Voices 3: VOICES OF FREEDOM
Linda is starting a series of weekly workshops on Philosophical Practice, or Philo-Sophia.
“Good morning,” she greets the small group. “The topic that I chose for our first meeting today is freedom. Now, how do we start? One possibility is to start with a discussion. But I don't trust abstract thoughts that are disconnected from concrete experience. So instead, let's look at real events that happened to us. Please take a few moments and think about a situation that you experienced recently, where you felt a sense of freedom, or a sense of lack of freedom.”
John raises his hand immediately. “I've got something. Sometimes I find it hard to control my feelings and moods, especially my anxiety and anger. I wish I could be more free from these emotions.”
“People are less free than they think,” says Annette. “Our emotions control us.”
“I disagree,” Phillip objects. “We ARE our emotions!”
“Just a minute,” Linda says. “You are now talking on a very abstract level. I asked you to choose a specific, concrete event that you experienced.”
“I thought we were trying to do philosophy,” Angela says.
“Philo-sophia, not academic philosophy. In Philo-sophia we want to hear life, not just abstract theories. We listen to the living moment, to particular experiences, to specific events.”
“But isn't philosophy about ideas?”
“You would be surprised how many philosophical ideas you can find in a simple everyday moment.”
Annette looks at her questioningly, and Linda explains. “In everyday life we constantly interpret our world. We give meaning to things that happen to us. We do this not just through our conscious thinking, but mainly through our feelings, through our choices and behavior, through our hopes and fears, in short - through our everyday attitudes. For example, when you feel guilty because you broke a promise, your bad feeling is saying: ‘Breaking a promise is morally wrong'. And when you obsessively want to know everything your husband is feeling and thinking, your obsession may be a statement: ‘Love means being transparent to each other'. So you see, each one of us has ‘theories' about life, although we are usually not aware of them. We LIVE these ‘theories', we don't THINK ABOUT them.”
“You are telling us,” Michael comments, “that we are all philosophers.”
“Exactly. We all have ‘theories' about basic life-issues. The problem is that these ‘theories' are usually automatic, narrow and rigid. They act like patterns of behavior, patterns of emotions, patterns of thought.”
“Alright,” Ruth says. “I think I understand what you want us to do. I have an experience I'd like to share with you.”
She tells the group how last month she had volunteered to play with sick children in a nearby hospital. Soon, however, she started feeling suffocated. The obligation was a burden. Her afternoons were no longer free, and she was unable to go out with friends, or take a walk by the sea, or simply sit in a cafe and sip coffee. “I don't go out very much, but I like to feel that I have the freedom to do it.”
For several weeks she felt like a prisoner, until she decided to resign. “When I stepped out of the building I felt free as a bird. I stretched my body and felt my freedom. It was absolutely exhilarating: Wow, now I can do whatever I want!”
“And what did you do with your new freedom?” Phillip asks her.
“What did I do? Nothing in particular. I simply enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that I had no obligations.”
“Very interesting,” Linda says. “The freedom that you enjoyed was a very specific kind of freedom: It was freedom-from: absence of constraint.”
ISAIAH BERLIN - NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE FREEDOM
Isaiah Berlin, the 20th century British philosopher, distinguished between ‘negative freedom' and ‘positive freedom', or what can be called ‘freedom-from' and ‘freedom-to'. (Although this distinction is not new, he was probably the first to formulate it explicitly.) To be free in the first sense means that there is no restriction that restricts my actions. (This ‘absence' of restrictions is the reason why it is called ‘negative' freedom.) If, for example, I live in a democratic society, then nothing prohibits me from expressing my political vision. I am free-from restrictions.
Nevertheless, in another sense I may not be free. If I lack the courage and the autonomy to think independently, then although I am free-from restrictions, I don't have the inner resources to realize my freedom. I am not free-to express a personal vision. I don't have ‘positive' freedom.
Thus, when we speak about freedom we may distinguish between two elements: the resources that enable me to express my freedom, and the obstacles that limit this freedom. It is a distinction between the prisoner's powers and the prison walls, between the prisoner and the prison.
Of course, my prison need not be external to me. My fear or shyness, for example, can also restrict my freedom. In this sense it can be my prison.
“Yes,” Ruth says. “I now realize that my experience was a moment of freedom-from.”
“In other words,” says Linda, “your desire to be free speaks in the language of negative freedom.”
After a short conversation Ruth realizes that some other recent experiences also expressed a similar conception of freedom. For example, last week a friend knocked on her door. “I like her, but it bothered me that she didn't first call me to see if I was available. I felt that she was forcing me to be with her. So I didn't open the door and pretended I wasn't at home.”
Linda agrees that this could be understood as another experience of freedom-from, but she cautions that there is still much to explore in Ruth's conception of freedom. Life is more complex than a simple theory.
