The concept of freedom is a really interesting thing to consider. Freedom is something we are often prone to praise but perhaps we do not give enough time to ponder what it actually entails.
In a recent interview author and social critic Os Guiness spoke about his most recent book, A Free People’s Suicide. He talked of three stages of freedom. There is freedom won, freedom authored, and freedom sustained.
The first of those stages is one we often celebrate. We can point back to Independence Day. We can recount those who were at the forefront of the movement that brought about freedom. In some instances these heroes led with weapons and strength. Others led with words and ideas. Still others led with persistence and endurance.
The second stage is that of authoring freedom. Within a given state there are documents and laws that lay down the fundamental rules that govern the land. These documents when well-constructed and fairly implemented are indispensible in securing the freedoms of its citizens.
The final stage Guiness talked about, and the one his book addresses most directly, is the stage of securing freedom. This is perhaps the most daunting stage of them all. It is not a fight that has an end date or can be celebrated annually. In this stage the opponents of freedom are often times not from without but from within. They are often our own desires that when left unchecked lead to the corruption and ultimately the loss of freedom.
How does this process happen? How is freedom lost by people who themselves want to enjoy freedom? One factor is a faulty understanding of what freedom is.
There are certainly some basic elements of freedom that we grasp. Or, maybe to put it better, we can recognize when freedom is restricted. There are fundamental rights that most people would say ought to be protected. Freedom House is one of the leading organizations in supporting and measuring freedoms. They list among the fundamental freedoms they monitor and seek to support those of “expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women.” The logic is put forward that when those freedoms are present they lead to human flourishing. Thus, societies ought to work to cultivate these freedoms.
Most people would agree with those ideas in general. However, what do they mean? One method of formulating the concepts of freedom is to examine the notion of “positive and negative freedoms,” with which the philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin is most associated. On a basic level it is examining that some aspects of freedom include the freedom “to do or to be” X while other understandings would be about the freedom “from or against” X. While this dualist approach does not hold true in every instance it does begin to push the conversation deeper.
We can begin to examine what we mean when we say we promote “freedom of expression.” What are we free to do? What are we free from? Included in this heading might be questions about freedom of the press. What about satire directed at political leaders? Is that an abuse of freedom of expression? Why or why not?
What happens when my freedom and my neighbors’ freedom come into, at least apparent, conflict? Are there any legitimate checks on my exercise of freedom? If so, where do they come from?
Freedom alone cannot be enough. Freedom must have something else that accompanies it. Os Guiness puts forward a very interesting formulation of what he sees, and what he believes the framers of the American constitution saw, as necessary for sustaining freedom. He frames it as “the golden triangle of freedom.”
The three points are freedom, virtue, and faith. Freedom if it is to keep from abuse must be checked by virtue. Virtue for its own sake has difficulty to endure if it is divorced from a faith of some sort. Faith if it is to be genuine in turn requires freedom to believe, to pursue truth, to live in light of your faith.
So here, the argument is that these three are each necessary and complementary in supporting the others in sustaining freedom.
When we consider the world around us we can see countries that are at differing stages of freedom. We can think of Syria that is even now in the process of fighting to win freedom. We can see Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt now in the process transition, authoring the documents and laying the institutions that will enshrine freedoms. Even Turkey is in the process of constructing a constitution that will provide stronger, broader and more robust freedom to its citizens. Then in countries like the United States and throughout Europe there are cultural and political debates to keep sustain freedom from the abuses of relativism, excessive consumptionism, among other challenges.
The fight to sustain freedom should receive no less passion or devotion as the fight to win freedom. It must carry with it the same intellectual and thoughtful rigor as the process of authoring freedom. In this fight we can live in freedom, and also leave a legacy of freedom for those who follow.