Monday, April 14, 2014

What Does It Take To Be Free?

The proverb "freedom isn't free" has probably been uttered many times - so that, like the boy who cried "wolf!" too often, it isn't heard as an opportunity to reflect on a deeper truth. Usually, the saying is taken in the context of necessary military readiness. But there are other dimensions. Freedom's price, beyond having the will to defend it, includes the will to take risks, and the will to self-discipline.

Being free necessarily entails risk. History places various societies, and the individuals within them, on a continuum between security and liberty. Those who opt for much liberty pay the price of reduced security; those who want more security will pay for it by giving up some of their freedom. Security here can be understood in terms of economics or in terms of a predictable social structure. Freedom here includes economic freedom, as well as the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and political discourse.

Freedom also demands a price in terms of self-discipline: if free men fail to behave themselves properly, a certain level of ensuing chaos will cause society at large to demand authorities to enforce some type of order, even if those authorities limit liberty in the process.

Famously, freedom requires defense. A free society will be such only as long as it is willing and able to defend itself. This does not necessarily mean war; deterrence suffices, and offers the added bonus of less bloodshed. If a free society fails to project an image of strength, if it fails to project the image that it is willing to defend both itself and its liberty, then it will, of necessity, eventually be attacked.

These three prices which one pays for liberty are expressed in a very different way by French scholar Jacques Ellul. He bundles these three costs together under the rubric of reason:

If the individual rejects every external restraint imposed by society, then he must be capable of restraining himself; in other words, he must possess tools that will enable him to make "good use" of his freedom or will prevent freedom from degenerating into the inconsistent behavior of the savage. Reason makes it possible for the individual to master impulse, to choose the ways in which he will exercise his freedom, to calculate the chances for success and the manner in which a particular action will impinge upon the group, to understand human relations, and to communicate. Communication is the highest expression of freedom, but it has little meaning unless there is a content which, in the last analysis, is supplied by reason.

Reason requires citizens to act with at least a modicum of altruism; reason requires that they act with self-restraint; reason requires that take some risks; reasons requires that they be prepared to defend their freedom. One peculiar feature of humanity - a feature which distinguishes humans from beasts and which demonstrates their rationality - is the ability to say 'no' to one's self: the ability to identify a drive, an impulse, or a desire, and deny it.

Reason is thus a structure deliberately built to balance the possibilities inherent in the freedom that has been won. Reason does not represent a "trick" but is really the result of an effort to find something that is neither an external constraint nor interiorized social imperatives and that will allow a man to be free and yet at the same time choose a behavior and express opinions which are communicable and can be recognized as acceptable and shared by the other members of the tribe. Here precisely we have the magnificent discovery made by the West: that the individual's whole life can be, and even is, the subtle, infinitely delicate interplay of reason and freedom.

This understanding of reason and freedom leads to the maxim, issued two thousand years ago, that one should examine one's self: introspection and reflection in the form of a rational self-critique. One should conduct a moral inventory of one's self: this imperative is a foundation of Western Civilization, or of European culture, or however else one might choose to label it. Ellul continues:

This interplay achieved its highest form in both the Renaissance and classical literature since the Enlightenment. No other culture made this discovery. We of the West have the most rounded and self-conscious type of man. For, the development of reason necessarily implied reason's critique of its own being and action as well as a critique of both liberty and reason, through a return of reason upon itself and a continuous reflection which gave rise to new possibilities for the use of freedom as controlled by new developments of reason.

On both an individual and a corporate level, the habit of morally evaluating one's self is necessary to maintain freedom. This self-evaluation takes many forms and spreads into many areas of life. It is no coincidence that Immanuel Kant's great book is titled The Critique of Pure Reason.