Freedom has been considered to be a positive political ideal that most countries’ constitutions try to provide for their citizens. According to a simple dictionary definition, freedom is the ability and power to do, act, speak, and behave in a manner that one wants. Political freedom has also been related to the notions of liberty and autonomy, which implies the ability of the people to determine their laws and rights. Usually, many freedoms are enshrined in nations’ lawbooks, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of occupation, and freedom of assembly Freedom is believed to be an unequivocally good political ideal.
Many countries go to war to attain freedom. Anti-colonial movements across the world in third-world countries were motivated by the need to attain freedom from imperialist regimes and to obtain autonomy and self-rule. Based on freedom, countries are distinguished between free nations and those under a dictatorship. We find that practices such as slavery, which require a complete taking over of a person’s freedom, are unimaginably cruel to us. Freedom has also been analysed philosophically. In philosophy, freedom has usually been associated with free will, which refers to the ability to think rationally for oneself. It involves acting as an agent who makes decisions for themselves, instead of under the influence of others or under coercive circumstances.
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The Two Kinds of Freedom
But freedom is more than just a philosophical or political ideal. Scholars such as John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin have historically distinguished between two types of freedom – negative freedom and positive freedom. The negative conception of freedom refers to the absence of any external restrictions, constraints, or obstacles that prevent a person from acting the way they want. On the other hand, positive freedom refers to the ability to fulfil one’s needs and desires.
This not only involves the absence of restrictions, but also mental and physical resources, abilities, and opportunities that allow an individual to attain their goals. They can realise their true self state, and be their most productive, happy self.
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Erich Fromm’s Idea of Freedom
Erich Fromm, a widely known psychoanalyst and humanistic scholar, who wrote his seminal work “Escape From Freedom” in the wake of Nazism and fascist Germany, and World War 2. Fromm, in his psychosocial analysis of freedom, follows the distinction between negative and positive freedom. According to Fromm, negative freedom refers to the freedom ‘from’ something, usually the restrictions placed on an individual by society or the state. Whereas, positive freedom refers to freedom ‘to’ something. This, according to Fromm, is the healthy form of freedom that we must strive to realise because it involves a person gaining the capacity to express oneself authentically and be creative. The road to this true idea of freedom, according to Fromm’s ideas, is described below.
Fromm postulated that the present society, in which most nations assure multiple freedoms and confer numerous rights onto their citizens, is considerably freer than societies of the past, which were marked by authoritarian rules and a lack of freedom of choice. However, he believes that the freedom available in present-day society is only a negative conception of freedom. It is a double-edged sword. With the rights, autonomy, and choice, it also brings with it significant amounts of anxiety and fear of having to decide. Being endowed with freedom and choice also means being isolated and alienated from the rest of society. The present-day loneliness epidemic is a result of this individualising freedom.
Fromm believed that there is comfort in being not free. For example, children, who are entirely under the control of parents, and lack freedom in most aspects of their lives, are usually cheerful and happy. Freedom to decide brings with it the fear and anxiety of the consequences of our decisions. Freedom then appears to be not just liberating, but also extremely burdensome. This is when humans try to ‘escape from freedom’. According to Fromm, to do so, people can engage in the following three forms, or work towards attaining the true meaning of freedom in society.
- Authoritarianism: People attempt to escape their identities by becoming a passive part of a collective, authoritarian system, where the authorities instruct and govern each aspect of their lives.
- Destructiveness: Since people become isolated from society when they have freedom, they become afraid that the world might harm them. To prevent this, they try to lash out and harm others before they can get hurt themselves. This is evident in the numerous instances of terrorism, crime, destruction, and vandalism.
- Automaton Conformity: This way of escape is suited to modern societies. Automaton means robot. It involves robotically following mass culture. People just follow societal trends, they dress like everyone else, eat what everyone eats, consume the same media as others, and so on.
True Freedom and How It Is Attained
However, Fromm concludes that these escapes are unproductive as they do not lead to true, positive freedom. According to him, true freedom can only be attained through ‘spontaneous activity’. According to Fromm, this spontaneous activity is the only antidote to loneliness and alienation. This spontaneous activity involves the formation of a relationship with the society to which one belongs. He also mentions that the foremost component of this activity is love for one’s community and fellow members. It is the tool through which individual rights can be balanced with the societal need for collective responsibility.
Thus, true freedom refers to the maintenance of a balance between individual liberties and collective responsibilities. It requires people to form a society in which societal interests converge with individual desires and have a shared vision for a better future. It can only be achieved by acknowledging and fulfilling our responsibilities towards the collective society along with an assertion of personal rights.