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What is Freedom? Freedom in and of itself defies definition since its very essence and parameters can be shown only with its constraints and limitations. If one state of being is unable to stand on its own merits and must rely on another to have structure, can it never truly be “free.” Therein lies the irony: freedom is forever encapsulated by its limitations, regardless of its range. Without evident barriers, it could not exist. If it is within barriers, can it truly exist? This paper will discuss the existence of freedom and several of its forms.
Although much sought after, gaining freedom usually involves strife and war. With the splitting of the Catholic Church in the Reformation, many restraints on science, religion and education vanish, causing a rebirth of knowledge and philosophical thought. Although fragmented, the Catholic Church is by no means vanquished, so inevitable conflicts arise. The conflicts are not confined to the battlefield, though, they occur more often than not in the form of books and documents.
With wars, famine and social upheaval accompanying the Reformation, men sometimes lament the passing of the former system (a unified Church) which, though imperfect, at least provides some stability. Thomas More, a critic of King Henry VIII, cleverly disguises his criticisms in his literature. He writes about a tightly regulated society, Utopia, where there are no social strata and people of all religious persuasions can live harmoniously with one another, to freely practice their religions without fear of reproach. Though there seems to be an abundance of freedom, including religious, there are a few hitches—such as having to obtain permission from your father and wife before exploring the countryside, wearing the same clothing as everyone else, having no possibility for social advancement and compulsory theism (your choice of deities, however): “…he (Utopus) made a solemn and severe law against such as should…think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence” (More, p. 747). More’s Utopia offers freedoms some might cherish, but others would find it unbearably restrictive. Even those of a religious bent might have looked askance at Utopia’s forced theism policy. Is it freedom? Some might think so if they believed freedom of religion didn’t include freedom from religion.
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Sir Thomas More, a staunch Catholic in a country ruled by a Protestant king, clung to his religious convictions (in his case, remaining a Catholic) by refusing to accept the English king as the “Defender of the Faith,” a role he felt only the Pope could fill. More even refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the King. The Apology of Sir Thomas More denounced the Reformation. Right or wrong, More assumed a level of religious freedom in his campaign against the king and Reformation. His freedom of expression was somewhat limited, but he put many points across in his writings, addressing the subject either directly or indirectly. The freedoms More assumed eventually led to his imprisonment and execution, but he clung to them to the bitter end. The Catholic Church of his day did not push for freedom of religion any more than Henry VIII, so it is unclear why More writes about multiple religions in his Utopia. Perhaps he felt the only way for the Catholic Church to remain in England was by allowing all beliefs to be practiced. He saw the Church as the higher moral authority and put all of his energy and faith into its offices (NA, p. 686-87).
John Milton, a Protestant, disagreed with this mentality. In Areopagitica, he condemns those who feel that personal responsibility should be relinquished to a higher authority. He rails against those who hold God responsible for man’s fall, not stopping Adam’s transgressions: “Many there be that complain of divine providence for suffering Adam to transgress. Foolish tongues! When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, “(NA, p. 1828). Otherwise, according to Milton, man would be little more than a mechanism. He believes God meant for man to make his own choices, good or ill, and could gain merit by overcoming temptations. In Paradise Lost he shows that freedom is not always synonymous with contentedness or making the right decisions. Is the opposite then true? For someone to experience freedom, must they always be striving and in a constant state of flux? A staunch follower of Cromwell, Milton was a revolutionary against the monarchy of King Charles I and, like most revolutionaries, probably thought his was the cause for freedom. After Cromwell’s victory, his attitude changed toward the new government. Cromwell’s rule didn’t bring about the great change he had expected. In his later years he would somewhat recant his rebellious beliefs and speak of inward liberty and reason and explain how tyrants were a necessary evil in the course of Divine justice (Milton, book 12, 80-100).
Milton seemed to understand that freedom was relative and its composition relied greatly on the individual’s perspective. In Paradise Lost, Satan finds freedom in Hell’s confines, the ultimate prison. When he first emerges from the sea of flames after being cast down, he surveys his new environment and says to Beelzebub, “Here at least we shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built here for his envy, will not drive us hence: here we may reign secure, and in my choice to reign is worth ambition though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”(Milton, line. 258-63). Although Hell is meant to be a prison for Satan, it becomes a source of freedom and his seat of power. Had Satan felt limited and confined, Hell truly would have been a prison, but Satan found freedom in his mind. This was the “inward liberty” Milton spoke of, the wellspring of freedom. Without inward liberty to bolster ones strength and resolve, outward liberty (one’s surroundings) will soon be lost.
