Freedom, A Concept With No Definite Definition

23 March 2015
Freedom, a word that means so much, to so many people. People fight for it, they live for it, and they die for it. But what is freedom? What does it mean? And is it truly possible to have it? For individual people and cultures, it can mean something completely different, making the freedom one person fights for not the same that another dies for. With how much such a thing affects the world, it would be good to get a grasp of what freedom really means.
Most Latin-based languages only have one word for freedom, and that word “Libertas” translates into English as Liberty. Whereas German-based languages only have the word “Freiheit” which translates to Freedom, and those languages have no word for Liberty. It is therefore a peculiar trait of English’s duel Saxon and Norman origin that it has both words existing within the same language, both carrying slightly different meanings.
The Latin word libertas means “unbounded, unrestricted or released from constraint.” Libertas even contains the idea of being separate and independent. The German freiheit can trace its roots to the Norse word “Frei”, describing someone who belongs to a tribe and has the rights and protections that go with belonging. Besides freedom the root frei is also the origin of the English word “friend,” meaning a connection to other people by bonds of kinship or affection. The roots of freedom and liberty both meant “unlike a slave,” but liberty meant privileges of independence; freedom referred to rights of belonging (Fischer). Therefore, to have liberty is to be unencumbered, while to have freedom is to have the aggregate benefits and protections provided by society. As citizens, people take part in a social contract where they give up some of their liberty in exchange for freedom. This supposedly allows people to enjoy their liberty far more than they otherwise could due to lawlessness. In modern usage the two words have blurred together, and Americans have invented many ideas of freedom and liberty. Some are close to independence, others to rights of belonging, while some are creative combinations of the two.
But that is just analysing the definitions of freedom in Latin and Germanic cultures, yet the concept of being free is a nearly universal concept, existing in most cultures, not just that of western Europe. Indian philosophy has the term “Moksha,” meaning “emancipation, liberation or release” (Bowker). It connotes self-realization, self-knowledge, and escape from “saṃsāra,” the cycle of death and rebirth (Sharma). Hindu traditions consider moksha one of the four aspects and goals of human life (Perrett). The concept of moksha is found In Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism (Soka). Within Zen the term used to express the idea of freedom is “jiyū”: it consists of two characters; “ji” meaning “self on its own,” and “yū” meaning “out of.” When used together as a compound, it as a whole designates an action arising out of self on its own, carrying a sense of spontaneity, like the creative act of living nature (Nagatomo). These Eastern ideas of freedom are foreign to Western intellectual tradition.
British empiricist John Locke defined freedom (or to be specific, liberty) as a lack or absence of external constraint, an ego-desire arising from an individual in the state of nature where and when there is no constraint. In contrast Zen’s freedom is not driven by ego-consciousness, because it arises out of nothing. Zen’s freedom is achieved with every action people perform in daily life, from an act as simple as opening a door (Nagatomo). Zen’s ability to find freedom in the very act of moving, of taking action of any kind, attempts to give a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment, and free a person from stress and anxiety.
Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests the meanings of freedom and liberty depends on whether or not a culture values the group or the individual, noting it depends on whether one is more oriented toward independence or interdependence, a mind-set that is largely conditioned by one’s culture. Psychologist Eva Jonas of the University of Salzburg, Austria, suggests, “Certain cultures are organized around the idea of personal choice, while others emphasize group harmony. The clearest example of this, according to a 2002 analysis, is Chinese society, which is less individualistic and more collectivist compared to American norms.” Jonas and her colleagues wanted to know if this difference could be measured in terms of “reactance: a motivational state directed toward the re-establishment of the threatened or eliminated freedoms. An increased desire to engage in the relevant behaviour” (Jacobs). Such as, if alcohol is prohibited in a park, the individual’s determination to sneak in a bottle.
They used participants from a variety of cultural backgrounds, in a college of 105 students, 54 from Britain and 51 from other nations, including 26 from China and eight from Malaysia. The researchers presented them with one of two scenarios, involving the use of a company automobile. The first scenario representing individual threat, their personal access to the car placed at risk. The second involving a fleet of cars, in which the comfort and convenience of their fellow employees were also threatened. The results were tabulated to create a composite reactance score,
“Following the individual threat, East Asian participants reported significantly less reactance than Western Europeans, However, with the collective threat, the difference between Western Europeans versus East Asians disappeared. Western Europeans experienced more reactance when their individual instead of their collective freedom was threatened.”
Concluding that all people process information in terms of both independence and interdependence, but that some cultures prioritize one over the other (Jacobs). Culture influences people’s attitude and values and therefore contributes to their understanding of self and identity and this determines how and when they experience threats to their freedom.
