I like Joel Madden. Lead singer for the band Good Charlotte, Joel was a mentor on the Australian version of The Voice TV program. His cheeky style and enthusiastic yet easygoing persona won him a lot of fans. I like Joel’s smash hit Last Night. It’s upbeat, cheeky, funny and infectious.
But I’m not sure I like the lyric. The song tells the story of meeting a stranger with whom the songwriter has a one night stand. Sung as a joyous anthem, the chorus belts out
Last night, can’t remember. What happened? Where’d we go? I woke up this morning. Where’s my car? Where’s my keys? Where’s my clothes? I feel my head still spinning but I’m doing alright Cause I think I just had the best night of my life. Last night, can’t remember. What happened? Did it happen? Last night
There was a time when events like those described in the song would have been met with a sense of shame, a feeling that I had let down myself and the woman in the song, that this wasn’t the person I want to be.
But in the modern era there is no shame, for we are free to do as we please, free from the constraints of others, of religion, of society. Freedom is to be able to do whatever takes my fancy.
But is that really freedom?
In Atheist Delusions, David Hart points out that in classical thought freedom is not being able to do whatever one wants, but being able to live well.
It should not be forgotten that the concept of freedom that most of us take for granted, that is arguably modernity’s central “idea”, has a history. In the more classical understanding of the matter, whether pagan or Christian, true freedom was understood as something inseparable from one’s nature: to be truly free, that is to say, was to be at liberty to realize one’s proper “essence” and so flourish as the kind of being one was.
This paints freedom in a very different light. For many classical thinkers Good Charlotte’s song represents the essence of unfreedom. For them freedom requires discipline and effort, a willingness to say no to being ruled by desire and instant gratification in favour of cultivating my true nature.
This of course begs the question of what our true nature is, of what it means to be truly human. If we are no more than animals driven by a Darwinian urge to reproduce, then I suppose Good Charlotte’s song represents freedom. If however we are more than that then the classicists may be right in describing the unbridled gratification of our urges as bondage.
Certainly I am glad to live in a society where I am free to make choices about my behaviour. One part of who we are is decision makers so it is good we are able to make our own choices. But this is not all there is to say. If the classicists are right I am only free when I exercise my choice in ways that help me live out my true self.
For my part I think our true essence is to image God. I am free when I am able to realise this and in bondage to some other force when I don’t. I may want to hold a grudge, ignore someone who needs a kind word, spend like a madman. When I do these things the classical writers would say I am in bondage to my sinful desires. True freedom requires the discipline, courage and conviction to say no to the easy path of being ruled by desire and saying yes to the development of Jesus-like character and virtue.
That makes true freedom something I need to keep working at. But in my limited experience it is immensely satisfying.
Photo by Henkster