The biggest battles in human history have been fought ostensibly to protect the ideal of liberty. Humankind seeks nothing more than to liberate itself from shackles — physical, social, cultural as well as emotional. The desire to be free is ingrained in human psyche since birth. We do not like to be restrained, to be restricted, to be ordered around. Like animals, the basic instinct of human existence is to seek freedom — roam around in the wilderness, to do as we please. Some of the biggest revolutions have come about in response to the need for political and social liberty —liberty from oppressive regimes, from foreign control of nations, from regressive social constructs that lead to certain sections of society exerting crippling control and influence over others.
In all these instances, what is sought is ‘freedom from’. However, another major concept in the idea of freedom is also ‘freedom to’. Those terms demarcate the differences between ancient and modern ideas of liberty. Benjamin Constant, Swiss-French political activist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and writer on politics and religion, elaborated on these differences between ancient and modern ‘liberty’.
According to Constant, ancient liberty is ‘democratic participation’, while modern liberty is ‘non-interference’. In simpler words, modern liberty pertains more to individual freedom — people’s choices in their own distinct, private spheres — while the notions of ancient liberty had more to do with the participation of each individual in the larger collective sphere of society — their participation in the building of laws, in the administering of them, in the fighting of wars, so on and so forth. These notions are based on differences in ancient and modern societies —the former being more war oriented; the latter being commerce oriented. Writes Constant: “Among the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations.”
Interestingly, though, these ideas focus on liberty as perceived in western societies, focused more on the material aspects of life. Eastern philosophies, in contrast, were concerned more with the deeper aspects of human existence — pertaining to the human body as well as spirit existing in symbiosis with the planet, and with fellow living beings — not just humans but other life forms as well.
In that context then, the greatest liberty in eastern philosophy is not just liberty ‘of’ the self, but also liberty ‘from’ the self. It is a step beyond the seeking of freedom from external influences, to the seeking of freedom from the bestial influences — the dark side — of your own self. In Islamic philosophy, this is what is referred to as mastery of the ‘nafs’ (the self), which is described as the biggest liberty of all — because among all the things we rebel against, no one ever thinks of rebelling against their own selves. We never think of ourselves as the ‘villain’, perhaps. To our own selves, we’re always the heroes. True liberty though, is to rebel against your own darker instincts and think of not just your own interests, but those of another person as well. True liberty then, also lies in possessing compassion and empathy.
If self-serving instinct became the only thing guiding us, it would rob us of the very spirit that makes us human. So the deepest, most important form of liberty is freedom from the instincts that make us a lesser version of our selves — a lesser human being. Rebelling against the slavery of the nafs — the biased ‘self’— and reaching out to the rooh, the eternal spirit of the universe, present in each one of us. Now that is liberty indeed.