The Illusion of Individual Freedom

Philosophers have speculated on it, politicians have extolled it, poets have waxed lyrical about it, people in authority have tried to suppressed it; and some people have even died for it. The issue in question is Freedom. The purpose of this essay is to provoke readers’ thoughts by considering the issue of freedom from the perspective of hope. By addressing questions such as ‘what does it mean to be free?’ and ‘Is freedom a precondition of hope?’, I will argue that ‘individual freedom’ or ‘personal freedom’ is an illusion – possibly one of the last great illusions of today’s world.

In our postmodern world, which has shattered so many illusions, there is one illusion that has remained stubbornly persistent. This is the illusion of individual freedom. Although most people no longer believe in the utopian classless society prophesised by Marx and his followers, most people (at least in the West) continue to believe in the illusion of individual freedom. But when we peel back the layers of the beautifully adorned illusion of individual freedom, we perceive a truth that is frightening and alarming. Notwithstanding considerable pretense and unconscious self-deception, the raw truth is that most of us are trapped in a predictable pattern of consumer routines from which there is little escape. We have been captivated by the superficial appeal of consumer goods that have taken possession of our lives. We often lack the imagination to conceive of viable alternatives or even to recognise the condition of entrapment in which we find ourselves. The dominant consumerist paradigm of modern society has created a black hole of hopelessness, an abyss of despair into which all vital signs of life and hope are inexorably sucked.

We live as if we were free but all the while our choices are predetermined by a powerful media and advertising industry that shapes our unthinking assumptions about what it means to be human. The poets have not been silent on this issue:

‘Ich habe stets geglaubt, das Ruder selbst zu halten, und fuhr doch nur auf vorbestimmten Bahnen hin’. (English: ‘I always believed that I was holding the wheel, but I was travelling all the while on paths that had already been determined for me’ – Reinhard Mey, ‘All’ meine Wege‘).

Likewise, Rene Girard wrote in an essay on Dostoevsky, that, ‘We pretend we are free but we are not telling the truth. We are hypnotised by ridiculous gods and our suffering is doubled by the knowledge that they are ridiculous. Like the man from the underground we gravitate around these gods in a comfortless orbit fixed by the balance of contrary forces.’

We are told what clothes we should wear, what food we should eat, how we should spend our free time, with whom we should associate, what gadgets we need to buy. The price of non-conformity is to be denied entry into the club of social acceptability. Thanks to the development of a consumer culture that dominates our advanced capitalist society, we have reached the tragi-comic condition in which we recognise ourselves in our commodities. We look at our shiny cars, our fancy clothes and our accumulated technological tat and find our souls reflected therein; we purchase goods not only for their utility and function, but also for their power to convey identity and status. Despite the impressive technological advances of the past few years, the ‘progress’ has come at a price: our i-pod, mobile-phone, sat-nav, email-obsessed culture creates a false human being, a uniform being who learns how to find happiness in what is given to him by the technology industry. Our souls are created in the image of what we possess.

As a result, we are forced to express our identity through our consumer choices. Such is the controlling influence of the capitalist/consumerist ideology, that many of us do not realise that our prevailing conceptions of freedom are in fact part of the conditions that keep us in servitude. Capitalism tells us to equate freedom with choice. “Freedom is choice and choice is freedom!” – this is the motto of capitalism. Freedom is said to consist in the proliferation of consumer choice.

This myopic conception of freedom is highlighted in Willy Russell’s stage comedy, Educating Rita, which tells the story of the eponymous heroine, who, feeling trapped by her working class lifestyle, attempts to break free by taking an Open University course in English Literature. In one memorable scene, her unsympathetic husband, Denny, tries to explain that real choice means being able to choose which beer to drink and which football team to support. Rita, however, is unconvinced and senses a deep desire to experience real freedom and to break out of the narrow constraints imposed by her social status.

What does the Christian faith have to offer someone like Rita? Notwithstanding the shameful history of certain authorities that called themselves ‘the Church’ – a hierarchical institution that pursued a brutal, bloody and sustained campaign of censorship, inquisition, torture and the burning and emaciation of those it deemed to be ‘heretics’ – freedom is and always has been the foundation of Christian belief. Christianity is a religion of radical emancipation. The founder of Christianity came preaching a radical message of freedom: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath … sent me … to preach deliverance to the captives’ (Luke 4:18); ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free … If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’ (John 8:32,36).

Christian theology teaches that truth is a precondition of true freedom: falsehood enslaves and truth liberates. In direct contradiction to the capitalist/consumerist notion of freedom as the absence of restraint or the superabundance of choice, Christian tradition and the teaching of the scriptures posit a deeply counter-cultural conception of the essence of freedom. Christian teaching reminds us not to unthinkingly equate the condition of freedom with wilfulness or arbitrariness. This kind of absolute freedom is a chimera. It amounts to what Dostoevsky called “living by one’s own dumb will” and leads to spiritual self-enslavement and to the capricious will of one’s own nature. This kind of ‘freedom’ constitutes an existential abyss.

