In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of those chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes. [“The Prophet”, Gibran Kahlil Gibran]
A few days ago at breakfast my wife looked at me over her cup of tea, a playful smile at the corners of her mouth, and asked me if I considered her a free person. That at first apparently simple question, to which I without hesitation answered “yes,” prompted days of conversations and a gradually maturing decision on my part to write down thoughts about the complex and elusive subject of freedom. After days of thinking, reading, and note- taking, here are some ideas and conclusions - some mine, some of others.
My Italian Rizzoli - Larousse Encyclopedia dedicates seven long, tight columns to libertá. Italian, French, Spanish, and other languages are limited to the one Latin root, libertas, while English is blessed with both liberty and freedom, the latter from the Anglo-Saxon freodom and Middle English fredom. To my ear, freedom rings stronger, harsher, and more deeply rooted than the romantic and heroic “liberty,” probably because of the historic echo of liberté, egalité, fraternité. Rizzoli defines liberty - therefore also freedom - in many diverse connotations and usages, from constitutional freedom to the four freedoms proclaimed by United States President F.D. Roosevelt in 1941: freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear, which became the cornerstone of the Atlantic Alliance after World War II.
My wife did not have in mind such political or social freedoms. She meant interior freedom - the latent personal freedom inside each individual that can exist under the harshest of dictatorships. She meant metaphysical freedom. Something like the freedom of the cat, an innate independence that exists even in situations of physical dependence.
In the sixth column under libertá, my encyclopedia has a sub-entry, “freedom of choice,” which points to the freedom we had in mind: “Freedom itself implies a conscious choice,” the text reads. That is, the interior freedom that makes me only me and not someone else.
It is a mystery why a person is attracted to one individual in the whole universe rather than to another, to love and spend his life with. It must be more than simply chance that one meets and recognizes the other. It is also a choice. That choice is a great act of freedom. The attraction first, then the love, is so powerful that it enables the lover in his choice to defy the whole world in order to hold onto the other. What story is more human than a love story?
Choice is human prerogative. Choices are landmarks in all our lives – the choice of a profession, a religion, an ideology, or another person. I think that ultimately we all come to know – if only subconsciously – that it is the concept of choice that grants us freedom.
Americans profess admiration for the rugged individualist who abandons the security of the mainstream and goes alone out into the world to seek his true self. We love the words “only the brave.” We scorn conformism. Yet, the reality of our lives is different. Autonomy might be a live goal but not many have attained it. Personality is its own end but society still overpowers its individual elements.
Over breakfast we looked around and with surprise ascertained that many people around us apparently refuse to choose. I say apparently because I realized that I can experience only my own freedom. Since this is a metaphysical matter I can only have risky opinions about another’s freedom - or lack of it. It is impossible to determine metaphysical freedom in another. Nonetheless the brutal reality is that most people do not seem to even know they are prisoners. They have no chance of being free unless they become aware of the possibility of choice and then choose it. My wife and I agreed that the freedom of choice is the most wonderful capacity of human beings.
I cannot remember the precise moment I made my choice of freedom but I do remember when I was not free and when I came to know I was a prisoner - of collective habits, customs, traditions, prejudices, career, fashions. Since then I came to understand that my interior freedom is embedded in choice, and thus in myself.
Soren Kierkegaard believed that the first basic choice that conditions all others is the choice of being oneself - and not someone else. The expression “to choose oneself” belongs to the founder of Existentialism. The expression is the Kierkegaardian – Existentialist version of Socrates’ motto of “know thyself,” in turn echoing the ancient Chinese aphorism: “The man who knows others is erudite; the man who knows himself is wise.”
“My life,” Kierkegaard writes, “cannot be free if I do not first of all choose to be myself.” One [that terrible anonymous little pronoun, “one”, Kierkegaard noted] can make other choices, the choice to live only in the present, externally, following blindly each new fad, forever living in imitation of others. One can be talented, gifted, intelligent, and beat his breast in self-satisfaction, and still be a slave of fashion. That is what the Arab writer, Gibran Kahlil, meant by his words to the people of Orphalese [New York], “you shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.”
