It is easy to forget amid the grim news from Ukraine that we had a liberation less than three weeks ago.
Freedom Day came and went on February 28th: the lifting of Covid restrictions was overshadowed by Russia’s invasion four days earlier. Even without the war, you may have felt somewhat underwhelmed as pandemic controls were eased.
Some members of society have a greater sense of insecurity as people unmask around them. Others see the prospect of returning to the office as an imposition not a boon.
And what exactly are many of us doing with our new-found freedom? Only rushing off to book a holiday. As though one escape is not enough, we crave the next liberation.
If you’re feeling deflated help is at hand from the world of philosophy. Freedom is an endlessly-debated concept that is more confusing and mysterious the more you think about it. Roughly speaking, however, there are four philosophical responses to this moment in time:
1. You will not be free until you put in the work. It is a mistake to think of freedom as a gift. It is more like a virtue which you can cultivate with enough effort. So says Immanuel Kant, for whom human freedom is about aligning your actions with what is both moral and logical.
According to Kant, "to be free means that we have the ability to act independently of our inclinations and in accordance with the moral law of pure practical reason," explains NUI Galway philosopher Tsarina Doyle.
Lea Ypi, author of the award-winning Free: Coming of Age at the end of History, has expressed it similarly: "To be free is to be conscious of your moral duty."
Where to start? Perhaps stop looking to holidays as the source of ultimate happiness.
2. You never will be free – quit moaning about it. "Free will" used to be a concept studied by theologians. Now neuroscientists are leading the way, showing that much of our thinking is unconscious brain activity over which we seemingly have no control.
Nietzsche suggests that we should replace talk of free and unfree wills with talk of strong and weak wills
To Nietzsche, it is a no-brainer, so to speak: Free will does not exist. “According to Nietzsche, the human being must be understood in entirely naturalistic terms,” says Doyle. “This means, for him, that all our actions are ‘fated’ or caused by the psycho-physical drives that make up the human self.
“As a result, the traditional and, in Nietzsche’s view, Kantian account of freedom and the attendant notion of moral accountability is made redundant. Instead, Nietzsche suggests that we should replace talk of free and unfree wills with talk of strong and weak wills.”
This seems like a neat way of resolving the issue until someone with a strong will decides to make your life hell. Informing Nietzsche’s view is “that we cannot hold individuals morally accountable for who they are”, says Doyle. “Unfortunately, Nietzsche doesn’t always present his views in the best light when he talks, for example, about the need for a tyrant to rule over Europe but his argument is at its best when presented as one in favour of the diversity of human beings and a plurality of human values.”
3. You were always free but just afraid to admit it. Jean-Paul Sartre famously argued that we are all essentially free but many of us live in "bad faith" by unthinkingly surrendering to social norms. Even if it seems like your options are limited, you always have a choice – this was his core message, part of a philosophy that harks back to Epictetus and lives on through psychotherapy.
People have to begin to take personal responsibility as we move from mask mandates to manners
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way," wrote Holocaust survivor and neurologist Viktor Frankl.
Stephen J Costello, head of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland and author of a new book on negative thinking, The Nine Faces of Fear (Pickwick Publications), says "it is sad to see" so many people appear to "fear freedom" as the Covid restrictions are eased.
“People have to begin to take personal responsibility as we move from mask mandates to manners. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wisely said: ‘I prefer liberty with danger than peace with slavery’. This should be our motto and mantra moving forward.”
But if we are always fundamentally free, from Frankl’s viewpoint, then is greater liberty necessary a good thing? Put another way: What does it matter if there are fewer restrictions since we were already free during the pandemic?
"Following Isaiah Berlin, we need to distinguish between freedom from and freedom for," Costello replies. "The former is external – the freedom from constraint; the latter is existential freedom. We are already free. The question is: free for what? How we occupy our freedom is up to us; we should do it with meaning and purpose."
4. You are not free until others are free. This statement, often associated with Martin Luther King, is not so much an argument as a matter of fact, as shown by events since February 24th. Putin's aggression has brought us immediate economic disadvantage while making the world less secure.
Here the question arises: does individual liberty matter as much as social justice?
Karl Marx wanted to free the proletariat from their chains – a noble ambition, but real freedom is mental not material
The dominant tradition of western philosophy is to assume personal freedom should not be eroded unless there is an exceptionally strong reason. Yes, that encourages us to be individualistic but imagine the alternative.
It is hard to see how one can flourish without a degree of individual liberty. “The first thing dictators do is to deprive the people of their freedom,” Costello points out. So don’t be ashamed of your freedom and don’t take it for granted either.
At a time when people feel beaten down by bad news, MLK’s maxim may need to be reversed: others are not free until you are free.
“Fear is the great enemy of freedom,” says Costello. “Karl Marx wanted to free the proletariat from their chains – a noble ambition but real freedom is mental not material. Real freedom is freedom from ignorance – it is the inner, spiritual independence of the mind, when we are no longer enslaved by ego but live instead from the sumptuousness of the self.
“Shakespeare said it so wisely: ‘So, every bondman in his own hand bears the power to cancel his captivity.’ The door to our own private hell is locked from the inside.”
Philosophy in the community
Hats off to Young Plato. In a year when Belfast has been grabbing the cinematic headlines, a contemporary snapshot of that city’s working-class Ardoyne has been gathering accolades and moving audiences to applause.
Charting the work of Kevin McArevey, headmaster of Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School, Young Plato shows the positive effects of philosophy in the classroom. “With all the challenges the human race is now faced with, if we are to have any chance of survival, Kevin’s mantra ‘Think, think, Respond!’ seems like a pretty good first lesson to me,” co-director Neasa Ní Chianáin observes.
Now on general release, Young Plato won the Irish Film and Television Academy (Ifta) award for best feature documentary at the weekend. A run at the IFI in Dublin’s Temple Bar begins on Friday, March 18th.
Speaking of philosophy in the community, there are Socratean stirrings in the southeast where a weekly discussion group Waterford Talks is going from strength to strength.
“I was inspired to start the group to combat isolation and reach out beyond the 5k during the lockdowns. So far we have had involvement from as far away as Hong Kong, India, the Netherlands, UK and Cyprus, but always centred on the small west Waterford village of Cappoquin,” explains local facilitator Shane O’Neill.
“I’m hopeful that the group might help isolated people connect even post-pandemic and also that, through talking to others, we help perhaps provide a different narrative to all the judgment and hate speech that has disfigured Facebook groups and Twitter.”
The theme of this week’s forum would be close to Plato’s heart: “Is conversation essential to human understanding?” The creator of Greek dialogues emphatically answered “Yes” but what do you think? All are welcome at Waterford Talks, which is linked to the Lismore and West Waterford Arts Group and can be found at meetup.com/waterford-talks.