I had a conversation about ‘Freedom’ today, and I nearly ended up in a fight with a friend who values the concept of freedom as dearly as myself. Why did this happen? Because we were using the same words to discuss two different understandings. But it got me to thinking:
What — exactly — do we mean by ‘Freedom?’
As is my practice, I am going to start with the definition of ‘Freedom’ from the Websters Dictionary 1828:
1. A state of exemption from the power or control of another; liberty; exemption from slavery, servitude or confinement. freedom is personal, civil, political, and religious. [See Liberty.]
2. Particular privileges; franchise; immunity; as the freedom of a city.
3. Power of enjoying franchises.
4. Exemption from fate, necessity, or any constraint in consequence of predetermination or otherwise; as the freedom of the will.
5. Any exemption from constraint or control.
6. Ease or facility of doing any thing. He speaks or acts with freedom
7. Frankness; boldness. He addressed his audience with freedom
8. License; improper familiarity; violation of the rules of decorum; with a plural. Beware of what are called innocent freedoms.
Now, I want you to stop and re-read those many different definitions — and read them very carefully! What I want you to see is that the term, ‘Freedom,’ has many different meanings, and some of those meanings actually represent opposing ideas. Now, I took the liberty of highlighting the definition of ‘Freedom’ that I had in mind in my discussion today by putting them in bold print. But my friend was using the term, ‘Freedom,’ in a different way. He was using it to mean freedom of will, as in definition 4. But look at the meanings given in 6-8 — especially definition 8.
In definition 8, we have this meaning of ‘Freedom:’
License; improper familiarity; violation of the rules of decorum; with a plural. Beware of what are called innocent freedoms.
Note the word, ‘license.’ In 1828, this would mean that this idea of ‘Freedom’ could be connected to the idea of ‘license.’ So, why is this important and what does it have to do with ‘Freedom?’ Well, look at definition 2 of ‘license:’
1. Leave; permission; authority or liberty given to do or forbear any act. A license may be verbal or written; when written, the paper containing the authority is called a license A man is not permitted to retail spirituous liquors till he has obtained a license
2. Excess of liberty; exorbitant freedom; freedom abused, or used in contempt of law or decorum.
‘License’ is still connected to the notion of ‘Freedom’ given in definition 8 above, but ‘License’ as understood according to definition 2 in bold text here is connected to another word the Founders constantly warned us against:
1. Using license; indulging freedom to excess; unrestrained by law or morality; loose; dissolute; as a licentious man.
2. Exceeding the limits of law or propriety; wanton; unrestrained; as licentious desires. licentious thoughts precede licentious conduct.
OK, if you have been trying to stay with me, I hope you are starting to see what I am trying to show you: that the word, ‘Freedom,’ can mean the lack of any restraint against doing whatever we will, but that this can also mean an excess of acting on our will to the point of lawlessness and immorality. In one sense, this may be ‘Freedom,’ but looked at from another perspective, ‘Freedom’ can be seen as slavery. This is why I constantly stress the importance of making sure we clearly define the words we are using because, when we don’t take care to do so, not only can friends who are otherwise on the same side of an issue suddenly find themselves at odds with one another, we can lead to perversions of language and reason such as this:
Arbeit mach frei!
(Work makes you free!)
Now, if you do not recognize that phrase, or the history behind it, you really need to go look it up and cement it in your memory because the same spirit behind its first use is alive and well in the Western world today.
So, what, then, does ‘Freedom, mean? Well, for the purpose of this blog, Natural Law and its relationship to liberty, unless otherwise stated, ‘Freedom’ will mean:
A state of exemption from the power or control of another; liberty.