Wednesday, September 30, 2009



We always hear about doomed criminals running away from the police. Chases always make the news. They seem to happen in California more than anywhere else. But no matter where they happen, the key element remains the same: Some desperate person tries frantically to delay the moment at which he will be physically restrained. He wants to be free. He wants control over his own body. So he thrashes with incredible energy to maintain that control. He even puts himself and others in mortal danger for a few more free moments. Even the most insignificant infractions put people to desperate flight. They even cause fatal car crashes while trying to escape from a traffic stop. In other words, men love freedom; and they cling to it no matter the cost or the danger.

Freedom has many meanings. It is a common word. George W. Bush used it ad nauseam as shorthand for a complex, biased political value system that had nothing to do with "a lack of restraint on physical movement." But today I want to examine the word's base, bodily meaning, not its metaphorical or rhetorical overlays. "Freedom" is an old English noun that stems from the adjective "free," which in turn relates to the German "frei." In essence, it implies a "lack of physical restraint on bodily movement." At base, it is corporal. It suggests an ability to move the body without being held back. It also suggests an ability to "go where one pleases" without facing opposing physical forces. In this sense, a "lack of physical restraint" intertwines with mental tranquility. People like to go where they want. No one likes to know he could be physically stopped from going somewhere. Physical "freedom," then, closely relates to mental "freedom," and even happiness: You can't be happy if someone prevents you from using your body as you please. Emotional satisfaction flows from physical freedom.

I like the words "free" and "freedom" more than "liberty." I am partial to hard-hitting, German-based words over obscure, imported Latin ones. "Liberty" is a Latin refinement on "freedom." At times, "freedom" and "liberty" mean the same thing. Yet "liberty" sounds somehow more grandiose than mere "freedom." During the Enlightenment, philosophers opted for majestic "liberty" over plebeian "freedom" when discussing man's "natural rights." In the process, they transformed "liberty" into a technical term. "Liberty" was no longer a simple synonym for "freedom." No, "liberty" carried its own theoretical weight. It became shorthand for an entire economic and social value system premised upon "individual choice, conscience and enterprise." John Stuart Mill named his famous ode to free market economic choice "On Liberty," while Adam Smith based The Wealth of Nations on the fundamental assumption that man must enjoy "economic liberty." In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously asserted that man's "inalienable rights" included life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." In all these examples, "liberty" took on a meaning far beyond "lack of restraint on bodily movement." It was something more than just "going where you want when you want." It was something freighted with metaphysical assumptions.

But today I am not writing about Mill's "liberty conception" or even "economic liberty." I am writing about pure, animal "freedom:" The subjective desire to be free from direct bodily restraint. Based upon my own observations, I believe that human beings have a natural desire to be free. There is both a physical and emotional dimension to this desire. Human beings--like their mammalian forebears--relish the ability to move as they please. They feel at ease when nothing constrains their bodies. By the same token, they hate the emotion that arises when some superior power prevents them from moving their bodies as they please. Dogs and monkeys scream when caged. They become agitated and violent. They obviously do not like limitations on their freedom to move. When restrained, their behavior shows they hate it.

Human beings hate being confined, too. Unlike animals, they know when others seek to confine them. That is why they struggle to avoid capture and "maintain their freedom," even if there is no prospect for success. They know how they will feel when they lose their bodily freedom, so they resort to anything to hold onto it. Human beings anticipate the emotional pain that flows from losing freedom. That explains why doomed criminals flee in desperate attempts to remain free. Even when they have no chance to succeed, people will always try to escape, if only for a few minutes.

But how is that reasonable? If there is no chance to succeed in an endeavor, why bother attempting it? In my view, the "urge to be free from bodily restraint" trumps human reason. After all, if human beings trusted their reason in all events, they would never try to avoid inevitable capture. They would not jump over electrified fences or drive 85 miles per hour the wrong way down a one-way street if reason guided their actions. No, something else guides their actions when they feel something threatens their freedom. Human beings will resort to utterly unreasonable behavior to avoid physical restraint. The "urge to be free" transcends virtually all reasonable imperatives. It overwhelms rational calculation and leads men to engage in dangerous behavior that is almost bound to fail.

In my eyes, all this proves that human beings are not purely reasonable creatures. No matter how much we applaud our ability to triumph over nature through reason, we retain extremely unsettling instincts. Our "urge to be free from bodily restraint" illustrates the lengths to which human beings will go to maintain their ability to move their bodies as they wish. Viewed rationally, who would think that mere bodily movement could trigger such intense emotional responses? But that is exactly the point: Reason cannot account for men's violent emotional responses to certain stimuli. For better or worse, men want control over their bodies, just as chimps and dogs want to roam uncaged. And just like chimps and dogs, they rage uncontrollably when anything constrains their ability to roam.

Physical confinement touches a base nerve in our minds. That explains why human beings resort to anything to avoid it, no matter how unreasonable or ineffectual. This has nothing to do with complex coinages like "liberty." It is just a fact of nature. And we will never escape nature.

1 comment:

Timoteo said...

The Greek word for freedom is "eleutheria." It will give you goosebumps when shouted in defiance--as in John Fowles brilliant existential novel on the nature of freedom and responsibility: The Magus. A great read!