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A Definition of Freedom

Today’s post is a guest post by Josh Hanagarne from World’s Strongest Librarian. Enjoy!  ~ David

My high school government teacher Mr. Weeks remains the best instructor I’ve ever had, and that includes my undergraduate and graduate studies. I still quote him about once a week – more often during crises.

One day he asked us all a question that I’ve never forgotten.

“What is Freedom?”

He didn’t seem surprised when someone raised their hand and avowed, “Freedom is being able to do what you want.”  It was what we were all thinking.  Before we could begin nodding, Mr. Weeks laughed and shouted “Wrong!”  He was tickled that he’d led us into another trap.  He straightened his tie, cleared his throat and said:

“That’s exactly what’s wrong with the world.  People think they want freedom, but what they want is anarchy.  Doing whatever you want isn’t freedom: it’s anarchy.  When anarchy is the norm, that’s when society starts sliding into the ocean, and at that point… good riddance.  Anarchy is for losers and punk bands.”


and cops... and cops…


Then he tried to jump back into quiz bowl prep as if he didn’t know he’d just kicked the wasp’s nest.

We weren’t having it.  So we screamed out our objections and confusion while he smiled and laughed.  He turned to the chalkboard and started writing a lame question about the Industrial Revolution.  “Now what were we talking about before all this nonsense started?”

Freedom according to the OED

He loved to agitate us.  It certainly got us thinking; I’ll give him that.  I struggled to come up with an answer, my own definition of freedom, but didn’t get much.  Here is what my dictionary told me:


1. a. Exemption or release from slavery or imprisonment; personal liberty.  Letter of freedom (now hist.): a document emancipating a slave.

b. fig. Liberation from the bondage or dominating influence of sin, spiritual servitude, worldly ties, etc.

3. The state or fact of not being subject to despotic or autocratic control, or to a foreign power; civil liberty; independence.

The Oxford English Dictionary is the only dictionary worth quoting — I knew that even back then — and it certainly seemed at odds with Mr. Week’s statement that we wanted anarchy, not freedom.

The definitions in the OED framed freedom as a state of being free from despots, of having your civil liberties, not being a slave, et cetera.  When I looked up anarchy, it honestly didn’t sound that bad either.  There was a lot of overlap in the definition of anarchy and the definition of freedom.  There was only one clear truth: Weeks was wrong.  I couldn’t wait.

He finally gave us an answer

When the answer finally came, I was a bit disappointed by how simple he made it sound:

“Freedom is the choice to do what is right.  It is not doing whatever you want, because there is no guarantee that what we want is healthy or positive.  Freedom is the choice to do what is right.  And you are free to find out what that means on your own time…now back to work.”

Our howling commenced anew, but this actually was the last time he brought it up.  No amount of pleading ever got him to revisit the subject.

Was he correct?

I’ve pondered his answer for over ten years now.  The question (and the answer) are more complicated than they seem.  Mr. Weeks was great at asking questions that were like viruses — you could not get rid of them without dealing with them.  Thought and ponderance were our medicine.  And even when you couldn’t figure out an answer — even when there was no answer — our confusion was a sort of crucible that led to productive, focused thinking… and I suspect Mr. Weeks would tell you that’s exactly why he was so cryptic about everything.

As to whether Mr. Weeks was “right” about the answer: I don’t know.  But here is where the train of thought has taken me from that day.

Guided by codes

We all live by codes.  Your personal guiding star could be as lofty as the Ten Commandments or as simple as a slogan you might read on a Gatorade bottle.  Here are a few examples of personal and moral codes from people I’ve known:

* I live by the Ten Commandments

* There is no God so what I do doesn’t matter

* If it feels good, do it

* Just do it (Nike)

* I only kill bad people (I don’t really know Dexter, but I know this is his code)

* Don’t make anyone’s day worse

* I live as if God exists, just to cover my bases

* I try to do more positive than negative…not always sure which is which

A quick story about Satanism

When I was a junior in High School, someone brought a copy of The Satanic Bible to school.  I’m talking about the book by Anton Lavey. It’s not actually a book of scripture.  It’s essentially a manual on how to be selfish. It is neither as profound as its disciples say it is, nor as shocking and profane as its critics suggest.

After it showed up at school, lots of kids read it and started coming to class with their faces painted white.  They did a lot of scowling and eye rolling.  The also wore black clothes, which was meant to be very frightening and twisted.  I also wore black clothing, but it was because I had discovered Slayer and Pantera.

Of course all of the parents were in an uproar and didn’t want their kids going to school with Satanists.  And that’s how they looked at it: they called these kids who were essentially wannabe Goths “devil worshippers.”  “My son cannot go to school and sit next to devil worshippers!”

Someone had a brilliant idea.  It was November at the time.  These newly minted Sons of Satan were told that if they didn’t renounce The Dark Lord they wouldn’t get any Christmas presents.  Predictably, they washed their faces and turned their back on Beelzebub.  Things were holly jolly as hell in time for December.

