“The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
— Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Whenever someone who means well says “follow your passion”, they are implying the ones which lead to good ends, the positive ones, so to speak. They surely do not mean the ones that will destroy its subject. For there are some of our passions — such as vindictiveness, envy and so on— which must be suppressed at all costs. Those who are in the habit of fulfilling them are abhorred by the rest of us. The other day I listened to a prominent entertainer preach total freedom in his music. Specifically, his was the kind that freed us to our erotic passions — the irresponsible kind. He talked about that expression of love as if its pursuit is itself an end. It struck me then that he was equivocating love with pleasure, or more generally, desire. Very often we talk about freedom as something that is intrinsically good or as a condition better than its converse whether or not others agree with us. We talk about it as a moral virtue that is objectively binding, that is, it ought to be desired, approved of or acquired as a universal standard. Notice that it comes with an imperative. But just because one ought to do something does not mean one cannot choose to do otherwise — even if it goes against their own self- or communal interest. This dimension to freedom is what I intend to discuss below.
In our politically correct times terms like “objective”, “moral” and the like attract virulent remarks when invoked. I seek interlocution with those of my readers who believe in democratic intellectual engagements by following the argument where it leads without censoring any idea a priori. For those of my liberal readers who may, for any peculiar reason, retort by saying, “Yes, freedom is a good thing” but that “there are no such things as objective standards”, we would have to analyze what they really mean. First of all the former claim contradicts the latter. While this reader is asserting that freedom is indeed a good thing they are not qualifying it with “I think…” or “for me…” or “for us…”, all of which would effectively de-fang the statement of its authority. They mean it for everybody including those with whom they are in disagreement. It is one thing to make the universal claim that objective standards do not exist and another to say that one disbelieves in them. It is perfectly reasonable to accept the existence of something (either an idea or a physical thing one has yet to encounter) and then to go on to disagree with or disbelieve in it. In fact, it is only by granting a thing the privilege of existence that one subsequently possesses any meaningful right to reject, affirm or be indifferent to it. If I insist that it can not or does not exist at all, I am forced not to even think about it. But the mind, in principle, must be free to think whatever it pleases and so any ideology that seeks to attack this principle is unnatural and should be abolished. The truly free thinker is free, as well, to restrict her own thoughts.
Furthermore, this liberal reader has no basis upon which to counter my statement because his own philosophical position forbids him from doing so. If I asked him why I could not say that goodness is objectively binding he would, or rather should, respond that it is because “everything is contingent”. But this infinite sceptic has not anticipated the follow up question “how can you be certain of that?” This seemingly harmless and simplest of questions exposes a principal weakness in his worldview. Lacking humility to concede his intellectual incompetence, our ideologue proceeds to do one of two things: either resorting to the anti-democratic sentiment “… because I say so” or else he proceeds to offer defensive circular arguments. Our liberal friend is really a dogmatist. The statement “everything is contingent” is itself an unconditional, objective statement denouncing objective statements. His argument is wildly incoherent. Their denunciation is not an intellectual one (although it pretends to be): in truth, they are rejecting the principle because of where or from whom it is coming and not necessarily for the reason that the assumption is faulty.
Now that we have exposed the bigotry in my liberal friend’s rebuttals we can move on to treating the topic at hand. If freedom is good and if goodness is not a contingent moral virtue then we must now come to terms with its complexities. There is an implicit nature of goodness that I find stimulating. The moment a thing, action or event is deemed good, it necessarily comes with its opposite, because every good thing is potentially corruptible. It is what makes the thing meaningful because it can crack or fail and become something other than itself. This tendency is always there, undermining the thing itself. Abena is at liberty to eat whatever suits her taste so she can nourish her body but this desire to eat, if left unrestrained, may lead her into an obsessive desire for food. She ends up a glutton or bulimic — both of which are dangerously detrimental to her own health. As a corollary, Abena’s desire to eat has no effect on the reality that there are foods out there that will poison her body once ingested. She must be strictly selective if her aim is to sustain her own life.
Furthermore, a desire or passion is not necessarily legitimized by its expression. I am talking here about owning up to the sense of responsibility that is inextricably bound to any kind of freedom: both to our own selves and to the next person. It is not sufficient to seek and espouse goodness in itself. The precarious relationship it has with the will means it can fail. These days the context for discussing the rhetoric of freedom is power — and power is a game always reserved for the few. I have often wondered why love is not as often posited as a revolutionary ethic in our time. Love, although it has a tendency for perversion, is also the supreme ethic that takes us closest to ideals of equality and democracy. Love, by definition is inclusive. It inheres respect, trust and mutuality. It can be critical of its object — even while it may condemn their actions. It does not stultify. But power, on the other hand — lacking such checks— tendentiously corrupts its subject and perpetuates inequality.
James Baldwin teaches about fighting power with love. Baldwin understands, fully well, the myth of the ‘color line’ when he states in characteristic sharpness and conviction that “[c]olor is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this [American] nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains.”1 He understands that the identity conferred on one on either side of the racial divide in America is one that becomes valid only when used for political currency, that is, by the megaloman. In an open letter to fellow activist Angela Davis, he illustrates this more clearly by asserting “[w]hat the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil is not a racial war but a civil war.”2 I find his use of “brothers” a very loaded metaphor.
