Freedom: Where is Goldilocks when we need her?

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes, “As a youth I prayed, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not right now.'” Today we all ought to be praying, “Give us freedom, but not too much.”

Ah, but how much is too much?

Imagine centuries of monarchy in Europe, first during the Roman Empire and continuing into the 19th century. Small elites of military rulers allied with landowners and the Church at the top; large masses of peasants doing the work and living the life that Hobbes described: “poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Clearly, not enough freedom.

A few revolutions bring us to 19th-century Europe and the rise of the middle class. Increasing prosperity, security, peace. . . and boredom. Money-making. Respectability. Social conventions. Manners. Sexual repression. Hypocrisy. The suffocating nature of Alfred Doolittle’s “middle-class morality” permeates European literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It could still be found in the North American suburbs of the 1950s.

In Europe the reaction against bourgeois life centred in France, and especially in Paris. Liberation from middle-class morality, religion, art, and literature led to sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, and artistic experimentation that broke away from convention in every way conceivable. This cry of freedom continued into the 20th century, with even better drugs (heroin instead of opium; then LSD, etc.), more and more vulgarity and sexual exhibitionism, and further attacks on traditional artistic conventions: narratives with no coherent plot, musical “compositions” with no sound, etc. The question, “What is art?” was confidently answered: anything you want it to be. Freedom!

Enter D. H. Lawrence:

Liberty is all very well, but men cannot live without masters. There is always a master. And men either live in glad obedience to the master they believe in, or they live in a frictional opposition to the master they wish to undermine.

As I look around today, I see a lot of frictional opposition and very little glad obedience. Returning to king and church, however, hardly seems an attractive solution. Some of the early middle-class rebels, frightened and appalled by their experiments with freedom, fled back to their roots and transformed into political reactionaries and religious zealots: Rimbaud, for example, who became a colonial capitalist and died in the arms of the Church. This is Goldilocks jumping from the bed that is too soft to the one that is too hard.

Life is biological, and freedom is like blood pressure: neither too much nor too little is a good thing. The question is, can humans restrain themselves? Or can they be saved from themselves only if they submit to an autocratic State and Church?

Here is Lawrence again:

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obeying from within. Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.

Because the deepest self is way down, and the conscious self is an obstinate monkey. But of one thing we may be sure. If one wants to be free, one has to give up the illusion of doing what one likes, and seek what IT wishes done.

On the other side, we have Dostoyevsky:

But yet all his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it is no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery, that they will never be capable of using their freedom, that these poor rebels can never turn into giants to complete the tower, that it was not for such geese that the great idealist dreamt his dream of harmony. Seeing all that he turned back and joined—the clever people. . . .

In his old age he reached the clear conviction that nothing but the advice of the great dread spirit could build up any tolerable sort of life for the feeble, unruly, ‘incomplete, empirical creatures created in jest.’ And so, convinced of this, he sees that he must follow the counsel of the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction, and yet deceive them all the way so that they may not notice where they are being led, that the poor blind creatures may at least on the way think themselves happy. And note, the deception is in the name of Him in Whose ideal the old man had so fervently believed all his life long. Is not that tragic?

How many of us can dig down to Lawrence’s “deepest self”? How many of us are more likely to surrender our freedom when it becomes too unruly and chaotic? As Alfred Doolittle says, “I put it to you; and I leave it to you.”


  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  2. Alfred Doolittle: in G. B. Shaw’s play, Pygmalion.
  3. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical American Literature     
  4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

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