Freedom as a Power, Rather than as a Passive State

Freedom as a Power, Rather than as a Passive State June 23, 2009

Today, an excellent former student pushed me on the question of whether philosophy was more important than basic survival.  I interpreted this question, at its core, to be whether freedom of thought is worth dying for.  I think this because the right to philosophize for oneself is, at its core, the fundamental freedom of thought itself since it is the very right to inquire into the most fundamental questions about natural and political orders for oneself.

My first inclination from here, safely sitting on my bed in a peaceful America, was to say that freedom of thought was so integral a freedom that in its absence no other human freedoms can compensate to fill its void.  Our flourishing as the kinds of beings we are demands that we express our powers freely.  If we cannot do so, we are in a certain ethical sense as “good as dead.”  And no power is more central to us than out ability to think for ourselves.  So, to my mind, “Give me liberty or give me death” was the only option.

But in reflecting on what it means to say “give me liberty or give me death” I realized that surely that cannot mean simply rushing to one’s death rather than enduring the indignity of oppression.  If one cannot advance the cause of one’s own liberty or of liberty in general, then simply dying is not enough.  My one man coup against an unjust oppressor only results in another victim, another tally on tyranny’s side of the scorecard.  So futile, suicidal resistance is not how we should interpret the injunction that we demand only liberty or death for ourselves.

So then I mused that under such oppression where direct violent resistance was practically impossible, one should express oneself as much as possible and as subversively as one could get away with short of getting oneself executed.  In thinking about this, I imagined the amount of bravery it might take not even to cross lines that will get you killed but to go up to the edge that is still tolerated and thereby to tempt others to that edge, to push the boundary wherever it is and through that persistent example to embolden others to test that boundary too.  The goal is to be an intellectual conspirator converting fellow conspirators.  If that became our “maxim”–our categorical imperative such that when violent forces oppress you, you should never cease risking for the sake of increasing the conspiracy against violence–I think such a moral duty would fell any oppression over the long haul.

And then it hit me, that wherever even the slightest expression of one’s true thoughts is a risky act of conspiracy, one is exercising as true a freedom of conscience as was ever worth living for.  How much freer could your conscience be than when it refuses to be bullied  by genuine threats and rather, resiliently finds ways to express itself?

And at this point I thought of all those brave unarmed Iranians who defiantly went out into the streets on Saturday and thought of how every freedom-demanding step they took required many more times powers of freedom from fear than any of the innumerable freely chosen actions of my week or quite possibly my whole life.  It is only when threatened that exercising our wills can embody a power of freedom from fear and servility.  It is not that the relative pampering of political liberty necessarily makes me a coward or pathetically servile, but it does invite the muscles of courage and freedom of spirit to atrophy.

What this made me realize is that when one looks at human good in terms of excellence, rather than in terms of ease and pleasure, and when one looks at freedom of spirit as an admirable power, rather than as anything one can passively and lazily accept from others as a gift; then there is cause to think that all over the world amidst so much tyranny, we need not despair that all freedom of conscience and freedom of expression have been lost.

I do not mean to minimize the tragedy of stifled speech and action.  I don’t think we should surrender hopes and efforts to liberalize the world so that everyone can flourish in far many more ways than in their bravery.  I appreciate to the core of my being the ways in which free peoples have been liberated to flourish in their mental and technological powers and to minimize the sorts of sufferings that may make for some strong characters but often just ruin lives.

But nonetheless, those who see tyranny five steps away and walk bravely to face it—even where that “walk” takes the form of the simplest conspiratorial gesture—are worthy of our admiration and, even, ironically, our envy—since all admiration involves a dose of healthy envy.  And I say this not to romanticize the plight of those who face grave threats so that they no longer trouble us or to imply that their victory over that which makes possible this constitution of character is not necessary to root for.  I say it as a way of stressing that those of us who are excellent live objectively better lives than those of us who merely manage to live in comfort.  And thankfully, excellence of character is one thing in which those who are most excellent only grow the more that others insist on trying to steal it.

Of course little of what I say here is original with me.  In particular I realized that I was drifting into some remarks of Nietzsche’s in Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man.”  So, let me quickly quote him and sum up what I think of what he has to say in light of my own reflection on these issues:

My conception of freedom. The value of a thing sometimes does not lie in that which one attains by it, but in what one pays for it—what it costs us.  I shall give an example.  Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained…they make men small, cowardly, and hedonistic…Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization.

Do liberal institutions make us small, cowardly, and hedonistic?  In many ways they might.  But they need not.  This is their temptation, not their fate.  And there have been too many brave soldiers raised in liberal countries to accept such reductionism.  And as much as the threat of tyranny inspires greater excellence from the most excellent, it can also make lesser characters all the worse.  Is the refinement of the already finest characters among us worth the demoralization of a wave of others?  And is it worth losing all the possibilities for flourishing that liberal societies make possible when they don’t distract with constant warfare for basic preservation?  And do people under liberal institutions not require courage and resource against threats from illness, political corruption, environmental disaster, economic destitution, or failure to achieve excellence for its own sake?

