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Monthly articles (English and French) on the theme "Querying economic orthodoxy"

No. 15 - March 2007

Two Kinds of Freedom

ANGUS SIBLEY

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,

I have raised high the roofbeam of a house
So far from variation or quick change?that is not built of stone or brick or wood:
Why with the time do I not glance asidewhose floor is insight, rooftiles are true vows,
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?the deep foundation is the love of good,
  
Why write I still all one, ever the same,of mutual acknowledgements the walls,
And keep invention in a noted weed,discernment is the threshold of the door,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
that none may here give ear to counsel false,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?nor bear within the implements of war.
  
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,Here hang the portraits, and here hangs the chart
And you and love are still my argument;of faithful reading, plain as your lost hands,
So all my best is dressing old words new,and all the undissevered mind and heart
Spending again what is already spent:can murmur to the one that understands,
For as the sun is daily new and old,from the court's inner well flows without pause
So is my love still telling what is told.to rectify the names, and mend the laws.
  
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 76 (1609)Esther Cameron (1), The World's Last Rose (1995)

Ancient but still lively

As my regular readers will know, the main theme of this site is economics. Why then does this article begin with two poems? Read on, and you will discover…

The poems demonstrate that some poets today are still making use of the old, seemingly archaic form called the sonnet, writing to a rigid pattern unchanged since Shakespeare's day. Even when Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were first published in 1609, the pattern was far from new. It is generally reckoned that the earliest sonnets were written in the period 1220 - 1240 by a Sicilian notary, Giacomo da Lentini. The sonnet form was perfected by the great Florentine poet Petrarch in the fourteenth century, and has been used in many languages ever since.

Why should poets in our times shackle themselves to such an ancient, inflexible format? Most of them would not dream of doing so. Those that do, find it hard to get their work published. Many periodicals that publish new poems refuse to accept anything written in verse! Their editors believe that anything so formal and constrained as verse with a regular metrical pattern, even if it is blank verse without rhyme, is hopelessly out of date. As for the sonnet, which follows fixed conventions not only in its metre but in its rhymes - to publish such a thing in this day and age would be ridiculous!

They think like that because all through the last century the idea has been gaining ground that the best way to live is to be as free as possible from constraints. Poets, by and large, no longer accept the constraints of the traditional poetic forms. Architects want nothing to do with the classical rules of symmetry, proportion and ornament that governed Western architecture from the heyday of ancient Greece down to the nineteenth century. Few composers today stick to the traditional musical scale and harmony that has been the basis of European music from Palestrina to Puccini. Everyone wants to be 'free' from those ancient restrictions.

Two kinds of freedom

But what do we mean by 'free'? Freedom is a word that we use in countless ways. We talk of democratic freedom, national freedom, personal freedom, religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom as opposed to slavery, freedom from hunger, freedom from discrimination….

In particular, philosophers have distinguished between 'negative' and 'positive' freedoms. What does this mean? Here is the simplest explanation:

Negative freedom is freedom from constraint, that is, permission to do things;

Positive freedom is empowerment, that is, ability to do things.

A society that has maximum negative freedom is one in which everything is permitted unless it is expressly prohibited, and in which there are as few prohibitions (whether in law or in social convention) as possible. Nothing is ruled out unless it is pretty obviously criminal. In other words, a 'permissive society'.

A society that has maximum positive freedom is one whose arrangements enable people to do their best.

Is there a difference? At first sight, you might think not. Surely, if as little as possible is forbidden, then people have maximum power and opportunities to do their best, to exercise their abilities, to make the most of their lives. Negative and positive freedoms, it might seem, are two different descriptions of the same thing.

No! Life is not so simple. There is reason to think that constraints (prohibitions, if you like) can actually help people to do things better. Constraints can enhance ability; in other words, less negative freedom can mean more positive freedom. Poetry is a good example, which is why this article begins with two poems. The traditional 'rules' of poetic form are not, of course, legal or social prohibitions in the normal sense; they are established conventions which poets adopt because they find them useful, or because their readers expect poems to be so written.

If you adopt the convention of writing sonnets, then you are constrained by the rules of the sonnet form. You prohibit yourself from writing in other formats, or in no format. You could defy those fusty old rules, and the result might (or might not) be good poetry; but then you would not be writing sonnets.

The great poems of history

If you think of the poems that have gone down in history as the greatest, you will find that most of them have been written according to more or less rigid forms. Shakespeare used the sonnet form and various others for his poems; his plays are in blank verse, which has no rhymes but follows a strict metrical pattern. Virgil wrote in non-rhyming Latin verse which follows a rigid pattern based on 'quantities' (length of syllables); the rules of this type of verse are intricate indeed, and baffling when you first encounter them.

