For a while now I have wanted to write about freedom. Perhaps because I am in a life-situation at the moment, where I have been freed from the traditional duties of a late-modern work-life. Or perhaps because I, on a daily basis, am confronted with the diversity of the local balinese people to whom personal freedom and communal obligations don’t seem to collide, and western expats (like myself) who have freed themselves from societal responsibilities and have immense amounts of time to figure our exactly what makes them happy and fulfilled on a merely personal level.
What is freedom? Is it to be free from obligations, from daily duties and routines – or rather, to be free from materialism and dependence on comfort? Living in the jungle house is to me a constant reminder of how little we actually need in order to live comfortably; a roof over our heads, a bed to sleep in, a bathroom with running water, a kitchen to cook in. That’s it really. All other things are mere add-ons. And surprisingly that experience makes me feel very free: knowing that I can easily live like this; content with the mere minimum is immensely liberating.
Is freedom to have time to indulge in personal passions and personal development? Is freedom to be worry-free and careless? Is freedom to be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want?
In this post I intend to discuss freedom from an existentialist point of view.
The Balinese culture is based on rituals and community
French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) describes, in her Ethics of Ambiguity, the existence of a personality type whom she calls the adventurer. The adventurer feels free and does whatever he wants in order to obtain fortune, leisure and enjoyment. However, the adventurer confuses external availability with real freedom.
In de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy, alike Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Søren Kierkegaard’s, human development towards authenticity and true freedom is described as a progression through a range of stages (from the least free to the most free). De Beauvoir has a range of different personality types that make up the different developing-stages; the subman, the serious man, the nihilist etc.
Quite far up the existentialist ladder towards true freedom, we will find the adventurer. The adventurer is actually really close to being truly free. He throws himself into life and chooses actions for their own sake – and hence doesn’t act because “this is what you are supposed to do” or due to cultural, societal assumptions. But he cares only for his own freedom and self-indulged projects, and thus embodies a selfish and potentially tyrannical attitude.
The adventurer definitely has similarities with the Kierkegaard’s Aesthete; he is characterised by asserting his freedom forcefully, but also by often undermining the freedom of others in the process.
Living like an Aesthete means to lead a life governed by questions like: What do I feel like doing? What will make me feel better? It is a lifestyle that involves spoiling oneself, and indulging in comfort-providing spa-, travel, -dining-, consumer-experiences – as well as confusing these activities with true freedom. By focusing only on our own fulfilling experiences, pleasure, and well-being we lead a life that lacks over-individual standards and a moral fundament. And hence, we are not in a de beauvoirian sense truly free.
The adventurer has understood that meaning must come from within, and thus he acts accordingly. But, the only way you can be truly free, according to de Beauvoir, is by not only choosing yourself, but also willing the freedom of others.
“…no existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself.”
De Beauvoir Ethics of Ambiguity
True freedom is, to de Beauvoir, moral freedom. As an existentialist she believes that we are all condemned to be free – as Jean-Paul Sartre puts it – but moral freedom requires actively choosing freedom, and hence the acceptance of total human freedom as well as the moral obligation and anxiety that comes herewith.
It is frightening to be totally free; it means that everything we do is our own responsibility, and that when making a choice, even the choice of doing nothing, we are setting standards for how one should act in a given situation. But we cannot use the anxiety of freedom as an excuse for our active participation in or our passive acceptance of the exploitation of others. And we cannot excuse our unethical actions with ignorance. If we do so, we are not truly free.
This last point can beneficially be drawn into today’s capitalistic consumer reality. If suppressing others – whether this being directly or indirectly – makes you unfree, you are actually acting against your own freedom when buying and consuming goods that you know are probably not produced in an ethical way: Products that you know are most likely produced by workers in an Asian sweatshop that are paid an astoundingly low wage and that work long hours under horrific conditions in order for you to be able to wear the newest fashion at a low cost, or in order for you to buy weekly new plastic toys for your kids. Because let’s be honest: when we buy a cotton shirt or a remote controlled plastic car for less than $10 we know that in order for this to be possible somewhere in the value chain someone must have paid a high price.
When using others and compromising their freedom for one’s own gain, one is not truly free. To be free and to be able to obtain and consume whatever one wants at the expense of others is to participate in oppression.
In line herewith, according to ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, leading a fulfilling, virtuous life involves community activity and the assurance that others too have the opportunity to pursue what he calls the complete good. The complete good involves striving for excellence or developing one’s talents and capacities.
True freedom involves both the liberation of the societal assumptions on “the right way to live” and the understanding that freedom that compromises the freedom of others is not real freedom.
“To will oneself free is also to will others free.”
De Beauvoir Ethics of Ambiguity