As people gaze out from their windows and yearn for a more recognisable form of living, as the desire for the lifting of the national lockdown increases, as a greater number of persons become more unrecognisable due to the wearing of face masks, as the government of the UK seeks to increase national testing, tracking and tracing in its bid to turn back the tide of the damage being done by the Covid-19 virus, we come to realise the relevance of what one commentator has said: “The irony is that everyone’s liberation depends on their willingness to be incarcerated”
In the meantime, by some strange quirk of their national psychologies, we are informed that various polls show that, despite the enforced population lockdowns in each of their countries, well publicised leaders of a number of governments have experienced a spike in their popularity. This is true of Boris Johnson in the UK, Scott Morrison in Australia, and, most bewilderingly of all, Donald Trump in the USA.
One of the stranger aspects of the stories surrounding the worldwide response to the Covid-19 pandemic is, for this writer, the increasingly widespread demonstrations in the USA against the enforced government lockdown on freedom of movement for the citizens of that country. This lockdown is, of course, a contemporary feature of life in many countries and appears to be focused on economic and personal liberty concerns. It seems to me, however, that these demonstrations are misplaced.
Viktor Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. His family perished in a concentration camp near Dachau. Following his Holocaust experiences, Frankl published a memoir called Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). The philosopher Francis J. Ambrosio (Georgetown University, Washington, USA), has said that “this memoir can be understood as a translation of Socrates’ principle of the ‘care of the soul’ into the more contemporary idiom of the human search for meaning.” Frankl’s version of the “care of the soul” confronts the reader with “the necessity to make a decision about the role that freedom, responsibility and suffering play in the human search for meaning in life.”
In his memoir Viktor Frankl speaks of the difference between liberty and freedom.
He describes liberty as “the way in which human beings choose to deal with external, circumstantial situations.” It is a capacity for humans to select for themselves from different options – a bit like choosing from a restaurant menu. It is a “body” choice and, incidentally, it has echoes in the American Constitution. Lockdown is a reduction of our liberty; it limits our choices. Freedom, however, is more of a “spirit” (soul) choice. It has to do with choosing one’s attitude to any given set of circumstances. It has to do with thinking positively and then immersing oneself in these thoughts.
Freedom, “the capacity of each person to decide what his or her identity as a person will be”, can never be taken away. Viktor Frankl realised this in consequence of his experiences in the concentration camp.
In a particularly poignant passage in his memoir he states: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may be few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Freedom, in other words, is freedom of conscience.
Those protesting American citizens (perhaps to be numbered amongst those who gave Donald Trump his popularity spike), indeed, lockdown protesters anywhere, may also need to recognise that lockdown may take away one of their liberties, one of the menu delicacies; but it does not take away their freedom, it does not take away the menu. Freedom remains the property of the individual. It is that quality of the spirit that enables the individual “to develop a contagion of courage, good health and solidarity.” (Ben Okri)
The UK, as with other nations, faces an existential crisis, a crisis that may well define what the nation, what the family of nations, is to become.
Freedom imagines that a day will come again when Covid-19 pandemics and their like will no longer entrap and disable whole populations; when peoples’ attitudes, their freedom, will once again have full reign in determining their liberties and their view of the world in which we live.
Freedom imagines a time when humanity can redirect its attention to issues of climate change, civil rights, universal healthcare, justice and poverty; when human beings will no longer have to obediently listen to or abide by the prejudice and diktats of government officials, religious leaders and royal persons; when other voices will be heard and not just those of wealth and power.
Freedom imagines a future when body and soul will once again work in harmony. That is a future for which to look forward – in freedom.