Remember that feeling when you first get out of school for the summer. Feel it in your fingertips; the joy, the thrill, the excitement, all instigated by a feeling of pure freedom. No teacher telling you to study this or that, no rigid schedule, just pure unbounded freedom. Or at least that’s what it seemed like when you were 12 years old, but in my experience, the lethargy and boredom set in after a couple weeks of not having a clear purpose and that expected freedom didn’t deliver on the anticipated joy. We, as human beings, have a natural desire for freedom and often a seek to shirk the authorities over us, especially those that seem to limit our desires. Imagine that bright green carpet of new grass perfect for a game of spikeball or frisbee, but there in the middle of the lawn is a dark blemish, a storm cloud looming ominously, a sign saying, “Keep off the grass.” The first thought is a desire to ignore that authority. Even if there might be no reason to be on the grass, the very fact of the existence of such a sign stirs a desire to disregard it, to make a statement about my right as a free person. Though this may be a petty example, there seems to be an ever-present destructive conflict between the arm of authority and the fire of freedom, but there never seems to be a winner. So, is this rivalry destined to be an unavoidable stalemate for all posterity or is there another alternative?
With the lens of freedom and authority in view, one perspective on the history of the past several centuries can be viewed as a search to find the answer to this apparent conflict. The search for pure freedom has led to many great reforms, but the unsatisfying conclusion continues to haunt our modern society. Each human being finds a compelling inner desire to be free to be their own person, to define their own actions, to sometimes defy authority, but the results of this desire can be dangerous and even heinously gruesome when our desire for complete autonomy is conflated with freedom. An example of this view is summarized well in Kilroy Oldster’s book Dead Toad Scrolls, “Human beings possess the gift of personal freedom and liberty of the mind. We each possess the sovereignty over the body and mind to define ourselves and embrace the values that we wish to exemplify. Personal autonomy enables humans to take independent action and use reason to establish moral values.”1 This desire has driven cultures since the beginning of time, and though it has brought many new freedoms with it that we who have them enjoy, it has also been pushed to dangerous extremes.
The opposite position, though less popular in the current era, holds that unbounded freedom will always deteriorate, and it is only authority that keeps us from damaging ourselves and others. A prime and compelling example of this perspective is found in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. In this narrative, the freedom of young boys, who are stranded on a beautiful island, turns to despair and death as dissension and feuds eventually lead to several boys being killed by the others.2 Let me examine a few key movements in history that I believe show these two opposing threads and from those distill some differences between the beneficial freedom and authority that we enjoy and the dangerous autonomy or degrading rule that damages liberty.
Freedom from Intellectual Oppression
Begin with the ideals of the 17th century when Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke begin to posit their ideal to strive for freedom of the intellect. This was an attempt to free the minds of the thinkers in their day and to present ideas without fear. During the middle ages this dissention was often squelched or did not receive mass acclaim often from the authorities in place, however by the early 1700’s, technologies for mass dissemination of ideas made it possible for what I term the intellectual freedom movement to arise. This movement proposed that if we could free ourselves from the bounds of thinking in prescribed fashions and methods and begin philosophizing on our own terms, we could achieve the freedom that we desire. The philosophical traditions of the ancient Greeks were too constraining and needed a modern touch. A pertinent example of this ideal is Rene Descartes. He strove to free himself from any previous notions and to base his reasoning purely on himself thus positing the well-known phrase, “I think therefore I am”3 as a premise upon which to build his framework of the world. This movement brought many important changes that should not go unnoticed, especially in the realm of science and philosophy. Yet despite many advances, the movement inflamed the insatiable appetite for autonomy and didn’t arrive at the freedom so desired.
If one tries to eliminate all outside biases and desires like Descartes did, it is seemingly impossible to do so because all knowledge must be interpreted by the mind and the senses. As Dr. John Frame explains, “… Knowledge always involves a subject, an object, and a law. There is no knowledge without a knower! Thus whether a person has knowledge depends not only on the objects and the laws of thought but also on his personal capacity to be a knower.”4 And even if that result of eliminating the subject were achieved, the byproduct would be a philosophy in which justified knowledge would be impossible. There would be no source upon which to base reason. This is why all philosophers and mathematicians must begin by assuming a premise or axiom upon which they can form an argument. If this initial axiom is rooted within oneself, the result becomes a self-initiating loop. In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton shows what can happen when we appeal just to ourselves as the justification of knowledge, saying: “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specifically in the two or three commonest kinds of madness… But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.”5 We must then take any justification for reasoning on some standard, implying that freedom from all intellectual standards is impossible. In the end, the movement toward intellectual freedom, though it achieved many great things, reached a point where it could no longer promise the complete autonomy that some strove to achieve.
