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Monday, November 11, 2013

Freedom--a Socratic Dialogue

Starbuck's Coffee House Silver Spring again. Socrates walks in and sees Plato sitting alone nursing his cappuccino.

Socrates (walking over): Plato, sitting alone?

Plato: Join me, Socrates. Libertus was supposed to meet me here about 20 minutes ago; but he must have run into a snag.

Socrates (sitting down): Well, look! Here he comes now.

Libertus (hurrying over): Plato, sorry I'm so late. Solon had me cornered in conversation and I just couldn't get free. Hi, Socrates. So good to see you and glad you could join us.

Socrates: Thanks, Libertus, but I can't stay long. I want to get down to the gymnasium. But I am curious when you said that you couldn't get free. Are you saying that when you were talking with Solon you had no freedom?

Plato (laughing): Ha, I could see that coming a mile away. Libertus, you know you have to be awful careful what you say around Socrates.

Libertus: Yes, in a sense, Socrates. I was bound by a self-imposed duty to a friendship. But I was speaking analogously. I wasn't free because of a duty, but still I had freedom. I could have left and actually did.

Plato: I have a student called Aristotle who thinks everything is analogy. But I think there has to be an essence, a reality we call freedom and then we use "free" like Libertus did as an analogous concept in reference to the reality.

Socrates: Hmm, I don't think I'll step into your controversy with Aristotle on whether reality is univocal or analogous just yet. But at least we can clarify the meaning of freedom. So does freedom mean the absence of bindings or boundaries?

Libertus: Yes and no, I think we can bind ourselves by our choices as I did with Solon. But as long as I am choosing my bindings, I am still free. I think one is not free when he is bound from outside himself. Like a slave.

Socrates: So if one chooses to be a slave or a servant and isn't forced to be one from outside, he is still free, correct?

Libertus: Yes, but he gives up his freedom if he puts himself in a condition where he cannot do anything about that condition.  Say, he chooses to be a servant, but then cannot get out from under it because of some coercion.

Socrates: Well said, Libertus. But what if the binding doesn't come from outside but from some inner obsession? Today neuroscientists are discovering that the brain is very complex and often genetically disposed and culturally determined to certain behaviors.

Libertus: In that case I guess I would say that such a person is not free but the compulsion still comes from outside the person--i.e. his parents or his culture. So I think my definition holds: freedom is the state of not being bound by some outer force.

Socrates: So, would that mean that a "libertine," one who sees himself outside and unrestricted by the mores of society or the rules of religion or the laws of government, say, by practicing free love, may not be free at all if he acting out of some compulsion or addiction?

Libertus: Yes, if the compulsion was caused from outside. For example maybe he has been "brain washed" by society, religion, or government. To be free he has to be the "master of his fate and the captain of his soul" as the poet says.

Socrates: So your understanding of being free is being without any compulsion from outside oneself. Is freedom then a negative idea?

Plato: I hope not. If a person acts totally under her own power, she is free and in a state of freedom. And freedom is a positive state, an ideal, an eternal idea.

Socrates: What does it mean to act under one's own power?

Plato: It means acting in such a way that no other power is coercing you to act.  Oops, I know what you are going to say. That I am still defining freedom negatively--as being without coercion. But I have an answer to that. When you are liberating yourself from outside influence by liberal education to know all the coercive forces and removing them, then you are attaining freedom. Paulo Freire says that a liberating education is one where students are active subjects using language to create their own world, not passive objects being filled by the language and worldview of the existing social order.

Socrates: So freedom means liberation--the act or process of overcoming coercion or force so persons can act on their own?

Libertus: I think when a person, say through education or psychoanalysis, overcomes coercive forces so he can act on his own, then the person is free and has free will. So freedom is a negative idea in the sense that you are removing obstacles especially those coming from outside; but it is positive in the sense that you are taking definite steps to do that. But if you are born without outside constrictions, then you just have to stay that way.

Socrates: Is anyone born without outside restrictions? And can you ever get to the point where there are no restrictions, no limits, no coercions--a place of absolute freedom.

Libertus: I think so. Just throw off the shackles of government, society, and religion. Religious people say that a person is free only when the human spirit is totally united to God in heaven without the mediation of the body or any physical things. They say that libertines are not really free because their minds are not in tune with the will of God. But I think that religion is just another way to enslave people.
Plato: Philosophers say that you reach freedom when you turn the eyes of the soul, the intellect, away from the shadows of material things and towards the Truth through pure contemplation. They say that libertines are not really free because they are caught up in material things and pleasures of the body.

