What Is Freedom?—Part 2

Freedom is indivisible.  It embraces every aspect of our humanity—both outer and inner, external and internal.  It applies to our physical, mental, social and spiritual dimensions because we have the capacity—the free will—to choose what we do and how we behave in all those dimensions of life.  If freedom is reduced in one aspect, that bears on all others.   To quote President Reagan again, “Freedom is indivisible—there is no ‘s’ on the end of it. You can erode freedom, diminish it, but you cannot divide it and choose to keep ‘some freedoms’ while giving up others.”


Moreover, since freedom is indivisible, so is responsibility.  We have the freedom to choose in all aspects of our lives, but we also have the responsibility to choose wisely, morally, well.

Human history is a story of increasing freedom for us.  The story has two themes:  freedom from and freedom to.  We have increasing freedom from the harsh constraints imposed on us by nature and by people who seek to control us through force and subjugation.  We also have increasing freedom to act as we wish, for better or for worse, for good or evil.

Physical freedom means freedom from the elements and other dangers of the natural world, and from hunger, thirst and other physical needs.  It also means freedom to move about and travel.  The development of agriculture, for example, provided surplus food and thereby freed us from the necessity of roaming the land as hunter-gatherers.  The domestication of animals freed us from the burdens of traveling by foot and carrying heavy loads.  Medicine freed us from many diseases and debilitating conditions.  Aviation and spacecraft freed us from the limitations of gravity.  All that gave us more time and freedom to create, to produce, to travel, to increase our knowledge and raise our standard of living.

Mental freedom means the absence of fear or coercion in our thinking and our emotions; it also means unfettered access to information, as in freedom of education and freedom of the press.  Together with physical freedom, it allows us to advance civilization, to build a higher culture.

Social freedom takes the physical and mental freedom of individuals and extends it to members of a community or a society, so that the institutions of that community or society are likewise structured to remove obstacles or barriers—both physical and mental—to exercising choice and self-determination.  Social freedom means, for example, we can associate with others, select our occupation and, if we want, change jobs, marry whom we choose, live where we want and as we want  Some societies do not extend freedom to all its members; slavery and suppression of women, minorities and underclasses are sad examples of social unfreedom.  Children, of course, naturally have less freedom in the family and the community than adults because they’re not capable of handling freedom maturely, but as they grow up, as they learn to exercise self-control and become educated into the ways of society, their sphere of thought and action—their physical, mental and social freedom—increases.

Although liberty is often used as a synonym for freedom, strictly speaking it is not.  The word “liberty” comes from the Latin liber, which means free rather than slave.  Liberty is the sociopolitical aspect of freedom.  It is external or outer freedom.  A person may be captive, enslaved or in prison and thus not enjoying liberty or sociopolitical freedom, but he or she may nevertheless be free from hatred of his or her captors, slave masters or prison staff, as saints and holy people have demonstrated.  Likewise, a person may be oppressed yet bear no ill will toward his oppressors.  Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for India’s political independence is exemplary of that; so is the equally great struggle by the Dalai Lama, spiritual-political head of Tibet, against Chinese Communist invasion and occupation of his country.  Conversely, a person may have social and political liberty, but nevertheless be captive, enslaved or imprisoned in his or her own fears or vices and self-destructive desires, and thus not enjoy that liberty, not know happiness.  So liberty or external/outer freedom is no guarantee of internal/inner freedom.

(To be continued)

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