Freedom and Limitation

While we might think of freedom as the opportunity to do as we please, some say it is the opportunity to do what is right.  But, why not do as we please?  And, who decides what is right?

Freedom is a deep and compelling need felt by everyone.  What is it about us that we feel the longing for freedom at the very core of our being?  Why the emotional intensity of these questions?

The awareness of personal freedom is a felt-need, an essential aspect of human consciousness, and we yearn to act on it.  The perception of freedom is a human capacity that transcends the physical senses.

Animals are tied unalterably to the requirements of nature, environment, and species; but not people.  The horizons of the human mind – perception, introspection, imagination and memory – extend in every direction without apparent limitation.

This is a consciousness that provides us with boundless creative power.  Creativity is intrinsic to our character, and together with free will it defines our humanity.

However, the feeling of freedom comes into immediate conflict with the finite limitations of the world around us, and, indeed, with the finiteness of our own being.

We have been given free will and are yet confronted with a physical universe and constrained by the limits of nature and social necessity.

Free will is all about choice.  Whatever we choose to do, we could just as well choose not to do.  Yet we find free will colliding with the limits and necessities of a finite existence, both physical and social.

Our responses to the challenges of limitation determine the quality and integrity of our lives.  The conflict between our capacity for freedom and the world in which we find ourselves has purpose.

Without choice in the encounter with limitation, there could be no morality and no civilized order.  Without the capacity for freedom there would be no need for personal responsibility or discipline.

Creativity and productivity require self-conscious discipline.  Personal growth and maturity require responsibility, problem-solving, and the tests of hardship.

We understand that the constraints imposed on us by society are mostly necessary, if not always fair, and provide order and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world.  The limits of the natural world impose themselves even more exactly.

Yet, we do not feel fully human if we are prevented from seeking our own way.   Every limitation chafes against our yearning and our dreams.

As human beings, we possess the distinctive ability to step outside ourselves to perceive ourselves and our relationships in context.  So it is that we can recognize and interpret our relationships to family, society, and the physical environment.

Further, we are able to perceive and judge the personal qualities of spirit and character that make us who we are as individuals.

This ability allows us to explore the mysteries and majesties of the human spirit both inwardly and outwardly, such that our personal perspective transcends ourselves and our condition.

When the dimensions of valid action are violated, the errors of pride, self-righteousness and illusory obsessions take control.  And in the end, neither our finite qualities as human beings nor the necessities of the world around us will yield to arrogance or poor judgment.

This fact is a given when we enter the world, and it is a unique distinction of the human condition.  The collision of free will with necessity defines character and integrity – personally, socially, historically.

Our freedom opens worlds of potentiality to us, but without moral responsibility and discipline it will spell trouble.  We must choose: either to accept the reality embedded in the implicate order, or to disrupt the equilibrium and invite disorder.

I submit to you that true justice is determined by an unrelenting order in the world we are given.  It is the necessity embedded in the way things are.

Yes, we can violate the boundaries, but only at our peril.

Tom#define

Principled Means, Principled Ends

These are perilous times.  We find ourselves confronted with growing social and economic instability and a clouded future.

We do not want to sit on our hands.  Yet, uncertainty and unprecedented complexity make it hard to see the way forward.  How easy it would be to let emotions rule, tipping our lives into chaos and endangering the principles we depend upon.

It is with this in mind that I take up where I left off in the previous post (May 30).  There are two reasons why political violence will not get Americans where we want to go.  One is tactical.  The other is strategic and more important.

The mythic ideal of the citizen soldier remains deeply engrained in the American psyche.  The problem is that if we imagine a heroic Star Wars scenario in defense of freedom and justice we are dreaming.

Any patriot preparing today for armed resistance in the tradition of 1776 will pit himself against a formidable opponent.  He will be outmaneuvered and outgunned by fully militarized police possessing the most advanced surveillance technology and backed by massive firepower.

Marine veteran James Rock made this very clear in his comment two weeks ago (on the Facebook page).

However, there is a more fundamental problem, and it is this:  Who exactly do you intend to fight?

