The Awareness of Freedom

In the 20th Century, Existential philosophers, especially Jean-Paul Sartre, served as the modern originators of the concept of personal liberation and advocated for the translation of personal liberation from awareness to actual practice. Sartre believed that freedom is the real condition of human existence, and he challenged people to become aware of their own personal freedom and to live authentically by consciously making deliberate choices in their daily lives.

The task before us, then, is to affirm to ourselves the need to recognize and accept this existential freedom. And from there to build institutions and practices of political freedom as an expression of this freedom to be, to think, and to act.

However, in all but the strongest willed individuals, the awareness and acceptance of their existential freedom causes feelings of anxiety and dread. Some experience them to a great extent and some to a lesser. These feelings can cause a paralysis of the will. Philosophers recognize this phenomenon as Existential Angst or Anxiety.

This Angst comes from the individual's confrontation with nothingness and with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for the choices he or she must make. In the philosophy of Sartre, the word nausea is used for the individual's recognition of the pure contingency of the universe, and the word anguish is used for the recognition of the total freedom of choice that confronts the individual at every moment.

This sense of anxiety is recognized by the State apparatchiks as their principal means of keeping people from acting on their awareness of freedom. Legal scholar and philosopher Butler Shaffer explains that, "the state rules its citizenry through the mobilization of their fears, not simply of punishment by political authorities, but of other persons or conditions in life. All that has ever been required has been a willingness of people to huddle in fear, expecting the state to protect them from the exercise of personal responsibility and control over their own lives. To accomplish such ends, the individual need only give up the self-ownership that was long ago ceded to a collectivist ideology" (Shaffer).

But the State is not alone in using the Sartre-identified mindsets to enslave and intimidate.

As political philosopher Jason McQuinn, posits, 'the commitment to genuine individual freedom of thought and action here and now directly confronts not only the complicity of the entire political left with political authority and institutionalized repression, but also exposes each individual leftist's fear of the practice of personal freedom and autonomy in their own and in others' lives (McQuinn).

In this case, McQuinn was speaking of the political Left, but the same thing is true of ALL societal hierarchies regardless their kind: Whether political, ethnic, religious, tribal or whatever else, all talk of individuals being free to be, think and act is viewed as rhetorically true only. Something that seems like a good thing to be for, but hard, if not impossible to put into practice without society descending to in a Hobbesian maelstrom of chaotic violence, such as followed the French Revolution of 1797.

The problem is the same for all forms of political ideology. By artificially elevating some level of social hierarchy (most often, the Nation-State) to an over-arching reality upon which everything else is subordinated, the existence of the concrete, sovereign individual is progressively denied, reduced to expression through increasingly abstract and one-dimensional roles: citizen, worker, voter, consumer.

And so the freedom to be, to think and to act is subsumed by the needs of the hierarchy of the new ruling entity and its minions.

This seems to be the fatal error in all systematized designs for States. You can start them small, but if they survive and grow in size and complexity, so does their need and desire to protect themselves from those that would harm them: namely the States' own citizens, who are aware of and wish to act on their own freedom. And so the cycle begins again.

Shaffer has addressed this issue as well when he says, 'a state of permanent flexibility is uncomfortable for most of us. Constant awareness and eternal vigilance take great commitments of energy, and so most of us content ourselves with relying upon the repetition of past successes. We tell ourselves that what served us well yesterday will continue to promote our interests today. At the same time, those who operate the organizations we have created acquire a vested interest in the perpetuation of their systems. They discover, in our preferences for lethargy, our willingness to preserve and protect their structured forms and practices' (Shaffer).

Freedom is scary sometimes. But the persistence of its existence and the possibilities that this existence makes imaginable, make freedom of spirit a very resilient and indomitable mind state. But it is a lot of work. Just as treading water to breathe is more difficult than surrendering to the water and peacefully drowning.

The question that libertarianism has yet to answer is at what point must individual liberty yield to the acknowledgement of the addictive and destructive influence of personal power. In the end, the libertarian ideal seems far more suited to the individual than to a society. While I am confident that I can govern myself within the context of Sartre's exhortation for me to live my life based on conscious choices, integrity, rationality, and personal responsibility, I am far less confident about a government supporting those values, and frankly fearful of a government trying to enforce them.

So where does this leave people who believe in acknowledging their existential freedom to be, to think and to act, and who want to extend these potentialities that currently exist only in the minds of men and into functioning actualities?

Remember Butler Shaffer's reminder that once a State or other form of ruling hierarchy is in place, psychological and spiritual inertia on the part of the subject populations become more and more a factor in enervating and discouraging the desire to act on the awareness of freedom and its potentialities. Are people too lacking in will, courage or imagination? Why is no progress ever made?

Scientist, novelist and Libertarian Party member David Brin says that this perception is incorrect. The progress is there for those with the eyes to see it.

'The fundamental premise of classical liberalism,' says Brin,' is an assumption that people are basically rational and wise. Yet this flies right in the face of the most common libertarian lament--that those idiots out there keep electing statists and every resulting policy has been just plain awful' (Brin).

Brin goes on to say that people are more aware of their existential freedom than ever before, and albeit at an infinitesimally slow pace, progress is being made. He sounds sincere and believable when he says this, and seems to be confident in his reasoning that it is.

I too trust that in time the focus of the movement toward the actualization of freedom will move from awareness to acceptance and the beginnings of action. This is a choice I've made, and I accept responsibility for it, too. And as the old Chinese proverb says, 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.'

Sources Cited

Brin, David. Cheerful Libertarianism. < Oct.28, 2002.

McQuinn, Jason. The Fear of Individual Freedom in the Radical Milieu. Anarchy - A Journal of Desire Armed. #57 Spring/Summer 2004. < Oct. 25, 2004 .

Shaffer,Butler. Collectivist Utopias. < Oct.10, 2004.

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Ali Hassan Massoud's picture
Columns on STR: 43

Ali Massoud is a proud old-school isolationist who writes for the Internet and blogs.