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Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/Who Is Free? Is It the Civilized Man?

Who Is Free? Is It the Civilized Man?

A schoolboy looks through the window and wishes that the hours of restraint were over so that he could run free; he regards with envy the animals which run "at liberty" and the birds which fly in the air. The poets have also used the birds of the air as symbols of liberty, and the philosophers have assumed that the original savage enjoyed the same liberty as the beasts and the birds. They have judged like the schoolboy. The schoolboy would find little of the liberty he imagines if he could run in the fields but had no one to earn his living for him. In fact, one of the first disillusions which awaits the civilized schoolboy, when his schooldays are over, and he gets liberty, is to find that the necessity of earning a living proves all his visions of freedom to be silly and empty. If he had known more about the bird, he would have known that the bird does not move through the air with much more freedom than a stone. The beast has no freedom because he has no intelligent and conscious choice. In like manner, the savage acts from instinct and unreflectively, and the notion of liberty, as we understand it, does not apply to him. He moves about, it is true, out-of-doors, with a certain degree of unrestraint, but his life is automatic and unreflective; it offers no room for the exercise of choice; it is, in general, absorbed in the desire of getting enough to eat—it is devoted to this business with an intensity and directness which leave no room for liberty of choice.

The mediæval formula of emancipation consisted in declaring that the emancipated person might go where he chose. This seems to indicate that the mediæval notion of liberty was freedom of going and coming. It would accord, then, with the sort of freedom envied by the schoolboy, and enjoyed by the savage; but the serf who had been emancipated found that after all he must go where he could earn his living; that his freedom of movement was soon exhausted; and that whatever he had won consisted, not in wandering about, not in becoming a vagabond, but in using his powers to further his own happiness, not that of others.

Shall we infer, then, that liberty—meaning by liberty still unrestrainedness of action—is only possible for the civilized people, who can and do make intelligent choices, at least, between different aims and different codes of conduct?

The civilized man has won immense control over nature in certain senses and in certain ways; what to the savage man was a terror is to him a slave. All this has become commonplace; but what is vastly more important, but not so generally understood, is that we have won a diversity in our ways of meeting nature. If she threatens us or harms us in one way, we can avoid that way and meet her in another, where she serves our purpose. It is this above all which marks the position of the civilized man, as compared with the savage man, in dealing with nature. The latter stood face to face with nature on few and direct lines; he had little or no variety in his mode of life, little diversity in his lines of activity. Hence, if he was blocked on those to which he was accustomed, he suffered direct defeat. Furthermore, all were defeated at the same time, so that the society suffered a general disaster. In a highly organized society, with well-developed arts and sciences, such cannot be the case. On the contrary, what harms one exercise of human energy benefits another; what hurts one group in the society is an advantage to another; what proves a disaster to one region is a blessing to another. Calamities are common enough, but their scope is limited; they are offset by other things; their effect is alleviated by help from the uninjured parts of the society; it is localized and restricted, so that recovery is, for the society as a whole, quick and easy.

It follows that the civilized man has a measure of liberty under the natural conditions of life. He constantly exaggerates the measure of this liberty and boasts of it too much, for it is really only a little elbow-room which has been won; but his condition is not the constrained necessity of the savage man.

The civilized man has also developed power of intelligent reflection and rational choice. Leaving aside all controversies of the metaphysicians on this point, we may simply observe that the civilized man has the power to choose his ends in a higher degree than the savage possesses any such power, and he has also immeasurably extended the range of his activities, and so the possibilities of his choice. Liberty of disposition of his powers is worth, to the civilized man, incalculably more than to the savage.

It appears, then, so far, that liberty is the endowment of the civilized man, and that he needs only to go on and use it; but further study will show altogether different aspects of the matter.

There is no good on earth that comes gratuitously—there is always a price to be paid. The price of liberty is liberty. The civilized man is born into ties and bonds which either do not exist for the savage man, or are very light for him. The ties of family are arbitrarily strong on some of the middling grades of civilization; in the lowest grades they are generally very loose. Among civilized peoples they form bonds which create duties and obligations constraining liberty. The inheritance of civilization brings burdens and duties to those through whom it comes; it entails duties also to that civilized state, by whose institutions the inheritance is preserved and its descent guaranteed. The civilized man is born into a whole network of restraints which the savage does not know, or which are evidently the same restraints which we have already noticed in the case of the savage, only in an altered form. I cannot do what I want to do, because I must do what my duty to my parents and my country calls upon me to do—a duty which is not arbitrary or traditional, but rationally deduced from the relations into which I am born.

The liberty of the civilized man also costs discipline and education. Once more, we find that the civilized man has squirmed around into a new position, which makes things wear a little different aspect, but the real case is not essentially altered. The savage youth has his hard discipline to undergo, so that he may endure the hardships of savage life and fulfil the career of a savage man; our schoolboy, eager to escape his duty, is under the same constraint in a new form. The higher the attainments in civilization the heavier and longer this task of taking up and fitting upon ourselves our inheritance.

Another part of the cost of sharing in the products of civilization, including its liberty, is that we must enter into the organization of civilized society, and bear our part in its work of production. Civilization is built on capital; it is all the time using up capital; it cannot be maintained, unless the supply of capital is kept up. It is not a figure of speech to say that it is like the necessity of fuel if we want to keep up the speed of a railroad train, because the railroad train is really a case in point. To get a share in the products, we must do a share of the work, and when we do that our liberty is gone. The bigger the crowd, the more intense the struggle; the higher the organization, the more imperative its coercion on all its members. We cannot get our living unless we get into the organization; when, however, we once get into it, it is ruin to fall out, but if we stay in, we must submit. We must make contracts binding us to the other members of the organization, and we must keep them. But they fetter our liberty; we must spend our time at the bench, the counter, or the desk, and we cannot get away. Where is there any liberty, in the sense of unrestrained self-will, for the civilized man? The declaimers about the ills of civilization are not astray in their facts; the civilized man is the slave of the industrial organization, of contracts, of the market, of supply and demand—call it what you will, it is, after all, only the weight of existence, and liberty means for us just what it did for the savage; it means that we may maintain existence if we can.

Capital is necessary to civilized existence; so they tell us that we are nowadays the slaves of capital, because we cannot do what we want to do without it. We borrow it; then they say that we are the slaves of debt, or of "hard bargains," because we have made a contract which it is irksome to fulfil. We are the slaves of the market, because we cannot get a satisfactory price for our goods. We are the slaves of supply and demand, because we cannot get the wages we would like for our services. So we get in a rage and propose revolution, or, at least, state-intervention, because we supposed that we could do as we liked, and now we find that we cannot.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.