The Freedom to be Me
Freedom: what is it, and how does it link to happiness.
You started out life as a tiny microscopic cell, indiscernible to the naked eye, unless magnified one hundred times by a very powerful microscope. One eventful day, years ago, two gametes fused and formed a zygote, from which you emerged. In that one microscopic cell was contained an incredible lot about you: your future physical make-up, your genes, some traits you would later exhibit, you name it. That one cell almost immediately started splitting, in a geometric progression that would produce a population of over ten billion cells that would make up you. Each cell just as microscopic as its predecessor and just as self-sufficient: it could take in food, get rid of wastes, and grow. Most could reproduce. In other words, packed into each cell was the machinery it needed to carry out its many activities. The same all-important zygote was responsible for the organization of these billions of cells into a well coordinated and highly ordered human being that is you. And that's just for starters.
Who am I? What am I doing here? And, who, actually, are you, over there? Or, as the Spanish would put it: ¿Qué pintas aqui? What is your role here? Literally, What scene are you painting (on your canvas)? Fundamental questions that have plagued us for as long as man has existed and continue to.
Like many, I was persuaded of the fundamental position of freedom in the life of the human person, but I was not on as sure a ground about its connection to economic affairs. (No, not the notions of free markets or freedom of enterprise; but the more profound philosophical concept from which those economic principles issue as corollaries.) Until one fortunate encounter that solved this problem for me, and led to my attempt to further explore and refine my understanding of the beauty – and inescapable hazard – of that powerful trait every person is born with and irrevocably possesses (yes, I am aware of the breadth of this claim and will touch on it in the course of this submission) until we die.
I had gone to this university professor friend of mine at 9 o’clock on a clear Monday morning, to arrange a certain matter before we went out to our different offices. He lived with his family in a beautiful colonial style house on the university’s sprawling campus, and this would be a sort of breakfast meeting. This is one of those rare luxuries you enjoy when you live out in the quiet provinces like I did at the time. In a short while my friend had digressed and ventured into an area we had been thrashing out for some time recently. Then he thrust into my hands the long-sought missing link. The book was called Development as Freedom and I gleaned its blurb. “Fascinating… The overall argument [is] eloquent and probing”, went The New York Times. “A new approach… refreshing, thoughtful, and human,” ventured BusinessWeek.
My friend didn’t realize he had solved a major puzzle and he probably put my broad smile down to the pleasant weather outside. His wife most likely thought it was just the usual mutual excitement at my sharing their company once again. I alone knew it was all about the book and its author, a man called Amartya Sen.
Professor Sen would describe his system as a person-centred understanding of economics. The central thesis of the book I held in my hands was that national progress ought to be evaluated less by material output and more by the capabilities and opportunities it enables people to enjoy. In other words, the freedom to do and to be. He laments that the discipline of economics “has tended to move away from focusing on the value of freedoms to that of utilities, incomes and wealth.” Not surprisingly, he disagrees with the so-called “Lee Thesis” (after Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore) which holds that authoritarian governments are able to promote faster growth than democratic ones. Just as he insists that a similar lack of orientation is not absent in the industrialised world. For example, he illustrates how, going by income per head, the relatively poor in America are rich by world standards, yet they are plagued by daunting socio-political factors that greatly diminish their quality of life and restrict their substantive freedoms. Such that some groups within that society actually do worse in terms of survival than the poorest people in some of the developing countries with reasonable arrangements for school education and health care. In some inner cities for example, life expectancy at birth is lower than that in India and Pakistan.
In essence, Sen holds that there isn’t development where growth does not enhance “the capabilities of persons to lead the kind of lives they value - and have reason to value”. Which means ridding them of what he calls “unfreedoms” such as poverty, ignorance, hunger, ill health, but also racial and gender discrimination, as well as political, social and economic oppression. Expansion of freedom becomes both the primary end and the primary means of development.
Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998 for especially his contributions to the field of development economics. He is currently professor of economics and Master of Trinity College at Cambridge, and has served as a full-time or visiting professor at a dozen of the world’s most prestigious universities (he was professor at Harvard). The Guardian of London described his reputation among academics as “almost unrivalled”, reckoning that he must hold the highest number of honorary degrees among his peers. The Economist, in its characteristic witty style, ran a headline that went “Sen-sational”. Professor Sen helped to create the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which has become the most authoritative international source of welfare comparisons between countries. (Apparently, among his many contributions to development economics are pioneering studies of gender inequality, so he always takes care to write “her” rather than “his” when referring to an abstract person. Unfortunately, I shall not be able to toe his line here, as it might confuse matters somewhat. And so, when I use “man”, I’ll be referring to the human being; just as when I say "he", “she",” her” or “him”. I shall switch at ease from one to the other and trust that you won’t make heavy weather of it.)
