Freedom is a word that is bandied about capriciously by nearly everyone in these United States, yet is one of the most abused words in our language. In the minds of the founding fathers, it was thought of as an absolute thing: either one is free or one is not. Yet even in their creation of the U.S. Constitution, freedom was abridged in numerous ways. The so-called Bill of Rights was appended to that constitution in an effort to shore up some of the potential injuries to the freedom that was left. But even the Bill of Rights is highly conditional. At the very least, it has been interpreted over time in that way.
In George Orwell’s famed novel Animal Farm, the original manifesto of the animal politic paraphrased the assertion scribed by Thomas Jefferson in our own Declaration of Independence: “All [men] animals are created equal.” Later in the course of events that dictum was amended to read: “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”
This is typical of the ways in which people—many of whom think of themselves as being well intentioned—have slowly, methodically, over the centuries encroached on the “official” definition of freedom until it is barely a shadow of its original definition. Who, why, and how are the topics of this essay.
First a few comments about freedom itself. Freedom has two basic dictionary definitions:
- The condition of being free; the power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints.
- Immunity from an obligation or duty.
These can be more simply put as the “freedom to…” and the “freedom from…” Both forms have one central theme in common: no outside force shall interfere with the experience or expression of the individual.
Yet people have always automatically assumed that some abridgement of utter freedom was absolutely necessary, or even desirable. In other words, the “Land of the Free” really isn’t and never has been. It is only in the context of its contemporaries and predecessors that freedom American style seems free at all. By any objective, absolute measure, we are little better off than anyone else. Granted, the closer approach to true freedom instituted by our forefathers was a distinct and substantial improvement, not only over their previous circumstances, but over any that had come before. But in the harsh light of day, either you interfere with the lives of others, or you don’t. Period. And at an intrinsic level we, as a society, insist on doing so. In other words, we get a big fat ‘F’ in Freedom 101.
The reasons why this “must be done” are voiced vehemently whenever the subject is raised. All such objections to a more ideal state of individual freedom have one thing in common: complete freedom equals anarchy, and anarchy is to be avoided at all costs. Except for the brief period during and after the McCarthy witch hunts of the early 1950s, when communism was the ultimate sociopolitical insult, anarchy has always been considered the scourge of humankind. It brings to mind all manner of misfortune: rape, pillage, murder, and mayhem are only the front runners of the pack of ills it engenders. As far back as ancient Greece, anarchy was considered anathema to civilization, culture, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet freedom has been regarded with an almost religious (sometimes literally) reverence. If you are getting a strong whiff of doublespeak, good. You are starting to get the picture.
How can well-intentioned, sincere, and intelligent people for millennia be guilty of such an obvious and persistent fraud? Simple. They’re scared to death and looking for a way out. I’m reminded of Johnny Carson’s favorite W.C. Fields quote. Near the end of his life, Fields, a devout and life-long atheist, had taken to reading the Bible. When a friend caught him in the act one day and asked what he was doing, he responded in his singular drawl: “Looking for loopholes.” Humanity yearns for true freedom in the face of theirfear of what they would do with it.
Before classical Athens, the fear had a lock on its conflict with our passion for freedom. Then the seed was planted. 2,000 years later—one hell of a long germination—it took root in Philadelphia one hot summer. But it was genetically flawed. The fear may have lost its absolute dominion, but it had not lost its power. It hadn’t even lost its dominance.
Now, over 200 years later, we have retreated farther and farther back into that which we love to say long and loudly is the worst of human foibles: repression. Oh, we have a long way to go to enter the lofty ranks of Hitler et al, but we have nonetheless progressed very little in other ways. How can this be? How can we, as a modern and enlightened people, shred to tatters the greatest political prize of all time for which so many have given so much for so long: freedom? To answer that question we need only to turn to our individual and collective self images.
Here are some hints: “To err is human…”; “After all, I’m only human.”; “All that’s humanly possible…”; “Nobody’s perfect.” Is it coming clear? Just to make the point more…pointedly, consider this cheery little picture: an angry five-year-old with a loaded assault rifle in a room with the people at whom he is angry. Call me prejudice, but I have a tough time seeing this as attractive. Yet this pretty well captures the spirit of humanity’s view of itself, individually and collectively. Here’s another oldie but goodie: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And there you have it. Interestingly, contained in those very words is a tacit understanding that freedom and power are inextricably bound to one another. What better working definition of power than being utterly free to do, be, and have anything you desire. It may not be the ultimate definition, but would you turn your nose up at it?
Underlying all of this is the simple fact that few, if any, of us escape childhood without the belief firmly rooted in our psyche that to be human is to be fatally flawed. We in the Western world even have a term for it: Original Sin. Eve (and later Adam) sought after forbidden knowledge, as a consequence of which they and their progeny forever were condemned to death. What’s more, according to the conventional wisdom, they richly deserved it. After all, God is good. Right?
As Mark Twain once observed, in his audacious monograph Letters From the Earth, “if we say man invented God, we slander man. If we say God invented Himself, we slander Him. Is there no escape?”
