Negative and Positive Freedom

I’m reading James McPherson’s book The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Mattersand it presents interesting context that connects to our explorations of The Federalist Papers.

McPherson notes in the first chapter that the word “liberty” has assumed multiple meanings throughout American history, and that the Civil War marked a paradigm shift from one dominant meaning to another. “The tragic irony of the Civil War is that both sides professed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers.”

To help us understand this divide in the American definition of liberty, McPherson turns to “famous twentieth British philosopher Isiah Berlin in an essay titled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty.'” In this essay, Berlin delineates the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty.

Negative liberty is freedom from. As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.” McPherson states that “Traditionally in American ideology . . . power was the enemy of liberty. . . ‘There is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty,’ wrote James Madison. . . . Madison also drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution as a Bill of Rights that limited the powers of the national government in the name of liberty. Nearly all of these amendments apply some form of the phrase ‘shall not’ to the federal government.”

This concept of liberty remains alive, even resurgent, today. As McPherson notes, “In recent years, with the rise of small-government or antigovernment movements in our politics, there has been a revival of negative liberty.”

But the Civil War marked a transition from a primarily negative conception of liberty to that of a positive one.

Positive liberty is freedom to. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.”

McPherson notes that “The change from all those ‘shall nots’ in the first ten amendments to the Constitution to the phrase ‘Congress shall have the power to enforce’ this provision in most post-Civil War amendments is indicative of this shift—especially the Thirteenth Amendment, which liberated four million slaves, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, which guaranteed them equal civil and political rights.”

McPherson also notes another interesting shift in language and ideology during the Civil War—the transition from a description of the United States as a union to that of a nation. “In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 ‘United States’ was a plural noun . . . Since 1865 ‘United States’ is a singular noun. . . This transformation can be traced in Lincoln’s most important wartime addresses.”

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War was critical to forging the conception of a unitary nation. If the primary goal of the Civil War was to preserve the union, the secondary one became the abolition of slavery, and those two goals symbiotically evolved during the war to become one and the same. McPherson articulates, later in Chapter 8, Lincoln’s critical role in defining this new nation in terms of a positive freedom. He uses James Oakes’s study The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, to compare Lincoln with Frederick Douglass in terms of their impact on our nation’s definition of liberty and freedom.

The difference between the two men was one of position and tactics, not conviction. Douglass was a radical reformer whose mission was to proclaim principles and to demand that the people and their leaders live up to those principles. Lincoln was a politician, a practitioner of the art of the possible, a pragmatist who subscribed to the same principles but recognized that they could only be achieved in gradual step-by-step fashion through compromise and negotiation, in pace with progressive changes in public opinion and political realities.

In other words, Lincoln and Douglass both served a critical and complementary purpose in carrying our democracy forward.

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, through McPherson’s retelling, stands up well to the critical eye of history. Though Lincoln was necessarily a man of his time, he also seemed to possess a foresight that enabled him to understand the ultimate purpose of the Civil War, and to strategically steer a divided union through the devastatingly disruptive shifts that it took to forge one nation (did you know that 750,000 soldiers died during this war?!). Lincoln was playing the long game. He told Congress in the winter of 1861 that “this struggle to preserve the Union ‘is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.'”

The tension between a positive and negative conception of liberty continues as a source of faction in our nation today. I think we would do well to remember the Civil War, and heed the lessons learned from the great sacrifice that was made to create a more sophisticated nation in which liberty meant equality for all, rather than the mere autonomy from tyranny that first created our nation.

The Civil War taught us that establishing a meaningful definition of national liberty means sacrificing some individuality for the betterment of a collective good. This is a sacrifice that many of us today seem unwilling to make. And it makes one wonder—what will be the next divisive battle that we will need to fight to transform our democratic republic into a nation that will be worthy of our grandchildren?

