On Freedom

September 13, 2006

Freedom.

So thick is the mucus of propaganda around this word, that I feel the need to brush my teeth after using it.

It is simultaneously one of the most beloved and universal human values across the globe (though understood in various ways), and an alter to which so much is sacrificed.

But what is it, this freedom?

Do we speak here of a freedom from, an absence of that which would directly prohibit? Or do we imply a freedom to, an enabling force that allows us the space and tools to pursue what we will?

Recently I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. In this work (which I do recommend, though light it is not) she speaks at length about the Aristotle’s conception of Freedom.

As she notes:

“To be free meant both not to be subject to the necessity of life or to the command of another and not to be in command oneself. It meant neither to rule nor to be ruled. Thus within the realm of the household, freedom did not exist, for the household head, its ruler, was considered to be free only in so far as he had the power to leave the household and enter the political realm, where all were equals. To be sure, this equality of the political realm has very little in common with our concept of equality: it meant to live among and to have to deal only with one’s peers, and it presupposed the existence of “unequals” who, as a matter of fact, were always the majority of the population in a city-state. Equality, therefore, far from being connected with justice, as in modern times, was the very essence of freedom: to be free meant to be free from the inequality present in rulership and to move in a sphere where neither rule nor being ruled existed.”
I am not by any means suggesting that this is the core of what we should all understand freedom to be, but it is breast from which all modern western conceptions of freedom were fed.

Basically for the Greeks, Freedom was to be free from needing to (directly) procure the basic necessities of survival, to be free from the will of another, and to be free from the need to exert one’s own will over another. To be free to, meant to be free from these three things.

Taking this idea for a moment. I have a question.

If the core of freedom lies in a freedom from the necessities of life (that is satisfying our human ‘needs’), what are the implication for the potential for freedom in our current society?

While certainly we can argue that our needs are more than easily met, at the very center of our society is the consumerist drive to create artificial needs. I need a computer, I need that new plaque removing toothbrush, I need to go to the dentist, I need a new pair of shoes, I need that better long distance plan.

My question is this: Obviously the Greeks weren’t talking about artificial needs. Obviously the artificial ‘needs’ created in a consumerist society are different than the ‘needs’ of human survival. However, does it really matter if we perceive these things as needs?

Is the validity of the need really important, so long as we internalize it as a need?

Can we ever really be free, if we spend most of our time and energy fulfilling these ever increasing (albeit artificial) consumer needs?

I am not entirely sure …

What do you think?

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15 Responses to “On Freedom”

  1. engtech Says:

    What do I think? I think I’m surrounded by a bunch of shoeless hippies with bad teeth who don’t have a need for material possessions because they’ve lost them all.

    But aside from that niggling detail, I do think we see more and more “Gold collar workers”. People who don’t own property, lease their car, max their credit cards, and always have the latest in cellphones, designer eyewear and consumer goods.

    I’ve always been struck how the desire for material goods is like walking up an escalator going down. The feel good reward comes from obtaining the prize, not the prize itself which loses it’s sheen and sits on the mantle untouched. Gratification immediately requires the next notch on the belt. 40GB iPod, photo iPod, video iPod, iPod shuffle, iPod mini, iPod nano. It’s smaller than a casette tape and it fits 20,000 songs, but it’s three years old and doesn’t fit in my wallet.

    The car has to be changed every three years. The home has to be redecorated every five years. The wife every ten. Younger, newer, smaller, better. The cost goes up but why am I never happy?

  2. Momo Says:

    I think there’s a vast difference from being equal to people and being equal to things. The ancient Greeks considered themselves “free” when they had all their needs met not just physically (as in food to eat), but other ways (a wife–i.e. “inert vessel for his seed” to wash cook clean and take care of every detail at his whim), and they ultimately subjugated others for the price of their freedom. There was an economy at work with the Greeks, one that is, as you appear to suggest, as subjugating as today’s consumerist society. Are you suggesting that we allow objects to subjugate us? Do you believe that objects and the drive to attain them make us less ‘free’ specifically in the sense that we are not allowed to pursue political aims? Don’t you think it’s a little better to at least have laws aimed to protect *everyone’s* right to political expression and freedom, even if the system does fail us from time to time?