There is a world of difference between “being free” and “acting or feeling free.” The free person finds pathetic the figure of the apish wannabe artist, dressed like an artist, speaking like an artist, standing in a crowded gallery for the vernissage of his paintings - of nothing. Imitators surround the imitator; the imitators praise the non-art and imitate the non-artist.
To me the argument that the concept of freedom can be reduced to awareness of the potential choices and a conscious selection of the most appropriate one in one’s life seems weak in the face of the interior freedom we are speaking of and man’s relationship with the universal. Well, no, we do not stand face to face with infinity each day. But what is such a weak mundane choice of “the most appropriate” for the kind of man Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov speaks of: “kto ya, chelovek ili tvar drozhashchaya?” What am I, a man or a trembling creature? I see such a dialectic as a justification of unfreedom: you accept the Orphalese ease [appropriateness] of slavery and label it freedom.
Dostoevsky in The Grand Inquisitor illustrated how easy, comfortable and secure it is not to choose oneself and to remain unfree. To be possessed by extraneous things and the temptress security, while all the time sinking deeper into slavery - because you do not possess your own self.
There is no getting around it - unless I choose myself I am destined to copy the world.
But what is the self that I must choose? What is the self? we ask again and again. What is it that makes me, me? It is an amazing sensation to know that the same my self remains with me all my life. My self as a child is the same as my self today. I stop and think back and though it is vague and blurry I can again project myself into that childhood self. I remember that it existed. Memory is self. It is remembering that I am I. Not someone else. Vaguely, I can feel things I felt then. I feel the expression on my face today is the same as when I was a boy. I can smell things I smelled then, like the memory of the smell of my father’s hair, which is part of me. Though it is like my shadow, we – my former self and my self today - are the same. Yes, but what is it, one still wonders? The self?
This self is the metaphysical freedom my wife meant: my freedom as an individual in search of the universal. Otherwise I am just clay. If I do not choose to be I, I choose to be unfree.
Just now I stopped and tried to concentrate on my individuality. I broke into a sweat. The veins in my head pounded over the abstractedness of the concept of my own self. It is like trying to comprehend eternity. The relationship between my particular self and the universal is no less complex. We remain close to each other, the universal and I, like my self and I are close for a lifetime. I believe that is what the mystery of my individual life is. My self makes me different from everyone else, I speak differently from everyone else - as if my particular had divorced from the universal, yet it is always striving for reunion.
There is no question about it. One needs guts to choose freedom – the freedom that leads to oneself. Only the brave can live out there alone, independent of the net of conventions around us. Of the collective. Of the social. It is precarious and lonesome out on the end of the thin limb of freedom. There is too much solitude out there. Your head spins. You feel giddy. You suffer. You feel like a failure. Unloved. Absurd. The eternal outsider. It takes courage to live out there like a hermit – again, a metaphysical hermit - for you know that the hermit is easily transformed into a heretic or a fanatic. You are surrounded by ghosts. The creator, the free man, walks in solitude along the rim of an abyss. Freedom, emerging also from the creator’s imagination, is not only a spark; it can be a raging fire, and a scream in the dark. To be genuinely yourself, genuinely inwardly different, is a dangerous path, for though it leads to happiness it can also become an obsession. It can take over your mind.
Yet – contradictorily - the courageous choice is contagious. The free person arouses envy and jealousy, but also fear and hate. Unfree imitators tease him and treat him as a child - but they imitate him.
The choice of self not only disturbs and even hurts others. It is also painful and frightening to the free person as well. At the moment of choosing yourself and freedom, you feel despair and bewilderment. You know you stand to lose the abundance of life. You are afraid of the solitude of the empty spaces.
