Mr. Navrozov's latest column sparked a conversation on freedom in which the writer sensibly maintained that Americans are freer today than Russians were under Stalin. In one sense, he is certainly right, but in trying to address other issues, I got a bit carried away.
Freedom, which has several distinct meanings, can be elusive both as a word and as reality. When Greeks talked about freedom–eluetheria–in political terms, it did not typically refer to individual people but to the community. Classical liberals of the 19th century were more interested in keeping individuals free from restraints imposed by institutions–the crown, the Church, aristocracy, public opinion–but as time went by some of them developed the positive concept of “freedom to…” do something, which eventually required them to support state-controlled education, graduated income tax, minority privileges, and so they found themselves turning a brighter shade of pink as the 20th century progressed.
The most often quoted observation on freedom in contemporary America is Kris Kristofferson’s “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose / Nothing ain’t worth nothin but it’s free.” I never quite got the point, but the song-writer seemed to be saying that being a footloose vagabond has one advantage, personal freedom. It’s a grim thought for so romantic a song. Is “feelin good” really enough? I wonder if Mr. Kristofferson, as he has aged, still thinks that. He probably does, since he has declared that he wants his tombstone to read (from Leonard Cohen):
Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
I don’t really believe he has any idea of what freedom might mean.
From the Christian and ethical perspective, however, freedom is essentially a moral and spiritual condition . Political and economic freedom, if it means simply that a man as the right to choose Burger King over MacDonald’s, Taylor Swift over Lady Gaga, or even a female over a male wife, amounts to very little. When I talk about what is wrong with many friends in Rockford, perfectly nice and reasonably intelligent people say things like, “A man’s got to make a living, and then what he does on his own time–whether it is watching TV or hitting a hard white ball into a hole day after day–is his own affair. The entire notion of what ancient philosophers call “happiness”–an objective rather than a subjective phenomenon–is so foreign to them they cannot even begin to grapple with it. Are such people free, because they have money in the bank and can go to Vegas whenever they want? I don’t believe either Aristotle or St. Paul would have thought so.
I don’t know what life was like under Stalin, because I did not live then, and books on such subjects interest me not at all. I do know that within the constraints exerted by the Stalinist nightmare, men of talent and courage wrote poems and composed music that is, by and large, far better than the poetry and music being created by the state-industrial schools of art.
I make no apologies for dictatorships or ideological regimes. Every morning these days (now that we have read the entire Bible aloud) we read a few chapters of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. I couldn’t bear to reread the entire account of the martyrdoms at Lyons, but we did wade through the blood at Smyrna. The account of fine old Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John, is inspiring. We see him making reasonable attempts to avoid martyrdom–he was, after all, very useful to the young flock of Christians–then feeding lunch to the people who came to arrest him, and his entirely rational response to the governor, offering to teach him what Christianity is. When the governor tells him to teach the crowd howling for his blood, he calmly tells him that as a Christian he is required to respect authority and thus to teach governors the truth. I do no know enough to say who of my contemporaries is free, much less who in Soviet Russia or New Deal America was free, but I feel entirely safe in saying that Polycarp was free–and not just because he knew the Truth that will set anyone free, but also because he was free like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, free like the 300 Spartans.
In dark moments I remember the Anglican Collect for Peace: O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The phrase “whose service is perfect freedom” goes back at least to Augustine. It is good to recall that service comes from servitium, which means the condition of being a slave. Unless we give our hearts and minds to a higher nobler cause than our own transitory desires, we cannot be free.