Freedom from Political Oppression
This intellectual movement also spurred another movement, this time on the political spectrum. If intellectually we could not attain complete freedom of thought, perhaps the issue was rooted in the government hampering freedom of action. These two movements also coexisted nicely together and perhaps this combination could bring freedom to fruition. Just as the intellectual freedom movement rebelled against the established intellectual authorities of the day, the political freedom movement saw the governments as an evil, even if necessary at times. As Thomas Paine stated, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”6 In a similar vein, John Locke discussed these ideas by viewing civil government as a compact necessary for protection, however, “For no man, or society of men, having a power to deliver up their preservation, or consequently the means of it, to the absolute will and arbitrary dominion of another; whenever anyone shall go about to bring them into such a slavish condition, they will always have a right to preserve what they have not a power to part with; and to rid themselves of those who invade this fundamental, sacred, and unalterable law of self-preservation, for which they entered into society. And thus, the community may be said in this respect to be always the supreme power…”7 If such freedom from the government could be obtained, maybe the desire for autonomy would be satisfied. However, an example of some of the results of radical proponents of this movement can be seen in the French Revolution. The concept of freedom from the aristocracy and oppression motivated these idealists to see revolution as a step in the right direction. However, the experiment went terribly wrong; what promised freedom brought tyranny in a form rarely experienced. As the Aristocracy was brought down, the power vacuum created a society of fear and betrayal where anyone could lose the freedom of life at the whim of a crowd. The leaders of what began as an idealistic movement become the victims of their own brain child as Danton and Robespierre were murdered by the guillotine. While the French Revolution is just one case, sadly even the American experiment (which is the poster child for freedom) is a picture that needs a large brush to paint over the large blemishes in the ideal, such as slavery. While this movement also brought many beneficial concepts and thoughts and gave many an elevated view of freedom, in the end the desire for complete human autonomy could not be fully realized.
Like a pendulum, the reaction to this movement was to look for some authority to restore balance. In the case of the French revolution, the pendulum swung and Napoleon took control of the government bringing a strict authority that essentially formed a police state; a state which contrasted starkly with the freedom call of the French revolution.8 This oscillating behavior is common amidst culture, though often less pronounced, as the reaction to the overbearing nature of one extreme swings culture further than might be desirable in the other direction.
Freedom from Moral Oppression
These two movements and their associated counter movements still tried to make their ideas somewhat compatible with a flavor of moralism that harkened back to what we might label traditional beliefs. In general, these-freedom pushing ideologies only attacked the accepted reality through an eye to maintaining the same traditional ideas of morality. However, due to philosophers like Nietzsche who pronounced, “God is dead… And we have killed him,”9 this old perspective was brushed aside and a new perspective of morality was ushered in, a new moralism that shocked the old traditional world. This new found “freedom” from morals brought a new concept: if intellectual and political freedom could not quench the desire for human autonomy and had instigated resulting periods of oppression, perhaps a rebellion against societal norms and expectations could provide the answer. Out of this concept the movements of the mid-twentieth century were spawned, including the hippie movement and the sexual revolution. These movements challenged the old idea that freedom was won through a battle of the mind where the best reasoned voice always had the upper hand. These movements drew their strength from being countercultural movements, similar to the way eddies draw their strength from the main current to spur a backward flow of water. The new concept brought an idea that the battle for freedom could be won with the loudest voice having the upper hand, shaming the opponent into submission. This movement promised that we could be free to do whatever our own morality told us and as long as one could convince others that you were the victim, your voice would dominate. However, in the end, we can see that the result has sometimes been to shut down views rather than to approve views. The philosophy that any view must be valid, the so-called virtue of “tolerance”, by necessity must silence any view that has any sort of truth claims. The chasm of political thought in our country is just one example of how the freedom of tolerance has caused even more division. The battle in general has moved from a physical one to a cyber one where our weapons are no longer guns and bombs, but 140 characters of pure acrimony to put pressure on others to keep whatever opinion is disagreeable to themselves. However, the freedom and autonomy that was promised has failed to materialize, and the result has been a society that is increasingly polarized and confused about what freedom actually means. This confusion is reflected even in popular culture where movies like Captain America: Civil War explore the ethical question of whether government intervention is necessary for certain possibly dangerous freedoms. The two views we have explored are embodied in Captain America and Iron Man but the end result is confusion and there is no clear positive answer.
