Freedom does not mean license, but the wisdom to choose what is right for oneself ‘Freedom’, be it from fellow humans, prevalent customs, way of life or society, is a word that symbolises man’s intrinsic nature and individuality. It is a feeling that has been experienced and expounded differently by different people: freedom- the ultimate goal of thousands of revolutions, the ideal that inflamed the minds of myriads of nameless, faceless people and their illustrious leaders.
Battles for freedom everywhere are coeval with the beginning of hierarchy and civilisation. They are being fought all the time, albeit on different scales. And in all these struggles or movements, the definition of ‘freedom’ is almost always different. This is essentially so since freedom, being a psychological factor is not the same for different people. But, invariably, all these definitions have to undergo the test of time and the scrutiny of history.
So, on one hand there are movements for freedom or liberty which have united people and on the other hand there are those movements which have succeeded only in tearing up the social fabric and leave the people high and dry. Thus, freedom is best defined by this time tested statement: “freedom does not mean license, but the wisdom to choose what is right for oneself. ” So freedom can never be intrusive that it encroaches upon the rights of others. As Lincoln famously declared in 1859, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves”.
There are two sides to every coin and just as rights are complemented by duties, freedom cannot come without responsibility and the wisdom to exercise it properly. George Bernard Shaw was, therefore, bang on target when he commented in his book ‘Man and Superman’, “The revolutionist’s hand book” that “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. ” To be able to enjoy freedom, a person must also be willing to respect another’s claim to it.
And those who consider freedom to be an unconditional license to have their own way would do well to remember that such a notion of freedom is the immediate precursor to anarchy and mayhem. A prime example of this common but nevertheless colossal misinterpretation of the idea of freedom is the age old conflict between generations. Since time immemorial, youth have seen themselves as harbingers of change and grab every chance they get to overthrow the ‘superannuated old order’.
They don’t seem to spare a thought for the validity or the efficiency of the time- honoured systems that they work so hard to denigrate, nor do they realise how their chosen path can even lead them to destruction. They tout themselves as vociferous exponents of change and seem to see freedom as a tool to break the ‘shackles’ of control and guidance imposed upon them by their elders, disregarding the fact that all restrictions and rules imposed by society were aimed at maximising human welfare, though it must be conceded that the end result may sometimes be quite different.
Heraclitus noted very long ago that “There is nothing permanent except change”. And in the same way, human needs and requirements also do change over time, invalidating many old customs and practices. Going by an erroneous understanding of freedom, youngsters criticise their elders’ ‘conservatism’ and celebrate everything that deviates from established norms, regardless of their potential outcome. The thin line of differentiation between freedom and license is very often a tricky one to negotiate.
Many parents fall into a dilemma when they try to determine exactly where freedom for their wards should end and where it starts turning into license, because what was once considered unacceptable may now be considered quite normal. But then, the youngsters must be made to understand that they cannot get away with whatever they do and that they can still be pulled up by their elders as and when their behaviour demands correction. After all, experience has always been man’s best teacher. But it must be borne in mind that the line between freedom and license also varies for different persons). However even if everybody agree on the importance of experience, many would still be quite a long way from understanding the ‘true meaning’ of freedom. Let alone shouldering their responsibilities, people don’t always know what is required of them. They don’t recognise the need for sharing of responsibilities. And the worst part is that being free doesn’t guarantee that people always make the right decisions.
Even if people do know what is best for them, their decisions aren’t always influenced by what they really require. In J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, for instance, Dumbledore remarks that “humans have a knack of choosing precisely the things that are worst for them”. That’s the crux of the problem. Freedom in the hands of such individuals will certainly do more harm than good. It is to them that John Milton referred when he said, “None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. Another familiar misunderstanding of freedom stems from the impression that democracy is a magical solution to all problems of a country and that a democracy is a system where people have absolute freedom. Once again, the problem occurs when they confuse ‘freedom’ with ‘license’ and see freedom as separate from responsibility-towards the state, fellow citizens and most importantly towards themselves. Seen from this perspective, a country would be free only when each person becomes wedded to his responsibilities and duties even while remaining conscious about their rights and privileges.
A tall order, certainly. But it must not be forgotten that a democratic government is not a choice between freedom and fetters. There are an infinite number of stations in between, and progress from one to the next may well be regarded as a step closer to freedom. Freedom is the deity at whose altar lakhs of people have sacrificed their lives and the fruits of whose propitiation they sought to bestow on mankind for all eternity: a utopian dream, and seemingly unattainable; but not very surprising given that humans have always reached for the sublime.