08 May 2011

Translate for me: what is “freedom”?

Gentle readers, let me begin a story, or perhaps a fraction of a story. It concerns a knight and his liege lady – let us, for the sake of this story, place them both on the British Isles, so as to avoid that damnable practice so common on the Continent at this time of dividing one’s martial from one’s personal loyalties, and assume that this knight is wholly devoted to his liege lady. So our brave knight accomplishes many things in the name of his lady, faces many trials and tests of personal valour and constancy, but his liege lady is not entirely convinced. Thinking to test him further, she casts him out of her presence, relieves him of all his vows and tells him that he is ‘free’ to find another liege lady more suitable to him than she. One may imagine that our knight is slightly miffed. Actually, in Arthurian legends, faced with such a situation often our knight goes completely mad, and is healed of his madness only when he is allowed to return to his liege lady (I am thinking here of Malory’s version of Gareth Beaumains and Lyonesse).

One of the capital claims of Anglo-American representative government and culture is that it allows for a lot in the name of ‘freedom’. Once again, I am forced to question – both from a political and from a personal perspective – what is the meaning of ‘freedom’, rightly considered? I had the good fortune of talking with an elderly gentleman on my bus trip back from New York City who was in no doubt of what it meant: it meant not being told what to do by anyone, and it meant being able to do whatever he pleased with his money. Freedom consisted in the mere existence of the choice, which would give him the most personal satisfaction at any particular point in time.

But I would call into question whether this is what the early English had in mind even before their conversion to Christianity – it certainly had a different meaning to the English who borrowed the term from their Teutonic forebears, for whom all claims were to be considered in the context of family and loyalty ties. To be ‘free’ (freo) was literally to be ‘beloved’ of a clan leader (hence, freond ‘friend’); true, this meant more options were generally open to him, more privileges granted… but it was all dependent upon being beloved. Christianity extended and radicalised these clan linkages by applying them to all of one’s neighbours, as Christ defined the term (up to, including and particularly outsiders and the downtrodden). ‘Freedom’ now consisted in being loved within the context of the community of believers as the body of Christ; its primary dimension was a guarantee of freedom from one’s sins and an assurance of forgiveness extending in perpetuity – though even this was expected to be used in glad heart to extend similar forgiveness of sins outside the community of believers (as in the parable of the two indebted servants).

However, beginning in the Late Middle Ages, this definition began to change. Instead of a king or a clan leader, there arose an impersonal, neutral apparatus supposedly above partiality. Though this had the admirable effect of extending the privileges associated with ‘freedom’ in ever wider circles among the populace – first to barons, then to propertied male commoners, and so on – it also had the effect of diluting the definition of ‘freedom’ such that it consisted of only these privileges. The fact of choice itself became ‘freedom’; much as in the way that the Chinese character for ‘love’ lost its 心字旁 heart-radical in the transition from traditional to simplified (from 愛 to 爱), in modernity the English word ‘freedom’ lost all its connotations connecting it with ‘friendship’ in anything except etymology.

I would argue that the knight in our story, having been turned loose to his madness by his liege lady, is not free, in the real sense that he is no longer beloved by the one person who can truly give him freedom. I would argue that, transposing this personal conviction to a political one, this means that the (modern, post-Norman) Anglo-American idea of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ is severely deficient, and in fact leaves one open to a devastating number of un-freedoms. On these shores we have done away with monarchy completely, yet the social stratification and class divisions of our society are far more extreme than anything to be found in those northern monarchies still clinging to their ancient unwritten feudal constitutions. I find it a remarkable oddity that our American left and right alike treat the British royals with derision, yet somehow manage to provide Donald Trump with all the airtime he requires to propound whatever airheaded and risible views come to his mind. We do pay attention to the good behaviour of the Duke and new Duchess of Cambridge (while at the same time thanking our stars we do not have them here), but we devote far greater attention to the bad behaviour of Paris Hilton; all the while people here and abroad continue to suffer from poverty both physical (want of means to stay alive) and spiritual (want of meaning in life), as the neoliberal / formal-democratic paradigm time and again proves itself ineffectual at addressing either.

More and more I find that ‘freedom’ in its truest sense comes in loving, and being loved by those who are important to me.

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