The point: if you live by a code, that code doesn’t change at the drop of a hat or it isn’t a code.

The final verdict on Mr. Week’s definition… for now

I don’t want anarchy.  I like order. The concept of “right” means very different things.  It can even mean nothing.

We can’t all have the same morals, and why would we want that?  Nabokov, author of Lolita and my personal patron saint, flat out said: “I don’t give a damn for morals.”  There are too many competing ideologies to have much hope for getting everyone on the same page.

I don’t mean for that to sound jaded or omniscient.  I’m neither, although I’m probably closer to omniscience than I am to pessimism or nihilism.  This is actually a positive thing, our differences.  Why are people so interesting?  Because you can never predict what they’re going to do or say!  There are always new lows that will make you cry, but humanity constantly hits new highs that will make you gasp in disbelief.

Is freedom the choice to do what is right?  Perhaps, if you “know” what right is, or even care.  I believe that we are free because we are able to determine what is right for us, and then act accordingly, for better or worse.  You get to be yourself if you have the courage to be who you want.

Even if it means you decide to break out the Unholy Face Paint of The Father Of Lies.


josh80-100 When he isn’t painting his face and juggling kettlebells, Josh Hanagarne masquerades as the World’s Strongest Librarian. Head over and say hi!  

Photos by David Merrigan and Russell Bernice


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David May 13, 2009 at 6:51 am

I think I see where Mr Weeks was coming from, but I don’t entirely agree either. To me, the choice to do what is right to you is an example of courage, but you don’t need to feel ‘free.’ To do that. Anarchy is not freedom because there are so many threats; it would weigh too heavily on your mind. Freedom, to me, is a lack of resistance to what you are doing, whether that resistance is internal or external. Good post Josh, thanks again!

Josh Hanagarne May 13, 2009 at 7:30 am

Thanks for the chance to post here on Raptitude David. I actually think I agree with what you’re saying. You are obviously thinking things through a big more than your average high school junior is going to.

What continually strikes me as I look back at this is how few of my teachers required us to think things over. When I was a senior, my Geography teacher had us filling out Reading Rainbow latitude and longitutude sheets to prove we could read 3rd grade maps. In my economics class, we played Monopoly every day for a year to teach us the hard realities of fiscal responsibility and recklessness.

By the way, Mr. Weeks is currently in New Delhi on a service mission. I’m sure that many people over there have no idea what to make of him:)

Freedom, to me, is simply having a surplus of breathing room in my life. What is the ratio between my obligations and my free time? It’s not high enough, like most people. Freedom is being able to make progress in the areas I’m interested in. But nobody has ever accused me of overthinking anything. I’m very much a knee-jerk reaction sort of guy. But I’m working on it. I think there are people who are “free” who don’t mind working 80-hour weeks. And there are those whose mental baggage mean that they can’t be free, no matter what their obligations are.

I actually work with a self-professed anarchist who is the sweetest Texan lady you’ll ever find.

One more thing: the group of people who comment here at Raptitude.com are a brilliant band of minds. I look forward to what you all have to say each and every day. Thanks for helping David make Raptitude a spot on the web that is endlessly fascinating.

Thanks again, David and your merry gang of the enlightened.


Positively Present May 13, 2009 at 11:54 am

I really enjoyed reading this guest post. Freedom is a complex topic and it was written about very well here. I’m not sure what exactly I think freedom is, but I know that doing whatever you want to do is not freedom. That’s just chaos!

Positively Present’s last blog post..when life gives you lemons…

Jay Schryer May 13, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Are we talking about personal freedom, or freedom as in a free society? Because being able to do what you want, when you want, and how you want is the definition of personal freedom.

However, if we’re talking about free societies, then I’m at a loss for a good “textbook” definition. I think it involves something along the lines of “Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose,” and includes things such as responsibility, respect for your fellow citizens, and considering the good of the many over the good of the one.

Jay Schryer’s last blog post..18 Til I Die

Josh Hanagarne May 13, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Jay, I don’t even know. Different societies come at freedom from so many angles I’m not even going to pretend to come up with anything.

I’m with you on your definition of personal freedom.

And I just took a look at your blog. VERY cool. As someone trying to be content who also has a closet addiction for retro video games and a great love for Heinlein, I salute you and that big brain of yours.

Josh Hanagarne’s last blog post..Why You Should Question Your First Reaction

David May 13, 2009 at 8:08 pm

I think there are people who are “free” who don’t mind working 80-hour weeks. And there are those whose mental baggage mean that they can’t be free, no matter what their obligations are.

For sure. I agree with you that freedom equals “breathing room” of the mental sort. My experience is that you can find that breathing room in any moment in which you’re completely present, because the psychic intrusions of past and future aren’t crowding the moment you’re in.

But perhaps the discipline to stay present is an example of the “doing right” that Mr Weeks was talking about. The more I think about it, the more I think he knew exactly what he was talking about.

