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The problem with freedom

21 December 2017

It is possible to reconcile individual liberty and social cohesion, argues Graham Tomlin

Natalie Oxford/PA

Symbol of separation: the Grenfell Tower fire

Symbol of separation: the Grenfell Tower fire

WHATEVER our personal circumstances, in our public life we will not look back at 2017 with much fondness. The ongoing Brexit debate, the continued gap between the wealthy and the poorest, and the politicisation of the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire have all seemed to make our society more divided than ever.

At Christmas, we are particularly aware of those living on their own: 7.7 million people live on their own in the UK, and the number is rising. Half the mealtimes taken are now taken alone; the distance between us seems to be getter larger; and our social life seems to be much more fragmented. How have we ended up this way?

All societies have to try to square a particularly tricky circle. On the one hand, they need to build good structures to allow for personal flourishing, so that children can grow into mature, confident adults, and individuals are free to develop their own character and personalities.

At the same time, they also need to encourage good social cohesion — a sense of a community that works well as a whole. The current state of play seems to suggest that we may be doing reasonably well at the first, but scoring much lower on the second. There is a reason for this. And it all comes down to our understanding of freedom.


FREEDOM is one of the few values that just about everyone holds dear. It is hard, these days, to make a case for restricting individual liberties. When someone simply asserts that he or she has a right to be free to do X (as long as X does not impinge anyone else’s freedom), it is almost impossible to argue against it — whatever X is.

This view of freedom is rooted in the libertarian tradition exemplified by thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill. The basic idea is that freedom is primarily individual freedom. It is the idea that people, as Locke put it, should be able to “order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit . . . without asking leave or depending on the will of any other man”.

Mill extended this into the idea that such freedom from all kinds of social restriction and expectation is essential for a healthy society, and that individuals should be free to do as they choose, as long as they do not harm other people, and do not impinge on the rights of others to exercise their own freedom within their own personal space. Today, this notion is so universal that we hardly even have to assert it to feel its force.

There is, however, a problem with this libertarian view, which — to judge by the state of modern Western societies — allows a certain level of personal liberty, but does not serve very well when it comes to social cohesion. According to this view of freedom, my neighbour, my wife, my children, my friends, or the state are understood as essentially a limitation or even a threat to the exercise of my freedom (hence the revolt of Brexit and Trump against an overweening state that is seen to impose alien EU laws, or threaten to deny the freedom to carry guns).

If freedom is my right to choose within my own personal space, as long as I do not tread on the toes of anyone else, this inevitably sets up the other person as someone who imposes a check on my ambitions, a boundary to my desires. Other people are also a possible source of incursion into my territory, and therefore potentially need to be resisted in case they tread on my dreams. The Other is a potential threat, and therefore someone essentially to be feared.

The result is a mentality that sets up relationships of mutual suspicion, individuals’ asserting their own right to choose, their precious independence from others — and, in turn, to the endemic isolation of individuals from each other, and of communities from other communities.

This is the very pattern that was revealed so painfully by the Grenfell Tower disaster. The awkward people from North Kensington might threaten the security and prosperity of the south, and the people of South Kensington were assumed to be indifferent to the welfare of the north. Personal freedom is set up against social co-operation in a kind of zero-sum game. You cannot really have both; so you have to work out an uneasy compromise.


THERE is, however, another tradition of thinking about freedom in our cultural past: the Christian notion of freedom. This is a line of thinking which goes back through thinkers such as Martin Luther, St Thomas Aquinas, and St Augustine, all the way to St Paul, and even Jesus himself.

Here, liberty is not freedom to do what I want, because “what I want” is so often the problem. Christian anthropology says that our desires are not always healthy; in fact, very often we desire what will ultimately destroy us, our relationships, and even our planet. Rather than freedom to do what we want, Christian freedom is the freedom from anything that would hold us back from becoming the people that we were meant to be — people whose default orientation is not towards self-interest, but love for God and for our neighbour.

We live in the age of the cult of the self. We customise everything to make it unique to ourselves — our phones, our homes, even our bodies. By contrast, Christian freedom is freedom from this obsession with ourselves, our image, wealth, looks, and prospects; freedom to be properly self-forgetful in love for our neighbour.

It is not so much freedom for myself as freedom from myself. It means freedom from destructive habits that we wish we could kick, such as greed, envy, lust, and anger; freedom from political systems that offer no incentives to care for one another, or an economy that sucks us into personal, self-centred consumption. It means freedom from the very things that stop our looking out for each other, and instead imprison us in endless self-regard.


HOW can we learn this radical kind of freedom: the freedom to love our neighbour? The paradox is that it begins not with trying hard to love the unlovable neighbours, but, instead, learning to view my neighbours differently — in relation to God. It means recognising them not primarily with regard to their own particularities (which I might find either attractive or repulsive), but, rather, first and foremost as people created and loved by God, and given to me as people to help me learn the crucial art of self-sacrificial love.

My neighbour becomes not a threat nor a limitation, but a gift — a gift to offer me the chance to practise this crucial virtue of love, and to grow in my ability to love that very neighbour, however awkward and difficult he or she may be.


THIS Christian account of freedom squares the circle of personal flourishing and social cohesion much better than the secular version. It says that we flourish best as human beings when we learn to forget our selves and learn to focus our attention on the needs of the person next to us. It breeds healthy individuals. At the same time, a society built on that basic shift creates a vast mutual network of interconnectedness: a vision of the elusive sense of “community” which we constantly talk about but find so hard to create.

Overcoming social division and reining back our polarised political discourse is no easy task. It involves radically revising our view of freedom: not a return to oppressive government and a controlling state, but the adoption of an entirely new way of thinking about liberty; not so much freedom to choose, as freedom to love.

Dr Graham Tomlin is the Bishop of Kensington, and the author of Bound to be Free: The paradox of freedom, published by Bloomsbury (£12.99; CT Bookshop £11.70).

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