The idea of freedom is a defining concept in our culture. It is used to justify many political movements as the key to a good life. We see it being used as justification for many events, from movements like Net Neutrality, to wars like WWII and the Iraq War, to arguments about which human rights we should have and which governmental structures we should accept. This idea of freedom as a driving factor for the “progress” of humanity is so widespread that it is natural to assume that it is an a priori concept in people—that it follows logically from the human condition. However, upon a careful review of historical facts, this does not appear to be the case. There still seems to be quite a bit of discord as to what the notion of freedom entails.
Benjamin Constant, a famous French writer and politician during the Napoleonic times, famously wrote in 1819 about how ideas of ancient and modern liberty differ: the ancients (i.e. the Greeks and Romans) focused on the collective but direct function of government as central to liberty, while moderns (the English, French, and American peoples) focused on the individual rights a person has as central to liberty. Constant argues that this individualistic approach is the natural continuation of the understanding of freedom as society progresses. This modern individualistic definition was expressed in writings like John Stuart Mill in On Liberty:
The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.
However, is this development of a modern concept of freedom on an individualistic formulation truly universal? Does it express an idea deep within the human psyche about what it really means to live a good life, or is it the continuation of the Western dialectic? If it is the western dialectic, is it comparable to dialectics of the rest of the world? Do other major philosophies and religions share this way of thinking about freedom? These are important questions, for if we just take our current notion of freedom as being an a priori concept axiomatically, with the attitude that “our freedom is simply freedom—how can there be another understanding, it’s intuitive,” then we are establishing the moral groundwork of our society on a basis which is not rigorously thought-through or agreed upon. And this might lead to problems later on since many decisions are justified by the idea of freedom. It’s like saying “McDonald’s food is McDonalds food, it’s just what we eat, it’s what there is”, without considering the health implications of such a diet.
To rigorously understand whether the notion of freedom is indeed a priori and invariant amongst cultures, we must investigate major parallels between the modern conception of freedom as Mill dictated, and that of other philosophies and religions. Investigating such parallels entails a thorough definition of freedom in such arrays of cultures and philosophies. However, this is actually a harder question to answer than one may initially think, as there exist some cultures and philosophies which do not have a word for freedom, making it difficult to see if they have the same delineation of notions for freedom. For example, in Confucius’ and Mencius’ texts, there isn’t a word for freedom as we know it. However, all large religions and cultures do contrast the idea of slavery with a conception of what “not slavery” looks like, and none of these cultures advocate for their conception of slavery to be a way of life for its people. An excellent example of the representation of the state which is “not slavery” as something to strive towards can be seen in ancient Roman culture, where the god Libertas represent manumission. Therefore, to account for the lack of texts which explicitly use the word freedom, we can reasonably say that we can find ideas relating to freedom in texts which describe how life is, when one is not a slave.
When we are not slaves, how do we live well?
For our analysis, we will be using Spengler’s category of high cultures. Spengler recognized that many cultures, philosophies, and religions share common fundamental structures of belief, and he took the time to find what unites them. For the purposes of this article, we will pick four existing high cultures (or influential substrains, like Christianity) and use them as references: Western, Hindic, Sinic, and Appolonian (i.e. Greek and Roman).
We can start by looking at Western conceptions of living freely, since it directly uses the idea of freedom. When someone is free, what types of things do they pursue? Though there are many answers, we can explore a concise formulation in one particular famous written work explaining why individuals in a particular nation should be allowed to be free. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson writes: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. We see that the pursuit of “happiness” is a value that is key to live well and fight for freedom. Though the idea has many interpretations, the most accepted one in its time was that happiness is doing things for the good of humanity, and that living just and accomplished lives serves that purpose. Thus, happiness is tied to social duty and freedom. We see this reflected in many accounts of American society at the time, perhaps most famously in Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, wherein he praised the community spirit he saw in the American townsfolk.