He is not creating anything novel, he contends; all he’s doing is returning economic thought to what its pioneers (Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and their like) had intended. “The idea that development consists just of an increase in GDP or some other commodity indicator like that is basically a vulgarisation of the vision that motivated the origin of the development of economics”, he says. The Royal Swedish Academy, on announcing the Nobel Prize, said that by combining tools from economics and philosophy Sen had restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems.
It is the basis of this freedom that I wish us to explore in the next few pages by examining it as it subsists in the entity at the center of this all: man.
And so, I thought we should start, well, at the beginning – your beginning.
Once upon a time, in a zygote far, far, away…
All the earth’s scientists put together, all the laboratories in the world assembled in one colossal complex, could never manufacture one human body. Wonder of wonders that the body is, it is only the beginning of the human being's phenomenal nature. Man is the only animal that can reason. He has an intellect which, amongst other things, enables him to speak coherently in a language. Trivial? Not at all. Language is all too easily taken for granted. No other animal has developed and mastered it the way we have.
So, spare a thought for my pet German Shepherd, Kiara. In comparison it has no culture: no ways of behaving and thinking. It cannot pass this on from one generation to another through learning. It cannot develop technology, or invent methods and procedures to satisfy its needs and desires. It has no ordered body of knowledge. It can't do history or linguistics, psychology or sociology. God help her, she can't even relax to an evening of Beethoven or appreciate a Rembrandt. No animal - no matter how smart - can think like one human being.
With the intellect comes the other complement: a will. The ability to deliberately focus one's energies to a specific target. Together, they result in that most sublime of gifts: freedom; an inner faculty that makes the person master of himself. He can determine what he does and how he acts. He is not ruled by his instincts. Human beings behave with the most flexibility and in the greatest variety of ways. And even though their freedom needs to be developed by their making the right choices, it cannot be obliterated by external constraints. It cannot be clobbered out of them. In the end, every single human being is unique and unrepeatable. Each human person is a different and distinct individual. A wonder and marvel in their own capacity. That is why they are the subject of the most inalienable rights.
Whenever I consider this aspect, I recall words of the poet William Ernest Henley from his poem, Invictus, and they go thus.
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
I have deliberately taken this circuitous route in order to highlight, or rather, attempt to highlight - for we can never appreciate enough what we are - the extraordinary nature of the human being. Look at it this way: you are in control of the most awesome piece of equipment ever built. Every person, each one of us, is unique and irreplaceable. No matter how hard anybody tries, it is impossible, utterly impossible to find or make another you.
Yet, the more important thing is to realize that I am in control of “me” for a purpose. Every individual, at one time or another, must have posed to him or herself those inescapable profound queries: Who am I? What am I here for? Where am I going?
May I now venture upon the crux of this paper, as it were. I intend to methodically illustrate the concept of freedom by drawing upon the lives of two well-known figures. I should point out that this does not imply an approval of their lifestyles or life philosophy. Nor should it be taken to mean that I propose them as models for emulation. No. What it does mean is simply that these two persons provide, in my estimation, clear illustrations of freedom's facets. I refer to Nelson Mandela and the musician, Fela Kuti. Still, I must in fairness add that I have considerable admiration for the several positive points to be found in both personalities.
Between the formation of that zygote and your entry into the world was quite likely about nine months. Those were the most eventful and productive nine months you would ever experience. (Actually, by eight weeks all your body parts were discernible.) During that interval your body took shape and developed much more and faster than at any other period in your existence. Indeed, more than it would during the rest of your life taken together.
The human body is usually described as the most wonderful machine ever built, a poor understatement. It has so many parts that it is a wonder in itself that all its functions are accurately executed and flawlessly interconnected. There are thousands of interdependent components and functions, making it most intricate and complex. Yet, the entire contraption ticks over very smoothly. It operates on full automatic, without your lifting a finger. Indeed, almost entirely oblivious to you. It is the perfect machine. Still, it doesn't stop at just efficiency. Like no other machine, the body is constantly rebuilding itself. Everyday about two billion of your cells wear out and are replaced. Every 15 to 30 days you have a completely new outer layer of skin.
