Before we talk about freedom, let’s start with a thought experiment. Imagine that I believed that all the people on earth were the offspring of Adam and Eve as it is in the bible. Imagine that I believed that we were perfect the way god created us. And what if this belief sustained all my happiness in my life and any contrary opinion offended me, do I have the right to any opinion I wish to hold?
What if I then spoke out against modern science because it conflicted with the my view? Do I have the right to speak my opinions?
What if I practiced violence against doctors because of my belief? Do I have the right to act against others?
What if I advised a complete adult stranger not to accept the benefits of modern medicine?
What if I chose not to allow my children to accept the benefits of modern medicine?
What if I were a person of great social influence and spread my message out via the media?
What if I chose not to accept the benefits of modern medicine and as a result I died and in dying leave a vulnerable family behind with no primary income earner?
What if society makes laws to force me to accept modern medicine? Does it not harm me in attacking a fundamental belief I hold?
At what point would you or should you move against me? If you decided to move against me, what would you risk in doing so? Would you risk your own morality? Finally, what would you not do to stop me when you thought I was wrong?
The point I’m making is how free am I to do what I want in society? This is the question of freedom.
Importantly, this question only applies to people who choose to live within society. If a man wants to live in a cave and never ever interact with other people, I don’t care what he does or doesn’t do. But the moment we all decide to live within a society together, we must consider freedom as it is only within society that freedom might be endangered.
John Stuart Mill once said “The rules governing the limits of power that people may exercise over another person is the principal question of human affairs.”. A man must have strong beliefs on Mill’s statement. His beliefs must be understood and questioned. And in this process, a man must learn to know himself. How free do you see yourself? How free are those around you? Should you be absolutely free or do wee all have limits of freedom, either legally or otherwise? Do you have a duty to your fellow man?
Please note here that I am not talking about finding your spiritual freedom. The stoics will tell you there is freedom in serving your fellow man and God. Christians will tell you freedom awaits you in heaven which you obtain by avoiding sin. Buddhists will tell you there is freedom in letting go. At this point, I don’t care about any of that. What I care about is how much control over you should or shouldn’t society have.
The defining work on this matter is On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. You must read this work of great significance. A lot of what I write hereafter will be taken from this book but I would quote the following before I move on
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race… still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”
The foundation work on individualism is Essay on Human Understanding by John Locke. People enjoy Locke as he is full of reasonable conclusions that don’t get tied up in logical inconsistencies or dogma. His revolutionary idea was that humans begin as blank canvasses. The perceptions and experiences we have as we live mold the way humans understand the world we live in. That many (even most) ideas are only ever probably true and men are right to doubt truth, even when they hear it. He believes that long term interests are most important and so men should be patient and prudent.
The foundation work on liberty from government was also by Locke. Second Treatise of Government makes the argument that men are individuals and motivated by the selfish notion that we should have property and keep it for ourselves. At some point in the past we decided that the best way to do this is to come together in a society and let ourselves be ruled by a government. The state is good but only so long as we are better able to keep our property for ourselves by being ruled. As soon as we are better off without state and society, we should be without state and society.
Lord Acton wrote extensively about liberty, especially the history of liberty. Read his essays on liberty for an in depth history on the matter.
Funny as it may sound, Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein is a great read on this subject. I know the movie was a little silly, but the book is great. It asks the question, who should be able to vote? Should it be for everyone to vote, or only those who take personal responsibility for the actions of the government they elect.
The history of liberty can be discussed in terms of individualism versus collectivism. So way back in Ancient Greece, people didn’t think about the individual so much. They thought about the society. Plato’s Republic was about how individuals should live to provide the best society. Slaves should be slaves, kings should be kings. Both were important to make a good society. Only citizens born in Athens can vote, the rest do not get a say, regardless of the status as an individual. The Stoics and Christians believed that the individual could live a good life regardless of whether he was king or slave by doing gods good work. When the Roman empire fell the only man left standing was The Pope. Roman rule degenerated into Catholic dogma. The Pope said that masturbation was wrong so you just could not do it (but we all did). We lost our individualism during this time. One day, Rene Descartes said “I think therefore I am” and the whole edifice began to crumble. The Protestants then thought it would be a good idea to think for ourselves again and this led to Liberalism.
Science was an important part of this path. When a scientist used the scientific method to arrive at a conclusion he did so because he thought it was right. Not because he had to arrive at a certain conclusion that the state required.
Capitalism played its part too. The notion that any property you owned was your’s and no other’s. That any wage, rent or return you gained from your property or labour was your’s and no other’s. This all cemented the idea of the individual of the collective.
An interesting question to add whilst we are talking about the history of freedom is “Can you teach freedom to someone who doesn’t want to know it?” I’ll leave that to you to answer.
End of part I