The Currency of Freedom

By Shelton Stoff,
Associate Professor, Queens College of the City University of New York

In the Garden of Eden, man began his quest to know "good and evil," to be free of external demands, to be free even from his Creator. Yet today, though he wields unlimited power, he appears still to be controlled by instinctive and environmental forces and therefore unfree. All the more determinedly he seeks to solve the riddle of freedom, as though he must succeed now or never. The time has surely come to search out the concept of freedom as a forerunner of social reform. They are related, for the first condition of freedom is the will to self-improvement: a social action that begins with changes within each individual.

It is possible, of course, even in the midst of war, uncertainty and deprivation, that man can by inner effort rise above his troubles. His thoughts can soar, regardless of external circumstances, into the pure air of freedom. The many examples of noble thought conceived in concentration camps and ghettos attest to this ability of man to transcend physical conditions. It can even be observed that poverty is generally more favorable than wealth as the matrix for the burning ideal of liberty. Wealth and ease often depress and corrupt the human spirit to a greater extent than poverty and suffering. To be truly free is to be master of outer conditions, whether favorable or adverse. It is to be oneself. We may or may not be able to be free outwardly, but we are impregnable if we are inwardly free.

When is a man free to be himself? He is master in his own house when he has achieved harmony among his own faculties of will, feeling and thinking. If he responds automatically to a stimulus, he acts without control of his own will; and obviously there is very little of the man himself in such response. Yet human behavior is still being explained by current psychology in terms of the stimulus-response theory. This theory may suit automatons but it denies the very premise of human freedom: namely, that man himself shall intervene (to choose and to decide) between stimulus and response. It ignores the real man and his climb towards lasting values. In its undue emphasis on externals it loses sight of the inner quest, the fateful encounter of a man with himself, his primary need for self-conquest.

The finest guides in man's quest for his higher self, the only self whose will truly suits the individual and fits the world, have always been found in the self-forgetting concepts of sacrifice and active service to mankind. Without the willingness to sacrifice his limited advantage for the whole that he holds dearer than self, man is doomed to pursue the kind of self-aggrandizement that always ends in self-defeat. Throughout history the great religions have sought to lead communities of men to the light and power of such ideals as that of rebirth through the giving of self. Today, as individuals, we must discover these ideals anew if willfulness is not to drown us in inertia, or willfulness destroy us through violence.

Unchecked emotions also can rob a man of freedom of choice by denying him his rationality. His feeling response then becomes as automatic and unthinking as a reflex action. Both are "programmed." Compulsive loathing and hatred or attraction and desire deny a man his conscious self-direction. Serving such emotions, he loses his unique individuality. True feeling is not compulsive. It does not dominate the will but reinforces it. Its warmth does not obliterate reason but enriches it, giving it power of comprehension. There can be no dialogue without warmth; man or nature can be rightly known only through warm encounter. The "I" must be bound in warmth of heart to the "Thou."

To think in freedom is to overcome stereotype and tradition; regionalism, nationalism, and peer pressure. It is to consider how the pure ideal can be imaginatively, efficiently realized in action. It is to overcome one's bias of self-love in order to truly know oneself. With the help of the free insights thus achieved, man can execute the bidding of his higher self; he can do that which is knightly and just.

On this rung of experience our intuition is awakened. The one using only intellect is alienated from the world about him, simply a spectator of life. His thinking freezes into rigid patterns, and his coldness is the beginning of decay. Such a man stands in the wings of life's drama with little zest to play his part. But when intellect and intuition combine, their balance brings wisdom, freedom, love and creativeness all that guarantees human achievement.

A society of free individuals, capable of rising at critical moments above inner as well as outer compulsions, must be the goal of enlightened civilization. This achievement would be the completion of the task begun in Eden. Today it is the goal of many who dare question. To question is to seek perspective, to look for beginnings and ends. The individual who searches comes to feel the pain and joy of the hour's claim on his soul: he begins to chart his own course and to shoulder social responsibility.

Ours is the beginning of an age when freedom is attainable. The external restraints of family, religion and societal codes are crumbling. In such a situation man has the possibility of making his own decisions. He is called upon to walk the thin ridge of freedom that rises between the abyss of self-abandonment on the one side and the abyss of self-immersion on the other. But the mastery of freedom requires a deep understanding, and this can only follow from a far more significant education than society is now providing.

How are free human beings to be educated? Surely the extensive use of the teaching machine will have to be avoided. Those behaviorists who favor the machine do not accept even the hope of a free man able to neutralize and transcend his environment. They would prefer to program all behavior to their conception of the good life, denying both opportunity and responsibility. Whether this conditioning is to be accomplished by programming or by drugs, it can never awaken, encourage nor permit what is essentially human: namely, the free act. To ease ourselves of the burden of choice is to become something between man and machine.