“Still,” Ruth says to her, “it's amazing how much of me there is in one small event.”
“Absolutely. That's the art of Philosophical Practice: to listen to the simple, everyday moment.”
“Good,” Linda says. “I think we now understand our goal: We are trying to explore the philosophical conceptions of freedom that are found in our everyday attitudes - not in our abstract opinions, but in our actual experiences.”
She now asks the participants to go back to their experience of freedom (or lack of freedom), to close their eyes and contemplate on it. “Bring the experience to your mind as vividly as you can. And then try to figure out the ‘theory' of freedom that it expresses.”
After several minutes, when they open their eyes, they find it very difficult to put into words their conceptions of freedom.
“What am I supposed to say about my experience?” “I can't say anything intelligent about it!” “I am lost…”
Linda smiles. “In order to make it easier for you, let me give you a little lecture about several philosophical theories on freedom.”
The participants are surprised. “Theories?” “I thought you wanted us to listen to life, not to theorize!” “Are you sure that my experience would fit into one of those academic philosophies?”
“Of course not. But theories can be a source of inspiration. It's like reading a poem or a novel: It can inspire you to express your own personal voice.”
JOHN DEWEY - THE FREEDOM TO GOVERN MYSELF
For Dewey, the 19-20th century American philosopher, freedom is much more than freedom-from. To be free I must be able to make conscious choices and translate my choices into action. But choosing does not mean following my capricious desires or my spontaneous feelings. It means that I have goals and projects, that I examine them critically and rationally, revise them when needed, and act according to them. In this sense I govern and direct my life. I do so both by rationally determining my personal plans and aims, and also by influencing my community and the social conditions in which I live.
A free person, therefore, has long-term projects and goals, as well as the flexibility to modify them when conditions change, and the open-mindedness to examine alternatives and choose between them. It is somebody who has a distinctive approach to life, and a distinctive manner of social involvement, based on critical and rational reflection.
EPICTETUS - FREEDOM FROM PASSIONS
According to Epictetus, the ancient Stoic philosopher, we suffer not because of things that happen to us, but because of our attitude to those things. The man who loses his savings suffers not because of the loss of money, but because he feels attached to the money. In other words, he suffers because he mistakenly regards it as necessary for his happiness.
In this sense we are not free, because we are ruled by our passions and desires. These desires make us depend on things that are not in our control. After all, we don't have complete power over our possessions, our health, accidents, other people's reactions to us, our fortunes and misfortunes.
To be free, therefore, means to control our desires and passions, to let our reason determine our lives, and thus to be independent of things beyond our control. This means that we accept the divine Logos that governs the world, and live freely in accordance with our nature as human beings. Such a freedom is a state of inner tranquility, self-control, detachment, and complete acceptance. Although the individual continues to be active in the world and to perform his duties, he accepts with equanimity whatever happens, whether success or failure.
Such an inner state is very difficult to achieve. In order to develop it, it is necessary to engage in arduous spiritual exercises. Only so can we free our rational thought from the prison of our passions.
KRISHNAMURTI - FREEDOM FROM THE PAST
Krishnamurti, the 20th century Indian-born thinker, held that most people are imprisoned in what they already know and learned, in other words, in the past. We desire what was pleasant yesterday, we hope for the praise that we received last week, we are afraid of what was painful last year, we try to be what our parents or priest told us we should be. Consequently, our hopes and desires and fears are rooted in past experiences. We struggle to make more money, to become ‘important, to be powerful and famous, because we have been conditioned by our past. Such struggles do not make us happier, but only more mechanical, frustrated, fragmented.
To liberate ourselves, therefore, means to break loose from the chains of the past. It means to be present here and now with a mind that is completely open, sharp, intelligent and not burdened by past knowledge. It means that our mind is fully aware and open to the present moment.
HENRI BERGSON - LIBERATING THE WHOLENESS OF MY BEING
For the 19-20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson, we are usually not in touch with the fullness of our inner life. Our inner life is like a symphony that is made of myriad shades of emotions and thoughts and feelings and sensations. These shades continuously interact with each other and develop in novel ways. The result is a holistic flow, creative and spontaneous, in which every moment is shaped by the past and gives birth to new unexpected combinations and qualities.
However, for the sake of language and communication, we isolate specific fragments in our consciousness and give them generic names: ‘a fear', ‘a hope', ‘a pain'. Consequently, we are like a listener who cannot hear the symphony as a whole but only the separate sounds. These separate qualities are like dead leaves floating on the true river of our life. Thus we come to have fixed opinions and attitudes, rigid tastes and emotions, and we do not live the ever-developing fullness of our inner lives. In this sense we are imprisoned in the rigidity of the dead leaves.
