What use is political and economic freedom if we’re not free on the inside? Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that political and economic freedom should only be given to citizens who are free on the inside. That would be a recipe for totalitarianism. Imagine committees charged with deciding which citizens are authentically free in their souls and thus “worthy” of the privileges of political and economic freedom.
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But from an ethical perspective, inner freedom matters, and is certainly not guaranteed by the enjoyment of civil liberties. The freedom to live as we wish is also a responsibility, not just toward others, but toward ourselves. If we use our hard-won freedoms to obsess over the very latest Iphone, subordinate our moral compass to popular opinion, anaesthesise ourselves with alcohol, or chain ourselves to conventional markers of “success,” let’s face it: we are squandering a priceless opportunity to shape our life, with our eyes wide open, into something authentic and worthwhile.
As we fight for the freedom to worship, love, play, work, protest, travel, buy and sell, and conscientiously educate our children, we shouldn’t forget that beyond all of these external freedoms, there is a type of freedom that no government or law can guarantee: rational self-direction in the service of a good, worthwhile life.
This should not be confused with mere license, or the ability to do whatever the hell we want. Rather, it means the ability to live a life directed to genuinely worthwhile goals, under the influence of rational judgment. A rational judgment is a judgment that is responsive to what is beautiful, good, and true, and is capable of recognising the difference between noble and ignoble ends.
Rational self-direction in the service of worthwhile goals is not possible if we are like marionettes that are tugged this way and that by our passing whims and appetitites. A person who loses their temper at the drop of a hat, and later lives to regret it, is enslaved to anger, even if they enjoy the full panoply of political and economic liberties.
A married man in a free society who only ministers to his own pleasures and comforts is disabled from keeping his marriage vows, or indeed caring for his wife as she deserves, because he is trapped in his ego, fundamentally unfree to love and aspire to great things. Someone who experiences a medical trauma and lives the rest of their life cowering in fear and anticipating danger at every turn is paralyzed by their inner fear from enjoying what life has to offer. That is a form of inner slavery.
Political and economic freedom is a hard-won civilisational achievement. One can cash in that freedom without too much personal discipline or effort. But building freedom on the inside requires personal discipline and effort. It requires us to gradually overcome our narcissistic fantasies, resentments, angers, fears, and self-destructive addictions. It requires us to gradually cultivate our better self, so that the best side of our character can shine through.
Now, one might wonder what has this all got to do with freedom? Well, the only type of freedom that is ultimately worth aspiring to is the freedom to live a life worth living, a life that is beautiful, good and true. And that is not possible unless we are willing to gradually cultivate the type of character and personality that is responsive to what is beautiful, good and true. Unless we learn to live mindfully, kindly, generously, compassionately, and wisely, we will never be truly free to become the best version of ourselves, and we will never be free to love others as we ourselves long to be loved.
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this is indeed a deeply meaningful post. Thank you! . It resonates with the fundamental principles of Buddhism by which I strive to live.
When I went to Japan for the first time to share experiences of my Buddhist faith with others from all over the world, and also listen to encouragement shared by my mentor, I was given the rare opportunity to receive personal guidance from a deeply experienced youth leader.
The only thing I fervently sought as a youth was my question. What is true freedom?
Thank you for sharing these thoughts. True freedom, imho, is a prerequisite for true happiness. Inner freedom entails an indomitable fighting spirit for the happiness of oneself and others. I believe we are really free only when we are really unshakeable. Really strong. When we have hope, and steadfast faith in our full potential. Everyones' full potential.
Thank you for all that you do . .