Being Enslaved to “Freedom”

As some may know Alyssa and I just moved to the UK. To Canterbury, specifically, which is where The Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury resides. Practically every corner turned in the city confronts the individual with the long history of England either by way of simply walking the cobblestone paths, or bucking up next to the rather overwhelming Canterbury Cathedral. The spires can be seen from nearly any part of the city and certainly makes for great scenery. I could go on, but I will leave the posts concerning Alyssa’s and my adventure to her. Her articulation of those subjects are much more defined than mine would be!

Instead, I wanted to draw out, to delineate really, some thoughts that have been brewing for a few days. The thoughts were brought about through reading Philip Goodchild’s recent book Theology of Money. A further catalyst would be the strange housing situation we have found ourselves in. I won’t bother you with the aesthetic details (though, here we encountered problems). The real difficulty has been our downstairs neighbor, a young, loud, and promiscuous female of quite salty character (from what I can gather). Alyssa and I have generally had great, quiet, and orderly neighbors. This is a first for us, being in such strange territory.

Last night I settled in next to the window to read some of Goodchild’s book. Around 1 in the morning I was interrupted with the loud howling of several inebriated people. Several incidents proceeded after this one, but the actions that occurred last night (which I will not detail for reasons of decency) really brought to the forefront some of the implicit issues Goodchild hammers home.

I find myself often thinking about issues of common good, ultimate concern, and supposed universal appeals to foundational issues in justice and the “good”. Despite what chatty television-hosts and witty, rhetorical bloggers may write there really isn’t an easy answer to the question of where one can pin-point the proper foundation to these issues. Perhaps the most appeal is put toward “freedom” or “individuality,” as if these terms, these oscillating and nebulous signifiers, really have a stable or definite meaning. Democracy is the safe-guard of freedom, and the credit that guarantees the political significance of the individual (as long as said individual is within the common boundary of a majority that discerns what is “good” for all). Of course, there is the easy criticism that truth is not what a majority makes! Or would we want to unearth a pre-Socratic notion that “might makes right” (though we would not be the first to resurrect the idea…)?

More can be said about democracy and it’s failure, its absurdity as an actualizable political ideal (questions of will come up, and questions of autonomy of will and thought; the public will of the people is dictatorship. Moreover, in the clash of opinions found in liberal democracy the ground upon which decision is made is not through the articulation of truth as truth, but through the articulation of truth through competition and advertisement; only that which is appealing will win, and that which has universalizable appeal comes down to wealth-building) , but those will have to be dissected later, even though they run right up against my main point.

What I find most pointed and interesting in this moment is the conception of freedom that our culture (Western culture) has become so enamored with. “Freedom” doesn’t usually mean too much, though it’s appeal is rather ubiquitous. As Goodchild suggests it usually refers to freedom from (negative freedom, as opposed to a Thomistic account) “public representations of divine command or sacred good”; “to determine one’s will through entering into contracts in the marketplace”; and “to master a portion of nature or dispose of one’s property as one pleases.”

This is all well and good, but as Goodchild goes on to point out, “Lacking public representations or manifestations of a common good, free and open debate must necessarily settle on such individual freedom as its lowest common denominator.” This can open up all sorts of manipulation, allowing the tool of governance to appeal to such common good for the use of force or defense in emergency.

When a person appeals to freedom they usually don’t think of freedom in quite the same way, or rather they wouldn’t word it in such a fashion. But, basically, there is a “universal appeal to the immediate interests” of property and negative and some positive freedoms. Such desires are utopian, ultimately, because as Goodchild points out a public representation of truth and justice are only found through manipulation and persuasion. Then, “freedom of expression is dependent on the constraint on others to be persuaded.” There can’t be ultimate or universal freedom because someone is always constrained in some way; ultimate, universalizable freedom is an illusion, an “impossible ideal born of representation and abstraction, projections of an idealized condition in which humanity cannot survive or flourish.”

Going much further, this utopianism is certainly theological because it deals with emancipation in such a universalizable way. And this secular theology aspires “for a condition of atheism where one is finally unconditioned by God or nature.”

Because of this, I wonder if there isn’t some latent theology, a sort of idol, of the self that can be seen through the night-life of teenagers and 20 somethings. This isn’t just a United Kingdom problem. It is just as pervasive in the US; ours is secretive, though, and our progeny hide their promiscuity through the make-up of Sunday morning services. Freedom is the autonomy of the self, it is the ability to “dispose of one’s property” as he or she pleases. In a culture that finds commodification a way of life it comes naturally to view the subject as property. Freedom serves wealth, as wealth is the obvious universalizable. Wealth opens up possibility; and when our theology is defined as aspiring to be “unconditioned by God or nature” the possibilities serve the gods of pleasure.

I feel sad when I hear the promiscuous tales my neighbor regales her friends with. Not sad for myself because I need sleep, but sad for her because she serves representation, and representation (what the mind desires and articulates but is always decontextualized and therefore illusion) is a cruel mistress. Freedom only comes through direction, and direction through truth and justice, ideas that cannot be attained through freedom as understood by the majority.


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