Monday, May 31, 2010

On Liberty: “There is no fate but what we make”

"The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity."
Wilhelm Von Humboldt, Spheres and Duties of Government

These are the first words on my copy of J.S. Mill's "On Liberty", after a lengthy but interesting introduction. It is a book that has the potential to change the way you look at the world, and if, perhaps, you are receptive enough, you might chance across a companion on your relentless march towards "freedom".

What does it mean to be free?

There is a conscious thought I remember attaining when I was much younger. It was very clear to me, given that which I knew, that every human being was pretty much the same and that everyone had the right to act in a manner that one independently felt was in one's best interests, a manner that maximised one's experiences of life but a manner that above all did not directly or indirectly cause harm to any other individual, to the best of one's knowledge; but we all know, ignorance doesn't count.

It was the thinking of a child and I couldn't quite frame the argument to satisfy the situations I encountered everyday but I still felt that there was some truth in it. As a young boy, I struggled with various questions of meaning and existence. I wondered why one person had the right to expect anything from another, whether there was anything that was freely given in this world and whether in the grand scheme of things it mattered. Whether there was truly justice, whether somehow everything evened out. I know now, that there are as many answers to these questions as there are human beings on this earth because when it comes to the beliefs we hold dear, "one man's paradise is another man's prison".

I have always been in search of an identity; an answer to the question that I believe plagues every human being at one point in their lives if they are so unfortunate as to be of average cognition or better.

Who and what am I?

The inquiry itself is an affirmation of the individual's existence and independence of thought, for to ask who one is, is to accept the premise that one exists (is) apart from something else and to ask what one is, is to likewise accept the premise that one exists (is) as a part of something else. I have found that the answer to that question is perhaps partly an answer to the question of freedom.

Everything begins and ends with the "self", for the most part. The question of who and what you are can only be answered by you but you must understand that in making up your mind as to how you wish to define the "self" and express it, you are bound by the laws and rules of humanity.

One of the most important things imparted to a child is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Every society has a mechanism (education) by which it does this and we (human beings) seem to be agreed on the fact that in a child's formative years, before they come of age, that duty lies with the parents, immediate and extended family (humanity).

I am my mother's son, I am a human being, and I was born to love. That for me is all the identity I will ever need.

Are there innate ideas?

John Locke propounded the theory that there are no innate ideas, that the human mind is from birth a "tabula rasa" and that any human being is the product of their environment and education. Where you are born, what you see, do and learn as a child, the people you come into contact with, all these are things that will shape and determine what kind of person you become.

Given that that is true (has been observed to be true for the most part), what then remains of a person if you remove all the conditioning and traits that are learned from birth? Do you remain with something that is pure? If so, then pure what?

It was impressed upon me from an early age, than one of the most important things I could ever do in life was understand what was inside of me. This was introduced to me from a religious point of view; I was taught that God's spirit resided in me and that I must at all times be conscious of this fact and endeavour to let it flow through my works. I was taught that I was merely an instrument doing "God's work" and of course that God was good, all knowing, all powerful and all those attributes that he or she is given.

I was introduced to the idea of good and evil from that perspective, taught that evil was external and would take advantage of any weakness in me to use and despoil "God's instrument" to its own ends. I was taught to jealously guard my mind and body against "evil" thoughts and influences, to believe that he who thought "evil" was as damned as one who practised it.

I believed all this with the mind of a child but I guess what stood out for me was the idea that there was "something" inside of me that was pure, that was good, that needed to be guarded and protected from outside influence.

I have since been fortunate or unfortunate enough to rid myself of religion but some of the teachings still remain with me. The idea that we are all born in an equal state, endowed by who or whatever created us with certain traits and abilities that make each one of us unique yet are sufficient for the purposes of our human lives.

Does the self exist before and after the body? What is its constitution before and does anything physical have any effect on what it is after it leaves the body? Where does it go after leaving the body? Is this state/place similar to what it is before birth? Do we have any concrete and practical knowledge of this state?

These are some of the questions that will plague me till the day I die, however, I realise that there can be no definite answers to them. At best, I will arrive at a theory or an idea that hopefully explains the observable patterns that I believe reflect them, at worst; I will plod on, none the wiser.