But in the long run the reward arrives: the free man is not dependent. Fulfillment is inherent to the free man. Uneasiness is inherent to the fashionable world of unfree imitators.
The free man can somehow get by, as have people who chose freedom even in social unfreedom. Existentialist writer Alberto Moravia claimed that despair-desperation is the natural condition of man. For after you choose yourself, you at first fear the solitude. Then, gradually you come to realize that the self is not as abstract as you thought. The instinct of freedom brought you here. Your instinct was to flee. To flee from society’s rosy promises of a radiant future. You instead chose to flee back to silence. Back to the silence of freedom. To reticence and abstention. For man by nature is a poet. Gradually the poet in you becomes conscious of your freedom. You do not boast but it is a wonderful sensation to realize that you are you and no one else, that you speak only as you, and that you are independent – perhaps still a bit desperate - and free.
Your newly discovered self is protective and also jealous. It has come to know that power is not freedom. No more than evil is freedom. It knows that despite appearances freedom cannot exist in the tangled web of mundane obsessions and oppressions. Even though it often has to compromise, it tolerates a minimum of encroachments or limitations.
The free person is not ashamed to be considered naïve, odd, a flower child - he is not very afraid of ridicule. Even to yourself you might seem to be still the same person you were before your choice, but you are not. Freedom has changed you. And the consequences can be both terrible and wonderful.
You do not need to dress outlandishly or become a Buddhist to seem different. You do not have to live a bohemian life, sleep when others work, or disobey social rules. Without imitating, you are different from everyone else in the universe; yet you know you are striving toward the universal: the more universal-human you become, the more you are extraordinary and free. Not only do you know the difference between right and wrong; awareness of reality never escapes you again. The flag of freedom is planted in your self. Your interior freedom will now grow.
Kierkegaard warned that you will be surprised when others feel deceived that you have turned out to be “good.” Everybody expected “more” of you. The good man, the free man, is underestimated; he is strange, enigmatic, and perhaps idiotic. He creates embarrassment but also envy. Others feel uneasy around him but they copy him.
The free man does not need to display his difference, that is, his freedom, because it is an interior affair, his alone. He does not show off. He can hold a regular job, have a family and live the most normal of lives. But he is different. He does not know bigotry or piousness. In his apparent simplicity – I say apparent, because he is desperate - he holds close to his knowledge that he is nearer and nearer to the universal. For the universal, as Moravia would agree, emerges from despair. For the other existentialist, Albert Camus, despair is a necessary step along the way to the universal.
One rebuts that it is possible to choose oneself for purely selfish reasons, like to emerge in one’s normal life, in a career. That is true. But choosing oneself is not falling in love with oneself. Moreover, freedom is also development. After you choose freedom, you have to realize it again and again.
I am free. Though I cannot remember the exact moment I chose freedom, I can remember when I was not free. That view of my personal history is not in my CV. Each of us has his own interior history. Our interior life has many turns. You feel you are diverse persons throughout your life. You divide your life into phases. You seem to live several lives in one lifetime but at the core you are always the same you.
I have come to believe that our interior history is the divine in us. The choice of freedom gives continuity to our personal history. The process is one of revelation of and reconciliation with your self.
But what a task we take on when we opt for freedom. We have to learn that abundance counts for little. This rings un-American. But other things count more: one eternal problem of freedom is the responsibility. The moment I choose myself and freedom and set out down the road toward the universal, I assume the responsibility for myself. It is enough to look around and find that many people reject the responsibility of freedom.
Alluringly, a rejection of responsibility is of course a kind of freedom too. And a great consolation. The collective offers a false, glossy freedom. It is the great temptation. The collective prefers two things: social abundance and non-responsibility.
However, the desire for abundance and security is also complex. It complicates one’s life no end. For in everyday life the unfree man can never acquire enough to satisfy him. His despair is mortal. Happy but a slave.
The free man instead has his freed self to fall back on. Knowing himself is the free man’s anchor.
