Question your freedom

A few days ago I was riding a bicycle down the Berliner Prenzlauer Allee and slowed down behind a fellow cyclist whose calves inspired me. As he pedalled, I discerned a tattoo that read “Question your freedom”. I sensed this is an interesting phrase to chew on, but I wasn’t sure exactly why. I needed a few minutes to gather the courage and ask for a photograph of the cyclist’s shanks. He agreed, got off his bike, introduced himself as an Englishman – and I got my footage. What to do with it?

The obvious meaning of the phrase is that we would question the quality of our freedom. Are we “really” free? What is it to be free in a world profoundly enslaved to fossil fuels? Are we free when we tune into a nine to five rhythm that erodes our sense for true freedom? And isn’t freedom not just another word for a neuronal configuration in our brain, and for that reason of lesser quality than our tradition believed?

There is, however, another way to read the phrase. We could question what our freedom is worth. What does it mean to “have been free” for this brief moment of our existence, before returning to the vast space of infinite nothingness? Is individual freedom the highest attainable goal for a human being? Or is our sense of freedom merely an evolutionary device that makes us curious explorers, which in turn warrants a healthy, diversified gene pool?

A hackneyed philosophical gesture at this point: The closest thing to “true” freedom is precisely the fact that we can evaluate our very freedom and even explore the option of it being not the highest thing. How do we evaluate the author’s freedom to write these lines, etcetera. I think this is a rather boring and unfruitful avenue though.

Question your freedom. It seems to mean being aware of it, and this awareness arises when we are confronted with its limitations. To question your freedom is the prerequisite for living “in” freedom. It is the primordial act that initiates our social existence. It is the rite every generation has to reinvent and undergo. This sounds exotic, but it’s just age old dialectics wearing new clothes, hence in some sense self-delusion. The point is that we have to change these clothes, lest freedom wears off. Properly dosed, intentional self-delusion could safeguard freedom from inoculating itself against itself.

That’s enough. We need to question our freedom before we can question each other’s freedom. Finding ways to do so that make us mutually more free is what we’re doing down here. I think back in nostalgia about the time that I wrote a philosophical dissertation on freedom (in German, I kid you not), then say goodbye to the British cyclist and think of these unfinished notes.