However, it sometimes happens in special moments, when I need to make an important decision, that something inside me revolts. All of a sudden the hidden living river erupts through the dead leaves. I then decide to do something against my familiar opinions, against my fixed preferences, against my age-old fears and ideals. I act not because of any specific reason, but because the action expresses my entire being - my personal history and my present energies and my sense of myself and of life: I did this because this is who I am.
This, for Bergson, is a moment of real freedom, because it expresses the spontaneous and creative flow which is my personality. My previous actions emerged out of dead fragments of my life, but now they emerge from the wholeness of my being.
“These theories are almost opposed to each other,” exclaims Sara. “Epictetus wants to free our rationality from the prison of feelings, but Bergson wants to free the flow of feelings from the prison of rational thought. For Dewey, long-term decisions should be freed from momentary experiences, but for Krishnamurti the present moment should be freed from the past. Bergson wants my actions to emerge from my past, but Krishnamurti wants us to be in the present moment. Dewey wants us to use reason in order to achieve our personal desires, but Epictetus wants reason to overcome our desires.”
Linda nods, but John interrupts. “These theories made me think about a recent personal experience. The other day I met a young woman, and immediately I felt attracted to her. I said to myself: ‘No, John, don't fall in love now, you have just ended a relationship, and you need to be alone for a while.' But it didn't help. For the past two weeks I have been fighting against this attraction, but it's stronger than me. I can't get the woman out of my mind, although rationally I'd like to free myself from her.”
“And who is your ‘I' that wants to free itself?” asks Michael. “Are you the rational thought that wants to free itself from the attraction, or are you the attraction that is fighting against the rational thought?”
“Hmm… A good question… I feel that this attraction is a foreign invader, but I don't know why …”
Linda comes to his aid. “I'd like to give all of you a tool that can make it easier to understanding our ‘theories' of freedom. Is it alright with you, John, that I am interrupting you?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“We can call this tool ‘a dictionary of concepts'. To see what I mean, look at the theories we examined. You will see that although they all deal with freedom, each one of them uses very different concepts. For Krishnamurti, for example, the concept of the past versus the concept of the present is central. But for Epictetus these concepts are not important. For him the distinction between what we control and what we don't control is crucial. But not for Bergson. For Bergson the central concept is the holistic flow of consciousness. He even gives it a name: ‘duration'. But for Dewey the flow of consciousness is completely irrelevant.
“So you see, each approach to freedom is based on specific central concepts. Each theory has a different ‘dictionary of concepts'.”
“You are telling us,” Sara interrupts her, “that we should try to find the dictionary of our personal theory.”
“Exactly. Try to see which concepts are relevant to your moments of freedom or un-freedom. Is it the concept of ‘self control'? Or ‘limitation'? Or perhaps ‘self-expression? Try to write down the four or five most central concepts - not too many, otherwise it would be too confusing. This ‘dictionary' will help you formulate your ‘theory' of freedom.”
The participants now break up into small groups. For half an hour they help each other examine the conceptions of freedom that are embedded in their experiences. In a sense, they act as each other's philosophical counselors. Together they note patterns and examine them, formulate ‘dictionaries of concepts', and develop personal theories of freedom.
“Have you finished, Michael? So please choose a second experience of freedom, and try to work on it. I am sure you are more complicated than one single theory.”
Finally the participants finish their work. They gather together in a circle to share their insights. John explains the central concept in his experience of attraction: ‘disconnection'. His attraction to the woman was disconnected from the rest of his inner life. It was disconnected from his other emotions, from his plans, from his thoughts. “It felt like a foreign body in my soul. My whole being revolted against it.”
Others, too, share their experiences. Sara found that her experience was centered on the concepts of ‘outside invader' and ‘freedom fighter'. She had been free because she managed to make a decision in spite of her parents' pressure, and against other people's opinions.
For Phillip the central concepts were ‘spontaneity', ‘obstacles', ‘effortless' and ‘deliberation'. His experience was that of flowing spontaneously, without effort, without planning.
“I learned a lot about myself,” Angela says. “But what should I do with my new understanding?”
“This, of course, is a crucial question,” Linda replies. “We are starting to discover some of the ‘theories' that characterize our attitudes to life. These theories can be helpful in everyday life: They help us organize the world and deal with it. They are our guidelines: how to make choices, how to interact with others, how to achieve our goals, how to understand ourselves. The problem is that these personal theories also limit our world. They make our attitude to life mechanic, narrow, one-dimensional. Reality, after all, is much broader, much richer, much more multi-faceted than our little theories.”
“Like the cave in Plato's allegory,” murmurs Annette.
“Yes, in many ways our personal theories are like Plato's cave. They may be convenient and practical, but they give us only shadows of reality.”
“So what do we do?” “How do we get out of our caves?”
“We will have to explore this question in our future meetings.”