Is Freedom an Illusion?

Let me be very clear when I say I do not mean free will, that is a different discussion. When I talk about freedom I refer to complete liberation. So many ideologies pride themselves with liberating man from government, social expectations,

Liberty Leading the People- by  Eugène Delacroix
Liberty Leading the People- by Eugène Delacroix

religious and moral standards, ect. But whether complete liberation is possible is still up for debate.

A man can be free of government in the case that there is no government, but he will not be free from man altogether. The abolition of government still leaves social rules to dictate the actions of man. Let’s say a man lives in an anarcho-syndicalist society and they have just freed themselves of the shackles of government. Any rules that the society puts forth, as just as they may be, limit the man. For instance that man would not be free to take things from another’s possession without permission. There will always be rules of some sort, even if that society is rid of religion there will be laws of the land to keep peace and prosperity.

In some cases there have been men that have striven to lift these societal expectations. Think of it as the weight of the heavens crushing down on Atlas’s back as his punishment. The more rules imposed through religion, society, and government adds weight to his struggle until it is too much to bear.

Picture a man living in complete isolation. Think of Thoreau’s Walden to the extreme. This man is far enough from his fellow man that their will could not be imposed on him. He has no government, no religion, and no society. As much as this man may think, he is not free. Man’s consciousness is the last bonds he has. It is his moral obligations that holds man from complete liberation: that which keeps him from whatever he desires. He might not hunt certain creatures because they are too young or too rare, or in the case of society he may not kill his fellow man to acquire something he desires. Even dogs mourn the death of others. It is on moral grounds most men will not kill others.

Man cannot escape himself. Consciousness determines that he will forever be shackled, it is a part of being human. Consciousness will ultimately drive man. If a man does something he knows is wrong and goes against his conscious that still doesn’t mean he is free. Because afterwards he will have his conscious always there to remind him of his wrongdoings. A man may as well do whatever he pleases in life but regrets and conscious will pressure him just as the heavens of Atlas.

So does this make all attempts at liberation in vain? A man seeks liberation to find happiness. In this case let’s say something forbidden by government is something that brings this man to happiness and it is accepted by society, then it is

The titan Atlas holding up heaven as his punishment.
The titan Atlas holding up heaven as his punishment.

just for the man to seek freedom from that rule. If a man, with all his heart, wants to marry someone in a way that is not permitted then it is not in vain for the man to fight for the right if it were to bring him happiness.

In this case of Atlas holding all the heavens above his head, the more burdens he can remove, no matter how small, will ultimately ease the load. He may not be able to completely take all pressure off him, but if he can work to free himself as much weight as possible then it is never in vain. Complete liberation is not possible, but we can strive to get as close as possible to it.

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31 thoughts on “Is Freedom an Illusion?

  1. That is a very thought provoking post… it is something I have considered for a while now. The approach I take is that absolute freedom is not attainable, a quick search for a definition of freedom gives the following:

    “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. [1]
    The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.” [2]

    [2] This is a problem of language, for me, what constitutes imprisonment/enslavement etc. Physical slavery exists, but so does slavery to a job to ‘make ends meet’. One is overt, the other covert, who is to say what is the most damaging? Certainly physical slavery may involve incredible physical abuse, but covert slavery can potentially limit one’s full potential without even being aware of it.
    [1] I have long maintained that this freedom we all have, I can say whatever I want, think whatever I want and do whatever I want. However, I may incur consequences as a result, if I commit a murder I will be locked up – I am free to do the act, but am condemned by society for doing so. Similarly, I may make a racist/homophobic/vile comment (I would not as this is not me, but for example), I am free to do so but may receive a punishment in doing so.

    The point I am clumsily making is that humans live in society, society generates a code of conduct for it’s members. This code is not real, it does not exist, but it has implications. It does not really limit an individual, it does however say that transgressing rule x results in punishment y. I do think humans need an agreed code to follow, not for any other reason than practicality – I want to be able to exist with some measure of assurance that I will go without harassment during my day. Where I disagree would be if this code is extended into my personal life. And this is where things become tricky…

    i live by this maxim: when in society, follow the rules, when in my private life, follow a set of (self imposed) rules that allow me to, as you say, find liberation. At work, I follow what the policies say, when not at work they do not apply. I have a set of principles that enable me to be liberated in the activities I pursue. In the case of covert slavery I mentioned above awareness is capable of disassembling this and granting one freedom when in privacy.

