Rules laid down by the state are ultimately essential to our freedomby Thomas Poole / May 23, 2020 / Leave a comment
There’s a scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio where a group of prisoners stumble into the light in a stolen moment out of the cells. “O what joy to breathe freely in the open air,” they murmur, “only here is life.” Empathy with the imprisoned requires little imaginative leap these days. We are all prisoners now. The restrictions on our liberties are substantial, the loss of freedoms to socialise, wander and work hitting bon viveur, Flâneur and workaholic alike.
Fidelio shares with other cultural artefacts from Solzhenitsyn to Shawshank Redemption the intuition that just as we appreciate electricity most when the power is out, so we might best understand freedom in its absence. Freedom, approached obliquely, emerges as a fragile thing, operating through three basic modes—memory, hope and finally release. Caught in suspended animation, we make extensive use of the capacity to cast our mind back and forward. Living vicariously through our past and future selves, we can be forgiven for giving the past a sepia tinge and the future a utopian gloss.
These psychic aspects of freedom are important when considering questions of law and liberty in lockdown conditions. An argument recycled in times of crisis is that as the need for power increases, the claims of liberty must recede—a variant of the old maxim “amidst the clash of arms, the laws are silent.” The argument’s chief flaw is that it misconstrues the correspondence between liberty and power as a zero-sum game. In reality the relationship between power and liberty is not simple, their interplay becoming more complex as we enter crisis mode.
When things go well, the state, though everywhere, can recede almost to the periphery of our field of vision. In lockdown we sense its presence everywhere, even at home. Focussed on a single task, it demands more of us than we are used to. We become unusually sensitive to its pronouncements, sensing it speak directly to us. Our reaction is ambivalent. Gratitude for an agency capable of coordinating sufficiently large-scale action combines with fear of a force potent enough to reorder every aspect of our lives—a state of mind Hobbes captured in the single word “awe.”
The gratitude we tend to…