Can one be free and selfish at the same time?
This is a question that sounds like an exam subject that you might find directed at philosophy students. Many philosophers have examined this issue, but only controversy has prevailed.
A seven-year-old tells his parents: “Let me do what I want!”
A teenager adds: “But leave me alone at the end, I’m free!”
A banker and a supermarket cashier agree: “We are prisoners of the consumer society, but we have no choice”.
A multi-recidivist prisoner sighs in his jail: “I just want to be on the other side of these bars”.
A Buddhist monk, after spending years in a monastery, confesses: “Man is a prisoner of his senses, he can only find freedom by abandoning his ego”.
A centenarian, on the verge of death, concludes: “Free at last!”
We all aspire to freedom, and yet we are forced to admit that we have limits, be they physical, intellectual, technological, financial, or dreamlike. And of course, not everyone is accepting of this situation. Some are happy with it, others are not. But we have all experienced, at one time or another, a state of freedom. A state where boundaries have blurred. Our ego is less pervasive in these moments. It fades, but does not disappear. So now three things remain: freedom, limits, and the ego. But the more permanent one is the ego.
The ego is impatient; it is puffed up with pride; it sometimes does dishonest things; it looks for the little beast; it wants to be right; it lies (almost) every day; it finds others unbearable. But it is not only flawed: it is gifted with a remarkable intelligence, a phenomenal ability to adapt, an inventive mind, a natural tendency to help others. One of its great weaknesses is its habit of feeling guilty over a simple yes or no.
If a person for whom I have respect says to me: “You are the obstacle to your own freedom”, this could make me feel uncomfortable and also guilty. But no, because in my opinion, the formula contains an oxymoron; you know, that figure of speech which aims to bring together two terms whose meaning is actually opposite, for example: ‘it is clearly obscure’.
According to most specialists, the ego cannot be free, since it is the product of a limited nature – if only by the law of gravity. For what is limited is not free – even if this limited nature turns out to be an infinitesimal part of a great and perhaps unlimited whole. In short, I am not an obstacle. I must be content with my limited being.
Then this same person, for whom I still have a lot of respect, says to me: “that’s good my friend, you have just taken a step towards freedom”. But then it gets tougher! This respectable person explains to me that the ego is not a static or inflexible whole. On the contrary. The Ego is in every way similar to the atoms that make up our body, or even our smartphone: a cluster of elementary particles gravitating around a central nucleus. We don’t really know exactly where the particles are at any given moment, we just know that they gravitate. Towards a core? A sort of spherical mini-magnet, more or less polarised. It could be a ball of antimatter, or worse, a black hole … we don’t know, we are still looking.
The ego can combine infinitely with other egos, and according to the environments in which it evolves, it can amplify, diminish, sublimate, or even disintegrate. All sorts of physio-chemical operations that nature loves and that never cease to surprise us.
It is in this treasure chamber, this field of possibilities, that a mischievous link has been woven between the ego and freedom.
Long live the oxymorons!
This flow of energy that links the ego and freedom, can be compared to an umbilical cord. Freedom, the great matrix of all existence, gives birth to the ego and nourishes it while it is in gestation. Then, when its eyes are opened to its own reality, in a moment of darker clarity, the cord is broken, severed with a cry of pain, giving birth to a being deprived of freedom.
Having been nourished by freedom throughout its growth in the matrix, here the sparks of humanity are in need of unlimitedness, weaned from a nectar whose origin they have already forgotten, eager as they are for maternal ‘milk’. Seeking its true nourishment, the wandering ego surrounds itself with limits. It goes to school, learns a trade, unites with another ego as if it were not self-sufficient, and adapts to life in society.
Its cluster of particles organize themselves as best they can, swirling aimlessly around the antimatter core, around its black hole. And this black hole speaks to it: “Are you satisfied with your life? Can you see anything else? Do you want anything else?”
What is your answer? Above all, don’t feel guilty. If you feel guilty, freedom will remain out of reach. Of course, you can decrease. The more you diminish, the more freedom grows in you. But beware! There are many ways to decrease. Some are attractive, but do they lead to freedom? Take cynicism, for example. Go to the web and read the Wikipedia entry on cynicism. Ah! Uncle Diogenes is not so ignorant when he says: “Only wisdom and virtue count, which can only be attained through freedom, a necessary step, but not an end in itself.”
So long grandpa Plato. “The wise and virtuous man can consider himself free, because he lives without vanity and in ataraxia”.
Yippee! Ataraxia equals oxymoron! I love x-words. One day I’ll write an article just with x-words. Ataraxia is a state of quietude of existence. It is when the ego has returned to freedom. When it has diminished to such an extent that, submerged by the tumultuous waves of the academic sea, it has uttered its last cry of hope, and forgetting to breathe, it has felt itself drawn into its black hole, into the pure simplicity of a sphere polarised towards the absolute neutral. Lao Tzu would say: “Take this and reject that! This is the way of TAO”.
And the respectable person, what would he say to me? He would say: “You see well. Don’t forget freedom, but don’t reject the ego. Don’t underestimate the unlimited, but don’t neglect the limits. There is a link between the two. Don’t let yourself be subjugated by freedom, nor locked up by limits. Every ego has its alter ego. Who can reach out for freedom but the ego. And the alter Ego is freedom! Take this, and reject that! Only you know who or what. It is your business. It is your business.