This community-driven freedom makes sense if you take in that most American founding fathers and philosophical writers of the time and place would be versed in either the Bible or classical Greek writers. Greek writers (arguably even Epicurus), state that to live a happy life is to live a virtuous life which gives a sense of flourishing and prosperity in a community (polis). The term virtuous life is translated from areté, meaning fulfilling your purpose—the Greeks believed that being virtuous was the purpose of a human being. When you live a virtuous life, you are happy. The word used by the Greeks to describe this happiness is Eudaimonia, which can be translated as “flourishing”, “blessedness”, or “living well/dutifully”. A hint of the meaning can also be taken from the etymology of the word: Eu- meaning good, and -daimon meaning spirit or god. Since good is described with the concept of areté, we see a strong notion of happiness and fulfillment when someone finds their place in the community (polis). This etymological analysis is also corroborated by the works of Plato. We can take one of Plato’s more famous dialogues, Crito, in which Socrates debates that it is better to dutifully follow the state’s capital punishment than to disrespect the rules of the state. This relation between following your duty–being virtuous–and achieving Eudaimonia, is key to being a free person in Greek times. This respect for community remained strong in many founders of liberalism, up to and including the 18th-century writers of the Declaration of Independence.
This idea of happiness and meaning tied to people living freely is not limited to the Western and Apollonian schools of thought. We can go to any other high culture and find parallel ideas. For example, in Hindic philosophy, there are four central meanings, or purposes, of life (the puruṣārthas): artha (securing a means to live), kama (being emotionally fulfilled), Moksha (freedom from the cycle of life and death), and dharma (living virtuously and morally). Of these 4 goals, the Dharma is very central to Hinduism (sometimes Hinduism is called a dharma, here meaning “a way of life”). Dharma in essence composes the idea of living well in the universe. This is done by fulfilling one's duty, being lawful, acting justfly, to yourself, your family, and your community at large. If one does Dharma throughout life, one can achieve a state of bliss and happiness. To get to that point, there are texts (mainly the Yogas) which tell you how to reach this state. The canonical Hindic texts don’t espouse the version of happiness where you define meaning for yourself. Rather, you can get there by either working and fulfilling your duty (karma yoga), devoting oneself to your deity (Bhakti yoga) or devoting yourself to the pursuit of knowledge (Jnana yoga). All of this ties to what a free person would do (or needs to do to become free in the next life, like the untouchables): they each need to live a moral life, with each Yoga developing the right way to live to reach a state of bliss and happiness.
In Sinic philosophy, the idea of happiness in moral terms is even more pronounced. Confucius’ philosophy focuses on being connected with those around you, specifically your friends and family. For those versed in western philosophy, this idea is not dissimilar to virtue ethics, with an emphasis on rituals (lǐ 禮) to practice and teach these virtues. The word lǐ (ritual) does not mean the same thing in English: lǐ is heavily tied with yì (義), meaning acting with reciprocity and rightfulness. In Confucian thinking, being constantly aware of your social situation, playing an active role in keeping harmony, and living life well (through lǐ) are the key components to living a good life. Even the Chinese character for good (仁) is the combination of the character for human and two; acting out “good” means being in harmony with others. If you accomplish this (as Confucius and other sages are said to have mastered), then you will be joyful (lè, 樂). This idea is not limited to Confucius in Chinese philosophy: Mencius (dubbed the second sage of Confucianism) has similar ideas, and Zhuangzi and Laozi, to name two other foundational figures, each in their own sense taught that being part of “the way” (Tao, 道, which can be thought of the natural order of the universe) will bring you lè (joy), and thus fulfillment.