Socrates: Since I am neither religious, nor a philosopher, I have my doubts about what both of you are saying. Perhaps being free just means that we recognize our limits, boundaries, and restrictions while we act to get what we want. However, we have been talking about psychological freedom or free will, what about political freedom?

Libertus: Same thing. When the slave no longer is bound by a master who can force his will or demand obedience, then that person is no longer a slave and is free.  In fact, it's easier to understand freedom in the social sphere, because you can much more recognize external forces there than in the psychological sphere. Just as psychological freedom is liberating yourself from others or outside forces influences in the psyche, so political freedom is removing the forces that influence your behavior in society.

Socrates: If freedom is liberation, is the slave like Spartacus who has united with other slaves to overthrow the masters more free than the slave who has been given his freedom just because the master does it out of noblesse oblige?

Libertus: Both have their chains removed and so are free as the person who had no chains at all. But there is something more admirable about a person removing his own chains. If a slave is given his freedom, he may be bound by gratitude or law or some other quid pro quo. Political freedom is acting not because of the laws of government which uses police or coercive force to uphold them, but because of the laws from within that you choose, that is, your own interests. Libertarianism is the political ideal--the winnowing away of the state and its coercive powers as Marx said.

Plato: But, on the other hand, you know what happened to Spartacus. He was crucified for rebellion. In an ideal Republic, I think that not everyone can be free. You need some people, especially the women and servants, to look after the things the body must have, so that freemen and especially the philosopher-rulers can act from a position of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Proper order, not total freedom, is the ideal for society. I know that's not politically correct to say in today's world--but that is why we are having such tensions today. We are not correctly understanding the essences of things.

Socrates: Wow! I'm going to set aside your women and slave position for now. But I do recognize your distinction between the necessities of life and the requirements of action. Life's needs, like food, exercise, sex, entertainment, and work to achieve and maintain the ability to consume is the realm of necessity. Its what we mean by the economy. And it is what must be done to make, grow, and maintain physical life. But when that is done, then certain people are freed up to act on their own without concerns for the necessities of life. Is that right, Plato?

Plato: Yes, Socrates. In the good society of the Republic, because some are concerned about producing what is necessary to consume to live, others are able to devote themselves to the arts, to thinking and discussing like we are doing now, so they can decide policies, that is, what the polis or city should be. And they can command the resources to carry out those policies. They leave the realm of necessity for the realm of freedom. That's the difference between the household (economy and the private realm) and the polis (politics and the public realm).

Socrates: So does that mean that if persons are totally caught up in work and making money, they are still in the realm of necessity and are not free?

Libertus: I guess that would be just like libertines who seem to be free but really are not because of their addictions and compulsions. But still as long as they are acting out of their own desires and interests, it seems to me they are free.

Plato: No, I think liberation is the act or process of moving out of the state of necessity where production for consumption is the major goal and into the place of concerted action--pure thought, disinterested speech, and unrestricted action for the good of the whole. And freedom is that action of freed men working for the true good. But again, that's why I think only a few people who already have all they need to live can truly be free and able to act in a state of freedom.

Socrates: You cannot conceive of a state in which all people can be free citizens, liberated from concern about the necessities of life and participate equally with others in thinking, speaking, deciding, and acting for that state of freedom?

Plato: That's a wonderful dream. But I don't think that would be possible in this life.  Maybe in some heaven with the gods after death when the body no longer has to eat food, enjoy sex, be entertained, or have more and more things. But in this life, if everybody is free from material concerns of life, society would dissipate. We would have pandemonium--"man a wolf to man" as Hobbes said. That's why the freed people have to make and run government (Leviathan) with laws to constrain the workers and servants to take care of the material necessities of life.

Libertus: I argue for no government or as little as possible. Freedom for me is being without the constraints that government laws backed by police coercion make. I think that unrestrained by outside laws and just guided by individual self-interest and personal desires, people will ultimately do the right thing and society will function fine.

Socrates: But is that realistic? Won't those with the most influence, especially those who control the resources for life, try to exert their desires on the rest of us just based on their own individual self-interests? And those few will still control the many but not for some enlightened, philosophic good, as Plato would have it, but to keep increasing their own material resources.

Libertus: Maybe so. But's that's life.

Socrates: Yes, that's life--the realm of the economy here people are focused on accumulating material resources. But we've established that there is also action when and where freed people get together to choose what is good for all. So maybe what you say, Libertus, is for the private realm of the economy; but what Plato says about proper order and choosing the common good is for the public realm of politics--though we may disagree about whether that is for the few or the many.

