Freedom is a word rather like time, everyone thinks that they know what it means, but cannot define it. The foundation of freedom is knowledge and without knowledge no man can be free. That is why religious and secular dictators throughout history have burned and censored books, closed universities, imprisoned professors, and do so in some parts of the world today. Freedom is the ability to choose courses of action and to make decisions that are based on an objective knowledge of the world. Without such knowledge primitive subjective feelings, values, and goals, remain the primary determinants of human action.
Knowing this the unscrupulous manipulate the credulous.
True freedom is frightening to many, because it necessitates the individual breaking out of the cocoon of half-truths, ignorance, and ready-made opinions, in which most of humankind is happily and comfortably imprisoned. No man can be free until he seeks objective answers to three questions, namely, "Where am I"? What am I"? Why am I"?
For it is the ability to frame these questions that separates us from the rest of the animal world and little else. And, it is the approach to finding the answers that distinguishes the educated from the ignorant, and the cultured from the philistine. Any attempt to answer these questions must be made with ruthless determination, to avoid conclusions that are based on poor evidence or a desire to see the world as so many wish it to be, magical and made for us.
I say any attempt to answer these questions, because few people ever try to do so. Most prefer what Huxley called, "The sleep of every day living". Even the brilliant Voltaire wrote, "Through a quarter of my lifetime I was absolutely ignorant of the reasons for everything I saw and heard and felt, and I was merely a parrot, prompted by other parrots".
Knowledge and freedom are nowadays regarded as values, but the role of values in human behaviour has always been a difficult problem. As values may be expressed in poetry or in prose. I have selected examples of each in order to make a particular point.
Roaring Boys an Whores
While food has flavour and limbs are shapely
And hearts beat bravely to fiddle or drum
Our proper employment is reckless enjoyment
For soon the noiseless night will come.
Our species has been favoured on this planet, although we have not always been good caretakers of our globes resources. Our stay here in the spaces of geological time has been brief. No one can tell us our business. But, I think it is something more than to consume as much as we can and then blow the place up.
Undoubtedly, Auden’s poem represents the viewpoint of many, right across the age and social spectrum. Whilst Thompson’s prose suggests a different attitude to life is desirable. Both viewpoints are tenable, but whilst the poem contains only one fact, the fact of death, the prose incorporates a number of scientific statements.
What I wish to suggest is that values may be obtained from knowledge and the more comprehensive our knowledge, the more worthwhile are our values likely to be. The great Dr Bronowski wrote, "I believe that science can create values and will create them, precisely as literature does by looking into the human personality, by discovering what divides it, and what cements it".
Science, is not, Technology.
Science is a Latin word meaning knowledge and one of Bronowski’s great achievements was to show the unity of art, and science. Can a few lines of poetry contain as much knowledge as a prose passage, and thus, suggest worthwhile values? You may consider that Wordsworth accomplished this difficult feat when he wrote.
The world is too much with us, late; and soon.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,
Little we see in nature that is ours,
We have given our hearts away…..
Look around you. I think Wordsworth’s poem contains a number of facts, yes facts, about human behaviour and he uses his knowledge to create values. The essential message of Thompson’s prose and Wordsworth’s poem is that we are of the evolving animal world and that this is a fact, which individually and collectively, we prefer to ignore. We pretend we are god-like creatures playing with nature, not subject to her inexorable law, smart organisms survive and those which fail to make sense of their environment, perish. We must understand ourselves and our place in nature or die.
There is no choice about this. The only choice is to recognise it, and to do so in time!