Stay with the skin for a bit. Your skin - astoundingly - keeps your body temperature within a specific range, regardless of the temperature outside; a self-regulating thermostat. It protects the body's inner parts from external germs and disease. Its structure will allow for the expulsion of dirt through sweat, but will prevent the entry of any substance through the same pores; an automatic one-way valve.
Most of your body parts work continuously. Your cardiac muscles, for example, are "built to last". They need to. They will contract automatically and rhythmically without tiring, throughout your life. Because of them, your heart beats an average of 70 times every minute, more than 100,000 times every day, without rest. Its two pumps are in constant operation. The heart of a forty-year old person would by that time have pumped more than 23 million gallons (90 million liters) of "refined" blood; or about the capacity of three thousand 18-wheeler tanker trucks.
Your circulatory system moves the blood throughout your body via an astonishing branching network of vessels more than sixty thousand miles long. That means, placed end to end, your blood vessels would go around the earth, two and a half times. They feed all your body's cells, carry away their waste, and bear disease-fighting substances to immediately attack any dangerous incursions.
Your body’s "Intelligence Unit" is the Nervous System. It regulates and co-ordinates the activities of all the other body systems. Its senses help it detect and immediately (automatically) adjust to changes in itself and its surroundings. The nerves carry messages from one part of your body to another, at speeds of up to 90 meters per second, 190 miles per hour. Its Control Centre is the Central Nervous System (CNS), comprising of your brain and spinal cord. This CNS receives information from the senses, analyses it, decides how the body should respond, and then sends instructions that trigger the required actions, in an orderly and precise manner that is the envy of any company manager. There are more elements (called neurons) in your brain than there are human beings on earth. And despite their number, they are all linked together in precise patterns.
Nelson Mandela's account shows similar traits. He for example, wrote in his autobiography: “[In prison] you must find consolation in being true to your ideals, even if no one else knows of it. I was now on the sidelines, but I also knew that I would not give up the fight... We would fight inside as we had fought outside. The racism and repression were the same; I would simply have to fight on different terms.
I found,” he said, “solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life... Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything. Did I make the right decision, was my sacrifice worth it? (...) But the human body has an enormous capacity for adjusting to trying circumstances. I have found that one can bear the unbearable if one can keep one's spirits strong when one's body is being tested. Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full when your stomach is empty.”
More than once in Mandela's story, the courage and resoluteness behind his experiences shine through. Towards the end of his twenty-seven years prison sojourn, the South Africa government relaxed some terms of his incarceration. As he relates, “In May 1984, I found some consolation that seemed to make up for the discomforts. On a scheduled visit from Winnie, [my daughter], and [my granddaughter], I was escorted by Warrant Officer Gregory who, instead of taking me to the normal visiting area, ushered me into a separate room where there was only a small table, and no dividers of any kind. He very softly said to me that the authorities had made a change. That day was the beginning of what were known as 'contact' visits... Winnie actually got a fright when Gregory escorted her around the door and before either of us knew it, we were in the same room and in each other's arms. It was a moment I had dreamed about a thousand times. It was as if I were still dreaming. I embraced my daughter and then took [my granddaughter] onto my lap. It had been twenty-one years since I had even touched my wife's hand.”
I really should, here, pay respect to people who have been victims of political oppression. Their experiences hold a lot to learn from, not only about courage and other prime qualities, but also about man himself. As with Mr. Mandela, their set target directed their decisions. Mr. Mandela’s going to prison and choosing to remain there was a continuous exercise of his free will. He could have chosen to return to normal life but that would have entailed giving up his goal and going against his convictions.
By the same token, the athlete has their eye set on the prize and will refrain from undertakings, even if licit, that would detract from his performance. The parent would place the education and upkeep of the children as top priority before many other diverting things. A person would orientate their life in keeping with what they perceives to be the ultimate aim of their existence. Which all goes to say that my free will would then have what is commonly called a sense - or conviction - of purpose.
A Sense of Purpose
Fela Kuti was a world-famous activist musician of immense artistic and intellectual talent, who invented the genre, Afrobeat, and was a constant thorn in the flesh of Nigeria’s autocratic military governments. He had studied at one of the world’s most prestigious colleges of music - Trinity College, London - disregarding his paying parents' instructions that he study medicine.
Fela insisted that Africa’s dictators "are able to perpetuate their atrocities on us only because the people themselves are always too terrified to act. [Our people] hold on so much to empty, mundane things, that they forsake their manhood. And it is in such circumstances that oppression thrives.”
