Human Nature and the Social Order

Chapter 12: Freedom

Charles Horton Cooley

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GOETHE remarks in his Autobiography that the word freedom has so fair a sound that we cannot do without it even though it designate an error. Certainly it is a word inseparable from our higher sentiments, and if, in its popular use at the present day, it has no precise meaning, there is so much the more reason why we should try to give it one, and to continue its use as a symbol of something that mankind cherishes and strives for.

The common notion of freedom is negative, that is, it is a notion of the absence of constraint. Starting with the popular individualistic view of things, the social order is thought of as something apart from, and more or less a hindrance to, a man's natural development. There is an assumption that an ordinary person is self-sufficient in most respects, and will do very well if he is only left alone. But there is, of course, no such thing as the absence of restraint, in the sense of social limitations; man has no existence apart from a social order, and can develop his personality only through the social order, and in the same degree that it is developed. A freedom consisting in

(423) the removal of limiting conditions is inconceivable. If the word is to have any definite meaning in sociology, it must therefore be separated from the idea of a fundamental opposition between society and the individual, and made to signify something that is both individual and social. To do this it is not necessary to do any great violence to accepted ideas of a practical sort; since it is rather in theory than in application that the popular view is objectionable. A sociological interpretation of freedom should take away nothing worth keeping from our traditional conception of it, and may add something in the way of breadth, clearness, and productiveness.

The definition of freedom naturally arising from the chapters that have gone before is perhaps this: that it is opportunity for right development, for development in accordance with the progressive ideal of life that we have in conscience. A child comes into the world with an outfit of vague tendencies, for all definite unfolding of which he is dependent upon social conditions. If cast away alone on a desert island he would, supposing that he succeeded in living at all, never attain a real humanity, would never know speech, or social sentiment, or any complex thought. On the other hand, if all his surroundings are from the first such as to favor the enlargement and enrichment of his life, he may attain the fullest development possible to him in the actual state of the world. In so far as the social conditions have this favoring action upon him he may be said to be free. And so every person, at every stage of his growth, is free or

(424) unfree in proportion as he does or does not find himself in the midst of conditions conducive to full and harmonious personal development. Thinking in this way we do not regard the individual as separable from the social order as a whole, but we do regard him as capable of occupying any one of an indefinite number of positions within that order, some of them more suitable to him than others.

No doubt there are elements of vagueness in this conception. What is full and harmonious personal development? What is the right, the opportunity to achieve which is freedom ? The possibilities of development are infinitely various, and unimaginable until they begin to be realized, so that it would appear that our notion gives us nothing definite to go by after all. This is largely true: development cannot be defined, either for the race or for individuals, but is and must remain an ideal, of which we can get only partial and shifting glimpses. In fact, we should cease to think of freedom as something definite and final, that can be grasped and held fast once for all, and learn to regard it as a line of advance, something progressively appearing out of the invisible and defining itself, like the forms of a mountain up which one is climbing in a mist. This vagueness and incompleteness are only what we meet in every direction when we attempt to define our ideals. What is progress? What is right? What is beauty? What is truth? The endeavor to produce unmistakable and final definitions of these things is now, I suppose, given up, and we have come to recognize that the good,

(425) in all its forms, is evolved rather than achieved, is a process rather than a state.

The best definition of freedom is perhaps nothing other than the most helpful way of thinking about it; and it seems to me that the most helpful way of thinking about it is to regard it in the light of the contrast between what a man is and what he might be, as our experience of life enables us to imagine the two states. Ideas of this sort are suggested by defining freedom as opportunity, and their tendency is to stimulate and direct practical endeavor. If the word helps us to realize, for instance, that it is possible to make healthy, intelligent, and hopeful children out of those that are now sickly, dull, and unhappy, so much the better. On the other hand, the definition of it as letting people alone, well enough suited, perhaps, to an overgoverned state of society, does not seem especially pertinent to our time and country.

We have always been taught by philosophy that the various forms of the good were merely different views of the same thing, and this idea is certainly applicable to such notions as those of freedom, progress, and right. Thus freedom may be regarded as merely the individual aspect of progress, the two being related as the individual and the social order wore asserted to be in the first chapter, and no more distinct or separable. If instead of contrasting what a particular man is with what he might be, we do the same for mankind as a whole, we have the notion of progress. Progress which does not involve liberation

(426) is evidently no progress at all; and, on the other hand, a freedom that is not part of the general onward movement of society is not free in the largest sense. Again, any practicable idea of freedom must connect it with some standard of right, in which, like opposing claims in a clearing-house, the divergent tendencies of each person, and of different persons, are disciplined and reconciled. The wrong is the unfree; it is that which tends, on the whole, to restrict personal development. It is no contribution to freedom to turn loose the insane or the criminal, or to allow children to run on the streets instead of going to school. The only test of all these things—of right, freedom, progress, and the like—is the instructed conscience; just as the only test of beauty is a trained aesthetic sense, which is a mental conclusion of much the same sort as conscience.