Having inward liberty means having an attitude. It is the belief that one is naturally free and having the desire to overcome restraints. Satan is not the only one to possess inward liberty, Adam and Eve proved it is in them as well when they chose to eat the forbidden fruit, even though God himself told them they would surely die if they did (Genesis 2, 16-17). Freedom held such an allure that all three individuals gave up paradise for it. Is there something even greater to attain than paradise or is freedom an irrational, unquenchable lust that forces people to strive to attain more, even when they have more than enough? Is seeking freedom a noble aspiration or base greed?
Although the word freedom often accompanies such grandiose terms as “justice,” “courage” and “honor,” seeking it is not necessarily an act of virtue. In his writing, Of Marriage and Single Life, Sir Francis Bacon associates the desire for freedom with the irresponsible and self-indulgent. He writes:
But the most ordinary cause for a single life is liberty, especially in certain self-pleasing and humorous minds, which are so sensible of every restraint, as they will go near to think their girdles and garters to be bonds and shackles. Unmarried men are best friends, best masters, best servants, but not always best subjects, for they are light to run away, and almost all fugitives are of that condition (LA, p.1750).
Bacon makes a valid point—the desire for freedom is not exclusively for righteous reasons. After all, Satan desired freedom to attain absolute power. When given freedom of choice, Adam and Eve chose to go against God’s rule. Freedom, though often characterized as a liberator of responsibility, can become a burden in its own right.
As Moses leads the Children of Israel from Pharaoh’s bondage, they don’t thank him for their lack of food. They feel their lot would have been better had God simply killed them in Egypt. Although enslaved, they at least had food to eat. They fear that Moses had led them into the wilderness to “…kill this whole assembly with hunger”(Exodus 16).
Here is a case where the need for the bare necessities outweighs the need for freedom. Where Satan, Adam and Eve are willing to sacrifice Paradise due to the pursuit of freedom, here is a group of people reluctant to give up slavery for it.
Perhaps the reason for the stark contrast between the two groups regarding the value of freedom lies in past experience. Most, if not all, of the people Moses leads to the Promised Land have been born to slavery. It is likely they can’t grasp the concept of freedom—it is unreal to them, a fable. The only reality they have ever known is under Egyptian domination. They subscribe to the old adage, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Adam and Eve, on the other hand, have never been subjugated. Since they had never experienced anything else, they took paradise for granted. In their case, the adage “The grass is always greener on the other side” is applicable. The common thread between them and the Children of Israel is ignorance coloring their reasoning.
Reason, according to Milton, is choice and choice is freedom. Reason tempered with virtue is true freedom, something Adam and Eve lose when they eat the forbidden fruit. What is the sin for which they are punished—going against God’s commandments by eating the forbidden fruit or gaining the knowledge of Good and Evil in the process? It is probably the latter because, although God tells Adam not to eat from the tree, He does not prevent him from disobeying. Paradise, a place of perfection and sanctity, cannot abide flawed tenants who carry the seeds of evil within their minds. Banishment was the price they paid. Freedom is not free. With its gain there must also be a loss. The Israelites lose stability, Satan; heaven. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the spirit Ariel is imprisoned in a pine tree by the witch Sycorax. Although freed by Prospero from its prison, Ariel is bound to him for the favor. Prospero promises to give the spirit its freedom in exchange for some tasks it must perform for him (I. i. 264). Eventually Prospero makes good his promise and Ariel is set free, but only after the tasks are completed. Again, freedom comes with a price. Prospero gives up his magical powers and supernatural servants to be free of isolation and to reclaim his dukedom (V. i. 50-57). In the epilogue, Prospero seeks yet another type of freedom—spiritual—by urging the audience to forgive him and free him of his sins, which have him bound (due to the use of magic, perhaps?).
Today freedom still remains ambiguous and it comes in many forms. Of its existence there can be no doubt, because each individual experiences it in some form or fashion. Some would glut themselves on it while others prefer it in small increments. I believe if there can ever be a universal definition for freedom, it might possibly be this: freedom exists when a person no longer feels confined within his or her own boundaries.