A person can so preoccupy themselves with the desire for freedom and its pursuit that it paradoxically makes them slavish without them realizing it. This slavishness is euphemistically justified today as the dogmatic assertion of one’s human rights. Clive Staples Lewis reminds us that “if all men stood talking of their rights before they went up a mast or down a sewer or stoked a furnace or joined an army, we should all perish; nor while they talked of their rights would they learn to do these things. […] the man preoccupied with his own rights is not only a disastrous, but a very unlovely object; indeed, one of the worst mischiefs we do by treating a man unjustly is that we force him to be thus preoccupied.”3 If we think this 20th century prophetic voice not attuned to our time, Arundhati Roy offers a more politically sensitive description suited to a 21st century world plagued by refugee crises, mass surveillance, censorship, increased worker insecurity, and obscene concentration of wealth in an ever diminishing global minority. Roy, in critiquing NGOs as global finance’s apparatus of controlling public commons, states that “[NGOs] have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals, and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multiculturalism, gender equity, community development — the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights.”4 There comes a time when one must suspend their own rights for the benefit of another.
It is as if we have come to lack the capacity for vulnerability, which can really be a position of strength if we are bold enough to think so. We become weak in the pursuit of power. Freedom has become a vacant term synonymous with consumerism. The freedoms we insist on — the irresponsible kind—, in the context of political emancipation, are not liberating at all but oppressive and tyrannical. We become slaves to our own passions and to those who possess the means to profit from them.
Given the consequences of modernity barreling down since the 15th century into today’s neo-liberal epoch — amidst precarious labor groups, ecological threats, new forms of exploitation and apartheid systems, etc — liberty is a necessary ideal. However, I hold the view that freedom is not an absolute concept. It, too, has its problems and limitations. And so I wish to discuss two kinds of people who I think embody some of the lapses in living free without consideration of another or care for responsibilities: namely the child and the madman.
Children are an interesting kind of people. They possess the strength to delight in the mundane. They are wild, uninhibited, impassioned, and indifferent— in terms of how they engage objects. A child will treat a pen with the same attitude they would a rock. The vitality in their disposition opens them up to wondrous pleasures in ordinary things. They are quick to rage and forget in equal measure when something is done to them of which they do not approve. They want what they want when they want, unquestioned. Not premeditatedly so but by disposition. Precisely because of this is why adults usually exhaust themselves trying to keep them from living so, and with good reason. Now this is the point I wish to put across: because they wish to espouse freedom in this sense, they cannot be responsible, neither to themselves nor to anyone else. Someone else must fill that hole created, not them. As such we do not trust them. No responsible adult would leave their toddlers unattended to. A child can suddenly burst with excitement of seeing something across the street and wander into it oblivious to speeding traffic. Very few of us would blame him if he hurt himself from this mindless action. We would direct our displeasure to the negligent adult who let this happen.
Another sort of free human being is the madman. She is totally, and excusably so, free from all societal or cultural norms. While some societies who claim to be more advanced criminalize mental health, others seek to cure them by collecting them into disciplinary spaces often referred to as Rehabilitation Centers or Psychiatric Homes. This, for me, is enough proof that although today’s societies would not admit it, we really believe, as a matter of principle, that no man nor woman should be left to be so free. For the societies that leave them to be, we see what freedom from social restrictions really mean.
The concept of freedom implies that its subject can, at any time terminate it simply by exercising a will to do so. In the same way we cannot talk about an a one-ended stick, we must — regardless of the political positions we bring to the table — discuss the other sides of our choices and decisions for we cannot escape their consequences. Those who preach absolute freedom to our erotic passions, artistic sensibilities, natural proclivities and dispositions exhibit one of two traits: they are either irresponsible or morbidly single-minded. Like the child, these people have to grow up! Or else be cured at once from their disease of morbid single-mindedness for what they are proposing is an unlivable ideal.
Epigraph: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Popular Classics Publishing, 2012, p11,
- See James Baldwin, Letter From a Region In My Mind, The New Yorker, November 17, 1962 issue. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind
- James Baldwin, An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, 1970. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/01/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/
- C. S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, Ed. Walt Hooper, Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 240.
- See Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Haymarket Books, 2014, pp. 34. Roy contextualizes the phenomenon of NGOs as an apparatus of control in corporate globalization by stating: “As the IMF enforced structural adjustment and arm-twisted governments into cutting back on public spending on health, education, child care, development, the NGOs moved in. The Privatization of Everything has also meant the NGO-ization of Everything. As jobs and livelihoods disappeared, NGOs have become an important source of employment, even for those who see them for what they are. And they are certainly not all bad. Of the millions of NGOs, some do remarkable, radical work, and it would be a travesty to tar all NGOs with the same brush. However, the corporate or foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within. They sit like nodes on the central nervous system, the pathways along which global finance flows. They work like transmitters, receivers, shock absorbers, alert to every impulse, careful never to annoy the governments of their host countries.” ibid, pp. 33.