Freedom and Discipline

Freedom and Discipline

In a famous essay entitled “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin posited a distinction between what he termed negative and positive liberty.

Negative liberty is simply the absence of coercion. In Berlin’s words, I am free in the negative sense of the term “to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity[.]” The idea is to reduce freedom to the absence of external interference with one’s ability to accomplish one’s ends.

Positive liberty, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. This notion of freedom is more akin to self-mastery. From this perspective, the human psyche is divided into the “true” or “higher” self and the “base” or “lower” self. My choices are free if my “true” or “best” self chooses them. The satisfaction of a “base” desire, even if uncoerced, leaves me a slave to my passions and therefore less free than I was before.

The difference between these two understandings of liberty proves rather important in certain cases; if I buy a pack of cigarettes to satisfy an addiction, am I acting freely? From the perspective of negative liberty, I am so long as no one put a gun to my head and told me to smoke a cigarette. But from the perspective of positive liberty, I’m indulging a desire that I, at my best, know is harmful for me and shouldn’t satisfy. Both forms of liberty are represented in American law, but as a general rule, we tend to favor negative liberty in keeping with the classical liberal roots of our political thought. Many of the most cherished pillars of American political life—the freedoms of speech, protest, and religion come to mind—are based in a negative notion of liberty.

This preference for negative liberty has trickled down into our culture in a less academic form. The prevailing cultural narrative where freedom is concerned is that we’re at our most free when we’re able to satisfy every desire that occurs to us, irrespective of its content. The ideal state of freedom is thus one in which I am able to satisfy every impulse that occurs to me, moment-to-moment. From this perspective, externally imposed obligations (class, work, etc.) are at best tolerable infringements on liberty, but it would be absurd to say that they at all enhance one’s freedom. We’re really free, according to this narrative, in those moments when we don’t have such external obligations to contend with. With no immediate consequences to worry about, indulgence rules the day: sloppy drunkenness, impulsive hookups, and other forms of immediate gratification abound.

I’d submit that there’s something incomplete about this narrative, and that to subscribe to it can actually harmfully diminish one’s life. The satisfaction of every momentary impulse that comes one’s way is, I argue, a saccharin and paltry substitute for true freedom, which has much more to do with self-mastery. In fact, the former notion of liberty is more accurately described as a self-imposed slavery than genuine freedom.

Let me explain by way of example: any musician worth his salt intuitively knows the importance of diligent practice. In order to become a good musician, hours of painstaking effort are required. One must learn all manner of scales, obtain technical proficiency on one’s instrument, practice reading music, etc. These tasks yield very little enjoyment in the moment; rather, they involve acting contrary to all manner of momentary desires. If one never forces oneself to sit down and practice, one will never become a good musician. This self-discipline seems to be facially contrary to freedom, but any good musician will tell you that this isn’t the case. On the other end of the long hours of tedious practice lies a greater freedom than that lost in the act of practicing in the first place—namely the capacity for creative musical expression. A musician who has put the requisite time and effort into his craft has a whole universe of options available to him which he lacked prior. Having lost the freedom to indulge a long series of momentary impulses, he has has become more profoundly free to express himself through the language of music. I picked musicianship as an example because it’s one with which I happen to be personally familiar, but there are a whole host of other analogous cases: the ability to read and write, speak a foreign language, and play a sport are all such cases.

These examples present a compelling rebuttal to a purely negative notion of freedom. In a very real sense, by simply acting on whatever impulse occurs to us in any given moment, we’re missing out on a deeper and more meaningful freedom. These momentary impulses are, of course, normal, and I’m not trying to suggest that they should never be indulged; that would verge on a laughable puritanism. But it is most certainly the case that satisfying these impulses does nothing to make us more than we currently are, and to live one’s life as though true freedom consists in doing so can only lead to a life marked by personal stagnation and internal hollowness. Ironically, the kind of freedom that seems more worth having, the kind of freedom that involves mastering ourselves in the interest of becoming better than we were before, is necessarily enabled by self-discipline; without discipline, we can’t undergo the kind of practice necessary to accomplish meaningful self-transformation.

The ability to discern between freedom-as-satisfying-impulses and freedom-as-self-mastery can make the difference between going to bed superficially amused by the day’s events but more deeply disappointed at being less than one could be and going to bed superficially exhausted from self-expenditure but more deeply satisfied at having poured oneself into a worthy task. If we come to view our lives in the latter way, we don’t have to be discouraged by those moments in which we have to put our impulses aside and get to work; rather, we can view those moments as opportunities to become better people than we are. In this way, we can reclaim freedom as something we possess internally and over the entire course of our lives, rather than a fleeting privilege we get to hold onto every now and then.

(Overhead picture courtesy of LSE Business Review.)

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