The idea of freedom has not only accompanied the evolution of the humankind but also played a vital role in the process of its development. The ability to realize the consequences of own actions and bear the responsibility is what distinguishes a human being. In this sense, freedom can be perceived as the choice that people make in order to express themselves freely. It is closely connected with individual rights and civil liberties that have always been of substantial concern in moral, political and legal philosophy. This paper focuses on the concept of freedom and aims at assessing the way it is being perceived in a modern world.
There is hardly another term so frequently and eagerly used in social and political questions. It serves as a fundamental point in the program of almost every possible political party or social doctrine. However, it lacks a clear and simple management of the principle of freedom, which results in the emergence of numerous controversies and misunderstandings.
According to Horkheimer, discussions of the concept of freedom in the history of philosophy differ radically from the actual historical struggles in which freedom was the goal. The reason for this is that theories of the philosophers appear to apply primarily to freedom of the will. In this case, the concept of freedom is approached in the metaphysical sense.
However, it is crucial to note that in the actual struggles for freedom, the primary concern has been a better life or life in general. In this context, freedom means that a man’s torture or even murder will no longer go unpunished as it was in antiquity. People will not be chained to other slaves in mines and forced to work until the death. Moreover, at the beginning of the new era, a man could be evicted from the miserable hut, in which he slept, forced to beg, and then hanged for begging. The exemption of the powerless from a miserable death existed only for short periods in certain countries.
At that time, when things were going better, freedom meant the abolition of child labor, a wage that made it possible to choose among different kinds of food, as well as the aid for the sick and aged. The immediate aims of wars, which originally had served for the procurement of manpower, either by the enslavement of the native populations of conquered lands or by the abduction of people needed in the conquering country, had altered to some extent. Nevertheless, the enslavement or the defense against it, increase in the wealth, power and security were still the crucial factors, just like before. The aim was freedom of action, not of the will. The struggle of individuals, social classes, as well as nations, was to ensure freedom to be able to do as one wished, have the widest choice and be bound by as few restrictions as possible.
By comparison, the other concept, the concern of philosophy and theology is that freedom in the metaphysical sense could not be realized through the real action. The aim of the actual struggles was to broaden or to defend limits, geographical, budgetary or legislative. A person who passes by the endless rows of shop windows in the age of the economic miracle and is really able to choose among all the products, is freer than the one who has little money in his pocket, and who may still have to bring the better part of it home. A person who can determine the time when he or she shops is freer than the ones who must procure themselves the most necessary goods at a time when the stores are closing, namely during the rush hour. A person who is healthy is freer than the one who is sick; an individual, who has at his or her disposal people and things, even if to a modest extent, is freer than a lonely, retired old man living on a small pension. Horkheimer states that prisoners do not need to be mentioned in this context. Nonetheless, they should not be forgotten. The reason is that at times, the punishment has little in common with its primary aim, which is the improvement. Wherever, in reality, we are concerned with freedom, it is that of action, movement or multiple choices.
Another significant freedom is that of speech. It has rightly also been called freedom of thought, since thoughts that cannot be expressed, cannot be measured in contact with others, and cannot develop in exchange with them, are as unfree as the speech itself and, therefore, may become atrophied. A double aspect of freedom of thought, which concerns freedom of action in general, is evident at the present time. First of all, the decrease in restraints and the increase of freedom are not one and the same notion. Horkheimer provides a contemporary illustration that exemplifies it. Students who in the past years have fled from the East have reported on their happiness at being able to exchange thoughts with people having the same convictions on the other side of the curtain. A regime of terror tends in extreme situations to produce friendships and fidelity among those who find no place in it. Therefore, the ability to have a full exchange of views with people thinking the same way becomes an immeasurable privilege. When the pressure is reduced, this changes. In the highly developed countries, precisely where the greatest freedom prevails, along with a substantial striving for the success, loneliness lies beneath the surface of those festivities and social occasions. Whatever people have to say to each other becomes more shallow and noncommittal than in places, where a need forces a meaning upon human relationships. In general, this indicates that positive freedom does not necessarily increase to the same extent that the lack of freedom disappears. The quantity of services and goods on the market determines the desire that is being stimulated to rise as fast as possible and take along as much as possible. As the misery and lack of freedom disappear, so does the luster of freedom as a distant goal.
In this regard, the history of freedom of thought teaches people that not only the objective possibilities that are gained through the elimination of restraints, but also the subjective freedom and the inner disposition of the person, who makes use of these possibilities, determine the degree of freedom. According to Horkheimer, for the many thousands who die of hunger in East Asia, and for the many millions whose hunger is never appeased, freedom of thought makes little sense, and on the opposite side of the globe, the contrary is frequently the case. The young people, who fled from the East and who now feel lonely in the West, would probably have more easily found a new meaning to life, if with all the objective possibilities they had encountered more spiritual longing, fantasy and understanding. It is essential to note that the more the urgent material needs are satisfied, the more independent and spiritual awareness is required in order to make use of the material freedom that has been attained.
In the political arena, where the fate of freedom will not be decided last, the inner contradiction between material and spiritual freedom is dominant. The elimination of economic pressures, which had directly contributed to emergence of the political interest, could be extended to the improvement and the spiritual penetration of the institutions, through the use of every sort of means for the common good, namely human resources, the money and goods that flow into the community.
In addition, it is crucial to mention that people tend to perceive the concept of freedom diversely. It depends on their moral qualities, values, experiences, mentality and culture. Moreover, the abovementioned controversies embrace the volitional theory of action. There are two sorts of actions: those that involve thoughts and those that involve motions of the body. According to this theory, a certain act of will precedes the occurrence of a thought or bodily motion. Thus, volitions initiate the actions.
Some people tend to think that freedom is what given to a human being upon his or her birth; therefore, it cannot be changed. However, history shows that freedom is the result of someone’s choice being made. Subsequently, it can influence the whole life of a person. Freedom to choose one’s way of life, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and thought, freedom of religion and other preferences is what makes on stand out. Numerous people choose not to contradict to what is perceived as appropriate in their surroundings. They choose to obey and live by the set rules. However, it is critical to emphasize that freedom should not be associated with the idea of rebellion. It is a substantially broader concept with deeper meaning. Eventually, even happiness is the result of one’s decision to focus on positive sides of life. Thus, although freedom can be taken for granted, it should be earned at all times and perceived as one of the most valuable human treasures.