So far as discipline is concerned, freedom means not its absence but the use of higher and more rational forms as contrasted with those that are lower or less rational. A free discipline controls the individual by appealing to his reason and conscience, and therefore to his self-respect; while an unfree control works upon some lower phase of the mind, and so tends to degrade him. It is freedom to be disciplined in as rational a manner as you are fit for.

Thus freedom is relative to the particular persons and states who are to enjoy it, some individuals within any society, and some societies as wholes, being capable of a higher sort of response than others.


I can perceive, during my own lifetime, an actual growth of freedom in most of our institutions. Family discipline has become more a matter of persuasion and example, less one of mere authority and the rod. In the school, mechanical modes of teaching, enlivened by punishment, have given way to sympathy, interest, and emulation. In the church we are no longer coerced by dogma, forms, and the fear of Hell, but are persuaded through our intelligence, sympathy, and desire for service. Governments, on the whole, rely more upon education, investigation, and public opinion, less upon the military and police functions. In armies and navies harsh discipline and awe of rank are in part supplanted by appeals to patriotism, fellowship, and emulation, and by cultivating that spiritual condition known as morale. In prisons there is an increase of methods that, by appealing to intelligence, responsibility, and honor, tend to elevate rather than degrade the offender.

The growth of freedom is most questionable in the industrial system; but even here we have ideals, agitation, and experiments in the free participation of the individual in the process. These give us hope that the present organization—for the most part unfree— may gradually be liberalized.

The social order is antithetical to freedom only in so far as it is a bad one. Freedom can exist only in and through a social order, and must be increased by all the healthy growth of the latter. It is only in a large and complex social system that any advanced

(428) degree of it is possible, because nothing else can supply the multifarious opportunities by means of which all sorts of persons can work out a congenial development through the choice of influences.

In so far as we have freedom in the United States at the present time, in what does it consist? Evidently, it seems to me, in the access to a great number and variety of influences by whose progressive selection and assimilation a child may become, within vague limits set by the general state of our society, the best that he is naturally fitted to become. It consists, to begin with infancy, in a good family life, in intelligent nurture and training, adapted to the special traits of character which every child manifests from the first week of life. Then it involves good schooling, admitting the child through books and teachers to a rich selection from the accumulated influences of the best minds of the past. Free technical and professional education, so far as it exists, contributes to it, also the facility of travel, bringing him in contact with significant persons from all over the world; public libraries, magazines, good newspapers, and so on. Whatever enlarges his field of selection without permanently confusing him adds to his liberty. In fact, institutions—government, churches, industries, and the like—have properly no other function than to contribute to human freedom; and in so far as they fail, on the whole, to perform this function, they are wrong and need reconstruction.

Although a high degree of freedom can exist only through a complex social order, it by no means fol-

(429)-lows that every complex social order is free. On the contrary, it has more often been true in the past that very large and intricately organized states, like the Roman Empire, were constructed on a comparatively mechanical or unfree principle. And in our own tune a vast and complex empire, like Russia or China, may be less free than the simplest English-speaking colony. There are serious objections to identifying progress, as Herbert Spencer sometimes appears to do, with the mere differentiation and co-ordination of social functions. But the example of the United States, which is perhaps on the whole the most intricately differentiated and co-ordinated state that ever existed, shows that complexity is not inconsistent with freedom. To enter fully into this matter would require a more careful examination of the institutional aspect of life than I wish to undertake at present; but I hold that the possibility of organizing large and complex societies on a free principle depends upon the quickness and facility of communication, and so has come to exist only in recent times. The great states of earlier history were necessarily somewhat mechanical in structure.

It happens from time to time in every complex and active society, that certain persons feel the complexity and insistence as a tangle, and seek freedom in retirement, as Thoreau sought it at Walden Pond. They do not, however, in this manner escape from the social institutions of their time, nor do they really mean to do so; what they gain, if they are successful, is a saner relation to them. Thoreau in his hut re-

(430)-mained as truly a member of society, as dependent for suggestion upon his books, his friends, and his personal memories, and upon verbal expression for his sense of self, as did Emerson in Concord or Lowell in Cambridge; and I imagine that if he had cared to discuss the matter he would have admitted that this was the case. Indeed, the idea of Thoreau as a recluse was not, I think, his own idea, but has been attached to him by superficial observers of his life. Although he was a dissenter from the state and the church of his time, his career would have been impossible without those institutions, without Harvard College, for instance, which was a joint product of the two. He worked out his personal development through congenial influences selected from the life of his time, very much as others do. He simply had peculiar tendencies which he developed in a peculiar way, especially by avoiding a gregarious mode of life unsuited to his temperament. He was free through the social order, not outside of it, and the same may be said of Edward Fitzgerald and other seclusive spirits. No doubt the commonplace life of the day is a sort of slavery for many sensitive minds that have not, like these, the resolution to escape from it into a calmer and broader atmosphere.

