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Beached Whale

Few would disagree that it is good to be free and that therefore we ought to be educating our children to live freely. Our disagreements lie in our conceptions of what freedom is – what it means to be free.

I recently surveyed my classes about the nature of freedom. One question was “How many of you believe that freedom is being able to do whatever you want?” The majority raised their hands. This notion of freedom, I think, prevails in American culture today: freedom is about throwing off constraints or limits on our desires, and choosing what we want.

But does this notion of freedom comport with reality? Is limitlessness, especially with respect to expression of our desires, the essence of freedom?

Consider an example from the natural world: a whale swimming in the ocean compared with a whale stranded on a beach. Water is a denser medium than air, and is thus more resistant to moving objects and restrictive. Yet in what medium is a whale the most free to move?

The answer is obvious. Let us consider why this is so. The whale possesses a form that is best suited to movement in an aqueous environment. The form of a thing are its essential characteristics. Think of it as an object’s fundamental design features that make it what it is and distinguish it from other things. The whale is more free when it is bound by limits that fit its form. Thus, a creature with a different form, say a cheetah, would be less free under the same environmental constraints.

We can generalize this illustration to say that freedom is not living without constraints, but living with right constraints, constraints that are appropriate to one’s form.

Form is not the only factor, though, that determines right constraints. According to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, to fully understand a thing, we must not only know its form, but also its “final cause.” The final cause, or telos, is its purpose: the end it is supposed to attain. In the classical Greek worldview everything had a telos.


Consider an example from the artificial world of transportation. A plane has a form that is suited for motion in the air; its freedom of motion is maximized in the sky. But this motion is also directed toward an end. If the plane were free to move randomly, it is not free to achieve its purpose, which is usually to reach a particular destination. A plane that cannot be directed toward this end would not be flown! Thus, its freedom to move also depends on its ability to accomplish the purpose for which it is made. The final cause is another constraint that enables its freedom.

Both of these examples are apt to humans, if one presupposes that humans have an essential nature, or form, and a purpose, or final cause (such presuppositions though are no longer self-evident in American culture and I would argue that the rejection or neglect of these lies at the heart of our educational malaise, but that is a much deeper topic for later). We are most free when we are living under the constraints of who we fundamentally are as human beings and when our choices are directed towards our given ends.

While this concept of freedom does not exclude choosing to act on one’s desires, it does impose qualifications on them. For if our desires direct us towards wrong ends, or are not fitting to our nature, then acting on them undermines freedom.

For further discussion (would love responses to any of these in your comments!):

  1. What characteristics of humans (both material and immaterial) are truly essential?
  2. What sort of moral constraints are fitting for these characteristics?
  3. Do human beings have a shared, objective purpose? How might differences over what this purpose is lead to different visions of what it means to live freely?