The Nature And Limits Of Freeedom

The Nature And Limits Of Freeedom

In logic, as in common sense, we understand that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time. No man can meet himself coming around a corner; nor can he serve, much as it might amuse him to do so, as a pallbearer at his own funeral. The law of contradiction imposes an unavoidable, if regrettable, limitation on human life. But in language, especially the language of politics, words often seem to defy this simple law.

In language, words are used not merely to communicate but to veil or distort meanings. Thus the term “freedom” is employed to mean both the absence of restraint (Hobbes) and submission to restraint (Rousseau); to describe actions taken in the silence, or even defiance, of the law (Bentham and Thoreau) as well as actions taken in obedience to law (Montesquieu and Hegel); to account for a way of life (President Eisenhower, who in his first Inaugural Address declared that the conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. is one in which “Freedom is pitted against slavery”) and to condemn the denial of certain political rights (Patrick Henry, who, though he had the freedom to proclaim his alleged unfreedom, nevertheless demanded “liberty or death”). Theologians like Jacques Maritain and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen apply freedom only to acts that constitute “right” choices, i.e., acts that conform to the good, or the truth, or God’s will (all of which, in this conception, amount to the same thing); while democratic theorists like John Stuart Mill and R. M. Maclver apply the term without regard to the ethical quality of the action chosen. To compound this confusion, psychoanalysts like Erich Fromm tell us that positive freedom, as distinct from negative freedom, “consists in the spontaneous activity of the total integrated personality,” thereby excluding from the term, we must presume, actions taken as a consequence of considered judgment or by neurotic or maladjusted men; while Soviet apologists insist that writers in the Communist world are free to say whatever they think, provided only that they first think the right things.

Most of these (and many other) definitions of freedom are incompatible with each other. As a result, we can no longer know what a man means when he speaks of freedom; for a plea for freedom made by X may in fact be nothing less than a call for the exercise of coercion over Y, as Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor made plain when he observed that men “will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us.” This is what led George Orwell to compose a grammar of double talk called “Newspeak” and to coin as a slogan of the new totalitarianism: “Freedom is Slavery.”

It would take us too far afield to enter into the reasons for this curious diversity of meanings. History and tradition would contribute part of the explanation; deliberate distortion so as to enlist people...


Lima