Early in Dostoevsky's novel Demons, Kirillov shoots himself at a café. Kirillov is not depressed, not ill, not unhappy with life. In fact, he very much thinks life is worth living, a spark of the Divine. "For three years, I have been searching for the attribute of my divinity," he exclaims, "and I have found it: the attribute of my divinity is -- self-will. That is all, by which I can show . . . my new fearsome freedom." Kirillov asserts his freedom -- proves he is truly free -- by killing himself solely because he wills it.
The novel's other characters think he's nuts, and I do, too. But Kirillov has something important to tell us about freedom on this fettered Independence Day.
Freedom is a strange word. Many of us utter it without giving half a thought what it really means, and how it is used. The first thing to remember is that freedom as an abstraction is meaningless. "Freedom" as an ethereal concept is downright dangerous. It can mean anything and everything, and be subject to equally abstract threats. Then we end up "fighting for freedom," deceived into thinking we have something to protect.
But to have something to protect there must really be something there. Freedom needs content to be meaningful. And only we can give freedom content. We give freedom content by how we use it, by what we set out to do in its name.
Freedom is a Janus-word. It faces in two directions, and which direction we are facing when we use it depends on the proposition that follows it, "to" or "from." Freedom from something is not the same as freedom to do something. Mixing up the two muddles how we think about it. During World War II, FDR proclaimed as fundamental Four Freedoms, two freedoms "to" and two freedoms "from:" Freedom to speak and to worship; freedom from want and from fear. Speech, worship, want and fear were the objects of the Four Freedoms. Those were worth fighting for, not freedom in the air.
Freedom, then, is not some icon to be revered in the abstract. It is a tool for living your life, and whether you use that tool well or badly depends not on the tool, but on you. The value of freedom depends on the purpose for which it is being asserted, which in turn depends on the moral character of who asserts it. That Kirillov used his newly discovered freedom to kill himself says very little about his freedom. It tells us only about Kirillov, and that's the point. It all comes back to us.
Freedom's gotten a lot of use during these troubled times. Some have asserted their freedom from lock-down orders by intimidating the public with open-carry assault weapons. Many others asserted their freedom of speech and assembly by making fools of themselves in public. On the other hand, many have used their freedom to sew masks, donate food, and break the peace by applauding health care workers at 7pm. And many, many have used their freedom to march for justice and responsible policing.
They all used the same freedom. But some came off better than others. That's why celebrating "freedom" is rather silly, like celebrating a screwdriver. Better to celebrate those who've used their freedom well, and conversely denigrate those who've used it poorly.
Here's a rule of thumb when assessing how well a freedom has been used. Note that FDR's two freedom "to"s assert the freedom to speak and worship, two acts that do no harm to any other person. Likewise, his freedom "from" want and fear do not assume that anyone else will be deprived of speech or worship, or put in want and fear as a result. The good use of freedom should not be a zero-sum game. My freedom to have something should not come at your expense. If it does, then I should rethink the "something" I would have.
So, to those who use their freedom to show-off their ability to avoid wearing masks while brandishing AK-47s, is that really the best way you can think of to use of your freedom? And if it is immoral to enslave others, then it's not a good use of freedom to assert it to perpetuate slavery. So much for the Confederacy, its flag, and the statues of its heroes.
Freedom is not one big thing, but the infinite number of things, some big and some small, that are done by it. This pandemic should teach us that we are, all of us, deluding ourselves if we think any one of us is immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. That delusion is "The Dream" that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in Between the World and Me, a Matrix-world of personal safety that whites think is real and Blacks know is not. Maybe we now all know we're on the same existential raft. If we do, we'll have many opportunities to use our freedoms in good and constructive ways.
Dostoevsky wrote much on the theme of freedom. He believed in it to his core, but he understood its contradictions for human beings. "[F]reedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together," his Grand Inquisitor tells his Visitor in The Brothers Karamazov, "for never, never will they be able to share among themselves. . . . [because] they are feeble, depraved, nonentities and rebels."
But Dostoevsky's real hero, Alyosha, fully answered the Grand Inquisitor merely by modelling what matters, those simple virtues we learned in kindergarten: Don't hurt others. Help them when you can. Share. Don't take more than you need. Hold hands crossing -- be it the street or your life. Freedom simply reflects our character when we invoke it. We aren't nearly good enough often enough. But we're good enough to appreciate it when we catch glimpses of freedom well-used, like the crack of lightning that illumines a dark night.
Aegis Frumento is a partner of Stern Tannenbaum & Bell, and co-heads the firm's Financial Markets Practice. Mr. Frumento represents persons and businesses in all aspects of commercial, corporate and securities matters and dispute resolution (including trials and arbitrations); SEC and FINRA regulated firms and persons on regulatory compliance issues and in SEC and FINRA enforcement investigations and proceedings; and senior executives of public corporations personal securities law and corporate governance matters. Mr. Frumento also represents clients in forming and registering broker-dealers and registered investment advisers, in developing compliance policies, procedures and controls, and in adopting proper disclosure documents. Those now include industry professionals looking to adapt blockchain technologies to finance and financial market enterprises.
Prior to joining the firm, Mr. Frumento was a managing director of Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, a partner and the head of the financial markets group of Duane Morris LLP, and the managing partner of Singer Frumento LLP.
He graduated from Harvard College in 1976 and New York University School of Law in 1979. Mr. Frumento is a frequent author and speaker on securities law issues, and is often quoted in the media on current securities law developments.
NOTE: The views expressed in this Guest Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BrokeAndBroker.com Blog.