“Man is born free…” The first words of Rousseau’s oft quoted declaration are usually glossed over in favour of those that follow: “…but is everywhere in chains.” A little reflection will reveal that the contrast, though vividly cast, is really a contradiction: If man is everywhere in chains then he cannot have been born free. Tied umbilically to his past and present, the newborn leaping naked into the world needs both fortune and wit to cast off those chains, though others will hold him fast no matter which way he turns. Bonds both visible and invisible put a spike in the glorious self image of heroic man, struggling against forces greater than himself. Naming them as gods, fate or chance, he tried to make sense of the inexplicable ups and downs of human existence, working out complex strategies to placate, avoid or manipulate them. While belief in the efficacy of such magic still thrives, the problem of whether and to what extent humans are free, remains intractable.
The Greeks, always the perfect gentlemen, restricted freedom to those who could afford to be outspoken, knowing that poverty keeps men dependent, robbing them even of the ability to speak, let alone freely. Freedom, even political freedom, meant not being dependent on another: This immediately ruled out women, children and slaves. Though short-lived, these ideas remained influential and even served to emphasise the economic basis of all freedoms. We understand the wage-slave, burdened both by his job and his obligations.
Unable to devise a cogent case for political freedom, classical thinkers spirited the idea away from the public sphere, relocating it in metaphysical space: Man is free not in the physical dimension where he, like everything else is subject to laws completely independent of him, but in a world of his own making where he can dream at will. Across different cultures, freedom was removed from the physical world and therefore from the sphere of everyday life.
This was not merely the problem of reconciling causality with morality (or religion): If science shows that all events are causally determined, and if human actions are (as they seem to be) events, they too must be determined (antecedently) then whence freedom? The problem becomes acute if you introduce a powerful and loving creator, god. An idea that triggered the protest: “O thou who didst with pitfall and with gin/beset the road I was to wander in…/ and then impute my fall to sin?” What chance do our choices have when the dice of necessity are loaded and the table set? Older ghosts of destiny and fate still loom over these anxieties. As do new ones of genetic determinism.
Some thinkers no less astute but lacking perhaps the authority of church and state, developed their own determinations: The three gunas are like strands of a rope and these bind the bewildered but otherwise omniscient Self who is really free (of them); if he only knew it. Knowledge alone can set your free. This remarkable theory, like all remarkable theories, enabled one to eat one’s cake over again. In such an outlook, freedom can only be the loosening of social and material bonds, the root sense of moksha. Freedom not in the world but from it.
By locating freedom in a realm accessible only to high thought and very pure living, these models kept thought itself manacled to another world; ensuring that no time was wasted in worrying about the shackles of this one. Nor is this surprising as political conditions usually frame intellectual explorations. It was no accident that in monarchies and dictatorships intellectuals often looked intently into the distance. The phenomenal world, bound by either god or science, was abandoned in favour of a noumenal one where the will at last was free, if only to follow its own diktat.
With the advent of democracy, a somewhat late arrival in many parts of the world, the problem of individual freedom got a lift, but was soon reduced to questions of movement and choice of profession (work or faith). Even these are not always or everywhere absolutely guaranteed. Freedom of speech, taught as a central pillar of liberal democratic ideals, has been overwhelmed by the sheer range and rage of digital discourse, much of it in the raw. One response has been to transform citizens into those who can see, hear and speak no evil.
Many claim that the freedoms of its people are no longer even the primary concern of the state, if they ever were. Is not our need for security greater, threatened as we are by enemies within and without? The state must restrict individual freedom in every sphere and harness new technologies “the better to see you with my dear”. Be content, we are told, with negative freedom (Berlin) rather than the active freedom to that ancient democracies expected from the political animal. We moderns, scarcely sovereign in our own homes “now know only what we are not, what we do not want”.
If disobedience is the hallmark of freedom (Adam’s defining act of dissent), the ability to say no, not yes, then real freedom these days belongs to the functionaries of the state, who can refuse, without reason, often without response, what supplicants may beg (quick justice, due process, the rites of knowledge, relief from even one of the three kinds of suffering). This is the absolute freedom which authority everywhere wields without either fear or compassion and whose grimace we must smile back at even as we genuflect before it.
(The writer taught philosophy at Delhi University)