Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What is Freedom?

Excerpts: Universal Questioner By Peter Berkowitz

The core of freedom is making choices and living in accordance with them.

So understood, freedom is not a recent invention. Men and women have always dreamed of it. But they have not always understood freedom as a human right, as a great good that all human beings should enjoy, by virtue of their shared humanity, as a vital element of human dignity.

According to the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, our understanding of freedom developed in three historical stages. In the first, the despotisms of distant antiquity, one person, the despot, was free. He treasured his freedom; to preserve it, he ruthlessly subjected all others to his will.

In the second, at the high point of classical Greece, in democratic Athens, a few were free. Those fortunate few—the citizens—took pride in their freedom and put it to good, even grand, use. Athenians produced enduring achievements in literature, the arts, politics, and philosophy. But the citizens, who constituted a minority of the city, generally felt no inconsistency between their precious freedom and the second-class status or servitude of the many on whose labor their freedom depended.

According to Hegel, it was only with the spread of the biblical teaching that all men and women are created in God’s image that the beautiful idea took root that all human beings are meant to be free and therefore are, in a most important respect, equal. In the fullness of time, philosophers restated the teaching in secular terms and developed new political forms to respect it. The universal claims of this third, and Hegel believed final, stage in freedom’s history resounded in 1776 in America’s Declaration of Independence and in 1789 in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. . .

(Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn showed, lies and violence were inseparable from communism because communism conflicted with human nature. Communism sought to subject man to the will of the party. But the human spirit seeks freedom to preserve the wisdom embodied in tradition and to live in accordance with justice. . .

he (Solzhenitsyn) warned of the dangers to freedom that emanated from the Enlightenment: erosion of the distinction between liberty and license; obsession with material goods; neglect of obligations; loss of courage; failure to take seriously the enemies, old and new, of freedom. . .

“Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.” They omitted, Solzhenitsyn ruefully noted, the remainder of the proverb: “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”

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