    Some of the needs you mention are certainly frivolous, but many of us do require a car, do require a phone (if not a cell phone) and a home address, do require to have a standard of dress at work that is acceptable for our profession– and this is all merely to survive; to have a job and be able to pay the bills, to feed our children, to occassionally put our feet up at the end of the day so we don’t go completely mental. So perhaps most of us are not free, because we buy things because we *have* to in a consumer society (i.e., our needs are *not* met). How many of us heard the guy who bitched and complained about cell phones for the last 10 years and finally broke down and has a cell phone with a family plan as of last year? Does something as simple as that make us less than free? I’m not convinced, but then again, I’m just an inert vessel, so I’ll just sit down quietly and review the latest IKEA catalogue.

  3. w()rmwood Says:

    “I’ve always been struck how the desire for material goods is like walking up an escalator going down. The feel good reward comes from obtaining the prize, not the prize itself which loses it’s sheen and sits on the mantle untouched. Gratification immediately requires the next notch on the belt.”

    I have felt this also … this is what i find relates the most to the Greek conception of freedom .. and the lack there of.


  4. Basically for the Greeks, Freedom was to be free: to have sex with young boys.

    Our culture has it’s sins but the Greeks had there share of problems as well.

    I’ll reply to the larger question once I get some coffee in me/

  5. Mike Says:

    I have to say that I don’t really buy (get it) the whole “we’re forced to consume” Certainly there are some objects that we require for our day to day life. Though it is possible to make sacrifices if these items are causing you to go without basic necessities. If a person is a the limit of their credit and heavily in debt that is their choice. It was their freedom to use the means they had to consume to a point of poverty. If they are caught in a cycle of having to get the latest and greatest in belief that this will make them happy that is the choice they have made. I guess in the end I see it as a cop out to simply blame society of corporations. People made the choice to consume.

  6. w()rmwood Says:

    I have to say that I don’t really buy (get it) the whole “we’re forced to consume.”

    Ya, I think its important to note that I dont think we are forced to consume.

    But consumerism works by the production of need (or perceived need). Some things we simply “want” but many objects we come to believe we “need.” Maybe as Momo notes, we actually need them. Certainly i ‘need’ (at least in some senses) to have nice clothes for work.

    The point i think is interesting is that the Greeks felt that freedom was related to having time to pursue activities which did not directly relate to fulfilling ‘needs.’ They thought freedom was to be free from labouring to fulfill the basic necessities of life…

    What i find interesting is that in our society, we easily fill the most basic needs, but also produce an entire array of new ‘basic needs’ which we then internalize and pursue. (whether we actually need them or just believe we need them is not really the point…)

    What got me thinking was whether the entire cycle of fulfilling our ‘needs’ does actually block us from other potentially meaningful forms of thought or action ….

    I certainly dont think the Greek conception of Freedom is the be all and end all, but this component is interesting….

    Do people (on a day to day basis) feel that they have everything they need? (in the broader ‘need/want’ way)

    Personally it feels like i am often focused on fulfilling mini-needs. New computer equipment, better camera, nicer clothes for work, better long distance plan, more efficient toaster….


  7. “What i find interesting is that in our society, we easily fill the most basic needs, but also produce an entire array of new ‘basic needs’ which we then internalize and pursue.”

    The crux of the problem is that we don’t easily fill the most basic needs, we rarely even identify them. In the pursuit of all or secondary needs, and assorted refinements, we have pushed aside , or downgraded, some very fundamental requirements:

    1. The need to be known, validated, and engaged by a community that cares for us.
    At some point we forget that humans are social animals that evolved in close family structures. The insularity that comes from working long hours, commuting, and throwing our selves into our possessions take a real toll.