He would end up imprisoned on several occasions, for months (years in one instance) at a time. In the most serious of what were frequent attacks, armed soldiers one morning invaded his residence (a sprawling estate of high-rise buildings which he had named Kalakuta Republic), brutalized his family, arrested him and several of his band, then completely destroyed his multimillion dollar property and buildings, razing everything to the ground. Among these was a feature film project he had already expended millions on. His septuagenarian mother subsequently died of injuries sustained when she was thrown out of a window. The government, after a stitched-up investigation, blamed it all on the actions of unknown soldiers, and no restitution or rebuke came of the matter.
Yet that did not deter him, and emerged only another item in his catalogue of government reprisals. His vehemence and bluntness, Fela knew only too well, was open invitation to trouble. In pursuing this theme or self-assigned mission, he paid for his frankness, and dearly so. "Ooooooooh!," he offered, recalling the first of the numerous attacks, "I was beaten by police! So much... How can a human being stand so much beating with clubs and not die?"
"The only thing I want people of this country to know,” he had said, “is that if this kind of thing happens to me, what would happen to the ordinary man in the street who has no influence? That has been my only worry in my political struggles."
Few African public personalities endured as many reprisals and barbarities as Fela. That in itself is a strong testimony to his conviction of purpose. He had experienced, in his words, "over three hundred cases, detentions, court appearances". In a 1986 interview, he submitted that, “I do not suffer just for my own sake, but for the poor people of this country that have been disenfranchised. We are just beginning the fight, and I for my life will not let them down.”
Fela Kuti, therefore, correctly identifies one of the essential attributes of freedom: the fact that it implies a conscious and deliberate self-determination towards an objective; a result of having made an intelligent (i.e. reasoned) choice. It is impossible to adequately employ one's freedom, if it isn't oriented towards a set goal. Only when there is such a goal or set of goals, can my free will be used intelligently. It would choose the options that move me nearer the goal and reject those that do not.
Freedom is often equated with the absence of restrictions. But that is a reductionist view of it. And apart from the fact that such 'absolute' freedom is impossible, freedom itself of necessity entails the unimpeded taking on of restrictions. Fela, again, adequately illustrates this point. Matthew Kukah stresses that "had [Fela] wanted, he could have been living a far more dignified and meaningful life in the chic neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But he chose to live and die [in Nigeria]. That indeed was a sacrifice especially at a time when many young men are anxious to run at the sound of a burst balloon."
Freedom is not the absence of restrictions. The very fact of having made a choice by the exercise of my free will means that I have thereby precluded some other alternative but mutually exclusive options. Expectedly, I would be "restricted" with regard to the excluded options. Thus, an employee would be restricted by his contract with his employer, and a husband by his love for his wife. But not because of this does the husband claim to have been denied his freedom. Nor does the employee view his obligation to arrive at work before 8am as an infringement or denial of his freedom, either.
Similarly, it would not be accurate to equate freedom with independence. Every person is dependent on things, big and small and it cannot but be so, as we live in a material world and are ourselves corporeal. Yet, as we shall see, these things can make me more or less human, in so far as they, indeed, can make me more or less free.
Freedom and Truth
Here I must break, though, and sound a note of warning. A conviction of purpose would not necessarily imply verity. It could just as well arise from a stubborn attachment to personal or myopic views even in the light of negating facts and arguments. The "freedom" arising from such a stance would not be freedom strictly speaking, because it would not be based on an accurate depiction of events as they are, but on false notions, which can never be a sustainable premise for whatever conclusions follow.
It is difficult to say in Fela's case how far his persuasions were absolute convictions, and to what extent they were born of a stubborn rigidity. Whereas it would not be difficult to conceive of a Fela whose intractability and forthrightness in issues of civil rights and liberties was real and validly upheld, it would be surprising -for example - if his disdain for orthodox medicine (an extrapolation of his contempt of all things "western" and "imperialist") was sustained by a genuine belief that such western practices were of no use to the “black man”. Somebody put it like this: "You are not less of [an African] for accepting the latest medical techniques.”
In other words, freedom, to be put to proper use, must be in conformity with the truth.
