Freedom – an ideal and an agent for change

The power of an idea whose time has come is amazing. One such idea is embodied in the word freedom, which has been so much in the forefront of our thoughts in recent weeks

The history of the past 250 years has been deeply affected by the concept of freedom, as people struggled with the injustices and imposed poverty of a world order that focussed on the preservation of 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 – were often suppressed.

An interesting example of this is Friedrich 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. What a difference this makes to the first line of the poem: ‘Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,’ instead of ‘Freedom, beautiful spark of the gods.’ Joy is mystical and no threat to the established order: freedom is a call to action based on a vision of a better future.

Like all that is suppressed, the yearning for freedom erupts to the surface in unexpected ways with unpredictable and sometimes astonishing results. In the Second World War, when a large proportion of humanity had most of their freedoms extinguished and there existed a very real possibility that the whole of humanity would become enslaved to distorted ideologies, US president Franklin Roosevelt, gave out to the world what he called the four freedoms.

“The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in their own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour – anywhere in the world.” These four freedoms became adopted as the visionary ideals for the post-war era.

What a tragedy for humanity that during the last 70 years these freedoms have continued to be denied to so many people and trampled on in so many countries of the world. Yet despite severe setbacks the idea of freedom is gaining power and momentum. It is pulsing with renewed insistence in the consciousness of an awakening humanity. Just when oppression, injustice, poverty and terror seem to be immovably entrenched it is then that the light of freedom shines into the world with a new brilliance and galvanizes ordinary people into extraordinary action.

Many of the important stepping stones of the past 70 years have been connected with freedom: the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, the Tiananmen Square protests, the East European ‘velvet revolution’ and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the dismantling of apartheid in the early 90s in South Africa, the protests against military dictatorship in Burma in 2007. And now, the idea of freedom is producing a ferment of change in the Arab world. One after another, tired and corrupt regimes are buckling under pressure from a new generation of educated, committed and, most importantly, ordinary people who have a desire for the sort of change inspired by the will to do good. Some commentators have been calling it the ‘leaderless revolution,’ while others are perceptively calling it ‘leaderful,’ as initiative, vision, resilience and the capacity for sacrifice seem to be the property of all.

This tells us that true freedom is a resource of the spirit which always focuses on the good of the whole. Perhaps we are also being shown that we experience the greatest freedom when we serve, at whatever personal cost, because we love humanity and the world.

It is said that the next super power will be world public opinion. With the widespread and rapidly increasing availability of mobile and satellite phones and the internet, public opinion now has a vehicle for articulated vision and practical goodwill. Well used, it can indeed be a great empowering agency for all of humanity. It is a means to change our world for the better that is more powerful than any ideology or military power. All this is helping to produce a world where freedom, responsibly used, will characterise the new humanity that is being born in these turbulent yet exciting times.