An Inquiry into the Nature of Freedom

Most of us think freedom is worth striving for, but how many of us have inquired into what freedom really is? There are basically two schools of thought. The one sees freedom as license, which is to say, the ability to do whatever you want; the other sees freedom as something like duty.

You could say that the one school of thought sees freedom as self-indulgence and the other sees it as self-transcendence. At any rate, the decision to believe one or the other is not a purely academic matter: beliefs have consequences. The person who sees freedom as license is going to make very different decisions from the person who sees it as duty. 

First, let’s examine freedom as license. It isn’t surprising that the pursuit of pleasure is popular, for pleasure requires no further justification; it is intrinsically compelling. But one of the insidious consequences of this belief is that it severely weakens your ability to regulate your behaviour. Hedonists—at least those who are logically consistent—find it almost impossible to motivate themselves to do anything they do not “feel” like doing. This should not surprise us, because when you get rid of, “I ought to,” all that’s left is, “I want to.”

Hedonism is tricky. It promises freedom, but it actually enslaves us to environmental forces, because our thoughts and appetites are largely determined by such forces. In some sense, drug addicts are prototypical hedonists; one need only look at their lives to see that the only thing this philosophy offers is ruin and regret, not freedom.

The face of unrestrained pleasure-seeking

The face of unrestrained pleasure-seeking

By contrast, the classic conception of freedom is something like the power to do as one ought. It seeks to transcend the self by means of obedience to something other than the self; it views one’s “wants” as precisely the thing to be overcome. There is, of course, no such thing as freedom per se: to “master” the lower nature, it is necessary to obey a higher law. We cannot escape obedience, but we can, in some measure, choose the objects of our obedience. This is what St. Augustine had in mind when he said, “We have as many masters as we have vices.”

Unfortunately, it is usually only after we have tried everything else that we are willing to experiment with self-denial. Fortunately, it actually works; when we deny ourselves for a good cause, we actually feel free. Indeed, the feeling of freedom, which is nothing less than the feeling of power, only comes from a life that moves in a single, definite direction. Nothing enhances the feeling of freedom more than the limitation of possibilities in a single direction. On the other hand, no one who “goes with the flow” feels as though he has any control over his life. Nothing is more stifling than the anxiety caused by a lack of direction and an overabundance of choice.

It requires only a moment’s reflection to see that restrictions are not a burden, but rather the means by which we can lead fulfilling lives. Just as a plant requires regular pruning in order to flourish, so too does a man require discipline in order to flower. The more limitations we place on ourselves, the more content and successful we become. The key to improving the quality of our lives has always been to raise the standards we hold ourselves to.