Conditions of Freedom

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: 1st edition pub. 1950 by Faber & Faber, London. 106 pp. 3 chapters


Foreword by Principal R.C. Wallace


I. The Relativity of Freedom

II. Contemporary Conflicts

III. Freedom in Fellowship

1. Co-operation and Community

2. The Nature of Fellowship

This book originated as the Second Lectures of the Chancellor Dunning Trust, delivered at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, 1949. The third chapter has been expanded from the original lecture in order to clarify the argument without changing its form. It will be noted that the lectures were delivered a mere four years after the end of the Second World War, which had left much of the world in ruins, some of it in radioactive ruins. As men, many of whom, including Macmurray, remembered the slaughter and damage of the First World War surveyed the scene, there was much thought about how the world could be prevented from sliding into an even more destructive Third World War. They reflected upon how nations could co-operate with one another and resolve any conflicts of interest without resort to arms. Ideas of World Government and a World State were again in the air.

On starting to read this book there are two things which might bring the reader up short. The first is Macmurray’s rejection of ‘the ancient and widespread belief that the supreme good of human life is happiness.’ Rather, he asserted, ‘Freedom has a higher value than happiness; and this is what we recognise when we honour those who have been ready to sacrifice happiness, and even life itself, for freedom’s sake.’ He goes on to say that ‘freedom is the defining character of Man; the property which sets us apart from the rest of creation and fixes a gulf between us and the highest of the animals. This absolute freedom is simply our capacity to act — not to behave or react, but to form an intention and seek to realise it. To act is to be free.’ I suppose it might be less confusing to say that freedom is a more fundamental or basic value than happiness. As it could be said that agriculture satisfies a more basic need than philosophy. A starved man can’t philosophise! Similarly a man who can’t act can’t be truly happy. He can experience pleasure but that is not the same thing. An unhappy man can have his pleasures, as a contemporary philosopher once remarked in my hearing.

The second thing which might surprise the reader, especially one who sees Macmurray as a typical 1930’s ‘leftie’, is that he doesn’t see World Government as the solution to our problems. It might be forced upon us if we carry on as we are doing. And that would result in a loss of freedom for mankind. World Government would be an attempted political solution. And politics, although often necessary in what old-fashioned Christians would have called a fallen world, will not save us. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are often promised by politicians but these goods are not in their gift. They are religious or personal values, which no amount of political activity alone can produce.

Having staked his claim for the high position of freedom, Macmurray then goes on to discuss its relativity. In doing so he reminds us of an ancient insight which we have tended to forget: To increase his freedom a man might either increase his material resources or modify his desires. To achieve the former a man worked upon the world. To achieve the latter he worked upon himself. In the past the latter alternative was a main route taken by men to achieve freedom. Some desires were considered inordinate and men sought to extirpate, control or redirect them. In recent times we have tended to concentrate exclusively on the first alternative, no doubt inspired by the recent successes of science and technology. In his discussion of the nature of freedom Macmurray addresses the basic ethical question of. ‘Why can I not do as I please?’ (One simple answer being, ‘Because other people won’t let me.’) He discusses the role of Fear in limiting our freedom.

In his second chapter Macmurray surveys the then (1949) contemporary conflicts, giving much historical background in the process. He notes that ‘the religious conquest of fear seeks freedom through friendship. The political way, on the other hand, aims at freedom through justice.’ He discusses the relationship of politics to power; and the State’s use of force.

In his expanded third chapter Macmurray explores in some detail what is a dominant Macmurrian theme: the differences and relationship between what he dubs Society and Community.

It is natural for men to associate with one another. They do this for two main reasons: 1. to co-operate with one another in achieving a common aim or purpose; 2. for friendship. The first gives rise to Society and the second to Community. In Society men don’t relate to one another with the whole of themselves. They don’t even have to like one another. They often operate under rules designed to prevent ‘personalities’ from disrupting or derailing their procedures. There are often functional hierarchies. In Community, although people will, of course, co-operate with one another that is not the main purpose of their association. The main purpose is to enter into relationships with the whole of themselves and thus enjoy friendship and thus the opportunity to become more fully human. They meet on the basis of personal equality. Macmurray deals with the nature and effect of fear in human relationships. He sees our salvation in achieving World Community not a (political) World State. He discusses the relevance of Christianity, especially Jesus, to the solution of our problems. He discusses the vexed question of the role of pacifism in extending human fellowship.

As one becomes aware of Macmurray’s vision of the world’s predicament in 1949: with men finding it impossible to overcome mutual mistrust, using their science to invent and stockpile ever more terrible means of mutual destruction, facing the real risk of destruction of themselves and their planet; and then compares that vision with our present predicament, one realises, alas, that Macmurray’s vision is still fresh and relevant. Our world problems have developed much as he predicted they could. They are, if anything, more intensely globalised but that wouldn’t have surprised him. His book, although over 50 years old, is no outdated historical curiosity.

Select list of works by Macmurray dealing with related themes

1932 Freedom in the Modern World

1933 The Clue to History

1941 Challenge to the Churches

1961 Persons in Relation, Chaps. VI, IX