The Tyranny of Freedom

There’s a sonnet by Charlotte Smith, opposing the constrictive societal expectations of her time, called “On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic” (perhaps my favorite title for a sonnet ever, but that’s beside the point).

Is there a solitary wretch who hies

To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,

And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes

Its distance from the waves that chide below;

Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs

Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,

With hoarse, half-uttered lamentation, lies

Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?

In moody sadness, on the giddy brink,

I see him more with envy than with fear;

He has no nice felicities that shrink

From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,

He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know

The depth or the duration of his woe.


It’s a powerful poem: her societal constraints are so confining, so limiting, so stifling, that she envies a madman. For one, he can’t fully understand the “depth or the duration of his woe,” and additionally, he is free to behold the world, even its horrors. The poem is full of longing. It’s hard to argue with this heart’s cry. It’s a plaintive pining for freedom.

That sonnet came to mind recently, actually, while hearing a sermon about just such a madman, one who terrified the locals: “He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:3-5).

It struck me as I listened that “He broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him” could almost be the text of a motivational meme these days, somewhat similar to “She believed she could, so she did.” Imagine it over a filtered picture of some dude lifting weights, or a backpacker on a mountaintop, and you can see it too, right?

It also illustrated to me very powerfully that while there is definitely a type of slavery that looks like the constrictive limitations some humans unjustly place on others, there is also a type of slavery that looks a lot like what many of us define as freedom today. We may break our shackles, but we’re still crying out, still hurting. And still in need of rescue.

Steve McAlpine illustrates the point in a more modern context:

The right to choose just about anything has never been so readily available, and yet it’s not working for many people. They’re pulling the levers, pushing the buttons, and coming up with record levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.

The reason seems clear. The goal or telos of choice in the West has been reduced to the right to choose. Period. And choice as a goal cannot bear any existential weight. What to choose, now that you have unfettered choice, seems almost beyond people. Meaning and purpose are largely absent, and choice-as-the-end-game collapses the weight of reality.

Wow. I see this. I feel this. My response is to quote W. B. Yeats from another poem I love: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

I’m not saying Charlotte Smith was wrong to long for freedom. The longing for freedom is right. I’m not saying that women’s options at her time were not unfairly, depressingly limited (they were, and are even today).

I am saying that what we often think of as freedom isn’t real freedom. I would hate to spend so much time and energy pursuing the real, true, good thing—freedom—but find that the whole time I was actually chasing an ugly counterfeit: namely, slavery to my own fickle passions.


I’ve been reading the first volume of Charlotte Mason (my thoughts here). Mason takes issue with the idea of the strong-willed child. When a child is throwing a tantrum or not giving in to authority, he or she is said to have a strong will. No, Mason argues: the problem is not a strong will, but an untrained one. In the name of a strong will—of developing freedom of the will—we are leaving children at the mercy of their whims and passions. A truer word for the condition, Mason says, is “willessness, if there were such a word” (321). An exemplary control of his will is not causing him to act this way. Slavery to his passions is.

Even in her era, we were confusing freedom and power with slavery.


Elisabeth Elliot has a different definition of freedom, one she convinced me of with a vivid metaphor:

The violinist in the orchestra has submitted first to the instructor. He obeys the rules laid down by him and handles his instrument accordingly. He submits then to the music as written by the composer, paying attention to the markings for dynamics as well as to notes, rests, and timing. . . . Is there any image of freedom and joy more exhilarating than a full orchestra, everybody sawing, tootling, pounding, strumming, blowing, clashing, and hammering away for all they are worth, under the direction of the immense energy and discipline of a man who knows every note of every instrument in every concerto and knows how to elicit that note exactly so that it will contribute most fully to the glory of the work as a whole? (35-36)

Compare that to a beginner on the violin. He saws without understanding. He can’t make the note match what he sees on the page. Without instruction, he could harm this beautiful instrument. Without being disciplined to practice, which is a constriction of his time, he will only be able to make the instrument screech and howl terribly. It would be frustrating, not fulfilling, to play a violin however he wanted because he wanted to be “free.” Freedom to pursue the violin as he sees fit, or freedom to watch Netflix rather than practice the hours per day it takes to become proficient, does not lead to freedom on the violin.

A human life is far more delicate and precious and complicated than a violin. If freedom on the violin takes such discipline, such submission to certain rules, such seeming limitations to freedom, might not the human life, as well?

To quote my husband in his as-yet-unpublished course on Christian engagement with the media, true freedom “is not the power to do whatever you want, but the power to do what you ought.” Recalling the lunatic, freedom is most definitely not the power to “break every shackle” so that no one can subdue us. True freedom is the freedom to limit myself, to say no to myself, to discipline myself, all in striving for a glory greater than myself. Otherwise, it’s just slavery to the worst tyrant of all: me.

Works Cited:

Elliot, Elisabeth. Discipline: The Glad Surrender. Revell, 2006.

Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Vol. 1. Simply Charlotte Mason, 2017.

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