Fela, as noted, aptly illustrates how freedom implies self-motivation towards a goal, even though his scheme did not allow for the need of this process to be founded on a correct understanding of reality. However, to over-indulge the point of freedom being that conscious self-determined action, would lead to impressions similar to those which Emmanuel-Ayira draws of Fela: "What marked him out was his intelligence and originality,” she observed. “You need intelligence to assuredly go left when everyone else is going right. This, he did all the time and reserved no apologies for his choices. If society defined decency as everyone covering their nakedness, Fela decides that underpants is it. When everyone is afraid of death, Fela says "I will never die"... Fela would draw his own definitions and run his life and his Republic by them. The Fela lifestyle put convention in unconventionalism. Fela," Emmanuel-Ayira continues, "is the stuff that the developing world needs - people who challenge conventional wisdom. People who disdain and despise the bandwagon... For part of the reason for our station in life as a nation is that we lack independent vision. We do what everyone else is doing which seems to be succeeding. The Fela in anyone, if well channeled, will cause him or her to invent and create and not imitate and copy." She concludes that "Fela was liberated in the true sense of the word; independent. He borrowed no definition but rather gave everything his own definition. And to him, his definitions were supreme."
Let’s quickly say here, that to follow "conventional wisdom" or to go the opposite way, would both require the adoption of a concrete mode of behavior to which one subjects oneself. The person makes a compromising choice either way. A choice made as a non-conformist gesture would not necessarily terminate in a better scheme of things in accordance with one's philosophy or ideal. Driving in the opposite direction to a one-way street or refusing to abide by legitimate rules governing a particular community or association, could influence the overall outcome only calamitously.
Paradoxically, it would seem that Fela recognized this, as there was a court of sorts in Kalakuta that meted out punishments, varying in degree, to transgressors and offenders. A former resident explained it in these words: "We maintained self-discipline based on our individual background and mutual respect for each other. But the regular Fela household had a court to listen to cases presided by Fela. Punishment ranged from G.B. (general beating) where the culprit is beaten sore, to a sentence at Kalakusun - a cell in Kalakuta. Not the type of cell where one is under lock and key but a situation of deprivation from normal day's events by secluding the culprit in one section of the house without food or water."
It does appear, therefore, that contrary to his exhibited beliefs and assertions, Fela realized that rules or conventions are not pointless. To go left when everyone else is going right could be the proper thing to do in one case, and quite the contrary in another. Being non-conformist for the sake of it would point to mere self-assertion, which would be a shallow rendering of one's freedom, it would precisely be a stultification of the real sublime concept of freedom. Social conventions are not meaningless, they ensure an orderly and harmonious existence among persons.
Freedom vs Commitments
If I might just illustrate this important point a little, with help from a friend of mine, Juan Elegido, who was putting together an academic research paper on ethics principles as applied to truthfulness in business communication, particularly financial reporting. He describes how, for example, when somebody lies, “they become a little more inclined to lie again in the future. Next time that person finds themselves in a tight corner they will experience a greater tendency to lie. And so, if they give in, the lie, of itself, will always tend to erode the integrity of the liar. As has been observed, it is easy to tell a lie, but hard to tell only one. It often becomes necessary to tell a second lie to protect the first, and then a third one to shore up the second. It is only a small step before the person becomes unreliable and untrustworthy.” A similar case could be put for any moral choice.
Unfortunately, the common conception of freedom hinges greatly on its external manifestations and is oriented towards external (even if noble) goals. Thus, the aspect of the deeper side to freedom is glossed over. "External" freedom is of little use in the final analysis, without the preceding and accompanying internal liberation.
In Fela, for example, the crucial connection between external liberty and the important internal complementary predecessor (true “internal” freedom) is missed; as is also the compulsory orientation of these towards the objective reality of things. Had Fela made that link, I posit that his music and message would have had even more force and zest than they did. The fact that many outstanding talents tend to live similarly bohemian lifestyles does not contradict the point. Indeed, their lifestyles are often an anarchistic reaction to events around (or within) them, to which they have no adequate response or answer. With a little more internal consistency to buttress their external ability, their expression of their talents could have been even more distinguished.
And so, freedom does have a purpose. It is not, as we have noted, the power to do "what I like". It is rather, the power to become fully myself, to realize fully my potentials as the person I am. It is, the freedom to be me. Each person has been endowed with it in order to be able to choose well, to choose what would result in the good or better outcome.
Yet freedom by itself isn’t enough, it is not an absolute value. Rather it is meant to enable the taking up of noble values and ideals so as to work towards them, personally and collectively, in different human settings and societies.
As Femi Osofisan observes in Fela’s case, "In the end there are perhaps more fundamental reasons why the Fela myth could only end in a cul-de-sac. Protest, like all fires must die out in time unless it is channeled into some kind of positive action. So, with the Fela phenomenon, all his numerous confrontations with the establishment are testimonies of protest and anger, but they lead to no solid ideology, to no concrete proposal about how to re-structure our societies."