American law enforcement agencies and the United States military are served by loyal, committed Americans.   These are our people, our sons and daughters, friends and neighbors.  They are working people, they have families, and they care about the future as we all do.

It is our responsibility to win them over, not beat them up.  They should be approached respectfully, with persuasive argument and bighearted example.

As I wrote in the last post, violence committed by Americans against Americans would contradict the rationale behind the incentive for violence itself.   It would be self-contradictory, pitting us against one another and subverting the integrity and viability of the American Idea as a guiding force for the good.

Our views on defending the Constitution or the corruption of principles are serious matters.  But, public servants, police officers and bureaucrats, are not the problem.

We must respect these people, not just as a matter of principle, but because we need them. They are essential to a constructive solution and we need to win their trust.

Americans are not to be persuaded when we are attacked, not for some high-minded cause or anything else.  When faced with hostility we naturally close ranks, and clear thinking stops.

Even the misguided rebellion of tiny splinter groups will be destructive to the cause of liberty.  Any resort to force can easily lead to cascading consequences in which violence begets violence in a downward spiral, tearing the fabric of the Republic and threatening both progress and principle.

Furthermore, it is simply not necessary.

Change is needed that is real and lasting, built on the solid ground of principle and trust, of moral responsibility and dependable communities – not quicksand.

I never said this would be easy, so let me be clear.  The skills, attitudes, and discipline that create trust are at the heart of what we need to learn if we are to build a future for the nation as a whole.

This is more than a matter of survival.  For thousands of years local communities have formed the foundations of civilization.  The essential concern in the present hour, and the basis by which to judge constructive action, must be the spirit and the quality of the future we wish for.

It will be our means that determine the ends we seek.

This is not a theoretical nicety, but hard-nosed truth.  Understanding it will determine success or failure.

Americans are capable of being decent, patient and forbearing.  Personal values and views must be respected, but if we are to identify shared values, ensure comprehensive security, and begin to rebuild a stable civil order, it will be necessary to rise above our differences.

Going to war with our fellow citizens makes no sense.  Indeed, the ends we seek could be delayed for decades and possibly destroyed by impractical or intemperate courses of action.

Tom

A note to regular readers: Thank you for the comments, ideas, and perspectives shared (mostly on the Facebook page) in recent weeks.  This project would be impossible without you!

Please watch for the next post on or about July 4: Will the Center Hold?

Civil Society and American History

We find ourselves now at a turning point, confronted by the consequences of the past and the anger and confusion of the present.  Yet, this is an opportunity – a time that calls for clarity of purpose, and for coming to terms with the history that brought us here.

It is not political change that I speak of, but a far more profound transition.  We are confronted with questions of principle, of values, of the meaning of moral responsibility.

Such concerns often come into sharper focus amidst disruption and conflict.

Answers do not come easily, but history leaves silent lessons etched in our national experience.

In my view, we have lost a sense of purpose, and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.  This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.

We have indulged ourselves increasingly over time in our attraction to meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism – a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.

In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson provides a persuasive view of what has come to pass in the United States.  He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability have had devastating consequences.

In my own words these are: 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.

Dr. Ferguson reminds us of past strengths, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America.

“I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted?  I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”

He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from his famous commentary, Democracy in America, published in 1840:

“America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.

“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.

“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it….

“In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion.  There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Dr. Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy.  But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”

Consider Tocqueville’s description:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.  Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”

What happened?  Once upon a time Americans succeeded in overcoming the constraints to freedom through their own initiative and a sense of community.

Today inaction has replaced action.  A once vibrant culture of engagement has been replaced by a self-centered attitude and the isolating influences of technology, mass media, and corporate society.

Will we recreate what we once did so well?  Shall we rebuild the American spirit and character to meet the challenges ahead?

Tom

A Note to Readers: A project description and a draft introduction to the book can be found on this page.  Please look for the next post on or about March 10.

Either life entails courage…

Vista 7-x

“Either life entails courage, or it ceases to be life.”

–E. M. Forster

The people of this country…

Clouds 5

“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”

–Alexander Hamilton