Opposed, yet strangely linked with programmed instruction, is another new impulse in education: open education. Its appeal is to the best in teachers. It has wisely removed harsh authority in education, but it offers no systematic understanding of the interrelatedness of knowledge. It is often based on concepts of freedom that may be dangerously false because only half true. Though it involves the emotions, it does not see beyond the traditional brand of knowledge that has, in the end, always deeply disappointed children. It does not point children to a distant horizon nor does it help them with an understanding of the higher as opposed to the lower nature of man and existence.

By confusing freedom with movement, and by preferring knowledge as a tool of power to knowledge as the gateway to insight and love, it does not usher the child to the portal of deep wonder and gratitude.

By viewing all knowledge in terms of selfish usage it may develop a subjective bias. This unwise subjectivism is as harmful to the best interests of the objective world as behavioristic objectivism is deadly to the human soul.

Superficial warmth, fired by sentimentalism, does not lead to true self-awareness. The appeal of open education is to self-satisfaction rather than to self-transcendence. Yet, as we have seen, to do what one wants to do is not freedom. To do what is right and true, in devotion, comes closer to the mark.

Programmed learning and the open classroom: both lack the qualities needed to educate the free man. A better beginning will have to be made with an education that can show us how freedom arises from love of the world and the desire to serve it.

A first step must be to see that education at all levels is filled with reverence for man and nature alike. In the words of Abraham Heschel, "The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe." Every act of learning must open the heart to appropriate feeling. An education of the head alone is a distortion of reality. If feeling is to grow it must spring from the deeper recesses of a heart that knows the brotherhood of man with man and man with nature.

To provide an example: one could teach arithmetic in the first grade by counting objects that reveal no meaning either to the teacher or the children. On the other hand, the teacher who is trying to stir a child's mind and heart might begin his arithmetic lesson with an orange. To the lively imagination of teacher and class, however, it is no longer just an orange. It becomes a representation of the world and of a unified humanity. The teacher peels the orange -- with drama. Its halves represent the hemispheres: the number 'two' is introduced as the whole is parted. And finally the segments of the orange are disengaged, each one representing a nation. The segments are real and separate, yet the orange is clearly made to be one. Men are individualized, yet they should remain brothers. Such an arithmetic lesson can satisfy a child's heart as well as his mind. The teaching is simple and practical, yet it has also deeper levels of meaning.

The fairy tale is especially effective in satisfying a child's longing for experience that touches the heart. It opens him to inner beauty and the world's hidden meaning. While the teacher can utilize such stories for teaching reading, they also provide the basis for unlimited experiences in drawing, painting, drama, and dance. Fable and myth deal with the inward realities of human life; they awaken moral discrimination and foster dedication to the good. In the education of children of all backgrounds, fairy tale, fable, myth and legend are an essential ingredient, a step towards the development of freedom.

Another step in the education of free individuals would be achieved through the training of the will, as we mentioned earlier. If the will is to develop, it must be based on a childhood regard for wholesome authority. The child should grow strong in the presence of teachers who are able to perform their tasks; and able to say 'no' when necessary. The teacher must serve as more than a passive guide; rather, he must be almost a hero, inspiring his students with enthusiasm and love for the day's labor. Such childhood experience will later support in a man the strength to stand up to his duty, to practice the self-control adult responsibilities require of him. If the experience of authority is missed in childhood, the possibility for self-direction in maturity becomes slim. The child wants outside authority as a model preparing him for the development of obedience to his own innermost promptings. He comes to a later self-discipline only through an earlier discipleship. Schools should not attempt, in their striving for 'democracy' in all things, to duplicate the politics of an adult world designed for far different purposes. Student control in education is not the answer to present problems; a nourishing education is more the way.

The final aspect of an education for freedom lies in the development of independent thought. The secondary schools and colleges must not be afraid to confront the ultimate questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life on earth? It may well be that the most relevant challenge the student can face is the time-honored one of learning to know himself. He makes progress in this as he comes to understand the activities of mankind, as he draws lessons from his encounters. Out of clear thinking he must determine where he ought to go and what he ought to do. The student must experience himself as both sacred and commonplace. His consciousness must expand until all about him comes alive and declares itself. The world is symbol, and the symbolic is to be penetrated. Life is to be known! When intuition joins intellect in the complete act of thought, a realization of the wonder, sacredness, and beauty of the earth becomes the joy of the free man.

Today it is vital that the militant weigh his actions. He must evaluate his passion. Action based on hatred or lust is obviously reaction. It is never free; it can never favor the cause of man. Buddha's words are as true today as when first spoken:

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me" -- in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" -- in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
For never does hatred cease by hatred here below: hatred ceases by love; this is an eternal law.

The conquest of one's lower self is the painful, laborious task of each individual. It is also the gateway to the upward climb. Today's man, heeding the voice of his better self, mastering life, can accomplish the quest for freedom begun so long ago. To succeed in this quest is to fulfill the meaning of our time.

 (From Sunrise magazine, June-July, 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)

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