I believe that there is such a thing as "the human spirit", a code (if you like) against which everything we encounter is measured and that this human spirit helps us to choose our actions. I believe that life is a constant struggle to find a balance between our knowledge of "the human spirit" and of "the self". Everything we do in our lives is based on what knowledge we have of these two "entities", for lack of a better word, and the physical world, but I think it would be wise for us to understand that one supersedes the other, that no matter who you think you are, the earth and humanity were here long before you came along and will be long after you are gone and that there is knowledge contained within the collective conscience of humanity that any individual disregards at their own peril. This is essentially human society as we know it, yet even when it seems so big, powerful and almost impersonal, we must never forget that its rules and laws were created by human beings like you and me and that just as you and I are prone to error, so were they too and any knowledge, values, customs and beliefs that society wishes us to adopt must be measured against our knowledge of "the self" and the world and adopted or discarded as and when we see fit for ourselves.

We are, after all is said and done, in the business of survival as a species (pamoja), and "mother nature" in her infinite wisdom seems to have equipped us with the ability to evolve, to change, to adapt, to become better. It is in this spirit that we commend those of us who are brave enough to venture forth against the unknown; that we esteem those of us who in their daily lives stand tall against forces that would bring us to our knees and most importantly it is in this spirit that we create bonds between each other, bonds we hope will stand the test of time.

Is the individual supreme?

It is the sole duty of any individual to acquire knowledge and training that develops their physical and mental faculties to the best of their abilities. The process of learning, for any individual, lasts a lifetime and will never cease until he or she has drawn their last breath. It is this knowledge that helps a human being eke out whatever meaning or joy they can from this life. The nature of this knowledge may be internal or external but what is most important is that our understanding of it must be internal; any creed to which we lend allegiance must be reconciled with our internal culture and beliefs or else we are nothing but empty vessels echoing dead and empty beliefs.

Every person is aware of themselves, of their ability to feel pain and pleasure and of the distinction between the two. The idea that we (human beings) are inherently selfish comes from the recognition that we do our best to avoid pain and maximise pleasure. If a human being existed in a state wherein they did not have to account for their actions, then there would be no limit to how one person can express themselves in their pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, however we live in a society with other human beings who feel pretty much the same things we feel (with varying degrees of intensity) and as far as we can tell, the only way by which we can hope to have any meaningful existence, is by association and interaction with our fellow human beings (nature counts too J). This fact calls for you to investigate and determine what may be meant by the idea that you are in possession of an "inherently selfish nature" and that anything you do, is first and foremost about yourself.

There is an aphorism that goes thus; "Charity begins at home." This could be applied to a myriad of situations in human life but for our purposes here we will look at the beliefs and ideas we espouse and give intellectual weight. If you profess to believe something, then it is right and fair that society expect you to act and behave according to said belief because only then can any other human being have any just expectation of you. Any belief must stand on the actions of those who profess to hold it, any act contrary to the belief only serves to undermine or diminish its intellectual weight (as far as practical application) though it does not necessarily render the belief false.

Let's take the example of "the right to life." In this day and age, it is universally agreed that all human beings have a right to life, and that no other human being has the power or authority to unjustly take that away from any other. However, in a world with more than six billion people and a myriad cultures and customs, this right is trampled on day in and day out but despite whatever justifications have been put forth by any man or group of men for the act of "murder", it remains, in the universal consciousness an undesirable act that goes against our very nature.

Then there is the case for suicide, assisted or otherwise; if every human being has the right to their life, is it therefore wrong for another human being to take their own life on their own terms?

So what power does society have?

Society sets the rules and makes the laws of the day. In this pursuit, it is guided by the sum of all human knowledge prior to and including its time. Now here's the trick, those who make and set the rules are human beings just like you and me; they share the same ignorance any other human being has, they don't know everything. To put it better, there is nothing known that you cannot know. If you have the means and the will you can learn all that can be learned but even all that knowledge is useless if you do not engage in what you yourself would term as a meaningful life.

Those who would seek for society to tell them how to live their lives, as long as they are of age and at no great disadvantage, both mentally and physically (even among these are some of the most amazing examples of "the human spirit"), are nothing short of lazy.

Life itself has equipped you with all you need to survive but sometimes it's hardJ; how you live your life is your business as long as you reserve this right for every other human being, society should leave you alone, unless of course, you like the attention.