The Impulse for Freedom
– Your Relation With Laws, Institutions, & Traditions –
Natural Laws vs. Social Laws
Before cultures clashed, our social structures – our rites and traditions – would have seemed as natural as the seasons: people would have believed each was controlled by the gods, or nature. So, there wasn’t really any reason to question the social structures and cultural dogmas that had evolved.
Some five hundred years before Christ, though, as cultures near the Mediterranean expanded and clashed, people were finally given reason to question whether god had a monopoly on social structures, whether nature’s rites and traditions could be – or should be – broken.
The Persian King Darius I (550–486 BC), for example, in a rather inspired moment of teaching and, no doubt, to mess with some Greeks living under his rule at the time, asked the Greeks how much money it would take to convince them to eat the flesh of their fathers when they died.
The Greeks, whose custom was to burn their dead, freaked out and said no amount would convince them. So, King Darius called over the Callatians, whose custom was in fact to eat their dead, and asked them how much money it would take to persuade them to burn their dead. They too freaked out and asked why he would suggest such a thing.
Whatever the effect was on Darius’ subjects, there was one Greek who learned a great deal from these culture clashes. Growing up in a city under the control of Darius’ son Xerxes, Protagoras (c. 490 — c. 420 BC) witnessed firsthand the clash of beliefs, social norms and traditions from those cultures that had been swallowed by the Persian empire. And it led him to realize that our social norms and behaviors are quite different from natural laws.
Social norms, he realized, are created and enforced not by god — or nature — but by each of us.
This changed the way lived, it changed the way we relate to each other, it changed the way we relate to ourselves because it shifted the burden to distinguish between right and wrong from god — or nature — to each of us. Only you, the individual, he realized, can judge whether a behavior, norm, law, or institution is right or wrong, whether it’s beautiful or good or rings true.
The burden is yours and yours alone. You can’t shift it to god or to nature, you can’t shift it to your church, to history, or to society. Because, no matter what authority you accept or shift the burden to, it is still you has to do it.
What a shift in thought!
Heavy, I know. But, heavy as it may be, this ability to paint over the world with our own morality is, I agree with Protagoras, incredibly motivating and inspiring.
Just think: unlike our critter friends, who’re confined to the narrow range of behaviors that natural selection has carved out for them, you and I can radically change our behaviors once we’re aware of them. We don’t need to simply accept them dogmatically. We can evaluate how they impact our experience, how they impact our being in the world, and how this impacts the quality of life for those around us.
We can ask what problem a behavior is meant to solve, we can examine how it shapes our experience, and then, with a healthy dose of creativity and criticism, we can change or improve our solution, our behavior, our law, or institution.
So, unlike the other animals and unlike all those who came before Protagoras, your morality – the way you paint your beliefs, your words and your actions – is up to you.
The Space of Possibility is yours. And it’s wide open.
You wanna paint a thought onto canvas or express an emotion with a cello. What about start a punk-rock band or dress up in drag? You wanna parachute out of an airplane? Take up tap-dancing or design a fashion label? What about build a computer or write the code for a virtual dream world? Wanna find yourself laying on your back in Goblin Valley, munchin’ on some magic shrooms, gazin’ up at the heavens in awe? Or maybe you wanna pull an Elon Musk and plan a trip to Mars?
The Space of Possibility is endless! So, start exploring it now.
Just remember to course-correct as you go. Learn from your mistakes. Chip away not just at your solutions, not just at your plans, but also at your goals and aims, at your problems. As you communicate honestly with experience, let your mistakes become your guide.
The Birth of Freedom
Socrates (c. 470–399 bc) is the symbol of this wisdom. In masterful displays of irony, he would lead people to their ignorance – to the infinite space beyond the Wall – by asking questions that highlight clashes and contradictions in one’s own beliefs, morals, and assumptions.
He spent his days questioning people about things like justice, goodness, and beauty. And in the end, he even gave his life to defend the right to do so.
Looking for a scapegoat to blame for Athens’ misfortune in the Peloponnesian War, the jury sentenced Socrates to death for corrupting the youth and undermining the state religion.
