An excerpt from my syllabus for a class I’m teaching on “Freedom”:
And men rejoice at being led like cattle again, with the terrible gift of freedom that brought them so much suffering removed from them.~~Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Wait! What? Freedom is a terrible gift that brings so much suffering? I thought freedom was a universal aspiration, something that each of us—and everyone we know or have ever heard about—values and desires, a condition that equals happiness and peace-of-mind.
Well, not so fast. Freedom also means risk and responsibility, precariousness and ambiguity. Jean Paul Sartre tells a story of a graduate student coming to him in occupied France during World War II with a fearsome and formidable dilemma: “My mother is deathly ill,” the student explains, “and I’m responsible for her care, but my father is collaborating with the Nazis, and in order to account for that crime I feel I must join the Resistance; what should I do?” After much consideration and discussion of pros and cons, Sartre says, It seems that you must choose. The student is unsatisfied: “You’re the great philosopher, sir! You should help me choose.” Well, Sartre continues, that is precisely the difficulty of every authentic choice, in fact, the problem of freedom—every yes is a no, every no, a yes, and you yourself—no one else—are responsible. You must choose. “You’ve been no help to me at all!” says the furious student. “I will go instead to a priest!” Sartre responds, Very well…which priest will you choose? We pick our priests, it turns out, to take the terrible gift of freedom off our own heads, to disperse it, or to blame the consequences of our choices on another—but still we choose!
Guarantees of happiness, peace-of-mind, and bread, crackle with tension against notions of freedom which, according to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, “men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread.” This conflict resonates as fundamental—we human beings find ourselves longing for certainty in an uncertain world, something we can hold onto and believe in together, answers to our doubts, perhaps, a single vaccine for the latest virus, the Truth in some final and unquestionable form. We have difficulty tolerating anything as vague and enigmatic as freedom, and this points to the universal allure of dogma and orthodoxy. The insistent message everywhere in society is this: acquiesce, conform, play the game—yes, accede, and perhaps you can call it freedom.
The Inquisitor looks at the rebels, and calls them stupid people, “rioting and driving out their teacher,” who will, soon enough, discover that they cannot keep up their rebellion—they, too, will find freedom burdensome as they retreat into their own shared certainty, their own sacred texts and easy beliefs. The dogma of the rebels, then, may become as insistent and totalizing as any other, and the distractions and comforts that come from membership in a credulous community can signal a break with freedom, even as it offers the advantage of being quasi-invisible—the dogma of common sense inside the group replaces the need for security police, barbed wire, the boot, and the stick.
Of course we can (and must) make a distinction between ideas and power—ideas aren’t tyrannical in themselves, but in the hands of those in power, it’s another story altogether. And so we must ask continually, which rebels and in what time? What are the specifics of their dogma? And who has the actual power to impose their orthodoxy on others as established law and rule?
What is freedom, then?
What are its central and necessary features?
What distinctions can you draw between personal freedom and social or political freedom?
Can a prisoner be free? In what sense?
Can someone on death row be free?
Can an addict be free? How about a person suffering something like severe dementia?
Are you free?
In what ways are you entangled or unfree? Can you name your unfreedom? Can you show the evidence?