Freedom is For the Wise
Freedom has many definitions. It seems that for every person, the word has a different and unique form with endless possibilities. Marcuse and Butler both had feeling, or better yet thoughts, about what freedom is to them. Although the two authors have different styles of getting their message across to the reader, I feel that both have similar overall meanings of the word, idea, or thought of freedom.
First, Marcuse talks about freedom on multiple pages and does not limit freedom to a singular object, but more as a plural word with different aspects and angles. In his book One-Dimensional Man he comes right out of the gate and dives into the concept of freedom because it is such a key point in most of his critiques of our society and needed to be explained early. The closest Marcuse comes to actually saying his own definition comes more as what he thinks is wrong with it in our society. “Freedom of thought, speech, and conscience were – just as free enterprise, which they served to promote and protect – essentially critical ideas, designed to replace an obsolescent material and intellectual culture by a more productive and rational one” (Marcuse 1). He goes on to explain how if these so called freedoms are institutionalized then the outcome cancels out the premise (Marcuse 1). This means that Marcuse saw society leaning to a capitalistic, hard-working state that shied away from the thinkers and philosophers of the past. I did not see this the first time reading Marcuse, but after rereading some of the book I saw that when he italicizes a word or phrase it is a key moment in the text when trying to decipher what exactly he is trying to say. On page four Marcuse goes on to explain a major aspect of what he thinks freedom is or better yet how it works:
“Thus economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy – from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living. Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control” (Marcuse 4).
I was going to leave out this quote but Marcuse’s use of the word from was brought to my attention and now I see the importance of its usage. Marcuse knew exactly what he was doing when he italicizes from twice in a two sentence span. He wanted to strain the from as to say the economy or the politics are a binding force that can hinder people. Marcuse didn’t want the economy to dictate what he did or when he did it. He saw that in America and its free enterprise beliefs people were not free from the economy (Marcuse 4). The fact that in the present day in the normal household it is more uncommon to see one parent working as opposed to two. The economy influenced, if not forced this change in society and I believe Marcuse would agree with me. Also, the theory of Marcuse wanting to be free from politics goes hand and hand with the economy. Marcuse saw the choices in a democratic American system to be flawed. Even though, yes there is a choice, he disliked the idea of having two political parties electing one spokesman each to compete against one another. In this system can one be free from politics? I understand where Marcuse is coming from when he said “politics over which they have no effective control” (Marcuse 4). In America we do have a choice in picking the President because each citizen gets a vote. This can be considered by some as a false sense of security because do we really have control over the politics. The two political parties are in control, making the people chose between two people that are implanted as candidates by the political party itself. So in most cases, people vote of the political party that they have the least about of problems with. Marcuse would argue that this is not freedom from politics. He would mention the fact that even voters that would try to make a stand and vote for a candidate that was not the Republican or Democratic choice, would have no control of the outcome. This in my eyes and using Marcuse’s words is not freedom from politics. Along the lines of Marcuse having freedom being plural comes the idea of autonomy, which means the freedom of thought (Marcuse 1). As I explained earlier, Marcuse believes in that freedom is from things, but it can also be in turn to do something. A major aspect of this idea is being you. He talks about not getting sucked in the mass media and commercialism of the world. Overall, he wants to be influenced only to create his own ideas and thoughts not to be pressured or almost forced into making a decision like voting for the President. Being an individual is a major part of freedom for Marcuse and I believe that it can be argued that it is his summarizing thought when it comes to being free as a person.
Butler takes a different approach when getting her definition of freedom out to the reader. I feel that Butler’s actual beliefs are mainly portrayed by the character Lauren Olamina in the book Parable of the Sower. So, if this is the case Butler’s definition would mirror what Lauren thinks, does, and says throughout the story. Lauren writes down verses of what she has named Earthseed, and she is not sure what to call it; idea, philosophy, or religion. Usually the verses are found at the beginning of a new chapter and are bolded and placed above the actual text of the story. One that stuck out to me when trying to find verses that could be tied to Marcuse was in-between chapters. It lay on its own page and said;
“Intelligence is ongoing, individual adaptability. Adaptations that an intelligent species make over many generations of selective breeding and selective dying. Yet intelligence is demanding. If it is misdirected by accident or by intent, it can foster its own orgies of breeding and dying” (Butler 30).