    As for consciousness, it is whatever you are doing, it is embodied, it is active, it is a dynamic component of being a human. It can be developed and enlarged or ignored and diminished. Maybe conscience, social norms etc can ‘invade’ conscience when not in a social setting but this can be countered by awareness. Behaviourism in psychology denied the power of the mind – the idea was to condition individuals to behave. What they overlooked is that conditioning only works when an individual is not aware of the conditioning.

    I hope this post makes sense…

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    • It makes perfect sense. I think the term you were looking for would be “Social contract” which is losing some rights to the state in order for the state to offer services such as protection.

      And for psychology one idea I love playing around with is Freud’s idea of the id, ego, and superego. I know Freud leaves a bad taste in a lot of psychologist’s mouths but it’s an interesting idea. You have the base primal desires of the id being suppressed by the highly critical and shy superego to form the ego, which we all display. The id is with us from birth but we quickly develop these other levels of being. Of course this does have some problems to it along with other of Freud’s ideas, but it does make a lot of sense when you think of life in this way.

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      • Thanks I sometimes go off on a line of discussion that leaves people confused as to my meaning, yes I think social contract is a good principle, it’s useful for navigating inter-personal relations, just as long as it doesn’t invade my personal life! I suppose as a caveat there would need to be a way to prevent cruelty towards others, but for me, a person committed to a productive private life would have no need of such base behaviour.
        If you like Freud’s psychology (which I am a fan of, to a degree, I think his ideas are often skewed and not widely known about in pop culture) try Carl Jung. He was a contemporary of Freud, his ‘chosen disciple’. Jung has a, to me, better way of viewing the psyche than Freud, Jung is basically the father of depth psychology which would be pertinent to your thoughts on freedom.
        Just as a small technical point, the ego is formed before the superego, it works on the reality principle – it checks the id, the ego develops when a child realises the id cannot always be fulfilled. The superego develops after the Oedipus/Electra complex and the child adopts the morality of the same sex parent. So the ego acts as a set of scales – balancing the ‘I want’ of the Id with the ‘you ought to’ of the super ego. If an individual has a strong ego (not negative as most people misinterpret) they can balance these conflicting impulses. If not, the individual employs a defense mechanism (repression, denial etc) or develops a neurosis. But I agree, it is a useful heuristic to monitor one’s own behaviour!

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          • No problem! His actual works an be a chore to read, there is a nice intro text to Jung, by David Tacey which is good. I’ve read several of his volumes and they are really insightful However, I could not get a copy of vol 5, psychological types which I think is the crux to understanding his thinking, and I am yet unable to afford a copy!

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  2. I’ve been thinking about this, and I agree. I think that the more freedoms we are given, the less free we actually are. If we are free to live, we are not free to kill. If we are free to speak, we are not free to live in silence. If we are free to own guns, we are not free to ensure we won’t be shot. All freedom is is an assignment of who gets what rights. If we are free to cut down trees, the trees are not free to live. We assign the rights to ourselves in this case, but to balance those rights, we have to take some from trees. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There are two extremes in freedom: anarchy and what is commonly referred to as ‘communism’. If you are free to kill (anarchy), you aren’t free to live. If you aren’t free to kill (everything else), you are free to live. It’s a simple matter of balancing the scales. There is no true freedom so long as there is some other force in at play. Freedom is an illusion, and to mitigate the stripping of the rights of weaker parties (the trees, for example), we have to institute a balanced society where some freedoms and some rights are upheld. I believe the closest thing to true freedom lies in straddling anarchy and communism.

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    • I believe the phrase you were looking for is totalitarianism: the complete control of the state. Think of power as a 100 point scale. If you choose to give the state all 100 points, then you yourself have no power. Therefore when choosing to have no power at all you are willingly giving all the power to the opposing side. That being said if you are free to own a gun then you choose to take control quite a bit of power and are equal to another man with a gun. The right to own guns does not mean you things will become more dangerous. So if you make it that nobody owns guns, then all points of power in that sense goes back to the people with all the guns, which would be the state. As well, the freedom of speech does not ensure anyone has to listen.