Furthermore, there is a similar concept of higher duties being good in both Sinic and Hindic philosophies. In Mencius’ writing, there is also another word for good, 善 (Shàn), which roughly translates to living virtuously. In the Li Lou I, Mencius tells a prince that he must fulfill his duty in order to live virtuously (善). Drawing parallels between this and the Hindic philosophy which we explored earlier, a similar scene happens in one of the most famous Hindic texts, the Bhagavad Gita. In it, the prince Arjuna tackles the moral dilemma of fighting in a war which has close friends and family as enemies. The god Krishna informs Arjuna that it is his duty, his Dharma, to be a warrior and a prince and fight the war virtuously. In both these philosophies, there is a common idea that there is virtue in fulfilling your duty.
All in all, we see how worldviews around the world interpret collective responsibility and duty as being one of the keys to living well. In all these systems, freedom is equated with the state of happiness which one obtains from living well. Living well is not something the individual creates for himself, rather it is found, and achieved with a lot of hard work. The way one achieves happiness is by finding your meaning in a collective - be it some greater purpose (like in the Jnana Yoga), or family, or work, or other such means, through emotions which are not exclusively positive. Struggling is an inherent part in these conceptions of happiness, and thus freedom.
A more holistic definition of freedom
With our knowledge of what it means to not be in a state of slavery, we can draw several conclusions about what it means to be free. I stipulate that collective alignment is the essence of freedom. The idea of alignment here is closely related to the more general Jungian idea of alignment. It is not just a conscious structure or a plan you have made for your life. It means aligning with the most fundamentally rooted parts of your “essence”, your Self, the deepest nature of your spirit. By doing so, you will find what you need to bring the multifaceted nature of your psyche into unison. And part of anyone's psychic unison is collective alignment: the alignment of yourself with the collective(s) you are part of to let you find your meaning(s) in life. You are collectively aligned, in the state of freedom, if you have figured out your place in the universe. So the feeling of being free is the feeling an individual gets when they can do what they should be able to do, whether it be simple actions or moral or life-changing actions. For example, we can take this innocuous scenario: “I feel like I can go on a bike ride right now and enjoy the summer air”. That is part of the result of collective alignment (be it a small consequence of it); there is a respect between you, society, your community, family, and so forth, that is giving you this “freedom”, this non-restriction, mainly on the basis that it’s an amoral issue. Conversely, in our society, you do not have the freedom to go and convert people to Nazism. That wouldn’t be considered a “freedom” by you or society, because it’s considered wrong. Furthermore, in Canadian society, we consider someone being on a “good” path if they pursue a career (even more so if it’s in STEM, Law, or Medicine). If you and the collective are aligned on these ideas, both you and the collective see this as good or bad.
These examples of freedom being expressed have very tangible collective entities; this need not be the case. The collective entity in question might also be more abstract than a community of people. Some ways in which an individual might find themselves in something greater than themselves—a collective—can be embodied in the process of writing music, becoming a parent, saving rainforests, becoming an esteemed scholar, becoming a priest, or a politician. The collective represents some “entity” beyond groups of individuals, which is the reason for the group of individuals in the first place. For example, if someone's meaning is to save the Amazonian rainforest, it is not on the basis of wanting to form a community of saviors or for other reasons based on self-interest, but because you feel the Amazonian rainforest needs to have someone to help it. Each of these pursuits binds you to a collective entity which has some idea of what’s valuable in life (i.e. something that will bring happiness and meaning), what’s right and wrong, and a worldview that comes with it.
This idea of freedom being collective alignment is not an uncommon one. C.J Donoso mentioned in his article, Liberalism on Trial Part 4, how there is a Christian conception of freedom, wherein committing sin means you are a slave and will “not remain in the house forever” (John 8:35). This fact matches our analysis. Christianity has the concept of ashrê (in Hebrew) or makarios (in Greek). As Jonathan Pennigton puts it, “[In] the biblical sense of ʾashrê/makarios, true human flourishing and well-being can only be found in relationship with God and through alignment with his coming kingdom. That is, while it is important that we realize thatʾashrê/makarios are casting a vision of human flourishing, it is equally important to see that this flourishing can never occur fully apart from a proper relationship with the creator God.” We can see here how happiness is achieved when one is in a personal relation to God. This shows how key collective alignment is here to truly be able to be free, for one finds freedom if one accepts God in their heart and has a harmonious relation with God, and thus can be happy as a consequence. And this personal relation with God also entails moral responsibilities, showing how again the moral underpinning that comes into play when addressing freedom.
