All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1965

Freedoms Uneasy Conscience

Dr. Mavrodes is Assistant Professor of Philos­ophy at the University of Michigan, his spe­cialty being the philosophy of religion.

Freedom has today a precarious position in our world, a position doubly insecure. It is not simply that there are men who would destroy it. It has never been with­out this sort of enemy. But now there appears a growing uneasi­ness among the friends of free­dom. We defend it yet, but not without a certain hesitation. Free­dom falls today into paradoxes and they trouble us. We seem un­able now to take sides simply and decisively for it or against it. We range ourselves by and large in its favor, but the strength ebbs out of our stand. We have an un­easy conscience over freedom.

Examples of this come readily to mind. Shall we crack down on comic books and other literature that seem to be a cause for de­linquency? It looks like good sense to do so. Why not dry up the sources of crime as we do of dis­ease? But we see the specter of censorship raising its head. If we patrol the bookstore and the news­stand, do we not kill a long-cher­ished liberty, the freedom of the press? We have our alternatives. We can keep our hands off, and wonder uneasily whether a free press is properly bought at the cost of ruined lives. Or we can act to cut off the source of crime, opening ourselves to the charge (from within as well as from without) that we have betrayed the cause of freedom. In neither case does conscience rest easy.

Again, what of the communist, the fascist, or anyone else whom we have reason to think is out to destroy our liberty? Shall we let him teach, publish, organize? If he does these things effectively and succeeds, he will eliminate these very freedoms themselves. How can we say we have defended liberty if we let him go on? But if we restrict him, have we not ourselves curtailed freedom on the pretext of maintaining it? We are not really content with either al­ternative.

Our uneasiness over freedom arises, I think, from two mistakes we commonly make, mistakes not unrelated to each other. The first is that we think of freedom too often primarily in negative terms. The second is that we commonly suppose that freedom is primarily a political matter.

I. Negative Thinking

We are in the habit of defining our freedom in negative terms, as the absence of something. Pri­marily we oppose it to authority. A man is free, we think, if there is no authority to which he must submit. He is free, we say, to do as he pleases.

We commonly think of the his­tory of freedom in these same terms. Man became free, we think, by shaking off the authority of Aristotle, of the bishops, of the kings who rule by divine right.

No one now could tell him how to think, what to believe, whom to serve. When these chains had been broken, humanity stood forth in freedom. Liberty was again abroad in the earth.

Now, I doubt greatly whether the best account we can give of freedom is this one, an account in the terms of the absence of au­thority to which a man must sub­mit. But if it is the best account, then we may be sure that man will have no deep and lasting in­terest in that freedom. We are not attracted toward simple absences, and we will not give ourselves for their sake. The presence of apples on a tree or fish in a stream may make a boy wish that there were no fences to keep him out. Apart from some such positive factor, the absence of the fence is value­less. How quickly will children trade the “free” atmosphere of some classrooms for the strong discipline of the football team—or the juvenile gang! We simply will not build our lives around negations.

It is a failure to recognize this fact that places some enthusiasts in the position of trying to force some “freedom” on people who have no interest in it. And it gives grounds to the fears of those who wonder if perhaps men will barter their freedom for security, or jobs, or glory, or any of a multitude of other things. Let there be no doubt. Man will certainly ex­change this sort of freedom for security or for anything else in which he has an interest. And he will lose nothing by doing so.

Factual Limitations

But is this negative conception of freedom the true one? I think not, though the negation has its genuine, if subordinate, place, from which it draws its plausi­bility.

To illustrate, let us take free­dom of thought. Does this imply that a man may think as he pleases, an idea perhaps expressed by the saying, “Everyone has a right to his own opinion”? Cer­tainly not. No one uses this idea of freedom in those areas of thought in which he is really in­terested. No chemist supposes that everyone has a right to his own opinion about the atomic weight of sodium. This is not a matter in which we become free by thinking as we please. Who is the genuine free thinker in the field of chem­istry? It is the man who resolute­ly holds his thought to the hard, given data. He places no value on thinking “as he pleases.” Rather he is interested in making his thought conform more and more closely to the nature of the physi­cal world. His thought is free ex­actly in proportion to its not proceeding “as he pleases,” but rather in submission to the facts of the given world.

This should give us a clue to the nature of freedom. It is not the shaking off of all authority. Rather, freedom in any area con­sists of submission to whatever is genuinely authoritative in that area. This is the only sort of free­dom in which man can be passion­ately interested.

