Dec 19, 2018
Freedom of expression, cherished enough worldwide to be enshrined as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arises from freedom of thought. The tragedy of our times is that most contemporary thought is not truly free—it lies everywhere in a variety of shackles, most notably those created by a lack of genuine education. Freedom of thought, to be truly realized, demands enterprise in learning and discipline in reasoning. The default settings of an untrained mind prevent it from thinking freely; hence, its expression is not at all free. It contains all the toxins of a slothful mind: pettiness and prejudice, gross exaggerations and hasty generalizations, faulty reasoning and false certitude. These self-imposed intellectual restrictions, famously phrased by William Blake as “mind-forg’d manacles,” limit our freedom to think freely and imaginatively. Freedom of expression has little meaning when not informed by freedom of thought.
The ability to think freely stems from a mind educated in the arts of qualitative thought, which can be enhanced greatly by quantitative reasoning but are essentially arts of quality. And these are the liberal arts, a phrase that, at root, means the arts of freedom. The three basic liberal arts, the trivium, are the qualitative arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The damage that we now see in our civic life ensues from the loss of these “arts of communication” and was foretold over half a century ago by Mortimer Adler:
Where men lack the arts of communication, intelligent discussion must languish. Where there is no mastery of the medium for exchanging ideas, ideas cease to play a part in human life. When that happens, men are little better than the brutes they dominate by force or cunning, and they will soon try to dominate each other in the same way.1
Brutishness now characterizes our public discourse, while intelligent discussion of important ideas finds little resonance. If we are to remain a civil society, committed to reason, debate, and persuasion, then the arts of freedom will be needed more than ever. We should not mistake means for ends: these arts, although studied for their own intrinsic worth, are, nonetheless, tools for perceiving reality; freeing our minds; and disciplining our intellects, wills, and appetites. Our form of government, meant to be built upon consensus—and failing that, upon compromise—depends upon the ability to communicate and its requisite skills. These arts are those necessary skills.
We tend to use freedom and liberty as synonyms, though with slightly different connotations. Liberty is usually seen as something that governments, if they are committed to the population they serve, must protect. Freedom, however, is what we associate with human behavior. Moral philosophers define several types of freedom, including political freedom (freedom from coercion or government oppression), religious or moral freedom (release from the bondage of vice),2 and economic freedom (a circumstantial freedom that enables people to pursue the material objects of their desire freely, unhindered by lack of means).
The essence of freedom, in most premodern civilizations that permitted servitude, was political. A “free” human being was defined in opposition to “a slave.” But such a definition included a moral aspect, as free persons were expected to constrain themselves from akrasia, or moral incontinence. Real freedom was freedom from one’s own baser instincts and desires. The Arabic word for freedom is ĥurriyyah; it is from the root word ĥurr, which means, in its negative sense, “not a slave.” The ancient Arabs have a well-known proverb:
A slave is a free man when free of desire.
A free man is a slave in passion’s fire.
The liberal arts (the arts of freedom, or “the arts befitting free men,” from the Latin liber, free) were distinguished from the servile arts of slaves or lower classes. The phrase liberal arts first appeared in English around the late fourteenth century as a translation of the medieval Latin phrase artes liberales. Liberal, as an adjective applied to a person, came to mean “free from prejudice, tolerant.” By the early nineteenth century, liberal referred to someone who favored constitutional reforms, taken from the eighteenth-century French word libéral, referring to someone who advocated personal political freedoms.