Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"If the Son sets you free..."

A consideration of "Hunger Games and Dystopia" begins with two earlier dystopias — ones I read in high school [does that still happen?] — representing very different conceptions of "freedom." Is freedom, properly understood, simply the freedom to choose? Andrew Wilson:
George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, as has often been pointed out, imagined two very different dystopias. In 1984, written just after the Second World War, Orwell depicts the forces that held people captive as fundamentally external: coercion, espionage, laws, constraints, threats, lies, the state. By contrast, Huxley’s Brave New World, published just after the Wall Street crash had turned the excess of the twenties into the Great Depression of the thirties, portrays a future in which people are enslaved to forces within themselves: desire, inanity, hedonism, egotism, fatuity. For all the similarities between the two books, it is this difference that is the most striking.
In the modern West, people generally think of slavery, captivity, and the need for liberation in Orwell’s sense, rather than Huxley’s. Our vision of freedom is primarily socio-political, with the greatest threat to human flourishing being the other, whether the Nazi, the slave-owner, or the autocrat. Oppression comes through pain, not pleasure; the essence of liberty is to be without external constraint. Humans are free if they are able to choose, to will their own future, to decide for themselves what they will do with their lives. By this definition, modern Westerners are all free, with the exception of prisoners and the incapacitated.
Many of the ancients saw things more like Huxley. In what could be called a more religious or philosophical vision of liberty, the greatest threat to human flourishing is the lack of wisdom, phronesis, or virtue. Whereas moderns understand freedom in terms of unconstrained individual choices, many ancients regarded the forces underlying individual choices—passions and desires which might in turn be foolish, selfish, or carnal, much like those depicted in Brave New World—as something from which people needed to be freed.  ....
The essence of eleutheria, in the vision of writers from Aristotle to St. Paul, was being free to become what one was originally designed to be, rather than simply being free to make decisions (decisions which, of course, might stunt one’s progress towards ultimate fulfillment). Thus humans could be enslaved, not just to the other, but to the self. One needs redemption from the flesh as much as from the powers. Under such a vision of liberty, modern Westerners might not be as free as we would like to think.
.... The fact that the state is best equipped to promote political freedom, which I take for granted, does not mean that it is the only sort of freedom there is.
The Judeo-Christian tradition holds both types of liberation—from the other and from the self—together, with its repeated emphasis on the concept of redemption. Israel is set free from slavery in Egypt through the Exodus, but immediately requires rescuing from her carnality and idolatrous desires in the wilderness. The prophet Isaiah describes the political redemption from Babylon that Judah will experience (chapters 41-48), and then looks forward to the spiritual redemption from sin that will follow (chapters 49-55). Jesus himself articulates his mission in Isaianic terms, promising both freedom for captives and forgiveness for sinners. .... [more]