Spinoza believed that thoughts of personal mortality were rarely conducive to freedom: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”
Which is perhaps why, in times of war and pandemic, freedom tends to become the hot topic of the day.
In 2020 the most visible public reflection of this sort has been done by libertarians, of both the smart and the dumb sort.
Much of this has looked a lot like denial. As if the world’s sudden veering sharply away from near optimal conditions for their sort of planned existence, has somehow to be shouted down or confounded with dubious observations posing as useful data.
Like a lot of formalised freedoms in the western tradition, theirs kind of depends on everyone having more or less the same idea what freedom means, and so, in a sense, is not really freedom at all.
In my parents’ early days, when the world undoubtedly faced an even more extreme set of circumstances, the ones doing the high profile thinking were mostly a new lot called Existentialists, but the interwar years had seen a proliferation of navel-gazers, all generally caught off guard by the advent of WWII. The English surrealist poet David Gascoyne, living in Paris, sounded seriously pissed off in his diary: ‘What is so detestable about war is that it reduces the individual to complete insignificance.’
Sartre understood the moment when it hit him. In The Reprieve set during the months leading up to the conflagration, he spoke of “a hundred million free consciousnesses, each aware of walls, the glowing stump of a cigar, familiar faces, and each constructing its destiny on its own responsibility.”
The imminent possibility of death and reflections thereof might not mean an end to freedom, as Spinoza had warned, but they sure change some of the fundamentals. The essence of Sartre’s post-war thinking on the topic was encapsulated thus: “Freedom is what we do with what is done to us”.
And now, a new generation has learned that history is not merely something that we ‘witness’ on our screens. Sometimes it becomes the very incarnation of a set of challenges to our basic preconceptions and rather annoyingly elects to move in with us for a while.