On Freedom

by johnmccreery

Chris Kelty has started an active thread on Savage Minds, starting from the observation that anthropologists, in contrast to their colleagues in history and political science, rarely talk about freedom. MTBradley brought up the notion that the Western idea of freedom is different from that in Eastern martial arts traditions where submission to the master is a given and the goal to liberate the self. I added the following comment.

“We should,perhaps, remember that Western ideas of freedom and domination evolved in contest defined by monotheistic religion and the notion that those who stand in loco parentis, the father in the family and the ruler in the state, are God’s representatives on earth. Thus the question becomes one of submission or rebellion in relation to external authority.

“In contrast, the martial arts traditions to which MT refers are rooted in Daoist/Buddhist ideas in which the primary form of liberation is liberation from desire, ultimately the attainment of a state of no-self in which questions of submission or rebellion are moot. In this context, freedom is not liberation from external authority imposed from outside the self. It is, instead, liberation from the desires that constitute the self, leaving the body free to go with the flow of nature instead of fighting against it.

“Just once in my own life did I have an experience whose memory resonates with these thoughts. As an undergraduate, i was taking a judo class to satisfy a PE requirement. A complete novice and not in great shape, I was paired with an advanced student who was also larger and stronger than I was. When we stood up to fight and grasped the collars of our gi (judo jackets), I gave up and relaxed as totally as I could, hoping to minimize the pain of the fall. The next thing I knew my opponent was flying over my shoulder. That never happened again; I was always too self-conscious about getting into the right mood. But in that moment, I and the universe were one. I did what came naturally, as free as I have ever been in my life. But, of course, ‘I’ wasn’t there. The self that worries about submission or rebellion was absent.”

2 Comments to “On Freedom”

  1. I think you’re right, and I also think that while there’s sense in the East/West distinction, it doesn’t hold up real well to detailed scrutiny. For my scifi class research I just finished reading Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, which draws heavily on the Catholic monastic tradition and shows a nicely fine-grained awareness of the productive tensions between initiative and submission therein. ‘The West’ is full of examples of submission to a higher purpose, including of course military service but also the various ‘helping’ professions like teaching from which these appeals to the mythical spirit of the East (‘itself’ very imperfectly exemplary of its own communitarianism) ritually issue. Not to mention family values, the Mafia and other Mediterranean community networks, etc.

    Of course there are big-drift historico-regional differences in emphasis of the various things most everyone cares about, but the danger of sloshing the analysis too far one way or the other is that we get invidious judgments like “Oriental despotism” and whatnot.

    I would expect historians and political scientists of North America and Europe to talk a lot about freedom because that is an ethnological theme of ours. I don’t find much talk of freedom in historians and political scientists of other parts of the world, except insofar as they are writing for Euro-American audiences who need help with conceptual translation.

  2. Oops, I see Rex already said the good parts of this.

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