Freedom is a subject explored by various thinkers, philosophers and politicians. It is an experience and a state-of-being which cannot be easily defined. Sometimes it seems to be a mere cliché or a rhetorical flourish.
Political freedom often refers to the freedom from coercion. Former occupied territories view the attainment of national independence as the pinnacle of their historical and political narrative; a milestone event which allowed their nation-state to embark on its own destiny.
National sovereignty requires the protection of certain individual rights and freedoms. These are often enshrined in a Constitution and protected through a legal and judicial framework. They may include provisions for free and fair elections, protection from arbitrary action by state organs, and freedom of thought, worship and assembly – to name but a few. Individuals also have the right to be free from politics; to opt out of the political process and to choose to which extent they want to participate in the life of their community.
Thinkers from the Austrian school of economics list economic freedom as a pre-cursor to political freedom. Economic freedom is based on the right to own property, to benefit from its earnings, to transfer property and to engage in contracts with others. Such freedoms allow individuals to choose their preferred way of making a living and secure their own future. Some individuals add the “freedom from want” to the above list. This assures that vulnerable individuals are protected from poverty and destitution through an adequate welfare framework.
The aforementioned list of rights and freedoms is not exhaustive. It is a reductionist and simplistic review which only give a brief overview of the complexities of defining freedom.
The general consensus is that freedom is the absence of dependence and arbitrary coercion which allows individual choices – provided these do not endanger the rights and liberties of others. Individual choice is the primary concern.
On a philosophical and cultural level individualism is rampant. Cultural relativism is the most dominant world-view today. Paradoxically it seems that, on an individual level, the desire to conform is as strong as ever. Many want to “fit in” and to be seen as being part of a mainstream crowd. Others seek to assert their individuality within a subculture.
Whilst having a myriad of constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms we seem to be unwilling to stand up for what we truly believe; to go against prevailing worldly cultures; to form and express our own opinions and to desist from conforming to herd instincts.
I often fear that the so-called “rebels” may end up being rebels without a cause – standing up for something which is either ephemeral or superficial. This posits the question: are we squandering our freedom?
Dr Ligita Ryliskyte, a cardiologist and spiritual director, recalls some personal reflections on freedom in the Soviet Union. She writes: “I learnt about the difference between ‘external’ freedom and ‘inner’ freedom. ’External’ freedom, which included exercising human rights, religious freedom and even choosing what to wear or to eat, was very limited. Therefore the emphasis was on ‘inner’ freedom, that is, the capacity to choose one’s attitude towards one’s reality and to act upon this choice” (The Way; 50(2) pp. 37-49). Personal circumstances may sometimes be beyond our control.
Free will and choice are all important elements which can nourish our freedom; yet they need to be accompanied by a degree of personal detachment and discernment in order to discover more authentic and long-lasting liberty. Perhaps we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we choose to define rather than discover and live in freedom.