      But I do agree with you that we need to find a balance between no government and totalitarianism. I think many people do agree, it’s just finding the right balance. It comes down to semantics, such as does a nation lean slightly to the right or to the left, liberal or conservative, ect. Right now we’re seeing a lot of debating on the small changes in policy compared to the larger ones being ignored that would really make all the difference.

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  3. Reblogged this on cornerofpolitics and commented:
    I’ve been thinking about this, and I agree. I think that the more freedoms we are given, the less free we actually are. If we are free to live, we are not free to kill. If we are free to speak, we are not free to live in silence. If we are free to own guns, we are not free to ensure we won’t be shot. All freedom is is an assignment of who gets what rights. If we are free to cut down trees, the trees are not free to live. We assign the rights to ourselves in this case, but to balance those rights, we have to take some from trees. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There are two extremes in freedom: anarchy and what is commonly referred to as ‘communism’. If you are free to kill (anarchy), you aren’t free to live. If you aren’t free to kill (everything else), you are free to live. It’s a simple matter of balancing the scales. There is no true freedom so long as there is some other force in at play. Freedom is an illusion, and to mitigate the stripping of the rights of weaker parties (the trees, for example), we have to institute a balanced society where some freedoms and some rights are upheld. I believe the closest thing to true freedom lies in straddling anarchy and communism.

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  4. The problem with the terms in use is that they are restricted to finite linear existence. No matter how we define liberation or what criteria we choose to use they depend on finite linear existence and experience. As a consequence there will always be a boundary.
    Assuming there is existence beyond a finite linear one, then you are approaching a Buddhist sensibility where liberation is an escape from the cyclic illusion that finite linear existence imposes.

    Fascinating post. Thanks for dropping by my Media Literacy blog. 🙂

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    • I haven’t much studied the buddhist teachings, but in this discussion it helps to limit it to the physical being. Although the sound of complete physical and spiritual liberation of buddhism does sound pretty interesting. Do you have a recommendation where to start with buddhism?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m no expert. Background comes from my introductory studies in first year university many, many years ago. Interestingly Buddhism can be seen in terms of a religion, a philosophy or a form of physiological processes/investigation.

        You can have Christian thinkers who embrace it as a means of enhancing Christian beliefs and understanding while others see it as a threat ( alternative religion). Some point out that it lacks components of what we commonly think of as a religion.

        It has been connected to Depth Psychology. Buddhists recognized levels of mind & consciousness in far greater detail than West, centuries before Freud & Jung.

        Terms to use for research: Depth Psychology , Dharma , The Four Noble Truths , The Eight-Fold Path .

        In terms of physical being, I do not think one can separate the concepts of liberation & freedom from a societal or an existential context. We define ourselves by society and existential awareness. After years of teaching all levels and grades, including Special Education, at a secondary school, I realized the diversity of experiences, talents, and thought processes are seldom reflected in most theoretical interpretations of an ideal society. Most individuals create an idealized society based on the limits of their own experiences and abilities. Basic error of assumption is that everyone is same. We assume what will provide us with freedom, will do the same for other. Classic American examples are the gun laws and views on heterosexual relationships.

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  5. It seems to me that this is not so much a definitional issue as it is an existential issue. The problem inherent is that people find it difficult to accept that liberation, even complete liberation, is possible only within a particular set of confines that continually guides and refines rather than oppresses. Guidance and oppression are both confining actions, yet only one of them is an attempt to bring about more freedom. The conflation of guidance with oppression, what falls within and around those two poles, is a significant problem for Man and this because so much oppression is done in the guise of heavy-handed moral (often religious) guidance.

    The idea of liberation, then, is built on the notion of appropriate guidance or appropriate confines. And this makes sense. Were things to be so wholly open as to have no guidance whatever we would then experience an existence without cognisance, with no definitions by which to explain ourselves and our experiences. Why? Because language, too, is a form of confinement and without some real form of language, some way of holding and expressing concepts, we are unable to so much as understand what liberation is.

    Thus, more than a definitional issue, the notion of liberation is an existential issue and it is grounded on the question of just what is appropriate confinement or guidance for Man. That question is currently open but not impossible to answer. We currently possess no system where liberation is more than an academic notion because every system is currently concerned with only coercion and oppression rather than guidance.

