Friday, July 7, 2017

Freedom

“There are two freedoms - the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought. “ Charles Kingsley

“Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.” Theodore Roosevelt

“Freedom, like any other virtue, does not exist in a vacuum. It must be worked and practiced to exist at all. And like any other virtue, it imposes upon those who would have it the unpleasant tasks of discipline and sacrifice. A materialistic people do not learn these tasks by reading posters or listening to pep talks, any more than you can learn to play the violin by the same methods.” Ralph Austin Bard, United States Assistant Secretary of the Navy,

“What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women?
It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow."  Learned Hand, in "The Spirit of Liberty"

“The basis of self-government and freedom requires the development of character and self-restraint and perseverance and the long view. And these are qualities which require many years of training and education.” John F. Kennedy

“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.” Nelson Mandela, in Long Walk to Freedom

“Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end, and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.Woodrow Wilson, address to Congress.

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Freedom in our culture often means the right to be and do as you please, how you please, when you please, where you please. It means doing your own thing, being your own boss, looking after number one first. The Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary says it means “exemption from necessity in choice and action.” It is the right to any choice so long as it is your own personal choice.

I’m not so sure this is the deepest, truest form of freedom. It’s probably better described as license. John Milton wrote in Tenure of Kings and Magistrates that “none can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.” As is easy to see simply by surveying our world, license results far too often in an exploitative callousness that objectifies others and deadens one’s own conscious.

We can fill our brain on fake news sites; we can engage in addictive behavior; we can blow every paycheck rather than make long term plans; we can tweet whatever we want or troll any social media site; we can watch all kinds of pornography; we can use dating apps to go through people as if they were playthings; we can pollute; we can support entertainment that spoils the moral fabric of our culture; we can take all the toilet rolls in a portable toilet and throw them into the toilet (sorry...recent experience that really peeved me); we can gorge yourself with food or drink ourselves into a stupor.

We can do all that. But at what cost? Check out Chase Holfelder's rendition of "My Way." He captures the ambivalence well - it's supposed to be a song celebrating radical license, but  it's sung through tears, with some regrets, with an acknowledgment that at times he bit off more than he could chew. This version lingers: it's not the breezy, careless Sinatra version. It's a haunting reflection of one who is desperately - and uneasily - wondering if "my way" was the right way to live.



We think when we can live "my way"  are free, but if we aren’t careful, things that can have a good and proper place in our lives - money, sex, power, reputation, food and drink, leisure – master us. We bow to their dictates; we sacrifice our money and time; we are consumed by that which we desire. It’s not freedom, really. A train is a good illustration because it is only effective when it is on the tracks for which it was designed. Tracks don’t inhibit a train, but enable it to run freely as long as it is running under the power of the steam or fuel of its engines.

Freedom “to do as one pleases” is shallowly defined and ultimately empty. But if freedom is the power and capacity both to will and to do as one ought – maybe even the ability to become what we were made to be - ah, that’s a different story. True freedom is never freedom from responsibility or obligation; it's the freedom to honor them for our good and the good of the world.

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“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul of Tarsus, Epistle to the Galatians 5:13-14


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