Wednesday, 4 June 2008

How to be free: the idle idol

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been reading How to be Free, by editor of The Idler, Tom Hodgkinson.

Coming from an existentialist viewpoint (whereby there is no ultimate meaning and we construct our own way of living and meaning), Hodgkinson tackles a series of common things in society that he says enslave us and prevent us from experiencing our freedom. These handcuffs include forms of government, capitalism and what he calls 'mind-forg'd manacles' (a term borrowed from a poem by William Blake), certain ways of thinking and seeing life that prevent us from feeling free. What emerges, then, is a 'radical manifesto' for living. Hodgkinson would, for example, have us quit jobs that we find boring, realise that careerism often makes promises that it can't keep, refuse to vote in elections, abandon supermarket consumerism, ditch our watches and mobile phones and move to the countryside, amongst other recommendations.

What's appealing and quite fresh about this book is the way in which it identifies several of what I would call 'middle class idols': common ways of orientating one's life that ultimately make one end up feeling miserable. Chapter subjects include dealing with debt (which so often imprisons those who take it on), rejecting career and all its empty promises and even stopping moaning (all things which promise much but deliver little). What the book also positively captures is the way in which it seems many people have just forgotten how to have fun, so busy are they with so many other things. I was reminded again of such how good it is to laugh. In a positive way, Hodgkinson also implores readers not to always continually be so set on making things better for the future in some way that they fail to live in the present moment.

Overall, however, I found this book frustrating. Too often Hodgkinson seemed to have an unrealistically positive view of both human nature and pre-industrial Medieval life. This is combined with an ongoing rant against the effects of the Reformation and what he calls 'Puritanism'. Nearly all 'mind-forg'd manacles' are pinned onto the historical influence of Protestant theology. In actual fact, I suspect that much of the individualism and corresponding death of the corporate mindset has more to do with the French Revolution and the arisal of democracy than the rediscovery of the doctrines of justification by faith alone through grace alone.

Some of the chapters advocate downright selfishness. Although at one point Hodgkinson admits that freedom can be experienced in serving others, the overwhelming burden of the book advocates living for oneself rather than being burdened by the needs of others. In one bizarre chapter, Hodgkinson seems to say that the feeling of guilt that we might feel for hurting others is merely culturally constructed:

'A sign that guilt is not an innate emotion but something culturally produced can be found in the example of infidelity. A man who is unfaithful to his girlfriend may feel pangs of guilt. But when he has split up with that girlfriend, the guilt over the infidelity vanishes and, indeed, he may feel the opposite emotion - he might feel quite pleased with himself. It is obvious too that small children do not feel the burden of guilt. Guilt is something we learn to feel.'

Not surprisingly, then, Hodgkinson advocates that we merely insulate ourselves from feelings of guilt and learn to desensitise ourselves to them.

Perhaps, though, my major gripe with the book is that of the central premise: that of freedom. There's no doubt that Hodgkinson puts his finger on many aspects of contemporary society that cause anxiety and unnecessary stress. Yet, for Hodgkinson, to be 'free' is to 'do what we like all day long; do nothing all day long; muck about all day long'. To be free is to be 'idle' - to be able to maximise time where a person can do what they might choose to do. According to Hodgkinson, the Adam and Eve narrative illustrates a pre-industrial idyll, where humans neither work nor consume. He seems to think that the world's problems would shrink if only everyone did what they would if they had free choice. (In passing, he can only deal with the problem of suffering by saying 'tough luck' and exhorting readers to 'embrace melancholy'. One chapter is flatly entitled, 'Stop moaning; be merry' - not, perhaps, the most sensitive way of addressing a suffering person). And it's worth noting that even if many of the 'evils' mentioned are done away with - mortgage, boredom, career and so on - we'd still not feel free.

Whilst, then, there is much in the book that is positive and even corroborates with Biblical thinking (like not building one's life around one's career, and the responsible use of the environment), it jars with Biblical thought when it just sets up another idol in the place of others: that of idleness. Ultimately the 'freedom' that Hodgkinson envisages is too limited. Biblical freedom is not found in doing nothing, but it embraces every part of human life as part of the worship of the Creator for which we were made and renews us to our created purpose. Indeed, Scripture warns against every person doing as they choose (see Judges 21:25 for starters). Hodgkinson seems unaware of the consequences that might follow if people really did life by his philosophy. Instead, we experience freedom as we willingly and joyfully submit all parts of our lives to Christ. Ironically, then, it's in serving others in love that we experience the freedom for which we all - Tom Hodgkinson included - crave.

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