One of my favourite memories from school-- and one that I mentioned in my infamous 'purple notebooks' series-- was a particular English class that, through the vagaries of the timetable, was sandwiched between two periods of P.E. (gym, P.T., sports, whatever you want to call it). For this particular class we were allowed to keep our sports gear on, rather than have to change back into our uniforms for one class.
Even at the time, I was surprised at the pleasure this gave me. It felt delightful to be sitting in an English class in our sports clothes. And this wasn't because I was opposed to school uniforms. As a matter of fact, I was always a fan of school uniforms in general and of our school uniforms in particular. But I liked the exceptional atmosphere, the feeling of lightness, and (incidentally) the combination of my two favourite classes.
This circumstance struck me as being somehow significant even at the time. It's taken almost twenty years to make me understand the significance.
And this is its significance; it seems to me a symbol of the importance of contrast, and of surprise, in human life and human society. And this importance seems to be very often overlooked.
I could never be a libertarian, or even a liberal, because I've always felt that both these philosophies tend to devalue, insofar as they succeed, the very thing they claim to prize the most.
In a society of maximised freedom, how would anyone enjoy freedom? How would anyone even notice freedom? Would freedom just become like water to a fish?
The argument might be made that the goal of freedom isn't freedom itself. The goal of freedom is human flourishing, or social justice.
I appreciate this argument, but...what can I say, except that it seems rather unsatisfying to me? Of course, like everybody else, I take many freedoms for granted and I would be outraged in those freedoms were called into question. I've never thought much about my freedom to idle, for instance, but I would be infuriated if some new social legislation required everybody to be gainfully employed every minute of every day, outside of recognised break times.
In this case, however, freedom is simply a means to an end, not something to be valued for its own sake. And I don't simply see freedom as a means to an end. Personally, I also prize the sensation of freedom-- something as definite and palpable as fresh air in your lungs, or the feel of sunshine on your skin.
And, to be honest, isn't this what most people are appealing to when they appeal to the idea of freedom, when they use freedom as a slogan or a battle cry? Are people in such cases really treating freedom as something akin to an unobstructed flow in a water pipe?
How do we protect freedom while also protecting the surprise of freedom, the sensation of freedom? That, to me, is the real question that should exercise liberals and libertarians, God bless their souls.
Of course, the question applies not only to freedom, but to everything. Europe has enjoyed peace for decades now; peace, at least, compared to to the horrors of two world wars. But do we enjoy it? Or do we simply take it for granted? And how can we learn to not take it for granted, to truly savour it? (God grant it continues!)
The same applies to national freedom and national cultures. Regular readers of this blog (poor heroic souls!) know I have often written on the subject of Irish national culture and my disappointment that, after independence, Irish national sentiment and national consciousness seemed to go into decline. Why can't we enjoy our national identity even when it's not being threatened? (Although it is certainly being threatened at the moment, though not in as obvious a way as when we could blame the British.)
The same is true of technology. Electricity is a wonder, but do we really appreciate that wonder? Do we appreciate the wonder of television, that portal to anywhere and everywhere? It may seem strange for me to be writing in such a way of technology, since I have so often written of its dangers and the precious things it can lead us to forget or to overlook. But we can forget and overlook the wonders of technology itself, too.
Indeed, I think the same temptation applies to absolutely everything. A few years ago I went to see the movie Tron: Legacy. The trailer made it look wonderful, with glowing, otherworldly visuals. (The story, of course, involves characters being trapped inside a computer game, or a computer world.) The film was a big disappointment, and I left early, but I do remember one conversation between a character who had grown up in the computer world and one who had only recently become trapped in it. The computer world native (a girl) is fascinated by what she's heard of the sky in the real world. The real-world character tells her she can't even imagine what it's really like.
Why do we so seldom look at the sky? Could there be any sight more spectacular?
As always, Chesterton was there before me:
There runs a strange law through the length of human history — that
men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to
undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin
of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not
towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility. This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the
ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his
environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets
himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall.
It may be assumed that I simply recommending 'mindfulness', the latest craze. (And indeed, why should I be so cynical about it? If 'mindfulness' is akin to what Chesterton and so many other like-minded thinkers have been urging on us, then surely it's a good thing, and the craze for it is a good thing.)
But I'm not just talking about an attitude. I can't help wondering if our political and social structures themselves could help to keep this sense of surprise vivid-- and, indeed, to what extent they already do, and to what extent we should preserve this tendency. Readers who have read my Bard's Apprentice novel, serialized on this blog, might recognize that this was one of the themes of the book. Years later, I'm still pondering it. I think the least I can say is that I very much doubt that the maximum amount of freedom is the optimal amount of freedom.