The concept of freedom is currently at the forefront of thought in connection with the rising of the peoples in the Arab world in search of the freedoms that other nations enjoy. The resolve of the United Nations has once again been tested, and this time the response demonstrated a collective will to offer protection to those subject to the terrifying repercussions of persecution and slaughter. The secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, played a crucial role in leading the Security Council to adopt its resolution on Libya in response to "clear-cut violations of all norms governing international behaviour and serious transgressions of international human rights and international law." It is a hopeful sign that the will of the United Nations is on the ascendant and that the future may see this representative body of the nations of the world empowered to vigorously uphold the right of all citizens to the essential freedoms that should dignify human life. The past 250 years of world history has been deeply affected by the idea of freedom as people struggled with the injustices and imposed poverty of a world order that preserves the wealth and safety of the few at the expense of the misery, destitution and slavery of the many. Unsurprisingly, moves to establish various freedoms – even the idea of freedom itself – have usually been suppressed by the state. An interesting example of this is Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” which Beethoven used in his 9th Symphony. What most people do not realise is that the poem was originally an ode to ‘freedom’, but that the censors would never have allowed it to be published in this form. So Schiller used the word freude (joy) to replace freiheit (freedom). This makes quite a difference to the first line of the poem –Joy, beautiful spark of the gods, instead of Freedom, beautiful spark of the gods. Joy is spiritual and no threat to the established order: freedom is a call to action based on a vision of a better future.
Like everything else, our understanding of concepts such as “freedom” has evolved over time through personal, societal and cultural experience. Centuries back, people saw liberty simply as freedom of personal action, in other words “to do as one pleases,” but today an altogether deeper understanding allied to a growing sense of responsibility and respect for others has evolved. Great thinkers have seeded spiritual ideas concerning freedom and responsibility in human consciousness which have guided humanity forward to the point where they are now recognised by many as the essential cornerstones of a more just and happier world.
One such thinker was Aristotle, who posited that the main purpose of politics is not the imposition of law and order, the facilitation of economic transactions or the prevention of personal injustices, but more the cultivation of virtue and the unfolding of ‘the good’. Aristotle argued that the cultivation of virtue is its own reward as it leads to true happiness and a happy person exhibits an appropriate balance between reason and desire, with moderation characterizing all. This path to happiness, he said, can only be attained through active participation in a society. For just as the playing of a musical instrument cannot be learned through study alone but requires practice, virtue can only be cultivated through the exercise of our human capacity for communication and the ability to deliberate between right and wrong, justice and injustice as they manifest themselves in political and social life. To the modern mind the “cultivation of virtue” may seem quaint but it’s only in the demonstration of “the good” that we can ultimately see a true, spiritual freedom developing for all humanity.
While the democracies of the world may as yet be far from virtuous, the appetite for political and social debate is keen and dynamic – a discerning sense of ethics and values is constantly unfolding as the moral heart of important issues becomes ever clearer to the majority. Through passionate debate, wider perspectives are developing, greater inclusiveness and, paradoxically, the rudiments of that cool, detached observation so vital to treading the spiritual path. For growing numbers of people who enjoy a good measure of liberty and equality, the principle of freedom is flowering into the ideal of “world citizenship” and the “good of the whole”. And they realise that this great vision will remain frustrated until each one of us is able to participate in this unfolding goodwill. Failed states, repressed minorities, the plight of refugees and victims of crime are deep concerns that stand between us all and full planetary citizenship.
Ultimately, the principle of freedom is an expansive force within the human condition that is driving the whole race towards world citizenship. It raises consciousness out of old and crystallized ways of thinking and behaving that hamper the fuller expression of the soul within which knows the essential unity of all things on the inner side of life. Evolving concepts of happiness, wealth and freedom reflect and support the soul’s longing to express the unity of life as an inclusive state where the individual’s sense of happiness, wealth and freedom is inseparable from that of others. Freedom is a leavening energy that raises consciousness steadily towards the light of the spiritual realms on a journey that has to be made in conjunction with all human souls and indeed, the other kingdoms of nature too. The first view of planet Earth from space drove this recognition right to the foreground of consciousness. A beautiful, jeweled sphere of turquoise blue and white, set against the blackness of space describes with geometric precision the extent of the boundary of what each human being should be able to call ‘home’. And, by extension of this thought, all human beings who live here are truly one family.