So for thousands of years, man has viewed himself as at best a second-class citizen of this corner of the Universe. He has developed a not inconsiderable mistrust of himself and his fellows, and that mistrust has not been acquired without producing any evidence of its inescapability. In both the individual and collective spheres of human endeavor, we have proven persistently that we are in fact not to be trusted. This view has become so endemic that almost no one, even the most gifted thinkers of all time, have ever seriously questioned it. Even René Descartes, author of the now-famous phrase cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” never considered the possibility that humanity might not be the black-hearted clods they had always seen themselves as.
Is it any wonder then, that for all these years, governments have been instituted to protect us, not just from each other, but from ourselves. Is it any wonder that anarchy—the complete absence of government—has come to be viewed as a juggernaut to be avoided like the Black Plague or AIDS? Is it any wonder that we insist on abridging our own freedom, and that of others, at the drop of a (self-deprecating) thought? How else could it be?
The truly remarkable feature of democracy American style is that it was based on an enormously more generous view of human nature. Our founding fathers were willing to risk more on our intrinsic goodness than any other political force in all of recorded history. And here we are, centuries later, still alive and, after a fashion, well. We are the most admired (and hated) nation on Earth, not to mention the most powerful, the richest, the most emulated, the most envied, the most sought after.
The real dilemma we face now (and in truth, probably always have) is, “where do we go from here?” The answer is obvious from what I have already written. For thousands of years—that we know of with certainty—humankind has been growing ever so slowly away from that paranoid view of itself. We have been doing our level best to make a wardrobe change: from the tatters of the moral leper, to the fine vestments of a free patrician. In many ways, so far so good.
But we have our work cut out for us. We have a long way to go before sanity and truth rule, and the insanities of the past are just a distant and unwelcome memory. The price we must pay is to divest ourselves of the last traces of our self-contempt and replace it with a whole, sane, and truthful appraisal of what it really means to be human.
The term “Human Nature” is another that is tossed around by people whose tongues should catch on fire just for saying it. They talk about it as if they had the slightest clue what they were saying. They think that their own personal version—and at the end of the day, there is no other kind—is a great, cosmic law. Well, I’ve got news for them: natural laws cannot be broken. That’s what makes them laws. If you throw a million people from airplanes at 30,000 feet without parachutes, how many will survive the fall? Let me think. Zero? Now that’s a law: the law of gravity. No exception (we will for the moment overlook the odd Ascended Master who walks across clouds as easily as your swimming pool).
Invariably, people’s definitions of human nature are based on two things: what they have been told, and what they have seen. Neither of these can possibly lead them anyplace but the insanity already described. The only way to escape falling into the same conceptual trap is to think well and freely. That is something that few seem ready, willing, able, and determined to do. As Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “My only sin is the unforgivable one of having [original] ideas.” Even the peer pressure that so relentlessly steepens the walls of the pit of our ignorance is there for a reason: without it, people might get uppity and exceed their place. They might think themselves freer than they ought to be.
The long and the short of it is this: we have been on a quest for millennia to make the world, our human world, safe for real freedom, and our job is not yet done.
It is oft said that the prerequisite of democracy is an educated populous. If that is so, then the prerequisite of a free, working anarchy is much higher. It is nothing less than a sane populous. By this I mean a people who understand the truth about human nature, not just a bunch of ill-though-out mumbo jumbo born of an era when herding camels was something to be aspired to. Sanity in this context means understanding from the depths of your soul that you can gain nothing of value by violating the life, property, or freedom of anyone—not even yourself. It requires us to acknowledge that we are the authors of our own lives, times, and everything within them. It demands that we recognize the vast and unseverable connections we have to each other, the Earth, its inhabitants, and the Universe as a whole. There can be no complete sanity without the final, undisputed acceptance of our own divinity. These are the beliefs that must change before we can conduct ourselves and our affairs in a manner responsible enough to support a free anarchy. Anything less would have painful consequences. Anything much less would be an unmitigated disaster.
How do we get there from here? Simple. First, we have to realize that’s where and who we need to be. Then we look at who and where we are, and plot a course. The rest is just a matter of placing the right foot in front of the left and dealing with whatever it brings up.
And that is precisely what we are and have been doing all along. The difference now is that we are rapidly approaching the point where we are close enough to start doing more of it at a conscious level, rather than the slipshod, bumbling way we have somehow managed to get this far (it only took a few million years).
Yet we have given ourselves one “training aid” after another to keep us headed generally in the right direction. In this century, we have used advanced technology to up the ante. The two most noteworthy of these technical marvels were the atomic bomb and the Internet. These two are far more closely interrelated than anyone supposes. The former all but mandated the latter, for it was out of the military paranoia of the Cold War that the predecessor of the Internet was spawned, and from its ashes that the full-blown Internet erupted (within a few months!) like a newborn hungering for long-awaited life. The Cold War tore us apart and threatened to destroy us. The Internet is drawing us together and promising to make us, at long last, whole.
So we are not without our miracles, we humans, though we do have a knack for taking our sweet time. On the other hand, even one as audacious as me cannot say with certainty that any small speck of it has not indeed been necessary. Regardless, here we are and this is our mission: to heal our beliefs and restore our sanity, if it was ever there to be lost, or to confer it upon ourselves if not.
In the final analysis, freedom is simply a state of mind. In other words, you are as free as you truly believe you are. At this point in our evolution, it appears that our beliefs are, putting it kindly, a mixed bag.