And yes, the group of regular commenters here are a special bunch! Love them all.

Lisis May 14, 2009 at 7:07 am

That section you just quoted, David, really struck me too. I truly believe freedom exists only within. You can be trapped in a concentration camp (like Frankl) and still FEEL free… or you can be out in the world doing whatever you want and still FEEL trapped. So I guess you have to become master of your own domain (of thoughts) to be truly free.

PS: Josh, I love your sense of humor… I’ve been checking out your blog! :)

Lisis’s last blog post..Notice The Fear, And Get Rid Of It!!

Laurie | Express Yourself to Success May 14, 2009 at 7:55 am

This is an excellent post, Josh.

For me, freedom is being able to make choices, as Mr. Weeks said, but whether the choice is ‘right’ or not depends on the personality, experiences, culture, etc. of the individual. What’s right for me may not be right for you (personal and/or societal) but either way, we both have the freedom of the choice.

After writing that, my definition may change – and as I read what other commenters write, I”m sure it will.

Great post, Josh. Thanks David for having such a thoughtful-provoking guest!

Laurie | Express Yourself to Success’s last blog post..The Strength of Kindness

Josh Hanagarne May 14, 2009 at 1:59 pm

@Lisis & @Laurie

Thank you both for the kind words. Lisis, I caught that Seinfeld reference, don’t think you’re too sneaky:)

I’ve added both of your blogs to my reader. Great stuff. Thanks again.

Josh Hanagarne’s last blog post..Book Review: The Chocolate War

Sherri (Serene Journey) May 14, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Hi Josh! This was truly a great read. Defining freedom is a toughie because like you say it will mean very different things to different people and how boring would it be if we were all morally identical.

For me freedom is definitely the ability to make choices. Everything we do is a choice. So those of you that said freedom is being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want were right in a way as that’s your choice. You just need to be willing to accept the consequences of those choices.

Thanks for such a great article and for expanding my vocabulary a bit :)

Sherri (Serene Journey)’s last blog post..Can You Really Live Each Day Like It’s Your Last?

Sarah May 14, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Josh, what a thought-provoking and honest post! I love it!
Mr. Weeks reminds me a great deal of my college Philosophy professor. He was always pushing us to dig deeper into our brains for what we really believed, to find the universal truths in the world, and decide how WE wanted to live. (His passionate rants in fluent German and his tendency to leap onto tables definitely kept our attention. ;) )
I’m still not entirely sure what my personal definition of freedom is. I suppose it’s something along the lines of being free to be in control of my own life and my own destiny.

Josh Hanagarne May 14, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Sarah, I never did have a professor leap onto a table. I would have liked to have seen that.

Sounds like he would have gotten along with a friend of mine: she is a 4’8″, incredibly loud, incredibly German, self-improvement focused loon, and each year she hosts an event called “All Things Teutonic.” Everyone who attends is required to bring a dachshund. The only music allowed is Wagner’s Ring Cycle (reenacted with sock puppets) and David Hasselhoff.

Josh Hanagarne’s last blog post..Book Review: The Chocolate War

Sean May 21, 2009 at 8:09 am

Great post!
This is exactly the same thing I have been thinking about lately. What exactly is the nature of “freedom”? It means different things to different people.
Ive been told that freedom is doing god’s will, that freedom is a tangible product provided by leaders, blah, blah, blah. Freedom, depending how one defines it, can be these things and more. As I see it freedom begins with in each of us. Doing what is “right” is a good start, but what is “right”?
This response could easily turn into a post so I’ll cut it short there. Again, great post; it definitely gets the rusty mental gears meshing.

George September 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Hi folks. I guess I’m about 3 years late in getting in on this discussion but I may be 30 years closer to the end too. I’m and old fart. I’ve been digging in nondualism/vedanta for a few years now (more than I like to admit for still not having it all figured out) and one of the most liberating things I have found is the notion of karma yoga which basically says that the fruits of whatever we do is not up to us, but rather up to God, or the world or the universe if God isn’t your thing. You may have become the best archer in your village and the most relied upon hunter but just as you loose the arrow a walnut falls from the tree, the shot is deflected, the deer gets away and you go hungry one more day. The result was not up to you from the moment you released the arrow. The less insightful among us might say,”Well, if it’s not up to me then why should I worry about right and wrong and not just simply do as I please at any moment?” Vedanta says through this doctrine of karma yoga that by doing the right thing or attempting to do the best you can -at whatever- you greatly increase the odds of achieving the results you desire.Admittedly this comes up short of a guarantee but alas there are no guarantees in the phenomenal world. For the archer this means that doing the right thing is putting in the time and effort to become the best he can and applying the skills learned in training as best he knows how. So it seems that freedom is not doing whatever we want, but indeed rather in choosing to do what is right because doing so gives us a better chance of getting the results we desire from whatever it is that we do. All actions produce results. Some are desirable; some not so much so. How much freer can we really get than having things work out in our favor more often than not?

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