the ambivalent nature of freedom

Von Julia Held

In philosophy there is a great deal of different views on what freedom is, whether human beings are free or can be free at all and the general role of freedom in human life. Some say we can't escape the deterministic nature of existence and therefore are intrinsically unfree. However, others claim that we are free in the sense that we can act freely within the physical and psychological conditions we find ourselves in, induced by human life itself.

Intuitively, I'd go for the latter option. We can decide whether to move every day or to rest most days, whether to be vegetarian or to go for a steak. Right? But if we develop this further it does not seem that obvious anymore. The decision on the former could be based on whether one is a disciplined athlete or not and the one on the latter could derive from the feeling of responsibility towards the environment and life on earth as such. Doesn't seem to be that free anymore.

Having noticed this, it is interesting that the feeling of freedom seems to be more or less necessarily connected with things that are pretty much the opposite. Terms like responsibility, necessity, discipline and pressure are terms which we would not link to the notion of freedom in the first place. In what follows, I try to show how they actually do connect and why it makes sense to think about freedom acknowledging these links in terms of practical human life.

What is it that produces the feeling of living a free life, making decisions freely and acting like a free person does? I suppose, it is the feeling of being the master of one's own life. Obviously I wouldn't feel free apart from having the option of either going mad or accepting the situation if I was chained up or had to starve. But extreme conditions like these are not what I am concerned about here. Let's just assume being a normal, random person somewhere in western Europe; middle class parents, middle class neighborhood, middle class life. Then, if I felt that I had the power to consciously create my life to the extent I have influence on, I would feel free. But how come?

why freedeom is paradoxical

So, let's turn to what it takes to be the master of one's life: First, it seems that one had to somehow feel the feeling of responsibility towards one's life.  Imagine a person who lives her life thinking of herself as being the sport of fate, not striving for nothing and existing without regulating her objectives. I wouldn't label that person as living a free life, but as determining herself and her potentials by ignoring the possibilities life offers and instead going for nothing more than what is already there.

Second, I feel that imposing discipline on oneself to some extent is something that enables one to live the life one wants to live. Morning routines, three fitness classes a week and a healthy diet are things which actually seem to steal one's freedom in some sense. But the crucial point is that people who follow such disciplines, decided to do so. They work on themselves and on their every day lives and thereby shaping those because they want to live like that - and mostly they decided to wanting to live like that because they think it's the best thing to do (for themselves). In a way, this might be in an intrapersonal sense what Hegel described as "die Herrschaft des Geistes" in his phenomenologies: literally the symbiosis of master and servant within oneself as resulting in self-empowerment. Therefore, one is free in that one has the possibility to discipline oneself according to one's own capacities and beliefs in order to live self-determined while not unreflectively living according to the social environmental imposed values.

Third, we seem to necessarily need safety accompanied by restrictions in order to live a free life. According to the philosopher Karl Popper, safety enables one to be free. As an example for this claim, Popper made reference to the safety measures of the state: laws, police actions, penalties, namely restrictions of freedom is what essentially enables the people to feel safe in their environment. They know they can rely on state authority when confronted with injustice and they are sure of not randomly get slaughtered when they leave the house because moral norms like "killing people is wrong" do apply to a large extent for most human beings. Because there is a certain degree of safety, people are able to live their lives freely. If it was different and we lived in a kind of Anarchy, we would face tyranny and terror pretty soon as everyone had to fear nothing and anything at the same time.

Fourth, with freedom comes pressure: living as a young adult in the 21st century, having the freedom to do anything you like with your life can cause pretty much harm. Unlimited possibilities lead to comparisons, competitions, aspirations and social pressure which then cause depression and everlasting dissatisfaction with where you are at in your life because you know it could always be better. But wait - there does exist a link, but how does the feeling of pressure fruitfully interact with freedom? It seems like pressure is just an inconvenient side effect of freedom. Well, yes and no. Pressure arising from everyone's freedom is a bad feeling, but actually can enable the one under pressure to live her life more freely. That is, by seeing how others lead their lives, by comparing with oneself, one is free to decide to either cave in to, say social or vocation pressure, or to get active and take comparison as inspiration and as a driving force for change and development. By doing that, one sees what separates her from self-determined existence and in the best case, tries to change something about that.

Fifth, when it comes to relationships, it seems like holding on is a big thing. Nowadays, especially holding on to freedom. Everyone wants to keep his or her freedom, not committing to anyone or anything, no obligations, no restraints, no promises but freedom. But what if living with this perspective on freedom does actually make you lonely and not feeling free at all and instead, determined by your own loneliness? Thinking that freedom is only possible when people are uncommitted - is a fallacy. I think that actually holding on to each other by bonding romantically is the way to come closer to freedom. Because what could be a better expression of one's freedom than feeling free to allow oneself to be oneself in a bond and taking off all the masks, getting rid of fears and letting oneself go?

And sixth, as the highest form of freedom, is the feeling of necessity when acting freely. Suppose you finished school and can decide whether to study medicine, journalism or international business, whether to become a carpenter or a monk in the Himalayas. Having to decide this and not knowing what to do can result in a form of pressure we discussed above. But what is the highest expression of freedom one can get to feel in his actions and decisions is the actual feeling of having no choice, but knowing what is right to do for oneself.

This inner certainty might be the highest form of freedom in practical life. And if not given naturally, it might be the result of having imposed self-disciplinary structures on one's life by one's own internal world and thus, voluntarily serving one's ideas and ideals in order to be free.

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