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No Apologies

I’ve decided I will no longer apologize–neither to myself nor to my anonymous audience here–for failing to write on this blog. Part of getting older entails sacrifices and necessary shifts from idealisms of youth and hobbies once held sacred. Writing for most of my burgeoning life has been a method for me to cogitate and develop independence of thought, but most importantly, to relieve myself of loneliness and give voice to an inner life long held silent.

But now I am married and professionally immersed. Though I don’t have many close friends in NYC since I moved here five years ago, I don’t generally have time to feel lonely. I continue to develop and refine my philosophies, but that development now either takes place amongst discussion with colleagues at my school, at education conferences or events, or on my professional blog, Schools as Ecosystems.

So while I do miss the personal and introverted creative explorations/exorcisms I once performed regularly here on this blog, I won’t allow myself to be burdened by guilt that I am compromising some essential aspect of my existence. The reality is that I am developing in other ways, and such is as it should be, because it must be, and it will be.

Ashen

I once asked
how close to the earth must I sway,
sweeping in the wind
like a broken tree?

But I have grown a bit
since that time.

That question was centered all around
me;
my struggle; my need.
As if the world
should work for
me.

A better question may be–
how close to another person can I get,
to know love
in every breath?

The world has riven
me, and will continue breaking
waves against any stance I assume.
But I can bend, and learn, and grow.

In the end,
I want there to be found nothing
but gratitude in my heart.

Needs and Needles

Take everything that you think you need, and have it be denied to you. Go ahead, have it dangled in front of your nose and then yanked away everytime you even remotely make a movement towards it. Eventually, you delimit your sphere of desire and you fight for what you know you need and that you can and will obtain. The things that aren’t obtainable are abstractions. If you had them, they would slip just as easily through your fingers anyway. What is a title? What is a car? What is a home? What is money?

All of what you need resides so close to you that it would be ridiculous to even reach for it. Yet it takes the greatest of efforts simply to recognize its proximity, to focus on its closeness. Each moment that passes bears your fading name away from you. You struggle to inscribe yourself, again and again, failing to encompass everything that you want to be. It’s silly, really. You are already everything that has been and will be. Your atoms, your carbons, your matrixed energy.

Who are the homeless? Who the hungry? Who are the powerless, the oppressed, the victimized tatters of a cannabilistic civilization?

We are all on the same boat. The same journey. The Titanic of misplaced dreams that sinks together as if all, the served and the servers, were of the same ill fated density, destined but to sink beneath the weight of a retrospectively immense folly.

But I’m not talking about a mere fatalism. It is indeed complacency that is the greatest of man-made evils. To know yourself, to recognize your divinity, to ask nothing of the world—this is the greatest of life’s many challenges. As we ride this inevitable path that must be trodden on the road to total gain, and total loss, the ledger sheet that will tally our outcome is a mirror that looks into our heart of hearts, the psalm of desire, the desert of pain. How much can you suffer? How much can you delight? To be as soft as a baby and as hard as bamboo, to be everything and nothing, to be yourself and to be yourself. To take only what you need, to give everything that you are.

This is the most difficult of demands. This task of life and death. This existence that we have been chosen to become aware of. All that we need to be we are. All that the world needs us to be we can be. All of what we desire is impossible.

Song for Tomorrow

Sprawling Sky

What is there left to say when every day of existence is the grayscale of a wall that can only be chiseled away piece by steady piece? Where is that beauty so quietly hidden, by what means can it become manifest? Is it enough, this promise of a brighter day that comes in vacation segments, this savings accumulation that is someday to be spent carefully and considerately on future investments?

But there is no easy way to develop. This chiseling, this restrained practice of focused everyday yearning for the distant sky, is perhaps the only way to truly know how to feel the sun on one’s skin when it finally breaks through, momentarily, at an angle sweeping out through the morning chill. Everyone is sleeping in various states of shuttered despair, afraid to open themselves up to the effort required to grow. There is no easy way to get what we need. We fight each other, we fight ourselves, what is the difference?

