Happy Fourth of July! Happy centennial to Crystal River that celebrated 100 years yesterday. And happy Tuesday, which is the day podcasts are supposed to be published even though I did one yesterday. Does that mean they are going to become daily on weekdays? I don’t know.
I have to hand it to Mike Wright that I do think the frequency of his posts as once per weekday is part of what has helped the popularity. I would like to do that, and I think quality audio content about local current affairs is sorely lacking, but not just content that informs, my goal is to make stuff that teaches, more like education than the news.
Yesterday’s episode opened with me promising I would talk about where I’ve been and why the Concurrent shut down for the first six months of 2023, and I will get to that eventually but not today. No, in celebration of the Fourth, today’s show is going to be about one simple, yet oh so complicated, aspect of our everyday life. Today we’re talking about freedom.
A couple weekends ago, I attended the statewide convention of the Florida Young Republicans, an organization consisting of members 18-40 years old and I am 34 for those wondering, so while I am among the…we’ll call it elder statesmen, who still go, the convention attracted wonderful speakers. Except for Friday night. Friday night’s speaker was a 24-year-old social media influencer, I’m not going to give his name, not for fear of embarrassing him, but rather because I honestly don’t remember it since it was that forgettable.
He had a camera crew there and they were interviewing our members with the sole question of what freedom meant to them. I didn’t participate. At the time, I thought most of the kids in their 20s were going to respond that freedom was chasing a budweiser with a shot of Jim Beam when you first wake up in the morning on the Fourth of July, a tradition my fraternity brothers and I did in college that I did not partake in this morning.
The social media influencer touched on what freedom meant to him in his speech. He referenced the Declaration of Independence and said something like Thomas Jefferson was originally going to say the pursuit of life, liberty, and property, which is true, but he changed it from property because slaves were property and it was too charged an issue which is….not why the word was changed by Ben Franklin according to Walter Issacson’s Franklin biography. In fact, it’s a complete misunderstanding of the word.
It’s a common misconception and one that underlies a lot of our problems we still see today when it comes to the disparities between the political ideologies. Because it’s the root of our division, let’s do a deep dive into exactly what is meant by this most famous of lines from our sacred national text.
English philosopher John Locke about 100 years before the Declaration was written developed the idea of these certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property. By property, what he actually meant was the ownership over one’s right to be and act - not physical property like land, and God help the young social media philosopher, people.
Okay so it’s property over one’s self to be…what does that mean? It’s easier to understand if you know what Locke was proposing this new philosophy in response to. About 25 years before Locke was Thomas Hobbes, known as the Father of Social Contract theory, and best known for his political theoretical concept of the Leviathan - or a strong central state.
Hobbes thought that in any free society, there will inevitably be freeloaders and exploiters, people who want to do nothing but get by on others, as well as those who will work but at the expense of others for personal ease. Hobbes felt everyone needed to be punished so this wouldn’t happen, and that the thing doing the punishment would be a strong government from which all morality and rights are dictated.
Individuals should then trade their autonomy, their property in the Lockean sense, to the government in return for the Leviathan protecting them against freeloaders and exploiters. To Hobbes, who was heavily influenced by Machiavelli 120 years earlier, this was a fair trade. To Locke, the Founding Fathers, and most Republicans, this is a dystopian proposition.
But we’re passed all this, right? The Prince was published in 1538, Hobbes published the Leviathan in 1651, and the Declaration of Independence was 1776 so we’re not exactly talking about current affairs anymore. Let’s put it in a modern day context. The Hobbes and Locke philosophies are really competing arguments on freedom. Where do we draw the line over what we’re willing to concede to others in exchange for our right to live?
Liberals, particularly progressives, take this to an extreme in rhetoric that denying someone’s pronouns or failing to recognize any of the numerous marginalized groups during countless celebrations denies one right to exist. Some college campuses, and I’m reluctantly admitting this as a college professor, have even gone as far as to cancel speakers because the mere presence of competing ideas on campus has been a threat to the student body property. It’s ridiculous.
But that doesn’t mean the right, particularly those who call themselves conservatives, are exempt from falling into misunderstanding this concept of life and liberty as well. There’s a growing sentiment that someone must maintain absolute autonomy over themselves regardless of the effect on society.
A mild example of this are the flags and bumper stickers on cars with unnecessarily crass language. You have the right to do it, but in the name of civility, you really shouldn’t. You make that personal sacrifice of restraint to preserve a more orderly society. Some conservatives are fine with creating a disorderly society, that is to say being against everything with vitriolic fervor, in the name of preserving this hyperbolic sense of individuality.
Even John Locke and Thomas Jefferson plagiarizing him knew you had to give up some freedoms in order to create a nation, but that seems to be lost on some today. Every year, thousands of philosophy 101 students hear their professors say a statement that sounds enlightened but that is actually a punch line: there are no absolutes. The reason it’s a punchline is because the very nature of the statement, that there are none of something, is itself an absolute and thus contradictory. Yet there are people here still striving for an absolute freedom that simply doesn’t, nor should it, exist.
Since we’re way, wayyy off course here, I’ll throw in one final example from historical literature. The same people who claim this absolute freedom are those who correctly say we are a republic rather than a democracy, but who incorrectly use this as a reason for why individualism exists in its purest form.
Even going back to the Republic, the book written by Plato in ancient Greece at the dawning of the academy and democracy, this debate over personal sacrifice to create a civil society is discussed in a scene. In book 2 of the Republic, Glaucon, who is Plato’s brother, and Socrates, Plato’s famous mentor, are having a discussion over the mythical ring of gyges which is basically the ring from the Lord of the Rings that turns you invisible if you wear it. Their argument is whether or not it would be good for someone to have it with Socrates arguing much like the conservatives saying yes, without the wandering eyes of others, an individual would finally know freedom, and Glaucon arguing no saying that without the watchful eyes of society as a check on our basic impulses, whoever wore the ring would devolve into a life of immorality. Glaucon actually lists the graphic things that someone would do, I’m not going to here, but you can imagine it or look it up.
Because you are smart and listening to this podcast, you are piecing this together. Okay, so Socrates, the pure individualist, is like Locke and Glaucon, who argues we need society to keep us in check, is like Hobbes. You’re close, but not exactly. Glaucon is closer to Locke because even Locke said that some freedoms do need to be exchanged in favor of conducting a civil society, and that’s what’s lost on Socrates and the conservatives today who want absolute autonomy.
To briefly put this in a religious sense, Locke and Jefferson were as revolutionary as they were correct when they stated that some of our natural rights come from God, something Hobbes would reject because rights could only come from the state - certainly a scary thought, but Glaucon was also correct to list the truly horrific things man would do without the check of society since we are all sinners.
Here’s my one sentence answer to the social media influencer’s question. What is freedom? To me, freedom is self-restraint. That’s it. It’s easy for a man to bluster, but much harder for a man to sacrifice for others. Having the ability to put a F-Joe Biden bumper sticker on your truck, then thinking of my daughter in the car behind you and deciding not to, that’s the greatest freedom of all - not in boisterous demonstrations of what we can do, but in statesmen recognition of what we choose not to. Have a happy Fourth.