"Sexual freedom" was often referred to as one of Fela's most prized “freedoms". One of his former managers remarked that Fela "has always loved women - at least since I knew him in 1963... He was a brave man who loved adventure, and if he wanted any woman, nothing could stop him."
"Sexual freedom" in Fela is a misnomer. By that system, the most sexually free beings would be not humans, but animals, since these give unfettered rein to their sexual passions. But animals precisely do not possess freedom; they cannot but act as dictated by their instincts. And so, we could say that a person who acts according to what he "feels like" is underdeveloped as regards freedom. There is little difference between that form of behavior and that of the lower animals. These act moved entirely by their comfort, instinct and passions. Whereas the human being is free to the extent to which he is master of himself. Which means to the extent to which he controls his instincts, comfort and passions, and not they control him. A person who does things simply because others do them, or will not carry out a certain duty when he ought because he doesn't feel like it, or will not control his passions of anger, lust, or avarice because "that is the way I am", shows little manliness of character, principally because he shows little freedom. Thus the paradox that he who acts the way he "feels like", without regard for etiquette or sense of duty or virtue, is the one who is less free. He is, instead, in bondage and is slave to his own very passions, comfort and instinct.
If freedom, then, as in Fela (his misconceptions, notwithstanding) and in Mandela, is that conscious and self-determined option for a particular course, rather than the sheepish emulation of the crowd, there remains still another pivotal component: the motive propelling one's action. In other words, freedom for what?
That is not an extraneous question; freedom is rarely looked at from this angle. As in Fela and Mandela, it is more common to consider freedom from the perspective of freedom from something. Still, when for example, a despotic ruler unjustly employs his offices we speak, not of use, but of abuse of power; even though if he hadn't the power he could not employ it, anyway. The same with freedom. The robber and corrupt official choose to be such, as a result of possessing free will. Yet, that would not be termed the use of their freedom, but the abuse of it.
Still, why freedom?
One writer, Josemaria Escriva, put it rather concisely: "My freedom! My freedom!", they cry. They have their freedom but they don't use it. They look at it, they set it up, a clay idol for their minds to worship. Is this freedom? What use is this treasure to them if there is no commitment guiding their whole lives? They are left aimless, with no clear path to guide their footsteps. Their freedom turns out to be barren. A person who does not choose, with complete freedom, an upright code of conduct, sooner or later ends up being manipulated by others. [They] lack character, courage and honesty.”
Ultimately, freedom is an internal property. Strictly speaking, it is a state that arises from the exercise of one's free will, which is a faculty peculiar to human persons. True, expressions like "freedom of speech", “freedom to practice one’s religion”, "freedom to live where one chooses", and so on, are valid, as opposed to, say, the lack of freedom that prison life imposes. But these, properly speaking, are (external) manifestations of freedom, and not the embodiment of it. The human being is free to the extent to which he is master of himself. That degree of freedom would depend on the orientation guiding the choices he makes, or their lack of it. Put another way, my character is shaped by the choices I make.
You know how sometimes the crucial key to a problem suddenly comes to you. I was already home when I struck an admonishing blow to the forehead: “that’s it!” Somewhere I had come upon something the author termed “existential vacuum”. A phenomenon where a person becomes aware of a lack of meaning in their life. I darted to the bookcase and pulled the volume down. “There are various marks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears,” I read, “a will to power, the will to money (...) It often eventuates in sexual compensation (...) Such widespread phenomena as alcoholism and delinquency would not be understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.”
The author in question was Viktor Frankl, an institution by every right. An Austrian Jew, Professor Frankl spent several years in various Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz among them, during World War II. Apart from a sister, his entire family perished at Nazi hands: his father was starved to death in one camp, his mother was gassed at Auschwitz, his wife and his brother were killed in the gas ovens. He managed to survive years of grueling torture, stripped to the barest existence, every possession lost, and every hour expecting extermination. He was already a well established medical psychiatrist and neurologist before the war. The concentration camp experience would change his life and forge his theories for ever.
Freedom and Happiness
There is much meaning in the cliché "truth liberates". There is a certain tranquility of mind that derives from a principled life, born of a sense and conviction of purpose. It might seem ironical that persons who are true and proper, who are unflinching and resolute in front of what they know to be the truth, etc., are the more free. I like to recall one of the more moving concluding passages in Mandela's book. He had been released from jail four years previous, after twenty-seven years.