This divide can even take place within the same culture. U.S. Civil libertarians argue Americans have the right to be free from government spying such as warrantless wiretaps. While national security hard-liners counter that such intrusions protect us from outside enemies, and in doing so helps to preserve the nation’s freedom. Both of these are expressions of a desire for freedom, or as noted, the Libertarian desire could be considered liberty, while the National Security one would be freedom — though even some Americans reverse those meanings, making it nigh impossible to define freedom in English.
Many Americans think of themselves as a free people, and they tend to assume the value they place on personal liberty is widely shared. President George W. Bush told American troops during a 2006 visit to Iraq, “I believe in the universality of freedom, I believe deep in everybody’s soul is the desire to be free” (Smith). But did he ever stop to consider that the notion of freedom might not be the same in Baghdad as it is in Washington? In Europe and America, the favourite symbols of liberty and freedom are individual figures like the Statue of Liberty. Yet in Baghdad’s Fardus Square, after American marines pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in spring 2003, Iraqi artists raised a new sculpture on the same pedestal. A monument to liberty and freedom, a statue depicting a family: mother, father and child so close together that they become one being. The monument was built by Iraqi artists called Najeen, or the Survivors. They say the monument has a message of, “Freedom is not a gift from people with tanks.” Some Americans were not impressed, contemptuously saying, “On top of the marble column where Saddam’s statue stood, someone put up the most hideous monstrosity I’ve ever seen. A green statue with a face that’s not recognizable as anything human. It’s supposed to be some kind of ‘goddess of liberty,’ but it looks like nothing in any of the worlds” (Fischer). Missing the meaning of the monument, which in fact has much to teach about freedom.
There is no one true definition of freedom or liberty in the world, though many people believe that they know it. The oldest known word for freedom comes to us from ancient Iraq. Found on tablets in the ruins of Lagash, the Sumerian “Ama-ar-gi,” which literally meant “going home to mother,” describing the condition of emancipated servants who returned to their own free families (Fischer). Knowing this should give insight into why the statue in Baghdad appears as it does.
In Beijing, the students who constructed the Goddess of Tiananmen Square in 1989 created a symbol that combined American liberty and freedom, Russian socialism and Chinese culture. The people of Eastern Europe have invented their own visions from traditions like Poland’s collective memory of its “golden freedom” during the 17th century. Many modern Americans like to believe that freedom has only one definition, and only one representation, “The Statue of Liberty,” but there are over 500 symbols of freedom and liberty in America alone. New England’s Liberty Tree with its collective sense of town-born rights, Philadelphia’s great Quaker Bell ringing for all humanity, Virginia’s hierarchical Liberty Goddess, South Carolina’s Liberty Crescent, and the rattlesnake of individual independence with its motto, “Don’t Tread on Me,” all different combinations of freedom and liberty. The Civil War was a conflict between visions of freedom, liberty, union and rights of belonging on one side. In the 1930’s President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “broader definition of liberty” and “greater freedom, greater security” were fiercely opposed by the conservative Liberty League. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had his dream of freedom as rights of belonging, while Barry Goldwater had an impassioned idea of liberty as independence from intrusive government (Fischer). Not only do people fight for freedom, but they seem to fight bitterly over the meaning of it.
When I began writing this, the notion of freedom was alien to me. I first came across the concept while living in Montreal, so I was introduced to it as liberté, and for me the word freedom had no separate meaning from that of liberty. I now see that the words are indeed, at least in English, different, though what that difference is and which word means what, seems to depend on the individual person or culture. I admit that one needs both independence (liberty), and interdependence (freedom), however, I now fear that I can never talk about this subject with other people, as it is unlikely their definitions of these words will be the same as mine. Maybe that goes to show that whether freedom is obtainable depends on one’s definition of it.
Works Cited
Bowker, John. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
Fischer, David Hackett. “Freedom’s Not Just Another Word.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 7 Feb. 2005. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.
Jacobs, Tom. “Not Just Another Word: Definitions of ‘Freedom’ Vary.” Pacific Standard. The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, 2 July 2009. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.
Nagatomo, Shigenori, “Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Web. 14 Mar. 2015.
Perrett, Roy W. Indian Philosophy: A Collection of Readings. New York: Garland, 2000. Print.
Sharma, Arvind. Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Smith, Steven Donald. “U.S. Troops in Iraq Spreading ‘Universality of Freedom,’ Bush Says.”U.S. Department of Defense. U.S. Department of Defense, 13 June 2006. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.
Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, The, Soka Gakkai International, unknown. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.

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