Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Freedom, self-direction, truth, and blindness

"I am free if, and only if, I plan my life in accordance with my own will; plans entail rules; a rule does not oppress me or enslave me if I impose it on myself consciously, or accept it freely, having understood it, whether it was invented by me or by others, provided that it is rational, that is to say, conforms to the necessities of things. To understand why things must be as they must be is to will them to be so. Knowledge liberates not by offering us more open possibilities amongst which we can make our choice, but by preserving us from the frustration of attempting the impossible. To want necessary laws to be other than they are is to be prey to an irrational desire--a desire that what must be X should also not be X. To go further, and believe these laws to be other than what they necessarily are, is to be insane." 

Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty"

Over the last few days, I have been reading Berlin, and this passage in which Berlin describes positive freedom--the freedom that comes from my imposing a law on myself and choosing to direct my life in accordance with this law out of my own autonomous self-direction--jumps out at me. Berlin himself is ambivalent about this notion of positive liberty. On the one hand, this notion of freedom as rational self-direction can be found in the works of a long line of liberal-minded thinkers (Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, to name a few), and expresses the lofty ideal that being free is not just about not being restricted in one's actions, but is ultimately about being able to direct one's life in accordance with an ideal of one's own choosing.

On the other hand, however, positive freedom becomes morally problematic when one tries to translate it into a systematic political arrangement. First, if people are truly free only if they are able to live their lives in accordance with an ideal of their own choosing, then, assuming that freedom is the most important thing for people to have, having this ability to live self-directed lives must be what people really want, even if some people are too benighted/ignorant/stupid to know this on a conscious level. And it is not enough for the state to leave these benighted/ignorant/stupid people alone to their own devices; left to their own devices, these people will probably do things that are not only harmful to themselves, but might also threaten the freedom and lives of more enlightened folks. So, for the good of all, these benighted/ignorant/stupid people who do not know what is best for themselves must be educated and, if necessary, coerced into becoming truly free (Fichte: "Only the truth liberates, and the only way in which I can learn the truth is by doing blindly today, what you, who know it, order me, or coerce me, to do, in the certain knowledge that only thus will I arrive at your clear vision, and be free like you."). And we all know how the story goes from here. Much of the excesses committed in the names of the many "isms" (communism, fascism, even liberalism) of the twentieth century can be traced at least in part to what are arguably at least initially well-intentioned efforts by a group of intellectual elites to "educate" the ignorant and bring them up to shape for the new world order of absolute freedom that is soon to come.

Scary and depressing stuff, if you think about it. How can something that is so noble and lofty on the individual level become so monstrous when applied on a large scale? I don't have any easy (or difficult) answers to this question, and I don't want to gloss this issue over by spouting platitudes, so I'll leave it at this. But here's something else to think about: Aren't we subjecting ourselves to a similar process in our Ashtanga practice? Assuming that the goal of the practice is moksha or liberation, and that only the truth liberates, and the truth is presently not within our field of vision, wouldn't this mean that in doing our daily practice, we are, in a sense, blindly putting ourselves through a process of coercion--to be sure, we are talking about self-directed, freely imposed coercion, but it's still coercion, nonetheless--in the certainty (?) that only thus will we one day arrive at a clear vision, and be free like... Sri K Pattabhi Jois?

On a further note, I sometimes also wonder if this blind trust in a guru/teacher that will lead us towards moksha might be related to all those guru scandals that have been gracing the yoga world of late. Again, one can respond to all this with all manner of platitudes about how trust should not be blind, yadayadayada, that one should choose and question one's guru/teacher carefully, yadayadayada. But if the whole point of having a guru/teacher is to follow somebody who supposedly sees the light in a way that one doesn't, wouldn't this mean that a certain relative blindness on the part of the student is built into the very fabric of the guru-student relationship?   

Hmm... where is this going? I don't know. Again, I have no easy (or difficult) answers to these questions. But I guess I'll continue to do my practice tomorrow. And probably the day after tomorrow as well. Maybe the blindness will lift soon. And then what? Again, I don't know.     


  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zPNLDjgAnE

  2. Oh gosh, this is so inappropriate! What's worse, I'm actually laughing... And what, only 17 views thus far?

  3. Hi Nobel, I disagree with Mr. Berlin. I think freedom is something else. Freedom is an abstract term and it is related to bondage. If we have slavery then we have freedom.

    Freedom does not have anything to do with choice. If you’re not discouraged, disgusted and disenchanted with every choice you have made, thus realizing every future choice can only mirror that same generic futility, then you’re still hypnotized by your egocentric conditioning and aren't even close to be free.

    Therefore, every action you engage in, and have ever engaged in, is completely spontaneous, simply because not one action belongs to “you,” but belongs to a force of causation. Spontaneous thoughts lead to spontaneous actions and not one thought have you ever WILLED to think as you did.

    There is only one slavery - your own imagination. The prison is our psychological state for a feeling of identity, personality, "me". Slavery is the feeling of a limited self. The feeling of myself is the bondage. And freedom is the freedom from the bondage, the freedom of "myself".

    1. "Freedom does not have anything to do with choice. If you’re not discouraged, disgusted and disenchanted with every choice you have made... then you’re still hypnotized by your egocentric conditioning and aren't even close to be free."

      To be perfectly honest, I am far from being discouraged, disgusted, etc., with every choice I have made. I suppose that means, on your account, that I am not even close to being free. But that's okay. I'm happy with being a "slave".

      In any case, as you have probably realized, I don't believe--nor do I think it is desirable--that I need to be completely spontaneous and to completely "disown" all my choices and actions in order to be free. But trying to explain why I don't believe this would take too much time. So I'll leave it at this.