For most people in the Western world, “freedom” has been taken as a given. Their ability to do so depended upon a fundamental moral principle held in common, one that Professor of Moral Philosophy John Macmurray (1891-1976) described as the “law of freedom.”
“No man can compass his own freedom for himself,” warned Macmurray in his 1949 book Conditions of Freedom. “He must accept it as a free gift from others; and if they will not give it to him he cannot have it. This is the law of freedom.”
The palpable loss of freedom now experienced on a global scale makes visible an inconvenient truth about freedom that few wish to address, but upon which Macmurray conveniently elaborated:
“We flatter ourselves too much when we imagine that we love freedom and strive wholeheartedly towards freedom. On the contrary; there are few things that we fear so much. No doubt we find the ‘idea’ of freedom most attractive; but the reality is another matter. For to act freely is to take a decision and accept the consequences.
“I see history, in its concrete reality, not as Man’s struggle to win his freedom in a world that frustrates his efforts; but as a record of the twists and evasions by which men seek to escape from freedom in a world which thrusts it remorselessly upon them. The determination which oppresses us is not the opposite of freedom; for what is determined is that Man shall be free.”
In other words, the inconvenient truth about freedom is that most people don’t want it. This leaves those who do want freedom obligated to take the initiative by getting involved in politics, both on principle and as guardians committed to the eternal vigilance required in a free society.
In light of the understanding that freedom must be given freely by each individual to other individuals, it turns out that the phrase “Give me liberty or give me death,” apparently describes the nature of freedom in a way that’s Just Right.
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