Since Isaiah Berlin wrote his famous essay on two kinds of liberty, the version of ‘negative freedom’ that he advocated has become the ideological mainstay of the so-called ‘liberal democracies’ of the West. In fact, this conception of liberty has been part of dominant ideology ever since John Stuart Mill published his celebrated 1859 essay, On Liberty, in which he argued that, ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant’.

For Mill the individual is sovereign and no-one has the right to infringe anyone’s individual freedom on condition that the individual was not harming anyone else. The trouble is that Mill’s arguments are based on ambiguous premises concerning what is understood by ‘freedom’ and ‘harm’. His conception of these terms were derived not from natural rights, but imposed by a rigid utilitarian calculus that did not do justice to the manifold variety, complexities, vicissitudes, paradoxes and even contradictions of the human condition.

The problem with ‘negative liberty’ is that it attempts to base a theory of ethics on an existential abyss of absolute freedom. Freedom is not an ontological substance, but a mode of existence. Since freedom lacks a positive content, freedom becomes a force in human life only to the extent that it can connect with something that has such a positive content. Freedom is thus a predicate of human life, which constitutes the ‘subject’ of freedom. Freedom in this sense is analogous to nothingness; it exists only as a logical abstraction in relation to real essences. On these premises, we can conclude that, philosophically speaking, freedom does not exist, even in an abstract sense.

The theological conception of freedom posits a proper connection of freedom as a modality of human existence that only becomes substantive and transformative to the extent that it is able to connect with something that does have ontological substance, such as truth or love. The freedom that inheres in the will of God encompasses the irregularities and vicissitudes of human nature and recognises that the world contains infinite possibilities, which must be realised through God’s providential will.

This insight helps us to form a proper conception of the role of prophecy and the creative tension that inheres in the threshold between human freedom and divine will. All the prophecies of the Bible should be understood in the light of this tension. Prophecy is not a mechanical communication of future events. The goal of biblical prophecy, rather, as Sergei Bulgakov, points out, is ‘to indicate what is possible and to deflect what should not be, by an appeal to repentance and courage’ [Невесте Агнца, 1945]. It follows, as Bulgakov himself concludes, that the truly prophetic figure is someone who is aware of the spiritual forces acting in history and knows all the possibilities contained within the infinite sphere of the effective action of God for whom all things are possible.

Let’s return to the case of our working-class hero, Rita. She was correct, of course, in one sense at least; she was self-evidently right to challenge her husband’s conception of freedom as the ability to choose which beer to drink or which football team to support. Neither is freedom the absence of restraint or the ability to act capriciously. Rather, the precondition to freedom is knowing that the world is governed by the will of God. Then comes the recognition that we have the choice either to fulfill it, or not fulfill it, in freedom.

There is the freedom to choose from a variety of alternatives within a given set of co-ordinates. This is the kind of freedom that a person has when he (or she) chooses according to the options that a consumer society makes available to him or her. For example, if I were rich, I would be able to choose between a Bentley and a Rolls-Royce; if I were less well off, I would have the freedom to choose between, say, a Honda or a Peugeot. True freedom, however, would be the freedom to step outside of the coordinates that have been set by the dominant consumer culture. Perhaps if I were able to do this, I would be able to defy the false choice offered to me by the dominant culture and buy less so that others will be able to have more.

Belief in God, with whom nothing is impossible, endows us with the freedom to change the coordinates and to envision the kind of reality for which a whole generation of disillusioned seekers is crying out. If we are able to attain to this kind of freedom, our talk and our whole public discourse, which has been degenerated and devalued by vacuous prattle and frivolous tittle-tattle, will be transformed into a series of speech acts of liberation that will elevate human beings to a new level of consciousness of freedom.

There are various philosophical (Hegel, for instance, comes to mind) and theological (Karl Barth, Paul Tillich?) warrants for these claims. The most compelling, in my judgement, is the fact that this conception of freedom corresponds with the teaching of the true Prophet of Freedom: the one who announced that ‘You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free’. This kind of freedom consists in submitting the will to the necessity that inheres in the will of God and realising this purpose through radical acts of freedom in conformity with the character of Christ.

When we comprehend this truth, then we might be able to recognise the great truth contained in the paradoxical words of this remarkable hymn by George Matheson:


Make me a captive, Lord.

And then I shall be free;

Force me to render up my sword,

And I shall conqueror be.


I sink in life’s alarms,

When by myself I stand,

Imprison me within Thine arms,

And strong shall be my hand.


My will is not my own,

Till Thou hast made it Thine;

If it would reach the monarch’s throne,

It must its crown resign;


It only stands unbent,

Amid the clashing strife,

When on Thy bosom it has leant,

And found in Thee its life.

To these profound words, I can add only, ‘Amen’.

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As a loyal and long-suffering supporter of Middlesbrough FC, he has had to learn the theological virtue of keeping hope alive, even in the most hopeless circumstances!

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