Freedom from versus Freedom to

By Abel Merawi

LiveFreeDieOctober 6, 2020 ( -- “Give me liberty, or give me death!” continues to be a symbol for revolutionaries. It was part of a speech made by the American author and politician, Patrick Henry in 1816. Evidently, this statement resonates throughout human history for depicting the spirit that ignited revolutions and rid of tyrants. I like to begin by making it clear that I do not intend to disparage the sacrifices of ‘freedom fighters’. However, it is my intention to put our conception of freedom under scrutiny and gain better understanding. Returning to the speech of Patrick Henry, we find the verb ‘give’ is integral to the whole spirit of the statement. When we say, ‘give me’ something we have shifted power from ourselves to someone else who is more powerful. In this particular case, both ‘liberty’ and ‘death’ belong in the hands of the ‘oppressor’ and the only power of the speaker is in asking for it. There is something gloomy about a statement that strips us of any individual or collective act in certifying our ‘liberty’ and even ‘death’. Another question could be raised regarding the purpose to which we want freedom. In the following section, I will attempt to answer these questions in light of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’, which are indispensable to a discourse on freedom.

To have a comprehensive understanding of the various issues raised here, it is wise to first define the difference between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. These definitions are reached after serious consideration of the ideas put forward by psychologists such as Rollo May and Erich Fromm and philosophers including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. ‘Freedom from’ represents the struggle we have in alleviating a certain undesirable or oppressing person, thing or idea. Rollo May in his book ‘Freedom and Destiny’ argues, “You can state what it is not or what you desire to get free from – which is why the phrase "freedom from" should never be disparaged. But it is difficult to designate what freedom is. Thus we always hear of the struggle for, the fight for freedom.” Simply put, in our quest for freedom we were constantly busy with the barriers, and so we were trying to get ‘freedom from’ the manifestations of oppression. This is a negative freedom since all our energy is spent on removing rather than creating. But there is another sort of freedom necessary after we do away with these obstacles.

When we rebel and confront our oppressors and finally achieve victory, we must have a vision of life. This is where we talk about ‘freedom to’, which is a pursuit of our aims, assuming we have them. Kierkegaard explains that freedom has an infinite quality which is forever expanding. For this reason, it is a positive freedom that focuses on creating possibilities. This is an expansion of vision, personal and collective goals that manifest our will to life. Such kind of freedom always presupposes choices. As Rollo May clearly exemplifies, “Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one's weight toward this response rather than that one.” The pause is the time we take to personally examine our choices and decide autonomously. It is in such choice that ‘freedom to’ is manifested. However, if any natural and human forces leave us with only one choice, we can’t talk about positive freedom. Therefore, it is rather in having two or more possibilities that ‘freedom to’ is exercised.

When we study history from this vantage point, we see that most of our struggles are made to be free from oppressors. Francis Fukuyama following the footsteps of Hegel argues that human beings are constantly progressing not because they know the ultimate goal of life but because they know what is not the goal. In the case of nations, most began with empires; ruled by kings and queens elected by God. When people destroyed dynasties, it is not because they have a clear vision of a better form of government but because they knew what they have is wrong. The end of empires was mostly followed by totalitarian rules, which were no better for the people. In the same manner, the downfall of dictators didn’t emanate from a better vision but from knowledge of authoritarian injustice. In the case of Ethiopia, I contend that we overthrow Emperor Haile Selassie not because we desired Derg regime. Once again, it wasn’t a desire for TPLF but hatred for Derg that made the next transition. The same old style of thinking has continued up until the present. To further explain, it is not because we know truth but because we know falsehood that we put an end to it. This means, every time we reject falsehood we are moving closer to the truth. But mere rejection will not do if we desire to find new values, which requires the Socratic tradition.

Socrates called himself the gadfly of Athens for stinging their consciousness with his questions about truth and justice. He boldly proclaimed that the unexamined life is unworthy of a human being. Socrates examined the status quo to reach higher understanding, which is found in the ‘reevaluation of values’ that Nietzsche reminds us. The Socratic tradition sets the three stages: thesis (existing value), antithesis (reexamining and negating) and synthesis (new value). Returning to our initial point, ‘freedom to’ is finding such synthesis. Let us now see how our struggle and victory exists in our modern world of liberal democracy.  

In the past we struggled against tyrants, but do we now have better politicians who utilize their freedom? Hitherto, we fought for individual rights, but do individuals currently use or even desire their freedom? The age old struggle for freedom of expression and artistic freedom has triumphed, but do we even has things worth expressing and do we have maximized artistic quality? I personally doubt our present freedom. It is ‘illusion of freedom’ as people no longer desire to live autonomously. Despite the absence of tyrants, present day politicians engage in empty rhetoric rather than meanings dialogues. The technological revolution, especially the internet, gives each individual the platform to exercise their freedom of expression. Alas! As we see in social medias, people are too busy idolizing themselves and sharing funny videos. We now have unlimited access to read the great literary works almost for free, but we find that laborious and prefer tracking the lives of celebrities. When artistic freedom is finally attained, most artists seem to have nothing worth saying. I hardly think there are better literary works now than were in the past. In a nutshell, in politics and every other realm, we have thesis and antithesis, but since we deprived ourselves of a ‘pause’ to reevaluate, we lacked the synthesis needed to create values.

I come to the finish line not because I said enough, but because continuing will lead to an endless discourse. We didn’t even mention the relation of freedom and responsibility which Sartre and other existentialists fondly express. Even more could be said about the self-alienation we are trapped in as we live in an age of populism that makes us desire approval more than autonomy. I hope enough is said for an article and will just end with a final remark. Unless we have a fruitful use of freedom that contributes for the betterment of humanity, freedom becomes an illusion. Freedom is not just avoidance of pain, but attainment of values that make life worth living.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:


Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview

Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia

The Underestimated Human Ignorance

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)

Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality

Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance

The System and the 'Criminal'

Trust as an Economic Force

Do You Trust the Government?

Our Online World

Fame Mistaken for Expertise

The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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