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Optimism, recognition, and overcoming Denial

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Carroll 1Gretel CarrollOn Human FreedomJohn GraysonMay 2004Optimism, recognition, and overcoming DenialMany claim that human beings live in bondage. They try to explain howhuman identity is socially constructed, and they insist each and every one of usactually has little control over our lives. But the truth of the matter is that all livingcreatures are free and autonomous beings, capable of making choices andmolding their own futures. Every situation that an individual lives through faceshim with decisions and choices—of which each gives him an experience that (atthe present concurrent moment) makes him feel autonomous. As Wittgensteinonce explained, even if we were to look up and see G-d as our puppeteer, wewould still have to respond and decide what move to make next. We would stillexperience free will. We live in a free world, where our thoughts and actions areat least experienced as being controlled by our own physical bodies. No oneelse has access to the inner workings and connections of our brains that makeour bodies move and shape our thoughts. Freedom is simply a description of thenatural order of the world. It is not something we can achieve. In order to befree, all we have to do is live and, while living, recognize our own liberty.The majority of those who claim to be in bondage do so feeling as slavesto society. However, I would claim they have not always felt that way, nor arethey destined to remain feeling as such. As children, we begin our lives bymaking choices that we do not spend too much time rationalizing. We live fairlyhappily, and freely, provided we have not been overly introduced to the hardshipsCarroll 2of the world. When young, many feel a sense of control over how they shapetheir own lives. The young are aware that their identities are in an avid processof forming, while those who have become disenchanted or jaded with thetroubles of the world have allowed themselves to feel formed. In other words, theyoung experience forming, while the old may feel they have been formed. Thosewho are not at least young at heart may not feel that their self-consciousnesses,their identities, are in progress—despite the fact they are always continually in astage of becoming. Those who allow their perception of their self-consciousnessto become static become trapped. They no longer have the ability to form newideas. They become slaves, put in bondage, not by society, but by their ownminds.We must wonder how so many people end up enslaved as such. G. W. F.Hegel provides us with one possible explanation in his Phenomenology of Mind.Hegel described how the process of recognizing others and ourselves leads to asituation of master and slave.Hegel described how individuals could only truly recognize their own self-consciousness, and thus their ability to act as autonomous agents, by realizingthat they exist for another consciousness. In Hegel’s words, “Self-consciousnessexists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exist for anotherconsciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized.’”1 Ibelieve that an individual might very well go through the same process when hebegins to understand society as a real being, with qualities (such as desires)1 Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Mind. “Independence of Self Consciousness.” London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1910, pg. 175.Carroll 3incredibly similar to that of humanity. Society has a self-consciousness—be thata collective consciousness or something entirely different that we cannotcomprehend.However, this recognition of self-consciousness and autonomy is rarelypeaceful. Hegel claims that individuals think of other individuals as problems fortheir own self-promotion and ability to remain autonomous. And thus, both sidesenter into a struggle to survive; “each aims at the destruction and death of theother.”2 The individuals have then entered into a relationship of master andslave, where the master is “merely recognized” and the slave “only recognizes.”3Society, when viewed as the lord, can overpower and drown out nearly allcharacteristics unique to the individual in bondage. The individual cannot helpbut recognize the existence of the society because he is immersed andsurrounded by it. These societal pressures are then transformed and manifestedin theory by social construction. And thus, it is not surprising that much ofhumanity feels enslaved.This strategy that the individual uses to survive, however, is fundamentallyflawed. The individual, as the slave, does not seem to realize that the position ofthe master is dependant upon the slave to maintain its position of power. Theslave is master of the master; or, as Hegel has said, “The master, however, whohas interposed the bondman between it and himself, thereby relates himselfmerely to the dependence of the thing.”4 This idea is even more relevant whenthinking about the individual’s relationship with society, because not only is the2 Hegel pg. 1793 Hegel pg. 1784 Hegel pg. 183Carroll 4society dependant upon the individual slaves, but society is also composed ofthese very same individuals. Then, in all actuality, the enslaved individual andthe enslaved society are slaves to none other but themselves. Thus, we mustconclude, that this dynamic of lordship and bondage that has ensued is merelysuperficial, and if either society or the individual (both lords of the other) canrealize and recognize their true positions their chains of bondage can be cut.Hegel’s theory continues, but this is where we must stop—for this is whereso many human beings stop and become stuck in their perceived places withinsociety. I would like to offer two solutions (Hegel would probably disagree withboth): we can either recognize our free position of power, or we can avoid thismaster and slave dynamic altogether.Simply recognizing our freedom may not be easy, particularly because wemay have lived our entire lives as if enslaved. And, since living is itself freedom,we probably will have sufficiently disguised freedom as bondage. Thus, we mustwork towards being optimistic and being hopeful. If we can nourish and care forthese sparks of life hidden and overshadowed within us, we will begin, slowly,


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