Plato: If there are two distinct spaces, economy or the realm of necessity which is focused on personal life's resources and politics or the realm of freedom which is focused on public speech and action for the common good, and if all persons go to both of them at different times, as Socrates seems to be inferring, how do we keep from confusing them?

Libertus: I guess that is what is meant by the separation of church and state, by the contrast between private morality and public ethics, by the difference between individual self-interest and common good. But my question is that if there is a conflict, which takes precedence.

Socrates: Well, you both are asking the most important ethical question, it seems to me.

Libertus: I think the economy has to take precedence over politics since you can't act in public unless life's needs are taken care of. How can people really take the steps towards freedom if they don't have enough to live on? Also as I said before, persons as individuals seeking their own economic interests is what makes up the fabric of society and the common good. So leaders, while they pretend to have everybody's good at heart, are really taking their position to accumulate more material resources.

Socrates: Perhaps. Yet don't we see people as heroes when they give up their lives to create or defend the state of freedom? For them the common good, a place where people are liberated, seems like the higher good, doesn't it? Isn't it a higher value to put other people and the community above the individual's life, even my own?

Plato: Yes, for sure. The good of the many outweighs the needs of the few.

Socrates: Do you mean the goods of the many--the consumables that keep them living well? If so, isn't that still putting economics above politics, the demands of necessity over the requirements of freedom? Is it just a number's game?

Plato: No, I guess not. Even if more people died so that fewer people could establish an ideal--a truly free society, that would be better it seems to me. I think of the revolutionaries who risked everything to bring down an oppressive government so everybody could participate.

Libertus: But if you look at most revolutions, they end in disaster.

Plato: Hannah Arendt says that the French Revolution was achieved in the societ├ęs or what de Tocqueville would call in his Democracy in America as voluntary associations. But the societ├ęs were consumed by economic demands because of the poverty and the tremendous gap between the rich aristocrats and the very poor. So the vengeance and violence of the Terror destroyed the revolution with its free associations. Same with the soviets in Russia when the Bolshevists put their party over all the soviets. So by putting economy over politics, freedom is destroyed.

Libertus: So Arendt means if you have a society that creates a government that is totally focused on economic goals like making money, creating wealth, accruing property, you are undermining freedom and the state of freedom. Then she is saying that libertarians who use the accumulation of money as their measure of success are not really free. They are like compulsive libertines who just think they are free.  But what about the American Revolution?

Plato: Arendt thinks that representative democracy killed the American Revolution. The town hall tradition was where people came together to speak, decide, and act. But when they elected the best and the brightest to lead, they left the public arena for others and just went back into their workaday world--which is just what I recommend for my Republic as long as the leaders are philosophers.

Socrates: Is that like what Libertus said before when slaves give up their freedom and can't take it back? We abandon the public places and elect our masters to make decisions for us.

Plato: Precisely. And even in the old days, it was only those with property, including other human beings, that could vote in the town hall meetings or be citizens and run for Congress. And then the elected became the rulers.

Libertus: Most elected officials need great sums of money to be elected. So many of them come from  the aristocratic class and do what the monied interests want them to do, like the big plantation owners or railroad tycoons and now the big corporations. So, yes, economic interests dominate.

Socrates: So I guess Hannah Arendt would think that the latest Supreme Court decision that gives corporations, totally organized for economic profit, the status of citizens and the ability to determine elections is the final straw. Now we have private corporations which are citizens just like you and I. They can pay off politicians to make policies that will increase they ability to make profit which is their main purpose. The public is totally subordinated to the private. The American Revolution is totally undone.

Libertus: But maybe that's just the reality of things. We just need to accept the world as it is. The needs and desires of life will always trump so-called higher goals of human spirit. There is no higher freedom than personal and individual self-interest without any outside limits or restrictions. And private corporations organized for private profit are the most powerful ways to make politics subservient to private interests. Read Ayn Rand.

Plato: You think that's the way the world is? Well maybe the shadow world of people who don't understand what is happening. And then we no longer have a republic. We just have the rhetoric and the trappings of the republic. Just like Athens when it became an empire and the same for Rome. In effect we have the rule by plutocrats who judge success by GNP--gross nation product for consumption measured by money.

Socrates: I applaud you both for struggling with the question of freedom. How we answer it will determine who we are and, more important, who we want to be. But now I must be off to the gymnasium.

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