The modern political era is the Age of Freedom and increased opportunity.
In England, the critical events were the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and the bloodless, Glorious Revolution which ousted King James II in 1688. These events opened the way for the Bill of Rights (1689), which placed limits on the monarch and declared the rights of Parliament.
In America, the Revolutionary War (1765-83) opened the way for the Constitution (1788) and the Bill of Rights (1791).
In France, the Bastille was stormed, and King Louis XVI recognized the National Assembly in 1789, but the King and Queen Marie Antoinette had to be guillotined in 1793.
As we all know, these unfortunate but exceptional acts of violence crushed the world’s tyrants and thereby ushered in an age of peace, shared prosperity and limitless opportunity, which reached its zenith when Francis Fukuyama declared the End of History in 1992.
Sadly, history began again on September 11, 2001, and has ever since been gaining momentum. Still the hope remains that we can bring history to a halt again, once we achieve victory in the War on Terror.
In the meantime, we may perhaps be so bold as to ask what freedom is for. I have already raised this question in a previous post, where I spelled it out with illustrations from Shakespeare’s great play The Tempest. The same theme is continued here.
We hear Gonzalo describe the possibility of a return to something like Eden—a condition where people could eat without labour or trade, and live in peace without any government. But in the story Shakespeare tells, the absence of any rule of law tempts Sebastian and Antonio to kill Alonso, King of Naples; and Caliban conspires with Stephano and Trinculo to kill Prospero. Much like the men of Europe and America would do in the coming years, Shakespeare’s rebels are freedom fighters. But what do they want freedom for?
Sebastian and Antonio want more power—but power to do what? It is not clear. Caliban wants the freedom to continue stupefying himself with alcohol; he also wants to rape Miranda and “people…the isle with Calibans.” Stephano and Trinculo are silly, cowardly drunks: it’s hard to imagine them actually killing Prospero as Caliban suggests they do. In fact, when the opportunity presents itself, they are distracted by the fine garments that Prospero sets out for them as a kind of trap. All they really want to do is shop.
So Shakespeare provides us with a fairly accurate, if exaggerated, portrait of American society today: there is widespread drug and alcohol addiction, pervasive violence and sexual assault against women, and a culture of mass consumerism. We have given free rein to our basest instincts to an alarming degree. Is freedom good for nothing more than that?
Illustration by Edmund Dulac
Shakespeare says no and gives us the counterexample of Ferdinand and Miranda. They use their freedom by giving it away in devoted service to each other. Admiring Miranda’s beauty, inside and out, Ferdinand says that all the threats of Prospero,
To whom I am subdued, are but light to me,
Might I but through my prison once a day
Behold this maid. All corners else o’ th’ earth
Let liberty make use of. Space enough
Have I in such a prison.
(Act 2, Scene 1, 486-90)
In equally strong terms, Ferdinand declares to Miranda:
The very instant that I saw you did
My heart fly to your service, and there reside
To make me slave to it.
(Act 3, Scene 1, 64-66)
In perfect reciprocity, Miranda declares to Ferdinand:
I am your wife if you’ll marry me;
If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow
You may deny me, but I’ll be your servant
Whether you will nor no (83-86).
Statue by Carol Peace: “Standing in the wind.”
It is worth noting that the union of Ferdinand and Miranda is controlled by Prospero’s strict injunction that they not consummate their love until they may be married “with full and holy rite” (Act 4, Scene 1, 17). Ferdinand asserts that Prospero’s command corresponds to his own wishes (23-31), yet it is doubtful he should have remained true to his best intentions without Prospero’s stewardship. For it is implied that Prospero protects the lovers’ chastity from Venus and Cupid, who “thought…to have done / Some wanton charm upon this man and maid” (94-95).
Thus we learn that one of the worthiest uses of freedom is service: using one’s freedom of choice to choose to limit one’s freedom in the service of others. Ferdinand expresses this paradoxical truth when he says he chooses to be Miranda’s husband “with a heart as willing / As bondage e’er of freedom” (Act 3, Scene 2, 88-89). In other words, as willingly as a prisoner ever embraced freedom, he chooses to be duty-bound into her service.
At a rather high level of abstraction, freedom is nothing more than the realm of possibility. This realm is represented in Shakespeare’s play by the magical, dream-like quality of the island, which Caliban poignantly recognizes when he describes its haunting music:
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
(Act 3, Scene 2, 135-41)
Illustration by Edmund Dulac
Caliban, like so many of us, longs to remain in the realm of endless possibility, of boundless freedom. He resists waking, because waking requires letting infinite possibility go and that we surrender to the limits of some definite reality—some actual situation, here and now. He recognizes but resists the truth that real life requires submission to the sovereignty of some particular time and place, in the company of some particular persons.
Statue by Carol Peace: “Kneeling figure.”
By constantly venerating freedom from constraint, our culture encourages the same cowardice in us. And, following our bad example, more and more of the world’s people are being swept up into the tempest of rebellion.