What is Freedom?

We all know the discomfort of unwelcome constraints imposed on us by our families, our workplace, and society in general. Freedom for the individual, it seems, is relative.  But as we mature we come to see purpose in the underlying order of things and recognize that often we cannot advance our interests without it.

There are reasons to keep to the right side of the road and to respect rules that allow us to progress safely and effectively in the world. The norms that govern interactions in the workplace make it possible for us to function productively and to advance in our careers. The rules that guide everything from athletics to the marketplace, when respected by all participants, make it possible to strategize, to ensure fairness, and to compete.

Form and accepted procedures allow us to engage in problem-solving and, ultimately, to influence one another. Our skill at conversing with others, sharing our truth so others can understand, will always require that we engage in respectful discourse. If we have no interest in dialog with those who we have differences with, what is it we want? Would we prefer to tear down all social constructs and live among unfriendly neighbors in unstructured chaos?

Progress toward social and economic reconstruction in our communities will require that we work with one another effectively and in a civil manner, regardless of the differences between us. This will place constraints on our approach to problems. Most of us would prefer to live in a rational world in which we can engage with one another respectfully. Problem-solving cannot take place in the midst of conflict.

We cannot assure safety in our communities or create effective organizational structures if form and structure, or different opinions, are perceived as limitations to liberty. Consequently, a respect for liberty and independence of thought must be internalized both in the mind of the citizen and in the facilitating structures. True freedom can only be realized by building relationships and structures that embody the ideals we seek.

The iconic conservative philosopher Richard Weaver, who we heard from in the previous post, would say this goal represents a formidable task; that it would require us to confront a national character uncomfortable with form, resistant to leadership, and impatient with any systematic process. The professor calls America “a nation which egotism has paralyzed.” [i]

We have seen how this egotism has diverted our attention from serious purpose: in our infatuation with expensive toys, in our descent into personal and public indebtedness, and in a sordid media voyeurism that forgoes all pretensions of privacy. Weaver called it “the spirit of self, which has made the [citizen] lose sight of the calling of his task and to think only of aggrandizement.” [ii]

Is it this “spirit of self” that has led us to the meaningless disorder in which we now find ourselves, where self-indulgence overwhelms motivation, judgment, and foresight?

I see some truth in this, but I believe we must look more deeply into the character of a people who have risen to every test in the past. Americans are smart, resilient, and creative. In the difficult years ahead I expect we will gain a deeper commitment to freedom and will respond with a maturity imposed by necessity.

Limitation is a structural function of the universe. All form has limits. This is reality. And, it is the consistent dependability of reality that allows us to launch ourselves into new frontiers of learning and experience, to control the direction of our efforts, to instigate, organize, create. Without structural limits, (which include our own moral values), we would have no capacity to direct our energy and intelligence, to explore new ideas or undertake new ventures.

For the individual, the ability to exercise discipline defeats the limitations imposed by nature and society. Surely the discipline to leverage our inspiration against the constraints we encounter provides the power to actualize our freedom and transcend the material difficulties of our lives. We cannot leap without a firm foundation beneath our feet; we cannot fly without wings.

Discipline and constraint are, indeed, the ground of freedom.


[i]  Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948), p. 72.
[ii] Ibid.

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