Why liberty
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - June 24, 2019 - 12:00am

I have been doing an informal survey, particularly with the young, asking them what they want most in life. Almost always, after giving the question some thought, their most common reply is happiness. Seldom are lofty ideals like peace, justice, or wisdom mentioned. For the young who still have to build a career or shape the future, happiness is the end-all.

I am not surprised, of course, because this is what most people, including myself, want. It is after all enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence which, “holds these truths” to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

We all know that happiness is state of mind, but it can also be very physical. Two of the great thinkers of the 18th century had their theories. Karl Marx postulated that happiness is a full stomach, while Sigmund Freud declared that happiness is satiated gonads.

These are, of course, gross over-simplifications of very complex theories. For politicians, happiness might be the possession of absolute power. For the greedy, immeasurable wealth, and for the common folk just an empty bladder.

Some thought must be given to the process by which happiness is achieved, and how it can be maintained. When we bring these factors to mind, then we recall the nature of man, the society that he creates for himself, and the liberty that makes real happiness possible.

That liberty is what sprouts when opposition is banished from society. The process is often violent and calls for committed agents. As the revolutionary Thomas Paine declared, show me the country where oppression is – that is my country.

For so many people, certain beliefs will bring happiness. As Marx said, religion is the opium of the poor. And for intellectuals, that opium is communism. To achieve happiness that is based on ideology requires unrelenting faith and conviction in that ideology. But then we must remember always what Nietzsche said, that convictions are prisons.

In our search for happiness (and utopia), we need to go back to the distant past to recall what the ancients did, how they created laws and institutions that gave them happiness. Some primitive societies have no word for liberty, but its essence is understood in the taboos and codes of conduct that are rigidly observed. 

History is a very good teacher, but can also be a very bad master when it shackles us to the past and inhibits us from being innovative, creative, and critical. Indeed, history often repeats itself because we don’t learn from it.

All through history man has striven for liberty as the basis of happiness. Liberty, truth, justice are bound together and striving for these is a continuing struggle to this very day. Some years back, an American scholar postulated that with the end of the cold war, the major conflict of the future will be between civilizations.

If we look at this theory very closely and straddle it with fanatic jihadism and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, we may see some truth in this forecast. The deeper reality, however, is not so obvious. This continuing struggle is not between civilizations but humankind’s deep longing for liberty. And, therefore, the conflict will be as it had always been – between the oppressors and the oppressed, between those who crave liberty and those who refuse to give it.

But do you really want liberty?

Unfortunately, not all civilizations or individuals look at liberty as the basis of their happiness. There are people who want despots or dictators to govern them, and they become comfortable with their shackles.

Tradition, too, inhibits liberty. China is one such country that has always been ruled by despots, a continuum for four millennia to this very day. China also adeptly illustrates, contrary to common western logic, that development does not necessarily bring liberty. In fact, when a country progresses and becomes an empire, to hold on to power, the emperor or the imperialists suppress liberty with the Mandate of Heaven.

In so many instances, too, crimes are committed in the name of liberty for human nature does not take to liberty naturally. The great virtues of humanity are not embedded in human genes, they are acquired often at exorbitant cost.

For seeking and teaching the truth, Socrates was condemned to death by poisoning by the Greek agora. For propagandizing for freedom from Spanish tyranny Rizal was executed by the Spanish. As the poet Bertolt Brecht said, we who want the world to be kind cannot ourselves be kind. I recall Madame Roland who during the French Revolution lamented before she was guillotined, “Oh, liberty what crimes are committed in thy name!”

We ourselves did not realize the true value of freedom until Marcos took it away, we even welcomed him. And today, we are even nostalgic for his despotism.

The hunger for despots or dictators such as Hitler was aggravated by the Germans themselves who were looking for a savior in the midst of their impoverishment, much in the same way we are today hoping for a savior. That condition was summed up by the German poet and pastor, Martin Niemoller. I now paraphrase what he said: First they came for the leftists – and I did not speak out because I was not a leftist. Then they came for the social activists – and I did not speak out because I was not a social activist. Then they came for the Catholics – and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

I came across this Latin passage way back in the 1940s when I was in college. Keep this posted in your office, your desk, wherever it will greet you every day: “Ubi boni tacent, malum prosperat” – Evil prospers where good people are silent.

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