Tangentially, Christian scholars who saw the word Eudamonia translated to “blessed'' might be reminded of how ashrê and makarios can also be translated as happiness or blessed. It has been stipulated that these words share similar connotations.
This idea of freedom as collective alignment is again not limited to western religions and philosophies. We can look at other religions and philosophies we’ve been exploring and find the same parallels. As mentioned, in Confucian thinking, the word “freedom” as we know it today doesn’t show up. However, when thinking of freedom as a collective-alignment, we can see how, in Confucian thinking, it is key to be connected with those around you (or connected to 道 (Tao), “the way”, as Zhuangzi and Laozi would generalize it). For Confucians, communal collectives were fundamental: family, friends, and ancestors are key collectives in Confucian thinking which you must connect to. A similar concept is present in Hinduism. The caste system developed in the Vedas assigns everyone in society a particular social role. When one practices dharma, one fulfills those roles, which leads to happiness and collective-alignment. This collective is predicated on very social views of human nature, and thus a freedom which is especially social in western conceptions, for you are born in your caste, and you live your life according to that, and it is the universe's natural order which decreed it as thus.
As a final example, we’ll turn to a fun quirk in the Polish language. In Polish, the word for freedom (wolność) is contrasted with the word for egotistical/individualistic freedom (swawola). Both words are etymologically rooted: wolność meaning something like “will-ness”, while swawola meaning something like “your will”. In the vocabulary I introduced, we see how there is a distinction between being free to practice your will responsibly, and being recklessly free, not aligning yourself with any collective and just imposing your will onto others.
Overall, freedom, when defined collectively, has a lot to do with finding the right place for yourself in the universe. When you find this place, you will achieve a state of being free.
Critiques of collective formulation
Some might criticize this characterization of freedom by saying I'm overly eager to define people's roles and nature as part of a collective—that I’m ignoring or perhaps even shunning individualistic views. Some might critique that this lack of an individualistic perspective makes one ignore how some collectives do not seem to let individuals be free. This might brings to mind the mantra, “Freedom is Slavery” from Orwell's 1984. I do not mean to touch on this too much, for the dyadic nature of the individual and the collective is beyond the scope of the article, but essentially, human social nature operates both as an individual and as a collective—the two exist together. A lot of our raison d’etre and moral code stems from a collective source (as we’ve outlined). However, it is we as individuals who partake in these collectives. In some theories of freedom, this fact is paramount, as we will soon explore. Furthermore, we as humans need to also align ourselves in other ways (ex. Many deal with troubled pastes or contradictory wants) which are more individualistic journeys. However, when it comes to being free, which is a fundamental state of being, the collective part of our essence is key.
I also do not mean to say you can be part of any collective. For example, not every personality type would feel fulfilled doing the job of a monarch, with their carefully watched lives, regulated by a myriad of costumes, the responsibility of an entire nation, and their spousal and family affairs being dictated by political needs over individual needs. So part of being free is figuring out the collective you belong to, which is partly a personal journey. Furthermore, collective-alignment does not mean delegating moral responsibility to a collective. It is clear in the works of those who advocate freedom that virtue is a person's responsibility. A good example of this is found in the Western canon in Plato’s most famous dialogue The Republic where it is up to each individual to pick the life they will lead, which Socrates argues should be the virtuous life (“Virtue is no one's Master”).
