Free and Uneasy
Be free, be happy – Patti Smith’s parting advice at Electric Picnic 2012. The following day the sentence formed in my head: Freedom is the absence of desire.
By ‘free’, I presume Patti meant that we should live the way we want, which would involve lots of desire, but many notions of happiness and freedom involve negating wants, controlling and disciplining them. The word ‘cynic’ is thought to have come from the word ‘kuōn’ – ‘churlish’, ‘doglike’, because the Greek cynics of the third century BCE were said to live like dogs, doing exactly as they wished, and in public too. However, while they freed themselves from tradition and conformity, their philosophy depended on discipline and self-denial. Their wants were few.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most influential advocates of personal freedom in the modern era, asserting that children should have physical education before intellectual, that they should know and love themselves before being expected to conform to social expectations. He radically asserted that the natural, wild human was intrinsically ‘good’.
However, Rousseau's notion of freedom didn’t include mollycoddling. Children should not be given orders, but they were to be denied unnecessary treats and should sleep in uncomfortable beds, thus learning that life has its cost and hardships. Children who got all they desired, he said, were miserable.
‘That man is truly free who desires what he is able to perform, and does what he desires.’ (Rousseau) (1)
This idea was akin to the stoic attitude, which aimed to be in harmony with nature and accept all life’s vagaries with equanimity. It’s also close to Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return. You make an active choice to choose what you have, and therefore free yourself of its inevitability. What you choose can’t enslave you.
This is not quite the contemporary popular notion of choice, which suggests that you can be what you want, when you want. It’s a notion that drives you to depression when you find yourself battling bureaucracy or routine, and when you find that your wants are few, so you don’t really ‘have a life’. How much freedom can you actually utilise? The more decisions you have to make, the more anxious you become. Placing yourself on a huge, complex web is more stressful than living within rigid limits. This is why we adhere to disciplines.
‘Show me a man who is not a slave. One is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear....’ (Seneca) (2)
Whereas simple poverty was the great freedom-stealer of other eras, it’s now the inevitability of corporate control. The locus of power is so remote from us that we’re never sure who the puppet master is. The world economy is controlled by a small number of huge corporations. Between that and the limitations of our bodies, it seems that we can never be entirely in control of our lives, if that’s what freedom is.
To be free, Rousseau suggested, you don’t need to do anything more than desire freedom. Sounds easy. Sounds like freedom is a state of mind, a mental deception maybe? But no. Advocates of freedom usually prescribe a method of attaining it. For Rousseau and Seneca, a primary decision must be made to rise above the approval of one’s peers and the need for excessive possessions and status. This constitutes wisdom and makes for inner harmony.
‘Wisdom, above all else, is liberty.’ (Seneca) (3)
‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ once encapsulated a notion of freedom. You can’t be free unless you are reasonably well-fed and have somewhere to live. You must also be able to move about unencumbered, and, in capitalist economies at least, you expect to be free to pursue wealth to some degree, on the basis of your ability.
We could see freedom as a dialectic, a function of what one is free from. In general terms a free state is one in which we are not particularly restricted in our movements and self-expression. I say particularly because I can’t imagine a complete lack of restriction, unless we are to accept that the wingless can fly.
Free to move and make choices, we could still be unfree in our minds, burdening ourselves with obligations of all kinds. Some people flaunt their burdens, and are unhappy when it’s pointed out that they don’t need them. Imprisonment can have the opposite reality. A person can be free in the mind while unfree in the body. While he was wrongly imprisoned, Paul Hill never stopped challenging the prison guards and was often badly beaten for it. Can you be free and silent? Probably. If you can retain your sense of your self and celebrate it, you have a free inner world.
Everything is subject to its nature. You can never be free of the urgency of your organism, though you might direct it. By controlling your impulses, you’re exercising your human brain power and that’s the closest we know to freedom – ‘executive control’ over what we do.
Freedom is control of the self, often hard-won through discipline and self-denial. The free can’t be lazy. The free must also be brave, as we’ve seen in the likes of Paul Hill, Brian Keenan, Ingrid Betancourt and many others who have survived imprisonment and torture.
There’s hardly freedom if we’re subject to the needs and demands of others, unless we choose the demands. A woman described looking after her incapacitated ninety-year-old mother-in-law as a ‘privilege’, exemplifying Rousseau’s notion of the transmutation of burden, but this might be fear of disapproval or isolation. It would be a truer freedom to define your body’s needs and longings and work to satisfy them, however unpopular you’d be as a result, whatever you might lose. Freedom involves a capacity to feel intense pain and still state your truth. So freedom and happiness are not necessarily connected. The desire to be happy, to prove you’re happy – as this psychology-driven society demands – doesn’t always lead to freedom. Freedom doesn’t have to feel good or right. It has no morality and isn’t always attractive.
Now we enter the universal realm where nothing which has boundaries is free, and nothing that must be in relationship is free. In mundane terms, freedom of thought is achieved by the careful co-mingling of information and self-awareness; in the elemental realm freedom is never total, the nature of everything being ultimately beyond choice. If freedom is the ability to choose, and there is no absolute choice, then there is no such thing as freedom.
So the only freedom available may well be the absence of desire, which is the absence of life, because life is desire – the desire of everything to survive, from amoeba to organ to organism.
‘Fear of freedom is nothing more than fear of the void.’ (Czeslaw Milosz) (4)
The mentally ill and the suicidal might well be more free than the businessman and the athlete. Even the legendary freedom of the ‘true’ artist, who is constantly tipping towards dissolution, is nothing to the freedom of the organism that chooses not to play the game at all, conforms to no discipline, doesn’t seek perfection or the dissemination of its ideas; instead disseminating itself to the universe as a free gift.
Be free, be unhappy.
From Savage Solitude by Máighréad Medbh. To be published February 2013:
“The incompatibility of civilization and individual
happiness is at once a banality and an over-statement.
Everyone knows that in order to enjoy the benefits of
living in civilized groups we must all sacrifice, to some
degree, the satisfaction of personal interests and
passions. Not only that: civilization – to utter another
commonplace – actually helps to create the conditions
– Leo Barsani: Introduction to Civilization and its Discontents
There was a time when there was just One. Moods,
vagueness and illuminations flowed unchecked,
sanctioned by the fact of their existence. That was the
neo-natal state, but freedom, it seems, was not to last.
Now there is a constant sense of being contained, even
One can’t be fully human without involvement in society.
Uninvolved, one walks the no-man’s land between
becoming and loss. Nothing with form is born to
freedom. All living things are subject to the rules of their
species. The rules of ours may read for your ‘freedom’:
‘insanity’, ‘ostracism’, ‘poverty’ or ‘ignorance’. Nature is
(1) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, (1762), translated by Barbara Foxley, London:
Everyman’s Library, Dent 1974, p. 48.
(2) Seneca c. 4 BCE – 65 A.D. Quoted in The Great Thoughts, compiled by George Seldes, New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.
(3) Seneca, opus ibid. p. 377.
(4) Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, transl. Jane Zielonko, London: Penguin, 2001, p.80.