I do not always write for children here (and there are a lot of 50-year old children around these days, I know), so here’s some serious stuff again.
This article in The American Scholar has set me musing over one of my pet themes once more: where does one (and a society) draw the line between freedom and responsibility (I strongly recommend that this earlier post be read in tandem with the current one)? Is it possible to have too much freedom? Do we perhaps make a fetish of freedom as with everything else, from God to science? Can a society go to the dogs with freedom just as it can asphyxiate or explode under tyranny?
Karl Marx once famously said ‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ Had that savant lived to see all that has happened since his day, all the change that freedom-intoxicated humanity, commoners by the millions as much as technologists and businessmen and politicians and pop-philosophers and ad-men have together done to change the world, he might have found himself breathless and very confused, if not also dismayed and disgusted (in personal life, as far as I know, he was a much more quiet and conservative man than I am). What would he have said when Revlon and Twitter alike can bring about instant and virtually painless ‘revolutions’, when the Higgs boson and Lady Gaga are equally ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ in the mass media for the passing moment, when nothing is sacred any more except what cults and loony fringes subscribe to, when schoolboys either hang themselves or shoot their teachers on failing examinations, and when change for change’s sake has become a hypnotizing mantra whose spell enthralls virtually everybody? Wouldn’t he have started looking desperately for people who still want to ‘stand and stare’, to make sense of the whirligig of life, and to make judgments they can live by, judgments they don’t have to change from one day to another to fit the fad of the moment?
Are we really free – whether we are children or adults, male or female, rich or poor – or simply tied to some eternally turning machine like cogs in the wheel: either studying for examinations, or making a living, or attending to social ‘obligations’, or shopping or watching TV simply because we can’t think of anything better to do? Do we really want very much freedom, or will most people’s lives fall apart if ever the ropes of routine and discipline were loosened a bit? Is it perhaps the primary duty of the ruling classes – among whom I include not just politicians and policemen but teachers, religious men and celebrities, too – to provide a little more discipline, more structure, more orderliness in our lives, and are they failing in their duty (which would explain everything from soaring graphs of divorce and death in road accidents to sudden economic crashes through unregulated and rampant greed at the bourses)? Are we being taught enough, at all levels from kindergarten to the university, about how best to use our freedom(s)? And, as the linked article very pertinently asks, are we forgetting that there are other, very important ideals to aim at, by being obsessed with freedom – even trivial freedom, like wearing abusive comments on t-shirts?
What is the point in thinking about such things, many readers may wonder. I am very clear about why I do it. It is the only thing that keeps the essential humanity in oneself alive: otherwise we are just living the lives of (sometimes glorified, but mindless) drudges. Cogito, ergo sum. Besides, all real change for the better comes from thinking in this fashion, and spreading the thoughts around. I am a cerebral man, and naturally all my heroes were cerebral over and above everything else. One of them said ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers… are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else… sooner or later, it is ideas rather than vested interests that are dangerous for good or evil.’ And John Maynard Keynes did change the world in a very significant (I’d say on the whole better-) way with his ideas about how governments should regulate capitalism in the larger public interest…