Freedom … the value so much appreciated by the 21st-century man. Ideas of freedom are the maxim of life in contemporary society. But what exactly is freedom? How determined are we in our lives really, and is there freedom at all? How free are we?
The opposition to freedom and social constraints is something that has always interested me as a sociologist and simultaneously existentialist in the theoretical underpinnings of my reflections.
While existentialism takes freedom as one of the main characteristics of man, sociology is mainly concerned with illuminating the invisible (but very real) constraints imposed on society by man. Thus, it makes for an interesting combination.
To what extent are we really free to do what we want or create our own social reality?
The idea that we can create our own reality is common in today’s circles of personal development. But how true is that? Is it backed up by any scientific evidence? For example, sociological research has on multiple occasions shown and continues to show that the socioeconomic status of a family from which one comes is a pretty good indicator of one’s further socioeconomic status. In other words, is someone whose economic circumstances in life are dependent on these factors really not economically wealthy because he hasn’t wished it strongly enough?
These over-simplified statements are what makes the field of personal development increasingly dangerous. Telling someone who is sick that they created their sickness (the idea popular in many new age philosophies) is dangerous territory. While there is space for the exploration of this idea in terms of which underlying core beliefs a person hold, saying that it is because one hasn’t wished enough to be rich or be healthy is very dangerous over-simplification. It banalizes the complexity of human and social existence. It looks at a person as though living in a void, devoid of social positions and social structures, which can in a very real manner influence one’s life.
Of course, this idea has its allure. It is because of that that it is so popular in the field of personal development today. It gives one the idea that the change is possible by simply changing one’s thoughts. It gives one the idea that one is in control of one’s life, which is something each of us longs to have. Existentialist therapist Emmy van Deurzen thinks this because such ideas fine-tune the human imagination and create an image of an ideal world in which all our problems magically disappear. In other words, the very real constraints we face on a daily basis within this utopian idea seem, at least for a moment, to be nonexistent.
On the other side of this dialectics, having social constraints on one side- is equally important. It is a fact that today, in the 21st century, we are actually indeed free in many ways, in comparison to previous time periods. The freedom to determine one’s own life is a characteristic of a 21st-century man than a man of any previous historical period. For most of its history, man has been clamped down by religious, feudal, slavery, or other types of shackles.
The freedom to determine our own religious beliefs, the freedom of women to vote, to be economically independent and to live as they wish, the freedom of self-determination regarding the various determinants of our own identity – the human race has had to fight for these freedoms and that struggle is not over. Every day we must conquer this freedom again.
Perhaps it is precisely why we are sensitive to the freedom to self-determination. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we are so tempted by the idea that we can create our entire lives on our own.
But what is freedom in the first place? Two existentialists, Rollo May and Jean-Paul Sartre, each from their own perspective, argue that freedom is at the root of all other human values. Rollo May argues that freedom is a prerequisite for the choice of all of other values. That is, to be able to feel love at all, or to be honest, for example, we must be free to do so. A situation where we are forced to do this – is not freedom.
“When a person says “I can”, “I choose”, “I want” – he or she feels its own importance because a slave cannot say this.”
Jean-Paul Sartre states that once we realize that we have been thrown into the indifferent universe, which existed as such before our birth and will continue to exist after our death, that we then realize that we are
free to choose what our existence will look like. According to him, human existence and freedom are practically synonyms.
“The beginning and end of every philosophy is – freedom”
~ Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling
But is it really that simple?
As human beings, we are inevitably subject to some restrictions also on the individual level. To begin with, temporal. We humans exist in a time-bound context, again subject to some limitations. After all, it is not the same whether we were born in the 21st century or in the Middle Ages, as we have previously explained. Then physical and physiological. If we fall down the stairs, it won’t be good for us. Also, in order to meet the physiological needs of our body such as food, water, heat…we must also have economic
opportunities. In the approach of classical existentialists, economic constraints do not usually occupy a significant place, but in my opinion, these are facts that should be worth considering. Existentialism has concerned itself with economic constraints in one’s life far too little.
After all, as the history of women’s rights has shown us one’s freedom is largely increased by economic freedom, as largely lessened by economic dependency. Further, man is a social being – he or she is biologically wired to need social company. This, necessarily, brings with itself a certain set of rules and behaviors one has to follow not to be excluded from a group. This also brings along a set of social positions which we have previously discussed. In the end, man is also an affective being, meaning he or
she has certain emotional needs. To sum it all up, it seems that we as a human being are quite determined by the context of our own existence.
So, where is freedom then?
Eh, there’s the “existentialism catch”. Freedom cannot be observed, nor can it exist without the context that necessarily implies the limitation of human existence. Freedom is determined by these determinations, just as day is determined by night. Freedom, Rollo May believes, is nowadays often equated with unlimited freedom. But she’s just not that. Namely, as May
constantly emphasizes, man is not only part of the world, the world is inevitably part of it. This is where existentialists agree with Zen masters.
If the world is a part of us, then it necessarily follows that we have some responsibility towards the world. Freedom, in other words, cannot exist without responsibility. What does that mean?
This means that if I am a being that lives in the world of people, in the surrounding of the surroundings as they are, which I badly need for my own existence, then I have some responsibility towards that same world. What happens to the world happens to me too – the world and I are not separate.
These ideas sound abstract but once one starts living them, the abstraction
disappears. It will lead to increased responsibility. One starts thinking about one’s own legacy, attitudes towards the environment, one’s actions in general. As Sartre would say, man is free to choose his own values as determinations of one’s life and by choosing it, to affirm it on the level of mankind.