Knowledge to be applied in our lives: On Liberty(Mill, J.S. 1859)

Freedom and eccentricity:

‘while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living’. This maxim from Mill’s On Liberty is a valid reason for why freedom of speech should never be prohibited as long as it doesn’t transfigure into violent acts. However, there have been debates over whether hate speech in fact propels violence, So I won’t try and answer the question on absolute free speech today, but I will demonstrate the relationship between the precious commodity of eccentricity and freedom.

In this book, Mill coins the ‘harm principle’, which in layman’s terms means that I should be able to do whatever I want as long as I’m not harming anyone, or better put, “my fist ends at the tip of your nose”. Mill also thought that free speech was heavily dependent on where you say it, for example, shouting “BOMB!” in a theatre full of people knowing their isn’t a bomb is a violation of free speech, yet speech to offend should not be prohibited, as sometimes forms of truth are not golden and shiny but instead, cold and frosty. Again, I’m not arguing whether this is patently right as we might be more enmeshed than Mills thought, but that at least there are aspects of importance here that can be applicable to our lives.

Mill gives us the freedom to live experimentally, trying different forms of behaviour and expanding our societies scope for creativity and eccentricity. Most people are content to live a life relative conformity and that is fine, but the idea of being creative, eccentric and individual should always be offered to people if needed. If we all hesitated to criticise someone for wearing a strange hat, walking the dog at 1am or being unusually awkward, we would in fact live freer ourselves as the realms of possible experience would expand, potentially leading us to live more original and interesting lives. Although moral laws are crucial for our collective consciousness, we must admit that freedom of being is yet to fully develop. It is necessary for this to happen for progress as some of the most enlightened adepts of all disciplines and occupations such as Nietzsche, Ghandi, Da Vinci, Wilde, Diogenes were able go lives that defied conventionality. Specifically, Da Vinci as a kid would go out, observe and ask questions about existence such as ‘what is the colour of a woodpeckers tongue?’. Ghandi, coming from a wealthy family ended living in robes usually worn by the poor and Wilde would dress flamboyantly in a time when this was unheard of. It is our job then to preserve this landscape of possibilities for ourselves and for the people who need it the most. Freedom of choice and speech must be seen as ongoing experiments that will at times offend us, but we should reflect on feelings of offence and ask, is it my lack of freedom that makes me externalise this uncertainty?

Reasons to have meaning: Aeneas’ journey into the underworld. (The Aeneid. West, D. 1990)

At points in the Aeneid, the main protagonist Aeneas lacks resolve, he feels at the mercy of the Gods and his limbs have grown weak from the Journey. He can see neither where he left or where fate will lead him. It often seems as though Aeneas is in a perpetual battle between what he knows is right(founding Lavinium) and what is often most appealing, which is to retreat from the fated course of events. However, when he reaches the underworld and eventually leaves it he is a changed man full of resolve and vigour.

Meeting your mission/adversary:

When Aeneas reaches Italy he consults a Sibyl. The Sibyl tells him of many challenges and difficulties yet to come, she tells Aeneas of the second Achilles(A fearsome hero in the Trojan war) and wars that will leave the river Tiber teeming with blood. However, she does promise that the fate of Aeneas is to found a new city in Italy. Having set his mission after understanding what is required, he replies to the sibyl that he has lived this suffering all before. We can roughly compare this to a mission or goal that we could choose to adopt in our lives. Like Aeneas we could set goals for ourselves that fill us with a sense of nobility and prestige, A kin to the importance of Aeneas’ founding of early Rome. This can manifest in many forms, from attempting to reconcile family matters, to running a restaurant or perhaps running a country, each can have an individual purpose that adds meaning to the corner of the universe you inhabit, Aeneas Rome could be your mission.

Acceptance of suffering:

Notably, instead of fighting the suffering as he often does in the first four books, Aeneas eventually decides to integrate the innate suffering of the mission. This wise recognition of responsibility and fated events is a tremendously important point to use as a tool of knowledge. He gleefully accepts that founding Rome will lead to centuries of abundance, civility and piety so recognises that the suffering is worthwhile and in fact transformational, much of what Aristotle envisioned for his adoptees of Eudaimonia. This applies greatly to our lives. In comparison, the project of hedonism is one in which many work for unsuccessfully. Due to hedonisms very nature it does not lead to any tangible value but instead a series of transient feelings that can often leave us empty. Therefore, it is much better to find something that gives us a centrality of meaning in our lives that will bring suffering but more importantly the opportunity to transcend this and find fulfilment.

The symbolic meaning of the underworld:

Many myths speak of a hero journeying into the underworld and returning resolved. Literature professor Joseph Campbell conceptualises the idea of the Hero’s Journey which understands there to be a pattern in myth, the idea of going into the Unknown and death/re-birth are both examples of this. In Aeneas’ case he ventures to see his Father who offers him a revelation about the future greatness of Rome. We see this idea of re-birth replicated in every form of art, notably, the transformation of Gandalf the grey into the wiser Gandalf the white, the disintegration and then re-spawning of the Phoenix in Harry Potter. This shows a collective recognition that transformational suffering is a deeply meaningful event in ones life. Viktor Frankl, a Austrian Psychiatrist and the Grandfather of Logo-therapy endured months at a Nazi concentration camp and came to the realisation that what separated men who survived and those who didn’t was a felt sense of meaning in their lives that carried them through the darkest moments. Ultimately, what Aeneas and Frankl have in common is a realisation of a transcendent purpose that supersedes the difficulties faced along the Hero’s Journey. Interestingly enough, once Aeneas’ father prophesies the founding of Rome he is met with the option of leaving the underworld one of two ways, an easy exit through the gate of horns, or through the ivory gate which though the ‘powers of the underworld send false dreams up towards the heavens’. To me this symbolises the recognition of the utility of suffering, for if given the chance he would not take the easy exit without due respect for the underworld.