Once I chose freedom I came to realize that the universal lies deep inside my individuality, like quiet subterranean water. The striving toward the universal, toward the core, it seems, is the basic concern of human beings once they have chosen freedom.
The more my wife and I spoke of the idea of interior freedom, the more we understood to what degree freedom is a choice. For the human is not born free. He is born totally dependent, only barely able to breathe alone. But the freedom of choice lies latent in him. At some point in life, if he is lucky or if he chooses to choose, he wakes up enough to be able to choose to be free.
It is an interesting experience to look into yourself and ask as candidly as possible if you are free. In this territory you are working without a net. You can compare yourself to others. When you become aware of life’s many prisons and begin to wonder about others, you find it is possible to recognize the unfree.
But because man by nature is an actor, it is probably impossible to identify the free man. In his role the actor is fleeting. Ephemeral. Like fame itself. The actor also becomes his roles and carries them over into his everyday life. He wears many different masks. Freedom is one of the favorite masks. A deceptive mask.
I felt and still feel guilt for choosing freedom - for the pain it costs others. I feel guilty for my egoism. The result is solitude and melancholy and the guilt for my reckless choice that triggered the sense of responsibility for my self and my freedom.
The situation is grim. I am overwhelmed by guilt. There I am basking in freedom, smiling and laughing at the world around me, while those I love do not yet realize there is a possible choice. I want to explain. But how? And why guilt? For what? Because I am a human being? Because I chose freedom? I should feel innocent. Nonetheless it is impossible to be completely sad – the joy of freedom is too great. I realize that my self is the absolute, its own end.
In this selfish context, all the arguments and discussions among races and religions about what is right or wrong seem external.
I have enjoyed reading Nietzsche on personal freedom but I do not like him. For me he is too confused to deal with such explosive material. But he was a man of his times and another of the fathers of Existentialism. The thing about Nietzsche is that he does not really distinguish between good and evil, or he does not take a stand, as if it did not matter: his evil is good, his good, evil. He seems to believe that the true self lies in the evil, which in turn is power, which is fulfillment. Yet, in Ecce Homo, the evil master, for whom morality is just another prejudice, says like Kierkegaard: “The expression ‘free spirit’ should not be understood in any other way: a spirit that has become free, that has retaken possession of itself.”
For Albert Camus, God is the fundamental problem of freedom. Dostoevsky wrote of his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that the chief question in his book was the existence of God. Both writers accept that “metaphysical” freedom presupposes the existence of God. Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus, “either we are not free and God is all-powerful and responsible for evil, or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful.”
Dostoevsky wrote in his Diary of a Writer that God is necessary and must exist but that he knows he does not exist. That is our absurd human state.
The point in the above is that we can understand things only in human terms. Everything else is speculation, myth, superstition, or hope. Too bad! For our freedom makes us want what we cannot have. Yet we cannot exist freely without the search. I reject the road of those who believe the only acceptable human path is to surrender freedom, the freedom of choice, and have faith.
Especially after writing this I wonder about the situation of interior freedom today. Perhaps because in its popular sense the words freedom and liberty have been used so long in the name of slavery and injustice, the true meaning eludes us. And now, as far as the metaphysical freedom discussed here in concerned, I also wonder if I am genuinely free as I boasted.
Perhaps it is truer that we choose only partly; sometimes circumstances choose for us; sometimes fate chooses for us. The doubt lingers: perhaps choice is just chance at work in our lives. I have to wonder.
Yes, perhaps it is true that also fate-inspired choices choose for us. It often seems that way - if you are too weak-hearted to make the choice yourself. Sometimes chance is a beautiful woman, sometimes she is a monster.
As Dostoevsky wrote, “Existence is illusory and it is eternal.”
© 2002 Gaither Stewart
Stewart is an American journalist who lives in Rome and now dedicates his
writing life to fiction. His articles and fiction have appeared in many
international publications. Two of his e-books are available from Southern
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