And also, the observation that under tyranny we can fight most valiantly for liberty and be most liberated can only be an abstract assessment of what creates excellent human beings but would be absurd as a prescription for action.  What is the recommendation?  Surely it’s not, “try to instantiate a tyranny better to make people fight for liberty.”  The only recommendation can be that we find the remaining vestiges of tyranny–be they militaristic, political, social, philosophical, or psychological, and that we wage war with them–be it through literal war, politics, or social, philosophical, and psychological engagement.

These same institutions produce quite different effects while they are still being fought for; then they really promote freedom in a powerful way.  On closer it inspection, it is war that produces these effects, the war for liberal institutions, which, as a war, permits illiberal instincts to continue.  And war educates for freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to assume responsibility for oneself.  That one maintains the distance which separates us.  That one becomes more indifferent to difficulties, hardships, privation, even to life itself.  That one is prepared to sacrifice human beings for one’s cause, not excluding oneself…

Here Nietzsche embraces liberty as the ideal worth fighting for but then ironically attributes exercise of illiberal instincts to the practice of fighting for it.  But, our instincts are precisely not illiberal when they are the bold gestures of freedom against the alternative of submission to what threatens.  So he also probably is contrasting the sense of liberal he disdains–free to atrophy–and calling the warrior illiberal in the sense that he does not permit himself that liberty but subjects his lazier drives to “tyrannous” rigors for the sake of a greater cause.  In that sense of “illiberal” there is nothing to criticize in “illiberality.”

But he also, more problematically, probably means “illiberal” in the sense of willing to sacrifice oneself and others, meaning he takes “liberal” to mean Enlightenment ideals of universal dignity and rights of all humans that make them ends in themselves not to be sacrificed as mere means.  For the sake of the cause of liberty, we are prepared to die and to encourage others to conspire with us at risk of life and limb, even to fight with us with the near certainty some or many of us (including us ourselves) will die.

Nietzsche is trying to exacerbate the tension that the fight for liberty and universal dignity, leads us to constrain our own liberties and endure hardships and even death and to be willing to sacrifice human beings for that cause.  It is as though only in the cause of the ideal of liberty, do we have the moral justification to exercise the excellences of bravery and willingness to put the attainment of an excellence over “safety with long life for all.”  Maybe we will say that being so excellent is not worth all the death and misery that come with it.  But the question that lingers is whether we “renounce the great life” when we renounce war (as Nietzsche famously says earlier in Twilight of the Idols when talking about internal conflict and not actual wars).

How is freedom measured in individuals and peoples?  According to the resistance which must be overcome, according to the exertion required, to remain on top.  The highest type of free men should be sought where the highest resistance is constantly overcome: five steps from tyranny, close to the threshold of servitude.  This is true psychologically if by “tyrants” are meant inexorable and fearful instincts that provoke the maximum of authority and discipline against themselves…

The second portion of this paragraph gives us some consolation that we need not live under political oppressors to find the tyrant of fear within our own psyches against whose existential, psychological challenges, we can  develop and express powerful, free character.  And as I mentioned before, a life without armed conflicts is not a life guaranteed to be without great fear, pain, and emotional anguish by a long shot.


Danger alone acquaints us with our own resources, our virtues, our armor and weapons, our spirit, and forces us to be strong.  First principle: one must need to be strong—otherwise one will never become strong.

Maybe not danger alone—but as we build for a world of reduced political dangers, what should we build into it which will still acquaint ourselves with “our own resources, our virtues, our armor and weapons, our spirit” and force ourselves to be strong?  Where do we still need to be strong?  I ask these questions not rhetorically or assuming there is no answer, but rather as questions each of us can only answer for ourselves or that we can collectively only answer through a long process of reflection.

Fortunately for us, I think, we are never without needs and challenges, but unfortunately many of the needs and challenges we face in the comforts of a peaceful land are ones we can avoid facing and so we can sneak by without being forced to become strong in many ways.  If only we faced their demand that we be strong, maybe we wouldn’t have to romanticize war to imagine ourselves vicariously as strong and heroic.  Maybe in that case Nietzsche’s astute “first principle” would not be a justification for war as the only route to human excellence.

Your thoughts?

"Demonization, in the name of a purity of ideals, is just another way of rationalizing ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"Agreed 100%, these types are so far left of liberalism yet still have the temerity ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"Nods--I know my daughter is using it that way. I think women are doing men ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."
"You are most probably right.An interesting discussion on late nigh Woman's Hour BBC R4 last ..."

I Stand With Liberalism Against The ..."

Browse Our Archives