We in the west take for granted so many advantages and opportunities that have been bequeathed to us. We accept without question our right to choose our location, our education, our occupations and amusements. Individually we need accept no one’s dictum contrary to our convictions; while collectively we make and reform our laws and governments. We find it hard to visualize a time when most of us would have been subject to the will of a powerful minority, leading a life of subservience from infancy till death in a narrow groove of activity determined by another, without knowledge, choice, dignity. For in feudal times only a minority born of free men could claim even the right to decide what would happen to their own physical persons.
The gradual emancipation from abject possession to freedom and equality required centuries to accomplish and the overthrow of many social systems. The privilege of walking freely on the earth was won only after a series of turbulent struggles, repeated bloodshed, and sturdy resistance to entrenched tyranny. But tremendous as was the step from physical slavery to physical freedom, it was a pale shadow of the real liberation which was taking place at the same time: breaking the intangible yet forcible barriers to the growth of the essential human part of us, our mind and spirit.
Are we worthy of the freedoms we possess? This inheritance has been earned not by ourselves but by others, entrusted to us for the benefit of our own and future generations. But, like a monetary trust, true freedom must be properly administered or it may dwindle away by petty pilfering. This takes place whenever there is an imposition of one person’s will upon another or a trivial kowtowing to popular opinion contrary to inner principle: such violations of our greatest possession are the corrosive agent that can lead to gross abuses and the ultimate loss of our human prerogative to think independently. And the need for independent thinking has never been more urgent. If we allow ourselves to slip unthinkingly into subservience to rigid lines of thought, especially when these lines would be contrary to our considered judgment, we lay ourselves open to a dictatorship of a more subtle order than the political domination we deplore but which exercises the same power over our individual lives.
In this field no simple course of conduct can be laid down which applies to all, nor can independent thinking be taught by one to another. It is a highly individual venture and we can expect to disagree with other viewpoints, while learning much by examining them and trying to discern their unique vision as it compares with our own. In this exchange each one stands to gain in understanding of his fellow human beings and their ideas, whether scientific, social, or religious. There is then no need for agreement on all points, no requirement to conform to general opinion, but access to all views will strengthen the individual’s own judgment and discernment.
We are emerging from the fog of centuries of repression into a clearer air where the accumulated riches of human thought are open to our view, where comparisons and reasoning carry no stigma, and where the only limit to our search for truth is set by our capacity. Freedom is not an end in itself, not a cherished conceit to be clutched and smothered. It is a means to govern ourselves in accord with our understanding of what is right and our aspirations constantly to improve the lot of all. This entails stringent self-vigilance, and anyone with a personal axe to grind debases an invaluable instrument. The climax to the surge for freedom which began centuries ago still lies before us: to include in time all human beings in its ever-widening circle of brotherhood.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)
The time is always right to do what is right. — Martin Luther King, Jr.