    2. The needs to be spiritually engaged/have faith.
    You can argue whether this is predicated by psychological, or metaphysical, requirements, but there is a clear desire to have our existence and actions framed in a more profound context. Somewhere along the line the search for meaning became a rush for ironic disengagement. It may seem frivolous but far too many people are empty and searching.

    3. The need for disharmony, upheaval, and renewal.
    Comfortable stasis is poison to the human spirit. Our society allows for a reasonable degree of prosperity with very little struggle. Adversity creates character, depth, dynamism. These traits are not only essential for worth of a individual, but for the health and value of a society as a whole.


  8. “Personally it feels like i am often focused on fulfilling mini-needs. New computer equipment, better camera, nicer clothes for work, better long distance plan, more efficient toaster…. ”

    I was all smug until you got to the toaster part.
    Man do I want an 8 slice, sized for bagel, even heating, toaster.
    God I love toast.

  9. thekenji Says:

    Freedom is a double-edged sword!

    I agree with AJ’s post: many don’t have their basic needs met even though they think they do. I also agree with Wormwood: while it doesn’t immediately seem like society is forcing us to consume, many people sincerely believe that a great deal of their trivial material posessions are actual basic needs.

    Here’s the problem with freedom: People want to be “free from the will of another” so you protect them and give them freedom. But when they’re left to learn and grow on their own, what do the coddled majority do, sadly? …Become weak sheep who are easily manipulated by other more ambitious people.

    Perhaps I’m being cynical, but it’s hard to deny that hardship and pain do build character. And to become a discerning, judging, confident person, one needs character.

    One doesn’t understand/recognize freedom unless they experience life without it. Give someone too much freedom from a young age, and it takes them a long time to realize that someone’s taken it from them. Perhaps even a lifetime.

  10. Kathleen Says:

    Doesn’t Hannah Arendt also describe happiness, as in “the pursuit of happiness”, as the freedom to engage politically? I think the greeks had the concept right. We just haven’t yet figured out how to fulfill our needs, allowing us our freedom, without exploiting the unfree. Anarchy comes the closest.

    As for consumerism, Ursula Franklin in her “Real World of Technology” says that most of what we buy anymore isn’t for ourselves — it’s for our technology. A plug-in, ink cartridges(!), prepared food for the microwave. Either you buy the add-ons, or the thing is trash.

    I think there are societies who do happiness better than we do. At least they do until or unless they’re conquered by our Western concept of “happiness”, usually by their own elite of power and wealth-hungry rulers. Again, that is happiness defined as what the people do as a group, whether it is officially political, or simply communal pleasure. And there is certainly a level of poverty that is too degrading to sustain even that kind of happiness. And then there is no freedom at all.

    But labour won’t kill happiness. A certain amount of work – and Arendt talks about that too – is probably healthy as long as it provides you with the time and means to attain some of the happiness mentioned above. And as long as your labour constitutes more than wiping somebody else’s ass for the sake of their happiness and freedom, and at the expense of your own.

    I just realized I was putting happiness and freedom in the same bag. Sorry about that. But maybe that’s really what I mean?

  11. w()rmwood Says:

    wow, lots of cool thoughts.

    I will just make a few comments about the happiness/freedom issue.

    Having just completed “Brave New World” I would feel deeply troubled equating happiness with freedom.

    I beleive Arendt would be too.

    Labour – the pure pursuit of meeting the needs generated by life – does not negate the possibility of happiness. It does however negate the possibility of freedom – in the specific Greek sense.

    I dont personnally think Arendt’s reading of freedom, which is very close to the Greek conception, is necessarily correct – or the best way to think about it…

    But i do think that there is something compelling abou t the idea that labouring distracts us and keeps us from engaging in things through which we can really be free….

    Of course Arendt isnt anti ‘work’ per say … she suggests that work (man as worker – homo faber) is a potential path to freedom… but that it is not the same as Labour. To work is to produce something beyond the simple goal of attaining the means of survival.

