Was I Free?


I love this passage, which my wife pointed out this week while reading Plague Dogs, a novel by Richard Adams, and a sequel (of sorts) to Watership Down:

Freedom — that consuming goal above doubt or criticism, desired as moths desire the candle or emigrants the distant continent waiting to parch them in its deserts or drive them to madness in its bitter winters! Freedom, that land where rogues, at every corner, cozen with lies and promises the plucky sheep who judged it time to sack the shepherd! Unfurl your banner, Freedom, and call upon me with cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer and all kinds of music to fall down and worship you, and I will do so upon the instant, for who would wish to be cast into the fiery furnace of his neighbours’ contempt? I will come to you as a male spider to the female, as the explorer to the upper reaches of the great river upon which he knows he will die before ever he reaches the estuary. How should I dare refuse your beckoning, queen whose discarded lovers vanish by night, princess whose unsuccessful suitors die at sunset? Would to God we had never encountered you, goddess of thrombosis, insomnia, asthma, duodenal and migraine! For we are free — free to suffer every anguish of deliberation, of decisions which must be made upon suspect information and half-knowledge, every anguish of hindsight and regret, of failure, shame and responsibility for all that we have brought upon ourselves and others: free to struggle, to starve, to demand from all one last, supreme effort to reach where we long to be and, once there, to conclude that it is not, after all, the right place. For a great price obtained I this freedom, to wish to God I had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when I sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full. The tyrant wasn’t such a bad old bugger, and even in his arbitrary rages never killed as many as died in yesterday’s glorious battle for liberty. Will you return to him, then? Ah no, sweet Freedom, I will slave for you until I have forgotten the love that once consumed my being, until I am old and bitter and can no longer see the wood for the starved, dirty trees. Then I will curse you and die; and will you then concede that I may be accounted your loyal follower and a true creature of this Earth? And, Freedom, was I free?

I’ve read that passage several times over the last few days. It’s a good reminder that freedom must not be worshiped as an end in itself. Liberty is dangerous in a fallen world. But it’s better than the alternative.

Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of Liberty.
~ Thomas Jefferson

One comment on “Was I Free?

  1. Jonathan says:

    I’m reading this in my fifties again, after reading it in my teens. It is a striking passage. Rings true as ever.

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