Some readers of this may already know that I am living and teaching in Russia but may or may not know further that I am currently back in England as I write this. My living there is however not what I wish to talk about this time. Instead, I felt an overpowering urge to do what I probably love the most – philosophy. That is, to mediate on certain topics, think, talk and eventually gather my thoughts into one essay that sufficiently expresses what I concluded (if some conclusion or near-conclusion was possible). I have not yet the few single words that could summarise exactly what the theme of this essay will be, but perhaps by the end of it they will emerge.
I have several times, both alone and with like-minded friends, reflected upon the issue of liberty and freedom. There is almost an immediate reflex to think of these terms strictly in a political sense, and it is no mistake to react in that way. They are indeed very important and relevant there, but I contend that these political terms are born out of a deeper and more cultural sense. Being grateful to Isaiah Berlin, we have a broadly agreed upon distinction in discussing freedom. It’s not always the case that the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are interchangeable but for the purposes of this essay I will assume that they are and stick mostly with the former.
Berlin defines positive freedom as being,
…involved in the answer to the question ‘What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?’ The two questions are clearly different, even though the answers to them may overlap.
He then defines negative freedom as the following,
…liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question: ‘What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons’.
Positive freedom appears to be a more distinctive definition and is easily traceable to 20th century movements and thinkers given that implied in this definition we are seeking for power, not just any source of power but the source of power – who is controlling me and who is to blame for my ill fortune? Let’s find him and, if necessary, destroy him if it means I can finally be who I see myself to be. And this attitude is smeared all over the likes of Foucault and his ilk and not to mention his successors who still pervade our institutions throughout the modern world.
Negative freedom is much more akin to what is not just codified in their constitution but positively cemented in the minds of the American people, that is, a belief in relieving restriction and seeking simply to be left to one’s own devices. Although this distinction is not mutually exclusive, it is held somewhat non-contentiously. This sense of freedom is much more obviously a conservative value, but only in the narrow sense that it is not Marxist, and it just seems odd to me that conservative values are defined by negation i.e. we hold the values that our opponents do not. Actually, this is more like what revolutionaries do and have done. It is they who look at conservative values, institutions, attitudes and beliefs and reject what they see and define their values and desires in contrast, as being against things, rather than for things. Therefore, I think it’s necessary for conservatives to claw back the notion of positive freedom, accentuate its qualities and express it clearly and in a relatable way.
Positive freedom is not so difficult to argue for as something manifestly conservative and traditional, and here I will turn to the heart of culture. For example, the idea of discipline is inherently restrictive, but discipline is ultimately at the core of all respectable and creative spheres of life. That’s why we sometimes refer to them as ‘disciplines’ in the first place. Here I am talking about the arts, music, poetry and so on. Only with immense discipline can there exist freedom. Having mastered the English language, Shakespeare went on to invent 1,700 new words. At first glance, it might not seem difficult to invent new words, surely we can all just place random letters together and assign an acute meaning to each one, but that would not really work in the everyday world. Why? Because language is not a private matter, it is the business of the public; this language is not simply mine or yours, but ours. If it really was the case that we could just invent new words, then presumably we would all do that, but already we can imagine what sort of chaos would ensue as a result, we simply would not be able to function anymore as social creatures. It is therefore vital that we have a public arrangement, but public arrangements must have rules, and only with mastery of these rules does one earn the right and skill to be creative. In a sense, that is what genius is: the mastery of a discipline and bringing something wholly new to it, not something new and distinct from the rules, but something in keeping with them. This is how public order evolves. The same was true for Bach; he believed that all notes should be necessary (restrained) so that each note was totally free. And who would argue that his works were anything short of unrivalled genius?
There is another way in which it is possible to shun this idea of negative freedom in a way that is directly relatable. If freedom is best served as something without restriction, then suddenly the most terrible of things become strangely admirable. Some in the commentariat have already regarded the recent tragedy of the Notre Dame fire as emancipation and a huge opportunity for liberation because it means that something new and exciting can replace what came before. But who in their right mind would view such a cataclysm in this way? Not the ordinary everyday conservative of which there are plenty. When you lose the job you have worked towards all your life, do you regard this moment as liberation or are you incandescently distraught? Or let’s imagine that you lose your house, you have the absolute freedom to live anywhere now, most probably a shop doorway but any shop doorway in the world at any rate. How liberating!
Clearly, negative freedom as the mere absence of restriction and thus the ability to do what we like is not conservative or traditional at all. Rather, we traditionalists adhere to the orderly and seek meaning and creativity therein. Positive freedom in the historical sense that I have tried to capture continues to offer something concrete, and it is concreteness that drives us most of the time. The need for a definable path and concrete meaning is what we want in all our endeavours: career, passions, relationships and so on. This need explains our unrelenting love and attachment to the institutions and subjects which we hold most dear, namely that of music, poetry and much more. Attaching ourselves to something concrete in order to find orderly meaning permeates throughout these subjects, even in philosophy, and so I see no tenable reason to believe that positive freedom is not rightfully in the possession and annals of traditional society.
One final word on public order and the arts. During my university studies I was fortunate enough to study aesthetics in closer detail, not least with the help of some brilliant tutors and access to the best materials. There was one quotation I came across that has since stuck with me and which I would like to share, after which I shall say no more.
The artist’s business is to express emotions; and the only emotions he can express are those which he feels, namely his own… if he attaches any importance to the judgement of his audience, it can only be because he thinks that the emotions he has tried to express are…shared by his audience… In other words he undertakes his artistic labour not as a personal effort in his own private behalf but as a public labour on behalf of the community to which he belongs. Whatever statement of emotion he utters is prefaced by the implicit rubric, not ‘I feel’, but ‘we feel’. (R.G. Collingwood, 1938)