Are We Really Free?

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   December 7, 2021

None of us is really free — nor would any thinking person really want to be. We are captives in our bodies and our minds. We are victims of all kinds of circumstances we cannot control – the weather — world events — the whims of natural catastrophes, and the mysterious fact of our own mortality.

But we are glad to be guarded and imprisoned, first by our cribs and playpens, then by our schools, and always by the laws, which supposedly are there to protect us, from each other, and even from ourselves.

What, then, is this “freedom,” which we jealously claim, which our nation asserts it was founded on, and which millions have fought and died for?

It seems to be a matter of assumed “rights,” which are sometimes spelled out in detail in such documents as the American Constitution, or the French “Rights of Man,” or the United Nations “Declaration of Human Rights.” The trouble is that such rights, even if carved in stone (as they sometimes are), even if considered ineffable, are, like everything else, subject to change over time. I need hardly remind you that, even in the most recent chapters of recorded history, people were free to make organized public spectacles of what we would now consider outrageous treatment of animals and of members of our own species (who presumably had no rights at all).

And even after such open cruelty came to be frowned upon, the institution of (often race-based) slavery has survived. It is still to be found in various parts of the world, as are “bull-fighting” and other traditional amusements.

So, how free are we, or can we ever be? Despite George Orwell and his predictions of thoughtcrime and thought police, we are more or less free to think what we like, just so long as we keep it to ourselves. Once you step outside that limitation, you are taking all kinds of risks, depending on exactly what you think, how you express it, and to whom — also depending on what is at stake. That may partly explain why the so-called Right of Privacy has become so highly questionable, in an age when security of communication has become technologically more of a challenge than a guarantee that anything can be truly confidential.

Religion is the best example of freedom, pro and con. The early “pilgrims” who came to America in search of religious freedom very soon made it clear that that meant freedom for themselves, but not for those with even slightly different beliefs. And they were very moderate, compared with some other cults and sects around the world which, even today, we have all heard only too much about.

As for slavery (which comes from “Slav,” but which goes back much farther than any European nations or peoples) it’s all a question of property, i.e. ownership. We know we own our pets and other domestic animals, even if our purpose is to eat them. But do parents own their children? Does the military own the service members who, even if volunteers, are obliged, if ordered, to risk or sacrifice their lives? To what extent do spouses own each other, after swearing to “love, honor, and obey?” Can land, the very essence of property, really be owned, when the government can appropriate it under laws of “eminent domain”?

Lovers are notorious for taking for granted that they own each other, and there are any number of songs and poems in which, for example, “my friend stole my true love from me.”

But, when you come right down to it, ownership of other people — and, by extension, of anything else — is a legal, moral, and emotional fiction. It was a Frenchman, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who declared that “property is theft.” But that was less than 200 years ago. Before that, we can go back at least two millennia, to Roman Law, which recognized the “Sovereign Right of Property,” and permitted an owner to “use and abuse” whatever he owned — including, of course, his slaves. 

So, where does the idea of freedom come from, and what validity has it, or should it have? Does religious freedom include the right, claimed even today by some of our fellow world citizens, to cut off the heads of non-believers? Freedom to gather can lead to mobs, which can give rise to Hitlers.

All I can say is, forget about the “home of the brave.” Consider how much you really want to live in a world, or a land, of the free.


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