    In any event, my post was not very well composed (analytically speaking). If anyone is interested in meeting and talking more about this – or even doing a chapter by chapter reading group on Arendt (yes i am a geek) … let me know.

    =)

  12. Kathleen Says:

    I’m interested in reading and discussing Arendt’s “The Human Condition.” And the concept of freedom, ours and the Greeks. I’d like to figure out what exacty we’re trying to sell these days, as in Western democracy, development etc.

    And as you’ve suggested, whether labour, consumerism etc. actually impedes our freedom instead of encouraging it. So I guess we have to decide what freedom means first. Maybe the majority of people wouldn’t choose it. Or would choose freedom within limits – religious, market, national…

    So I’m game. I’m not very technically/academically savvy though.

  13. seekr Says:

    I’m interested by this notion of freedom from labour. I’ve always thought of it in reverse, that freedom is predicated on our ability to provide the necessities of life. To be ‘free’ from labour would suggest to me that someone else is toiling to provide the basics – food, shelter, security. This assumption would seem to violate Arendt’s second principle of freedom, the freedom from rule/ruling.

    Am I missing something here? If Ug wishes to be free from toiling for the necessities, doesn’t someone (let’s say…Tug) need to go out there to pick some berries or spear some boar? And how could Ug live off Tug’s toils without some kind of hierarchical relationship?

  14. amontillado Says:

    Hi Seekr,

    I don’t think Arendt means to promote freedom from labour. She just describes the human condition, beginning with labour, as in what must be done for survival; then fabrication as in what is created beyond the basic necessities; and then to politics which is how we become involved in the world beyond both the basics and the material, including art etc.
    It’s not that being free from labour is good, just that for the Greeks to be free from labour meant free to engage politically. It wasn’t a just system. It was just the system that freed “men” to engage in what was considered the highest calling.
    I would agree that freedom is predicated on our ability to provide the necessities of life, but that has never meant that we couldn’t find somebody else to provide them for us. Seldom a fair distribution of labour, and seldom a fair distribution of power for exactly that reason. Our democracy always has and continues to exploit labour at home and away to ensure our political freedom. “Tug” has to produce and for very low wages.

    Labour, as the Greeks had it and perhaps we still do, is suspect because it deprives us of the freedom to engage politically, as does fabrication. All is scorned if politics is the highest virtue.

    We must be free to have a public life. If we only labour to fulfil our private needs we can’t be free. If we don’t labour at all somebody else has to do it for us and then they are unfree. But if you live in a culture that values labour more than freedom/politics then it seems to me it doesn’t matter how democratic your country considers itself, you won’t be free in Arendt’s sense. You’ll be working all the time for your personal survival and advantage.

    Like Wormwood said, freedom is complicated depending on whether you’re free from or free to…

    I guess what I mean is that I agree with you. Except that Arendt isn’t advocating. Just describing and questioning how to be free. And I think she’s suggesting that it is the human condition to labour, to fabricate, and also to engage politically. How do we get there? and do we really want to? Or would be prefer to be free of freedom, at least some of us? (and let the rest of the world go by?)

  15. w()rmwood Says:

    “We must be free to have a public life. If we only labour to fulfil our private needs we can’t be free. If we don’t labour at all somebody else has to do it for us and then they are unfree. But if you live in a culture that values labour more than freedom/politics then it seems to me it doesn’t matter how democratic your country considers itself, you won’t be free in Arendt’s sense. You’ll be working all the time for your personal survival and advantage.”

    Very well said.

    The most interesting question isnt “how do we avoid labour to be ‘free’ all the time?” but rather “what are the effects of constant labour (and for Arendt consumption is part of the labour process) on the ability to be free?”

    Has modern society essentially edged out political engagement through the conflation of labour/consumption to the status of ultimate good?

    not sure.

    But ya – Amontillado – is dead on in terms of Arendt.

    =)


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