Modern freedom and collective alignment
So how does my view on freedom compare with the modern conception of freedom? It seems to me that the new cultural views of freedom focused less on what it means to be happy and more on the ability to achieve happiness, and so shifted the landscape of freedom finding out “the truths of happiness” and aligning to that, to people finding their own happiness. This shift was seen as a moral shift, as we see in works by John Locke, Constant, and Mill, among others. Even economic theories like capitalism when initially formulated had the intention to replace the economic system of the time (mercantilism) to one focused on cooperation and respect of people towards people, with partial reliance on moral systems already in place. What this means for our analysis of freedom is that we are increasingly told that finding the collective to align with and morally judge is a task and responsibility given to individuals—the idea being you now you can find your own happiness. The idea behind this shift was that we are no longer forced to remain in a tyrannical system we might’ve been born in, and can choose what best aligns with our character. In the 21st century, this idea eventually universalized to forming a global community, with no one being oppressed (i.e. not being able to express their nature), with inclusivity taking centre stage (with many communities identifying themselves as ones who weren’t historically included, growing movements like Feminism, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ, among others).
We see these results as the effect of the modern version of Freedom, though this new formulation of freedom has the consequence of “alienating” many people who have trouble finding their place in the world. Their relation to their respective groups was not a form of collective-alignment giving them a sense of belonging. Instead it leads to a form of contractual agreement relying (or hoping) on mutual best-interest. This is emphasized within capitalism ideology. Modern capitalism’s ideas of profit-motivation have made many people feel alone in the workplace, or life generally. That is not to say that people in the past with the previous definition of freedom were necessarily happier (or sadder) because they were given what is meant to be happy, the merit of a particular collective to be consistent and morally sound is another matter, but rather, the new view of freedom can introduce the problem of atomization, leaving people feeling like there is nothing they are attached to.
On the moral dimension, this shift in the idea of freedom could have contributed to a change in the moral landscape of culture that adopted this new model of collective-alignment. As observed by Jonathan Haidt and Joseph Craig, many cultures around the world have strong moral codes defining large parts of people's lives. They categories the moral principle of these cultures in five categories: Authority, Care, Sanctity, Fairness, and Loyalty. In Western societies (more specifically, WEIRD societies), the Care foundation is extremely high, while the other four foundations are generally low. From our analysis on freedom, we see how tied together the ideas of morality, happiness and freedom are. This moral shift then can be stipulated to partly be as a consequence of the modern notion of freedom, for to be collectively aligned has become in many systems the “freedom to exercise your rights, as long as it does not harm others” (this is called the Harm Principle). The result of needing to take into account a pluralistic group of people needing to find their respective happinesses might have been partly responsible for this moral shift.
What does this mean for the future then? This defining of freedom (i.e. collective-alignment) as actions that don’t harm might be the reason that liberalism became such a global phenomena, since it is the moral trait that seems best suited for unity between community collectives, and can be the key generalization to defining a global moral system. But there are also many difficulties which have to be thought about: defining modern freedom as we have might’ve also lost the value of the word freedom when finding a form of happiness, which perhaps is leading to a rise in atomization and alienation. Some movements that define meaningful existences do exist on a liberal basis (like feminism, or ecological conservation efforts), but such movements cannot consume everyone's pursuit of happiness, especially since by their nature, if they succeed, the movement should end. Other ideologies do exist that can define happiness, and liberalism's pluralistic philosophy means it partly answers the question of happiness by being accepting of these other views. However, this brings up an existential problem: as the dialectic of liberalism moves on, it will have to face the challenges of contradictory worldviews (and moral views) on what it means to live well, which might cause animosity (or be a point of weakness stakeholders can take advantage of). It will thus have to figure out whether it is possible to have a common definition of freedom and happiness which is not based on one worldview, but a common element of almost every worldview.
Whether that is possible is up for history to decide. For us, with a stronger understanding of freedom, we can pressure this question with greater confidence in upcoming articles. In proceeding articles, we will discuss the merits and the faults of modern liberalism, further analyze the dyadic essence of human nature (the relation between our individual and collective side), and look into particular collectives to see if we can reasonably compare them and pick one over the other.