Huh? Liberté oblige?
We know what noblesse oblige means. Translated literally, “nobility requires,” it’s the idea that those of noble birth or high social position have a moral duty to act kindly, with honor, to be generous. [Are you like me? Have you always found this notion as double-edged, a little troubling? Spot on in one sense…and a bit elitist on the other? Fact is, all of us, regardless of position, share such a moral duty.]
By analogy, the meaning of liberté oblige should be clear enough. Those of us (300 million strong in the United States on this July 4th weekend, and still more worldwide) who are living free, who enjoy independence, might well feel a profound obligation. Not content to squander the precious gift we’ve been given, we want to share freedom, put it to good use, to make the world a better, freer place.
Freer? Unlike supplies of certain natural resources, like say, platinum or iron, or oil, or water, freedom does not exist in some fixed amount. We can quench it, stifle it; we can bring it to life. You and I, through our individual and concerted actions, can either increase or decrease it.
We can expand the arena in which freedom operates, and we can expand the degree to which it operates in every arena. Take the home. As our children grow up, we give them more freedom. (Ok, sometimes they take it. Same idea.) At first, maybe parents control all aspects of the child’s life. What and when to eat. How to behave. The condition and look of the child’s room. But, as time passes, the parental grip relaxes. The child may have a say over the color of the walls. Or the posters on those walls. Or how to spend that allowance. Or what food to eat, and when. Time was, in a marriage, the husband often had the final say. Not so much today. Over and over we’re taught that love offers freedom to the one who’s loved. Love doesn’t seek to control.
The same dialog and debate over freedom occurs in the workplace. Used to be, managers had unquestioned authority. Today, managers are taught to draw out ideas, elicit vision, accept input from workers.
So it is in the world of politics. Take the halls of Congress. Sometimes, Congressional leadership concentrates the power in a few hands. In other eras, they relax this top-down approach. And so on. Freedom can ebb or flow.
The same is true of science. Are scientists free to work on topics of their choosing? Publish their findings, holding nothing back? Throughout history, and from place to place and institution to institution, freedom of science has waxed and waned, sometimes as a result of political forces, and sometimes as a result of forces within the scientific community itself.
[Hold these thoughts! In the next post, we’ll want to drill down into the social space at the intersection of Earth science, politics, and society, and ask what “freedom,” and “the increase of freedom,” might look like there.]
Fact is, you and I have thought about this much of our lives. We might do well to squeeze in a little bit more of such thought on this special weekend – amidst all the outdoor recreation and the picnics and family and social time, the ball games and the fireworks. We might take time to experience the sheer joy of being free – for it is joyous! And then go a step further – undertake a bit of self-examination. We ourselves can be the best source of ideas on how to make freedom real in the lives of those around us…and those half a world away..
Want a couple of ideas to jump-start your own thinking? How about these?
First, we know from our history that those founding fathers (and mothers) wanted freedom, and saw it as fundamental, as an inalienable right, for everyone.
Liberty, independence, freedom, for all? At the core of freedom is the idea that a society can’t be free unless each individual in that society is free. In America’s history, that’s meant two contexts, hasn’t it? On one hand, it’s had a domestic meaning. Here within our borders we have worked out this meaning very slowly, painfully, through a process of making mistakes, some of them terrible, and then correcting them. The process goes on. Think slavery. Women’s suffrage.
On the other, we’ve wanted freedom for everyone, not just those who live here, but worldwide. Until everyone celebrates freedom, any joy we might feel is muted. As a nation, we’ve repeatedly gone to war on this one. Many Americans have given their lives to this cause. We honor them several times a year…not just on this day. We can never thank them enough.
Except maybe, by paying it forward.
Second, freedom exacts a price. Every individual – you, me, each of us—has to yield to every person around us the freedom we hope to receive from them. For me this means I can’t just allow those around me I like to be free. Neither can I say, “you’re free so along as you agree with me.” You’ve got to be free to disagree with me. Maybe even vehemently.
Third, freedom isn’t synonymous with “casting off all restraint.”
Think back to Athens, the “cradle of western civilization,” and “the birthplace of democracy.” The Continental Congress certainly did back in 1776 when looking for inspiration. But Athens fell. Here’s what the great classicist and educator Edith Hamilton said of their decline:
“In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life and they lost it all – security, comfort and freedom… When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when they freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.”
The freedom to be responsible. What does that mean for America in the year 2011, and for those scientists and others working worldwide to live realistically, responsibly – and free—on a world that is simultaneously a resource, a victim, and a threat?
More in the next post.
 . If you’re of a certain age, you might recognize Edith Hamilton as the author of Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, the text that was used in so many high school classrooms.