Although I believe Butler’s main objective in this verse was to make people think about Lauren’s condition hyperempathy, which means she shares the pains of others around her, I feel it mirrors some of the same principals Marcuse talked about. Butler is saying that evolution is a part of life and change is always happening. In the quote she means that intelligence itself can be misdirected. This goes back to Marcuse’s want to be free and be your own person and not conform to the status quo of society. Intelligence can be influenced in a negative manner and it is the job of the true intelligent to not let that happen. In the Parable of the Sower a major theme is being your own person because of the journey Lauren encounters. To Lauren, freedom was gaining knowledge and surviving. Also, the wall that surrounds the community the Olaminas live, Lauren’s family, represents freedom. Outside the wall was what Lauren thought freedom meant, not being trapped and unable to spread her words of Earthseed. Staying inside meant she was a conformer to the society, to the country. The wall was a physical boundary from the unruly outside and nice community but also a mental block. The wall represented the lack of choice Lauren had or Marcuse would say that Lauren wanted or needed to be free from the wall. Just like the economy or politics, the wall persuaded the community into thinking they were safe and all would be well. Butler sneaks in her thoughts about politics with the use of Lauren’s father at the end of chapter three when her closing paragraph was, “Dad decided not to vote for Donner after all. He didn’t vote for anyone. He said politicians turned his stomach” (Butler 27). All be it, this is a much simpler attack on Democracy than Marcuse, and in essence it’s the same belief; that the choice is not free in any world. Living with a wall surrounding you in such a tight quarter has to give most of the people a false sense of security. This is how Zahra could honestly not see the attacks coming even though see once lived outside on the streets. She was not brain washed, just the sight and feeling of the wall made her and probably most of the community safe forever. This shows that Zahra was not truly intelligent or free. This was not the case with Lauren, or Butler if you believe that Lauren is Butler when it comes to beliefs and ideas as I do. Her freedom was outside and changing. “Change is God” (Butler). If freedom is change than does that mean freedom is God? I think this is what Butler was trying to say about freedom. The change is ongoing and so is the pursuit of freedom in a world of status quo and conformity. Lauren looks for freedom and does not settle for anything less. She does this by always trying to be her own person. She has the innate ability to block out the bad influences and create and be influenced by the good. Her goal is to not only survive, but to spread Earthseed to any and all. This is her means to an end and I think this is similar to Marcuse’s main ideas about being one’s self and free.
I see Parable of the Sower as a book that is about freedom, in the sense of being an adult and your own person. Others however see it differently. According to Hunter and Vedder the books main theme is freedom but not the type of freedom I talked about. They insist that the book is placed in the future but is really supposed to explain slavery in early America. They say that Bankole, an old man Lauren draws interest into during her voyage, said that the country has gone back 200 years (Hunter and Vedder 150). Seeing as the book is set in 2024-2027, 200 years ago would but us right in the middle of slavery in America. This being said I feel that the whole slavery theme is a footnote to the thoughts Butler was trying to get out about freedom. Its true Lauren, Butler, and Marcuse did not want to ever be slaves to anyone whether it is the economy, a plantation, or a wall. The thing is that freedom is being free from these types of things. Slavery is important and should not just be put to side but I think there is something bigger here. The point is that if a person can think and rid themselves from the bad influences then in turn they will be free from all. Another belief is that Marcuse’s definition of freedom, which I think has different viewing points are criticized by some scholars. “Marcuse never ceased believing in the utopian hopes of Marx’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom… (Schoenberg and Trudeau 170). I can see where the two are coming from saying that Marcuse’s ideology can come off as unrealistic but that is just the surface of his thoughts. Marcuse looked at the world in One-Dimensional Man with a critical eye questioning all and accepting nothing. This being said it is not that he versioned a world that was flawless, he just wanted people to see what freedom is and how it can be obtained. Not by working your ass off so your wife can wear the nicest clothes but to be able to think and avoid the terrible influences of the produces that only see society as a bunch of consumers and money.
Overall, I honestly feel that Octavia Butler and Herbert Marcuse at least had the similar views on the concept of freedom in the two books Parable of the Sower and One-Dimensional Man. Both tie into my own life. Butler talks about change over and over again. For me freedom is moving forward – it’s changing. Marcuse talks about moving towards an end and to do that change is needed. At times change can be scary and even seem impossible. It takes a person of true strength to change and become free from the lowest of lows and continue to bounce back after punch after punch. That’s what life is; a beat down. Not a fight because in a fight you will probably land a fist or two, but in life it is just about getting up. Waking up every day and getting out of bed with the outlook of trying to better you for today, tomorrow, and the future. This can’t be done without freedom. Both Marcuse and Butler agree that freedom is not easy to reach, but on the other hand they know it is possible if you put the time and effort into the act of changing and becoming free.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Brothers Books, 1993.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
Hunter, Jeffery and Vedder, Polly. “Octavia Butler (1947-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. volume 121. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. p71-152.
Schoenberg, Thomas J. and Trudeau, Lawrence J. “Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979).” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 207. Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008. p61-235.