I know that I had been hiding, tucked away in my sheltered enclave, where I could save and then spend, surrounded by my comforting stuff and people who comforted me to be comfortable themselves. Now the only shelter I’ve got lies within my skin, a formation of my bones, the portals of my eyes the sole conveyers of the world so reversibly different from what is captured without. That doesn’t make any sense, but it sounds good, so I’ll leave it be. There is no easy retreat from the challenges of the everyday world anymore. Escape has become recognizable now as what it is: a distant metaphor for death. Life consists in confrontation, struggle, adaptation, mitigation. The diplomatic conveyers of my heart are my hands and my feet. Words fail me, they fall far short of capturing anything but a residual complaint. As I await some space of inspiration to befall me, my body becomes that chiseled wall against the world. Peace by steady peace, the struggle is ever ongoing. To struggle against myself, or to struggle within the world, what is the difference? The inner regalia of bereft desire is seeded carefully into the sewn pockets of each moment, barely acknowledged, the dropping drip flooding of particulate divinity parseled into the lines that encode a face, turned so swiftly into a smile upon another’s reckoning. Smile for me, strange face of the day, that I may sleepingly move into tomorrow.

Clarify Butter

 Sitting

There’s a certain fear that resides in clarity. It is easier, perhaps, to allow things to slide by in undefined, habitual complacency. It takes hard work and effort, concentration and integrity of thought and character, applied skill and artful intelligence, to root down to the sources of a comprehensive and connective vision. To examine beyond the defined object encapsulated by the word “tree”, for example, to see it for what it is: everything, itself, an infinite god descendant in form, ascending towards the sky, forging networks across subterranean subconscient intuition.

There is a part of us that wishes to avoid confrontation, a groundless hope that atrocity will end simply through inattention and withdrawal. Until that moment when the terror of our darkest indifference makes itself heard, seen, and known forcefully and immediately enough to shatter our somnolent mediocrity. All things hidden, all things suppressed, all things buried become manifest in a thousand different tragedies until you unearth them with shuddering laughter, you expel them with suffering love, you exorcise them with whatever conscious, unforced form of acceptance and embrace that can make them yours. Words, music, dance, images, rituals. There is no escape from the invasive and totalitarian ardor of the universe. It must be channeled, it must be ridden, it must be sown.

The forms that the unknown will take already lie at the end and the beginning of our awareness—we just have to live our lives according to our inherent shape, allow our trajectories to occur, willfully, selfless, and hungry. The road to mastery mirrors the diminution of self-importance. The seeking path to god mimics the descent of science’s studies to the smallest of particles. Outward down, inward up, all roads lead to home. Clearly, the concern here lies with clarifying the weakest link within ourselves.

For this

Because no one else has gotten this close. Because no one else has loved you in all of your glorious imperfection. You don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to be something that nobody could ever be.

Loving this woman, day by day, is loving yourself. Is loving your quirkiness, your spontaneity, your little inner parts that you are accustomed to hiding.

No one person, including yourself, could ever know everything about you. It is unimportant, really, to know yourself completely. What is important is that at any given moment, you are projecting what you feel. Feelings shift like the sand dunes in a storm. Even glaciers are melting beyond millions of years of definition. So this cinema of you, this panoramic view of your inner self, these snapshot photos of personality are necessarily vague and indeterminate. Necessarily, you squabble with her, you shout at her, she hits at you. You make up, and you re-connect at some essential level. It is this potential for long-lasting harmonizing beyond momentary partisanship that constitutes love.

I don’t ever want to stop squabbling with her. Our playful wrestling often ends in tears. Our uncertain future creates stress, sleeplessness, and so forth. But the re-uniting. The reconciliation. The reinforcement of all that is truly meaningful between us is worth everything. It is worth the years of loneliness before I met her. It is worth the suffering of uncertainty that every day brings. It is worth myself, and my fears, and my ego, and for this, I gladly sacrifice.