Each of these historical movements was important and recognized that there was some type of bondage, something that was holding humanity back from arriving at freedom. However, as can be seen, each of these movements when pushed to their extremes resulted in something much less than freedom, a sort of confusion that devolves into despair. The good things in these movements give a hint that humanity is striving after something, we know there is something better out there and that better thing is worth fighting for, even though often we fail to comprehend exactly what that is. Puddleglum, a character from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, captures the reaction to this realization, “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world.”10 So what do freedom and authority look like in this “play-world” that we know is actually real, but only gain glimpses of in this broken world? Perhaps our concept of freedom needs redefinition and maybe within that idea we can reconcile this fundamental dichotomy between authority and freedom.
Perhaps freedom is not some nebulous ideal of rebelling against rules or against people commanding us what we should not do but maybe it is a concept that relates more with what we are able to do. Many philosophers have debated about the definition of what freedom means and how to obtain it (which debate I do not have space to fully explore), but the most compelling argument is that freedom is the ability to pursue what is good rather than the absence of all boundaries. Glimmers of this concept can be seen in each of the movements that has been mentioned. The enlightenment thinkers recognized the good in being able to ask good questions because the truth indeed merits inspection, and it is worth pursuing the challenging questions behind life itself. The challenge arose when the whole framework for thinking itself was attacked, rather than solely the repression of independent thought. If we must question all laws of logic in our thinking process because we dare not set up a standard upon which they can stand, then is thinking truly possible at all? The political movement recognized that there are certain good people being repressed and unrepresented. To allow humans the ability to pursue what is good, those groups needed the freedom to express their views and be represented. Difficulties arose when a rule of mob law was established rather than rooting government in some standard, some higher law. The opposite end of the spectrum, the pendulum swing to authority, recognizes that there needs to be some authority, some framework for people to rest within, but the danger lay in using this framework to control behavior and resources for personal gain. Thus, I argue that freedom is the ability to pursue what is good, a view that requires some standard, some authority to maintain those said freedoms. As JI Packer aptly states, “[The Christians] freedom is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavor and relationship; not to abuse and exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them.”11 This view changes the way we view authority as well; we must challenge the idea that freedom and authority are opposites. Freedom and authority must exist simultaneously for either to flourish. Examples such as the political freedom in America in the end of the 1700’s shows, though very dimly, what freedom might look like when it embraces a constrained authority that allows both to flourish.
Assuming then that we should strive for an interlacing of freedom and authority, why does this desire for human autonomy exist? This question can be answered by seeing this desire as a perversion of true freedom. We have forgotten what true freedom should look like and we have forgotten our place in that. We seek as we did in the garden of Eden to be like God12 and be free from all authority. Our perverted sense of freedom is often what drives us away from the freedom that God promises under his authority. Christianity pushes further into this question and recognizes that this desire for autonomy is actually what enslaves us and takes away our freedom. When we recognize this fact and turn in submission to a benevolent authority higher than us, we can find true freedom. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”13 If this definition of freedom is understood then we can let what is good run wild and free within the protective boundaries of a consistent and loving Authority. Then finally, the war between the arm of authority and the fire of freedom can be reconciled through the revelation that while the imposters of authoritarianism and human autonomy masquerading as freedom and authority have been battling to the death, true freedom and true authority have sat holding hands all along.
1. Oldster, K. J. (2016). Dead Toad Scrolls. Bradenton: BookLocker.com, Inc.
2. Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the Flies. New York: Perigee.
3. Descartes, R. 1596-1650 (1993). Discourse on method; and, Meditations on first philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.
4. Frame, J. M. (1987). The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.
5. Chesterton, G. K. (1959). Orthodoxy. Garden City, N.Y: Image Books.
6. Paine, T. (1925). The Life and Works of Thomas Paine. (W. M. Van der Weyde, Ed.) New Rochelle, N.Y.: Thomas Paine National Historical Association.
7. Locke, J. 1632-1704 (1948). The second treatise of civil government and A letter concerning toleration. Oxford: B. Blackwell.
8. Dwyer, P. G. (2001). Napoleon and Europe. Harlow, England: Longman.
9. Nietzsche, F. W. 1844-1900 (1974). The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage Books.
10. Lewis, C. S. (2005). The Silver Chair. New York: HarperCollins.
11. Packer, J. I. (1982). Freedom and Authority. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.
12. Genesis 3:5
13. Chesterton, G. K. (1959). Orthodoxy. Garden City, N.Y: Image Books.