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    • This is what separated Marx from Bakunin. They disputed if the Dictatorship of Proletariat (a harsh name for what it really is) did more good for society or more harm to society. Whether they’re proposals were the right direction is a whole different discussion in itself. I don’t think it’s an entirely existential notion, but I definitely see where you’re coming from. I don’t plan to see any sort of true guidance lead us to liberation until long after I’m gone.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […], or, the individual could simply impose on himself a heavier burden than would any Government do, before it does so. So as to jump up in a position where the individual doesn’t feel the burden anymore. It is like imposing on ourselves that which we expect to find in high level professional athletes: we do not forgive them when they bask, when they rest. To make ourselves more muscular, to reinforce our nerves in the face of every-day dramatic facts, from a mental point of view, so as not to feel the need to seek for happiness (unless happiness is defined as the ability to get stronger and, therefore, effectively free, abundant in energy and will). – For a new definition of “generosity”. Thank you for your nice post.

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  7. Could it be that, with every freedom i.e. lack of restriction there comes a responsibility to act well? For instance, the freedom of speech in America is used to say all sorts of things, but wouldn’t you agree with Madison that it is for the dispelling of ignorance and the communication of knowledge rather than propaganda and hate? Thus, since there is nothing outside of ourselves ensuring we speak well, we have the responsibility to speak well.

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  8. I am a Libertarian not an Anarchist. Anarchy leads to Warlordism or the government by a strong person whom people flock to in order to get protection from other strong people. And that is usually the last choice these people have, which strong person to become serfs to.

    There has to be a balance between liberty and responsibility but who draws the line is the crucial question. An anarchist would draw it at total liberty, presumably, and a Statist would draw it at total responsibility. Or at least somewhere in that area depending upon how strong a Statist the person was.

    I say the individual person draws the line and other people may try to influence where the line gets draws but should never have the option to force the individual to draw it according to someone else’s whims or beliefs.

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    • I think all systems, from communism to anarchism to libertarianism, individualist or collectivist all leads to some sort of friction and an eventual shift of power.

      Maybe I’m misinterpreting what you said, but it seems to me the individual doesn’t determine anything. Of course he or she can say what they think is right, but ultimately it is the state that decides for them. Now should it be the individual? Yes I think it should

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      • Anarchy, in theory, does exactly that but in reality leads to warlords running things as people flee to a strong person to defend them from other strong people. Libertarianism accepts that government will exist and that government abuses will happen but seeks to limit those abuses by limiting what the government can do and allowing the people to have the means of redress even to the point of revolution.

        Libertarianism leaves as much as possible in the hands of the individual – if the government does not have the power to dictate what you should do or not do in any specific situation then the individual can decide for themselves and the government cannot dictate to the individual. Will this last? As long as the government runs the schools for the benefit of the government then the government will have the ability to train the people to give their power to the government, thus libertarian opposition to government-run schools, or even a government mandated curriculum for private schools.

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  9. Hi, I’m a Mom and your writing reminds me of snippets my child wrote in college. I must admit I come by once in a while because I get a kick out of your posts. Anarcho-syndicalist? Seriously? Wait, now, I know what it means…I’ve just never seen it actually used in a sentence outside of a classroom. That said, I agree with you. No matter the government or lack thereof, man will inevitably struggle under the weight of his morals and beliefs – or a lack of same. Freedom is an awesome responsibility, don’t you think? I read once that “one person’s freedom stops where his neighbor’s nose begins’.

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  10. This was very well thought out and I very much enjoyed reading it. I know that you only discussed one issue but I think that this is true of other words that stand for ideas. It can be said of other things as well, one would think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on said other things.

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  11. Reblogged this on Goilala's District Dev. Forum Blog and commented:
    A man can be free of government in the case that there is no government, but he will not be free from man altogether.

    The abolition of government still leaves social rules to dictate the actions of man. Let’s say a man lives in an anarcho-syndicalist society and they have just freed themselves of the shackles of government. Any rules that the society puts forth, as just as they may be, limit the man. For instance that man would not be free to take things from another’s possession without permission.

    There will always be rules of some sort, even if that society is rid of religion there will be laws of the land to keep peace and prosperity.

    Like

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