False vs. Genuine Authority

We can see now how the nega­tive aspect of freedom enters the picture and how men might have mistaken it for the whole picture. For a key phrase in our definition is this: “whatever is genuinely authoritative.” Not every submis­sion means freedom; some mean only slavery. There are false “au­thorities” as well as true ones. The negative side of freedom is a way of dealing with those false authorities, with false claims upon our allegiance and submission. Thus, for example, a politician is not a genuine authority in the field of chemistry. If a chemist is plagued by bureaucrats who dic­tate how he shall write his form­ulas, he rightly feels that his free­dom of thought is threatened. In the interest of that freedom he must break free of these “author­ities.” He fights for what looks like a negative liberty, the absence of these restraints upon his thought.

Actually, however, his interest in breaking free of the false au­thorities grows out of his desire to submit his thought to the gen­uine authority. In his laboratory he rejects the authority of the king only for the sake of accept­ing that of the test tube, the bal­ance, and the flame. If this latter desire is strong and unquestioned, it is natural for us to concen­trate on the former while it is in doubt. We give our attention to the struggle against the false author­ity. Thus, we may come gradually to think of freedom primarily in these negative terms. But when we extend this negative range, when we think of freedom as the absence of all authority, then we fall into destructive paradoxes. If the chemist rejects the test tube along with the king, what have we left? We have no more interest in the “free” fantasies of a so-called chemist than we have in the chem­ical speculation of a politician. Perhaps less.

Fulfilling One’s Destiny

Not only freedom of thought but every genuine freedom dis­plays this character. Each one seeks a submission to its proper authority and welcomes it. In all of life we are looking for what might be called our “destiny, “just as the chemist pursues the narrower goal of his professional specialty. Life does not come to us ready made; we make its charac­ter as we go. But we also know, however dimly, that there is what might be called an ideal pattern for our lives (not that individ­uals are to be stereotyped repli­cas of each other). To find this pattern, this destiny, is to build meaning into my life. It is to ful­fill that for which I was made. This is the freedom, or rather the potential freedom of man, and one of the factors which make him unique in the world.

We do not fail to see evidence of this on every side. We are told sometimes that a man must give up some of his freedom if he mar­ries. He can no longer come and go as he pleases, and so on. But marriage goes on, heedless of all this. And those who find the real meaning of it do not maunder about their lost freedoms. They know they have gained freedom, not lost it.

Nor do we rush to the moun­tains and deserts to live solitary and free. From time immemorial, long before the world was crowd­ed, men banded together and pat­terned their lives by custom and law. Robinson Crusoe on his lone­ly isle is not the paradigm of real freedom. Friday adds immeasur­ably to the possibilities of his liberty as he provided that pos­sibility of social intercourse which is part of Crusoe’s destiny as a man.

To Become Free

I have mentioned the “poten­tial” freedom of man. For free­dom is not something we find ready made. Rather, we become free, and to a greater or lesser extent. The contemporary chem­ist is not completely free in his thought about the nature of the physical world. No doubt his ideas are a mixture of truth and fantasy. But if he continues in his work, he may grow in his free­dom, and find himself less and less in bondage to old errors. He is becoming free.

So also in the more generalized areas of life. For millennia men have experimented with law in the interest of what life ought to be and hence in the interest of free­dom. No doubt there have been both advances and setbacks. Sub­mission to good law makes men more free than submission to bad law. And submission to bad law has probably made men more free than has anarchy, if there ever was a real anarchy. There may even be a principle better than law and beyond it (not short of it)—something which shall carry men to a full freedom which even the law cannot give them. If there is such a thing, we cannot rest un­til we find it. To stop short of that is to stop short of our destined manhood.

The dance can be taken, I think, as a valuable symbol and illustra­tion of freedom. From ancient times to the present it has fascin­ated men. Physical movement is part of our life, beginning with the random activity of the infant. We have wanted to fill it with meaning, to raise it to its highest human level. And so the dance has been developed, where all motion is structured, patterned. It is at the far end of the scale from the random movement of the child. The tempo is given by the music, the pattern of steps and gestures comes out of tradition. Every dancer submits himself to these, though of course not every dancer does it in the same way. The dance itself provides for differentiation. One leaps while another bows, and together they go to make one dance.

Now, no dancer who really en­ters the dance mourns for the loss of the negative freedoms. He does not rebel against the tempo of the music, against the pattern of movement. He may indeed alter and develop them, wanting to make the dance a better one, ful­ler in its freedom. But he is far from returning to randomness, far from rejecting submission. He wishes to make a more sensitive tempo, a richer pattern, so that in submission to these the dan­cers may find a fuller freedom of motion.

The child, on the other hand, cannot dance. He can move at ran­dom, but he is not free enough to dance. And that is because he cannot yet submit. He has not mastered the full human use of muscle and nerve. He is not able yet to follow tempo and structure, and there is much hard work to be done before he can. The dance is a goal before him, measure of his freedom and maturity in the kingdom of the body.