“I voted on 27 April [1994, at 76 years of age]. When I walked to the voting station, my mind dwelt on the heroes who had fallen so that I might be where I was that day; the men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that was now succeeding (...) I did not go into that voting station alone on 27 April; I was casting my vote with all of them. Before I entered the polling station, an irreverent member of the press called out, 'Mr. Mandela, who are you voting for?' I laughed. 'You know,' I said, 'I have been agonizing over that choice all morning.' I marked an X in the box next to the letters ANC and then slipped my folded ballot paper into a simple wooden box; I had cast the first vote of my life.”
I wanted to close by developing this last theme: the matter of self-fulfillment, as it were; of self-satisfaction, or, ultimately, happiness. Fortunately, I had an experience some months back, which I shall relate, and which - I believe - illustrates the main issues here clearly, and much of what has been said so far.
I admit to a certain weakness: there are few other things I enjoy more than a quiet evening out in the open, for an hour or two, spent in invigorating company with a challenging intellectual question to be thrashed out, and with - of course - the inevitable shot or two of sherry (where possible, otherwise any light drink would do, really).
So, it was with relief and excitement that I welcomed my friend’s invitation to go out for a drink. I am hugely indebted to this friend because he always occasions for me an opportunity to exert the brain a bit. There had been so much ado in the preceding weeks about politics, politicians and us voters, that I yearned for sublimer stuff; and this old pal usually represents that. So we drove out. But no sooner was the drink on my tongue than it went completely flat. I hadn’t quite bargained for that topic. “Sorry, mate,” I said, “but I’m not sure I got you.” I did. But I needed to keep a deceitfully confident face and think quickly. This one had caught me unprepared.
He wanted to know why, despite trying with all his good will and effort to develop an upright Christian conscience, he did not feel half as happy or confident as his more permissive friends seemed to be. “They are happy, self-assured and even seem to have everything going for them,” he complained. I swallowed. Putting a brave foot forward, I related a hypothesis somebody had told me some years previous. That no person is so bad that they haven’t done a meritorious deed in their life. And so, sometimes God does decide to reward such persons bountifully on earth.
But I knew I was cheating somehow. I am usually wary to kick off with eschatological reasons as though taking advantage of a religious stance, or appealing to a “higher authority”. It was an unwritten rule between us that we would pursue the mark by pushing unaided reason as far as it would go, because, among other things, religion or the moral life (freedom and its accompaniments) should be about reasonableness and therefore should be clear enough to a truly rational mind, right?
So I changed tack. I told him that his assessment was not surprising. Everyday the media hit you with all manner of glitz and the chic world of the rich and famous, complete with their escapades and uncensorious tantrums. Our lives are inundated with intractable instances of a more permissive lifestyle yielding greater (apparent) satisfaction. Illicit liaisons and dalliances might be illicit, but they are unavoidable or irresistible. So they are taken for normal. Mores don’t exist: they are a loose chain with ever-widening tolerance levels. “Fine,” he said, “but what’s your point?”
We tried to define what happiness is. The distinction between it and pleasure. One is a stable disposition, the other is ephemeral and inconsistent, usually occasioned by some sensible (i.e. perceptible) object. People appear to be happy but may not quite be so. What you see are the externals. Happiness is an internal state that is usually accompanied by serenity. But many of these people can’t bear to sit still and look in on themselves, to listen to themselves: to see what’s going on in their insides. Because they don’t like what they see. So, they constantly have to move around, do something, engage in ceaseless activity; they can’t bear to shut their eyes and reflect.
He had one other aspect to clear up. So we tried to define the nature of true love, starting with what it is not. It is wrongly (or gratuitously, or perhaps both) interpreted as an expression of sexual drives and instincts. Whereas sex should be a mode of expression of love. It is only justified in that forum. True love must be, can only be, committal, which means exclusive. Hence, monogamous marriage. “Otherwise what I would be saying is: I love you so long as you have a beautiful body, so long as nobody else comes my way, so long as you don’t touch my money.” That wouldn’t be love at all, but a sensual pastime to gratify my instincts, which could only end in frustration. Thus, marriage as the only proper setting for sex.
I peered at his face and there was a thin smile forming as he ruminated on all this. In one relieved gulp I downed my remaining drink. Close shave. “Thank you,” he offered. “Anytime, man.” And we left it off there.
So, the highest goal to which man can aspire, he infers, is love. “Happiness ensues as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of surrender to a person other than oneself.” Thus we see how suffering, otherwise incomprehensible, becomes meaningful.
