In which we learn about freedom by studying biology, watching Gladiator and listening to God.
There is much talk in the world today about freedoms and being able to do whatever you want. Yet these are often the words of those (I included) who grew up in peace. It is not the talk of soldiers who have suffered and died for freedom. They understand better than us the limits that make even our freedom possible. For they are living walls themselves. It is the talk of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because they have never witnessed and learned to fear the paralysis that comes through polio. It is the talk of adolescents who want to do it their way unaware of the sorrow hiding at the end of their way. It is the talk of the rich and the poor who forget that they are brothers and sisters and that the death of one inevitably causes the other to suffer and die. It is the talk of men and women ever struggling to break and create the rules of their relationship. But we do not have to look at this so abstractly. As Proverbs says to the lazy man to go to the ant and Jesus says to the anxious woman to look to the lillies and the birds, let us have a look the lowly cell.
Few things in your body demonstrate the dissipation of freedom in the absence of limits more fundamentally than the cell. Cells are found all over your body from the bacteria in your guts to the cells of your skin to the nerves that move your body and conduct your thoughts. Yet remarkably, these cells all look essentially similar. At a very basic level, a cell is some water mixed with chemicals surrounded by a wall. A cell then is a set of potential chemical reactions (freedoms) limited by a boundary (the cell wall). Not surprisingly, a sizable amount of what a cell does is aimed simply at maintaining the integrity of its wall and its internal connections with the wall. Why? Well. The chemical reactions (freedoms) within a cell cannot occur without a special environment. The environment outside a cell is too chaotic and bland (entropic). It has to make the environment inside the wall special so that it can live and move and do stuff.
If it doesn’t have a wall, the outside will become just like the inside. With the specialness of the inside gone, the cell can no longer perform any chemical reactions and it dies. In fact, very often, the first sign we have that a cell is dying is that it begins to either shrink or swell because its wall can no longer keep the outside out or the inside in. The cell swells up and bursts like a balloon filled too full. The outside dilutes the inside, the specialness is gone and so it dies. In the absence of the walls, the cell is no longer free because it is dead. Fundamentally and viscerally, our cells reflect that freedom without walls leads to death and with death, those freedoms end.
But that was a cell. Maybe too simplistic. Can the same rules that apply to a chemical and physical object be applied to complex human behavior on a personal or even national scale? We’ll ignore that humans are made up of these physical and chemical objects since perhaps complexity may arise from emergence. Let us turn to art then to see how this applies. Maximus Decimus Meridus, a character in the movie Gladiator, had a few famous quotes.
In speaking to the “wicked” emperor he proclaims himself by saying the following, “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” He gives his name, his roles, his relationships and his goals. In a few words, Maximus has done something few of us ever even think to do. He has defined his walls and boundaries. These are the boundaries that constrain the freedom of his character. He has shown us the chemicals within him driving him towards the inevitable goal of revenge. Only within these walls, with this set of chemicals and motivations intact and undiluted, can Maximus be Maximus. To become someone else, he would have to die
Had he suddenly decided to forgive the emperor, we would have been confused and booed and said, “he’s going out of character”. He is becoming chaotic, entropic and unconstrained. His walls are breaking down. He would for us essentially die as a character. Perhaps he would still bear the name Maximus but something outside of him would have entered into him and he would be changed, dead and no longer free in the way he was. Instead, he would be free to do other things. It is important then to note that freedoms can change but only and always through death. But this is another matter.
A City Without Walls
This notion of freedom within walls is prevalent through out the Bible. Eden became impossible when Adam and Eve left the constraints of God’s law
Now God gives insight and so we understand that without self control, a person will die the way a city without walls dies. But how does a city without walls die? He will be open to the outside and the elements. She will not be able to separate friend from enemy for only the walls and boundaries can do this. He will have no identity and will change his mind with every passing wind