Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What is freedom?

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Is there any other word that defines the American spirit quite like the word freedom? Ask most people what they understand freedom to be and youll hear a response resembling the following: freedom from coercion, oppression, and extrinsic force so that one may exercise the ability to make choices and determine their own path of life. Any limitation placed on the choices available to a person is, by definition, a loss of freedom.

While all of this is true, it is an incomplete understanding of freedom, it resembles more the idea of liberty, which is a part of a the full concept of freedom. To understand freedom more completely, one must explore two senses of freedom and how they relate to one another.

Mike Mozart, "American Flag" is licensed under CC 2.0.
The first sense would, in fact, be this idea of liberty. The particularly human quality of having the ability to make a decision about ones actions, thoughts, and life as a whole. While animals function under the direction of instinct, human beings have the ability to make free choices. We are not bound by simple impulses and often make decisions contrary to what basic impulse would direct us. Freedom, in this sense, has a more negative reference and is properly described as freedom from.

The second sense, however, can be described as freedom for. In this sense freedom refers to an ability or a power. One is free to perform an action because she has the ability or the power to perform that action. A classic example would be the freedom to play an instrument. Having never learned to play the piano, I do not have the freedom to sit down at a moments notice and produce music. The most I can do is awkwardly press a few keys and produce the first few notes of a simple song. One who has learned to play the piano has the freedom to sit down at any keyboard they come across and produce music for all within ear shot. This is a fuller understanding of freedom and liberty only exists in service to this second sense of freedom. The first sense is merely potentiality, the second, actuality.

In addition, once someone makes a choice, they automatically reduce their liberty. If I choose chocolate ice cream, I necessarily no longer have the liberty to choose the vanilla. If I turn right down the road, I no longer have the liberty to turn left. In contrast, freedom in the second sense is never diminished. It always actualizes potential, it fulfills. This being said, to achieve freedom, one must always sacrifice one's liberty. If I want to produce music from the piano, I am not at liberty to bang down on any key I choose at any moment. The piano has a law and an order that I must submit to if I wish to be truly free to play the piano. In addition to laying aside my liberty in service to this internal structure that must be obeyed, I must sacrifice my liberty continually to practice and play scales over and over when Id rather play or do something else. This constant sacrificing of my liberty gradually transforms into the freedom to produce the beauty of the music to achieve the purpose for the pianos existence. Freedom, then, can be described as the ability achieve excellence - to fulfill the purpose of a particular object or power.

These two senses of freedom are dependent upon each other. I cannot exercise the freedom forwithout the freedom from.If someone has bound my hands, I am not free to play the piano. The first sense is in service to the second. Liberty is not an end in itself. It exists always in service to freedom. The goal, then? Instead of understanding mere liberty as the primary virtue to be sought for oneself, one should seek to use their liberty to achieve excellence and fulfillment.

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