Had he apologized, he probably would’ve been exiled. But Socrates refused to abandon reason. ‘To put it bluntly,’ he tells the jury, ‘I’ve been assigned to this city as if to a lazy horse who is in need of a great stinging fly. All day long I will rouse and criticize every last one of you.’ Not flattered, the jury poured Socrates the hemlock.
Socrates wasn’t stupid. He understood the consequences of his provocation. But to him, the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reason, he believed, is what makes us human — it’s the divine spark; the spirit of progress; the path to truth, beauty, and goodness. So, he courageously gave his life to defend it.
Nor was Socrates an enemy of democracy, as some believed. Rather, he criticized Athens as any responsible democrat should — to find holes in the state’s laws and institutions in order to improve them, in order to clear the way for a better life, in order to find more truth, beauty, and goodness. He understood that a democracy is the only system of government where people can reform their institutions with reason rather than bloodshed.
And he also understood that democracy itself can’t provide reason. Only individuals can. It wasn’t the Athenian democracy that turned its back on reason and sentenced him to death. It was the people. Governments and institutions are merely fictions that live in the minds of individuals. They have no existence or power apart from us.
The responsibility to engage in reason, then, will always lie with the individual. The heavy lifting is on you to build a better life.
Democritus (c. 460 — c. 370 bc), the atoms and the void guy, and who lived around the same time, was also an individualist. He believed each of us carries the burden to create a better life for ourselves.
He believed that every person is a little world of her own. Only the individual can suffer. Only the individual can feel love, joy, and happiness. It is up to each individual, then, to put social laws and institutions into place. It’s up to each of us to judge and improve them. And, if necessary, it’s up to each of us to defend them.
Pericles (c. 495–429 bc), the general of Athens at its peak, took this burden seriously. Before him, Athens was essentially an oligarchy in all but name, since the aristocrats still held all the wealth. But, to even out this imbalance, Pericles created the first civil project in history — a state-sponsored economic incentive to inspire all of Greece.
‘We will build all kinds of enterprises,’ he declared, ‘to provide inspiration for every art and to find employment for every hand.’ True to his word, the project was a success. It created many jobs for the middle and lower classes and produced art that is still admired today. He also introduced state salaries for jurors and soldiers. And even used the state treasury to pay for the occasional public festival.
Pericles believed that the whole of Athens was an education. It doesn’t compete with other nations. It sets an example. And, so it did. Under the influence of the great thinkers of Pericles’ generation, Pericles and his fellow Athenians not only created a world empire. They implemented the world’s first open society — a society whose values are sketched out beautifully in a speech he gave at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War:
“The laws afford equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, but we do not ignore the claims of excellence. When a citizen distinguishes himself, then he will be called to serve the state, in preference to others, not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward of merit; poverty is not a bar. The freedom we enjoy extends also to ordinary life; we are not suspicious of one another, and do not nag our neighbor if he chooses to go his own way…But this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to respect the magistrate and the laws, and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those unwritten laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling of what is right [-this is the goodness inside each of us that Socrates tried to point us toward-]…And although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it. We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to acting wisely…We believe that happiness is the fruit of freedom and freedom that of valor….”
Pericles’ words symbolize the commitment of a new generation — a commitment, not to the gods or to the state or to a specific group, but to the individual. It is a commitment to freedom — the freedom to express one’s self; the freedom to distinguish between right and wrong for one’s self; the freedom to vote for one’s political leaders; the freedom against institutional prejudices and biases; the freedom against unwanted physical force; and the freedom to go your own way if you so choose.
Turn your gaze inward, as Socrates did, to the soul, to find truth, beauty, and goodness. You cannot find these in the outside world; they exist in you. Let the soul be the foundation to our laws and institutions. Look inside for guidance on how to build and conduct our communities. Our political motivations should not and cannot be framed around the state, the dollar, the economy, or any other conceptual fiction. They must be rooted in the individual, rooted in awareness – the only place where anything can be known or felt at all.
And keep in mind that freedom does not come free. As the great thinkers of Pericles’ generation stressed, only you can build these freedoms into our institutions. Only you can criticize and improve them. And, if necessary, only you can defend them. Nature, god, and society cannot do this for you. The future depends on you. The burden is on you to build a better future, to build a better life, to build a better world.