Another great Latin poet, Horace, wrote memorable odes in the equally complex and rigid Sapphic metre, a form invented by the Greek literary lady Sappho. She lived around 600 BC on the island of Lesbos, reputedly with an entourage of girl-friends, hence our word lesbian. Since Horace was born in 65 BC, the Sapphic form was already centuries old when Horace employed it, yet it remained in use by Latin poets into the Middle Ages.

So, like the sonnet, many of the established poetic forms have been used over many hundreds of years by countless writers, often in languages other than those of their origin. Why have these rigid formats, often complex and difficult, been so long-lasting and so widely employed? Surely because it has been found through experience that they actually help poets to create fine poetry. As the nineteenth-century French poet Baudelaire put it, because the form is constrictive, the idea emerges more intense.

In the nineteenth century, English poets such as Tennyson, who wrote in various formal styles, were widely read, famous and popular. The poets' profession no longer has that status. Poetry has become an esoteric art-form with little popular following. There is scant reason to think that abandonment of the old conventions in favour of "free verse" has led to the writing of better poetry.

The decline of convention

The disuse of poetic conventions is just one example of an omnipresent trend in the twentieth century, especially since 1960: the rejection of established rules, whether imposed by law, by social custom, by religion, by professional associations or trade unions, by literary or artistic convention….Along with the rules of the sonnet and the Sapphic, with the Ionic and Doric orders in architecture, with the musician's diatonic scale, out of the window have gone religious observance, traditional sexual morality, disciplined education, state regulation of bank credit and institutional investment and international trade; not to mention minor details such as dress codes and correct use of the English language.

All this is not merely a matter of rebellious behaviour by ordinary people keen to shake off old-fashioned regimentation. It has been justified, in all seriousness, by erudite philosophers, the intellectual apostles of 'negative freedom'; by futurist artists of all kinds; by libertarians, free-marketeers and anarcho-capitalists.

These theorists were so horrified by the dreadful behaviour of certain overpowerful, overbearing states in the twentieth century that they thought we would do better to fly to the opposite extreme of the minimal, near-powerless state.

But that does not work in practice. Francis Fukuyama in State Building (2) has pointed out that, while in the past the main threats to freedom came from overpowerful states (the nazis, fascists and communists), today the main threats come from weak, ineffective failed states. Instead of mighty states that terrorized and exploited their citizens, we have feeble states that are unable to prevent their citizens for terrorizing and exploiting each other.

No! to anarchy

It is naïve to imagine that anarchy is better than despotism. There is no substitute for the strong, effective, benevolent, peace-keeping state.

We see a fascinating analogy between poetry and politics. Just as poets seem to write better when they work within formal structures with, clear rules; so most people thrive better when they live under firm, but benevolent, government and robust social convention.

What goes on in artistic circles often presages what is to come in the wider world of society, politics and business. The composer Edgard Varèze, who claimed that the artist is never ahead of his time, but most people are far behind theirs, was disgustingly arrogant, but not entirely wrong. The breakdown of traditional disciplines in the arts, dating from the early twentieth century, foreshadowed the wider disruption of conventions in the Sixties and, a little later, the current obsession with laisser-faire economics.

So what happens on the poetry scene is of interest to everyone, not just to the rather small coterie of poets and their readers. What is, in fact, happening? Well, there is among poets in America, Europe and elsewhere quite a strong revival of 'formalism', the use of formal patterns like the sonnet or the sistina.

One may hope that this renewed interest in formal poetry - which dates roughly from the 1980s - foreshadows a wider recognition of the benefits of order and discipline, as against anarchy and permissiveness. Perhaps, too - here I touch very briefly on the main theme of this site - a recognition that the deregulated free market preached by libertarians and anarcho-capitalists is not the best way to manage (or not manage) today's global economy.

And if you want a little more on the economy, here are a few more words from Esther Cameron; to read the complete short poem, Superfluous People, from which they come, go to this link.

The market cannot ask what people need.

It can only ask what the people who have the money want.

Only community can ask what people need.

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References

1 This is sonnet 50 from The World's Last Rose: Sonnets for the Prince of Twilight, a sequence of 72 sonnets dedicated to the memory of the poet Paul Celan (1920 -1970). The full sequence is accessible on The Hypertexts (click on Featured Works in the left-hand column). The author, Esther Cameron, is editor of a poetry journal, The Neovictorian/Cochlea (PO Box 55164, Madison, Wisconsin 53705)

2 Francis Fukuyama, State Building (Cornell University Press, USA, 2004; Profile Books, London, 2004)