All this, we must conclude, is only possible when I forthrightly and courageously face up to freedom’s challenges. When I strive towards being master of myself; when I embrace, with its demands and all it entails, the freedom to be me.
Freedom and Development
We have not explored Amartya Sen’s pragmatic conclusions in depth. They span volumes and it is not necessary here. But they all emanate from this freedom core. For example, he says that even though it is now clear that democracies serve better in preventing catastrophes like famines and in promoting economic growth, “political liberty and civil freedoms are directly important on their own, and do not have to be justified indirectly in terms of their effects on the economy.” Similarly, the market mechanism is primarily a demand of and derives from man’s inherent freedom of exchange and transaction (even though this right – like any other – may be regulated if it leads to some social loss or exploitation) and is not the preferred option simply for its comparatively higher economic potential or imperatives. Unemployment should not be viewed merely as a deficiency of income that can be made up for through welfare schemes. It is devastatingly “a source of far-reaching debilitating effects on individual freedom, initiative, and skills”, leading to effects like the social exclusion of some groups and loss of self-reliance, self-confidence and psychological and physical health.
“Development,” concludes Sen, “has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy. Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live.”
The foray we’ve made into the depths of the freedom faculty isn’t unimportant or extraneous to development and its myriad indices. There cannot be development without a proper conception of the nature of the human person - the subject of development itself. This proper understanding and conceptualization enables the continuous striving on our part, the agents and instigators of development, to ensure that the direction in which society is travelling is at every moment in consonance with the true dignity of the human being.
I would therefore venture to adjust Prof. Sen’s encapsulation a bit, sharpening it somewhat. Development goes beyond enabling people to live the kind of lives they value, it also means providing people with the tools, environment, and so on, that would enable them enhance themselves and the society around them in a consistently positive and dignified manner.
I tried but couldn’t resist slotting in another poem here, before closing. It is Maya Angelou’s “Take Time Out”; beautiful also, in its rallying call to responsibility.
When you see them
on a freeway hitching rides
with packs by their sides
you ought to ask
What’s all the
warring and the jarring
Take Time Out.
When you see him
with a band around his head
and an army surplus bunk
that makes his bed
you’d better ask
What’s all the
the cheating and
the bleeding and
Take Time Out.
When you see her walking
barefoot in the rain
and you know she’s tripping
on a one-way train
you need to ask
What’s all the
lying and the
the running and
Take Time Out.
Use a minute
feel some sorrow
for the folks
who think tomorrow
is a place that they
can call up
on the phone.
Take a month
and show some kindness
for the folks
who thought that blindness
was an illness that
affected eyes alone.
If you know that youth
is dying on the run
and my daughter trades
dope stories with your son
we’d better see
what all our
fearing and our
jeering and our
Take Time Out.
I have, however, left out a whole lot of other issues, like the responsibility that goes with freedom. If I am free, and master of myself, and so master of my choices, it means I am responsible for them; I may be rewarded or punished; I would be deserving of whatever praise or blame that ensues. I have also left out, for example, what my convictions are about man’s ultimate destiny and that of society in consequence. In other words, answers to the two questions: what am I here for, and where am I going? I leave them out, on the one hand, because now might not be the time nor here the place. But I leave them out, too, because I’d much rather treat of them in the pleasure of a wide open space, surrounded by lush gardens and singing birds, and bent over, most contentedly, the unavoidable light sherry - or two.◼︎
Frankl held that people go through life because they have a sense of purpose. He observed that the prisoners in the camps who knew there was a task outside those confines, waiting for them to fulfil, were the most apt to survive; a point that has been corroborated by various studies since. And so, in attributing man’s motivation to a “will to meaning”, he differed emphatically from the two most prominent psychologists of the century: Sigmund Freud ascribed human motivation to the sex drive (the “will to pleasure”), while Alfred Adler - whose ideas Frankl once shared - put it down to assertiveness and power (the “will to power”). Happiness would be a result of the striving towards that goal or meaning of one’s life. “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out,” asserted Frankl. “Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.”
He stressed that this endeavor is compatible with the difficulties and obstacles that emerge. “Nothing in the world, I venture to say, would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life.” He would then quote fondly from Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.”
William Ernest Henley
1849 - 1903
Musician, composer, multi-instrumentalist
1938 - 1997
1918 - 2013
"We had agreed we would pursue the mark by pushing unaided reason as far as it would go, without resorting to a 'higher authority' offered by religion."
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Doctor, Neurologist, Psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor
1905 - 1997
Author, Poet, Activist
1928 - 2014