Human life as a whole may be thought of as a dance, one whose whole tempo and pattern must be more complex than that of any part. Into the full dance of the race must go all the individual dances of the thinker, the writer, the manual worker, the artist, and a host of others, no two precisely alike. So also must these dances combine in unique ways in the full life of each individual, filling out his destiny. No doubt this is done imperfectly now, with many a misstep, many a collision, both in public and private. The dance is really for none but men who are free, and none of us here is wholly free as yet. But we may be looking for our freedom, listen­ing, as it were, for the music which expresses our destiny, what our lives ought to be. Giving ourselves to that, as the scientist gives himself to the facts of the physi­cal world, we enter more and more fully into the dance of free men.

A Free Press

We can see now in principle how the problems with which we began must be met. It is hopeless (and valueless) to look for a “free press” which is under sub­mission to nothing. A press may serve the interests of the ruling clique. If it is free of that, it may serve the advertisers’ interests, or it may serve the publisher’s desire to make money, or to elect his friends, or to “uplift” the community, or to speak the truth, or some other such principle. If it serves nothing, it is not free; it is simply rusty from disuse.

Then when is the publisher truly free in his work? There is no easy answer. He is free when he works according to that prin­ciple which is genuinely author­itative in this field, the field of public communication. To state that principle precisely is not easy; let me not pretend to achieve that precision here. But even if we cannot see the principle we need with complete clarity, we may still be confident of the di­rection in which it lies, and of some which certainly fall short of it. No publisher and no press is morally free whose only prin­ciple is profit, heedless of the lies spread or the lives broken by crime and lust. Such a press lacks genuine freedom regardless of its relation to the law. And laws which restrict such a press de­stroy no genuine freedom. They cannot, for there is none.

They may, however, make it somewhat possible for a man to live out his life without fear of slander, or for children to grow up without being seduced into crime and degeneracy. If laws do this, they are helping to keep an area clear for the growth of some other freedom, and are surely justified. In such a case we cannot hesitate over the fear of “censor­ship.” Every book and paper is already censored, regardless of the law. Many have the truth censored out of them because of the author’s fear that the truth will not pay. It is a case of choos­ing between censorships, not of eliminating them entirely. There may possibly be a censorship which is better than that of laws against libel and pornography; there are certainly some which are worse. Let us not have the worse.

Thus, when we see that freedom is primarily positive and not neg­ative, we begin to see the direc­tion in which we must move in order to strengthen it. And we can move in good conscience, not fearing for the loss of purely negative factors.

II. No Political Salvation

The second mistake, I sug­gested, was that of taking free­dom to be primarily a political affair. Constitutions, revolutions, declarations by the heads of states—it is on these that we have often pinned our hopes for the defense and spread of liberty.

There is some justification for this if we think of freedom only in the negative sense. But in pro­moting genuine positive freedom the role of the state is at most a subordinate one. No constitu­tion, for example, can guarantee freedom of the press. It may, in­deed, get rid of one obstacle by making it somewhat awkward for the ruling party to control the press. It is harder to make a law which will effectively keep the de­sire for profit from enslaving the press to the appetite for scandal. And it is hard, indeed, to see what sort of statute could under­take to fill publishers with a pos­itive desire for communicating nothing but truth. Such a desire, if it is to live at all, must spring from other sources.

In the political realm itself the state cannot generate freedom. Secret ballots do not of themselves make a voter free. Only a genuine idea of the way in which his vote ought to be cast can do that. Lack­ing this idea his vote falls under the sway of improper factors without number—his prejudices, his union, his club, his purse, po­litical propaganda, the weather…. His vote is secret, but it is not free.

And in the realm of free thought what can the state do? Can it give to any man that passion for truth, for submission to the facts, which will make him a free and genuine thinker? The most it can do here is to block off some of the gross­er interferences. But the real roots of positive liberty must be sought elsewhere.

Where those roots lie I have hinted before, as I mentioned man’s search for what his life was meant to be, for his destiny. In this soil only grows the flower of freedom. A man begins to grow free in thought when it dawns on him that his true destiny in this area is to know the truth, and he begins to pursue it. So it is with every freedom. When we see, however dimly, what our lives were meant to be and begin to give ourselves to that vision, we have begun the march toward the true liberty. No doubt there are easier marches. It is often easier to do what is legal rather than what is right, to know what is popular rather than what is true. But if freedom is our interest, we cannot stop short. We are drawn ahead by the goal—it is nothing less than the fulfilling of the whole potentiality of our lives.



Life’s Purpose

The creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of mar­velous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its ap­pointed course.

Frederic Bastiat, The Law