life in freedom.  Being able to live a life of true freedom necessitates excluding certain courses of action that are harmful, otherwise we become slaves to our own vices.  This second definition of freedom holds that true freedom is not a matter of unrestricted choice, but of being free to choose the good, the beautiful and the true, being free to live as we were created to live (which is the only path to true happiness).

So if we really want to enjoy full lives of genuine freedom, to live as we were created to live in freedom, the first step (paradoxically) is to choose to discipline ourselves to develop positive virtue and reject our vices so that we may become ever more free to live as we were created to live in genuine, lasting happiness and goodness.

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Q: What do you see as the implications of these different notions of freedom? (comment below)

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