Since freedom is not a fixed thing that can be grasped and held once for all, but a growth, any particular society, such as our own, always appears partly free and partly unfree. In so far as it favors, in every child, the development of his highest possibilities, it

(431) is free, but where it falls short of this it is not. So far as children are ill-nurtured or ill-taught, as family training is bad, the schools inefficient, the local government ill-administered, public libraries lacking, or private associations for various sorts of culture deficient, in so far the people are unfree. A child born in a slum, brought up in a demoralized family, and put at some confining and mentally deadening work when ten or twelve years old, is no more free to be healthy, wise, and moral than a Chinese child is free to read Shakespeare. Every social ill involves the enslavement of individuals.

This idea of freedom is quite in accord with a general, though vague, sentiment among us; it is an idea of fair play, of giving every one a chance; and nothing arouses more general and active indignation among our people than the belief that some one or some class is not getting a fair chance. There seems, however, to be too great complacency in the way in which the present state of things is interpreted, a tendency to assume that freedom has been achieved once for all by the Declaration of Independence and popular suffrage, and that little remains but to let each person realize the general blessing to the best of his ability. It is well to recognize that the freedom which we nominally worship is never more than partly achieved, and is every day threatened by new encroachments, that the right to vote is only one phase of it, and possibly, under present conditions, not the most important phase, and that we can maintain and increase

(432) it only by a sober and determined application of our best thought and endeavor. Those lines of Lowell's "Commemoration Ode" are always applicable:

"—the soft Ideal that we wooed
Confronts us fiercely, foe-beset, pursued,
And cries reproachful: Was it then my praise,
And not myself was loved? Prove now thy truth,
I claim of thee the promise of thy youth."

In our view of freedom we have a right to. survey all times and countries and from them form for our own social order an ideal condition, which shall offer to each individual all the encouragements to growth and culture that the world has ever or anywhere enjoyed. Any narrowness or lack of symmetry in life in general is reflected in the contraction or warping of personal development, and so constitutes a lack of freedom. The social order should not exaggerate one or a few aspects of human nature at the expense of others, but extend its invitations to all our higher tendencies. Thus the excessive preoccupation of the nineteenth century with material production and physical science may be regarded as a partial enslavement of the spiritual and aesthetic sides of humanity, from which we are now struggling to escape. The freedom of the future must, it would seem, call more and more for a various, rich, and tolerant environment, in which all sorts of persons may build themselves up by selective development. The day for any sort of dogmatism and coercive uniformity appears to be past, and it will be practicable to leave people

(433) more and more to control by a conscience reflecting the moral opinion of the group to which their inclination and capacity attach them.

The substitution of higher forms of control for lower, the offering more alternatives and trusting the mind to make a right selection, involves, of course, an increased moral strain upon individuals. Now this increase of moral strain is not in all cases exactly proportioned to the ability to bear it well; and when it is not well borne the effect upon character is more or less destructive, so that something in the way of degeneracy results.

Consequently every general increase of freedom is accompanied by some degeneracy, attributable to the same causes as the freedom. This is very plainly to be seen at the present time, which is one, on the whole, of rapid increase of freedom. Family life and the condition of women and children have been growing freer and better, but along with this we have the increase of divorce and of spoiled children. Democracy in the state has its own peculiar evils, as we all know; and in the church the decay of dogmatism and unreasoning faith, a moral advance on the whole, has nevertheless caused a good many moral failures. In much the same way the enfranchisement of the negroes is believed to have caused an increase of insanity among them, and the growth of suicide in all countries seems to be due in part to the strain of a more complex society. It is not true, exactly, that freedom itself causes degeneracy, because if one is subjected to

(434) more strain than is good for him his real freedom is rather contracted than enlarged, but it should rather be said that any movement which has increase of freedom for its general effect can never be so regulated as to have only this effect, but is sure to act upon some in an opposite manner.

Nor is it reasonable to sit back and say that this incidental demoralization is inevitable, a fixed price of progress. On the contrary, although it can never be altogether dispensed with, it can be indefinitely reduced, and every social institution or influence that tends to adapt the stress of civilization to the strength of the individual does reduce it in some measure.


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