It’s a byword. It’s a slogan. It’s a catchphrase. It’s what both hedonism and Christianity promise. Communist and democratic politicians promise it. Credit cards and casinos assure it. Evangelical ministers and prostitutes preach it. They all call it freedom. We all want it.
But they can’t all have it. So who does, and what do you need to do to get it?
The etymological origins of freedom may cast some light on this question. Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed language ancestor of the Indo-European family, had a word something like *priHós. While it originally signified “member of one’s own clan,” this developed into meaning “being a free man, not a serf,” which in turn came to mean “beloved,” as in one of the family.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Unsurprisingly, this word signifying a “beloved who is not in bondage” evolved to mean “free,” as a characteristic of those persons whom one loves. Latin preserves this double sense in liberi, which means either “children” or “free” depending on context. This created a lovely cloud of etymologies, including derivatives connoting “peace, love, and affection,” and thus “wife,” as in Old English’s freo, or the Middle Low German vrien “to take to wife.”
Joined to the suffix -dom (common to numerous Indo-European languages), signifying power, authority, and related to the concept of judgment (doom), we see that freedom has a rich history arising from the notion that power joined with emancipation gives one the ability to rule one’s life or to judge it.
The capacity to take power into one’s hands, unhindered by bondage but in the loving peace of a clan, and judge the outcome or fate of one’s life: such is the vista freedom opens up to us.
If I were to name one thing hindering people from this action today, it would be the smartphone. Let’s face it: more often than not, our phones are hindering our ability to choose, removing us from our families, and limiting our knowledge of our possible fates. If I were to name one thing hindering people from this action today, it would be the smartphone. Tweet This
Promising the freedom of unlimited knowledge and connectivity, smartphones bring enslavement instead. Like blinders on a horse, they focus the eyes of young and old into a space only a few inches wide. However much “virtual reality” flashes past, however wide the vistas compressed into these pixel prisons, they limit horizons while pretending to open them.
Far from making us better members of our clan, the smartphone makes us serfs to surfing, bound more surely—in our case, to algorithmic feeds—than those Indo-European prisoners of war who were the opposite of *priHós so many thousands of years ago.
Jon Haidt’s Substack After Babel has presented extensively researched articles on the effects of social media on the most recent generations, especially those now college-aged. The results are not good. Essentially, mental health declines in a direct proportion to how early in life someone starts using a phone and how much time they spend on it. The freedom of communication, of being able to “look up” anything at any time, or “link up” with anyone for any reason, is not freedom.
Similarly, British writer Freya India has recently documented the brainwashing that young women in particular experience on social media, where they become convinced that features of normal romance are red flags and that everyone needs meds and therapy. According to India, platforms like TikTok lead teenagers “to ever more extreme ideas, identities, and behaviors.”
Do we really want such a phony education? Do we want that for our children?
“All of us are jacked into this system,” Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook said. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”
Sometimes the best way to come to see the effects of something is to see what the effects of its absence are. Wyoming Catholic College’s entirely cell-phone-free school year is directly ordered to freeing young people from this “phony education” so they can devote themselves to real experiences, true thoughts, and beautiful encounters—with the people around them and with the stunning (and challenging) natural world.
Wyoming Catholic welcomed its first class in 2007. From the beginning, the college has consistently welcomed its freshmen in the same way: give up your phones, go camping, and then read books—not just any books, but the best books from viewpoints as diverse as those of Aristotle, Augustine, Machiavelli, Kant, Hegel, Einstein, and John Paul II.
Such an experience is difficult yet rewarding. Visitors are struck when they visit the college by how ready to engage in conversation the students are, or by how animated the classes are—the discussion or seminar method is primary, and no computers are allowed in class. All note-taking is by hand, all texts referenced from the physical books the students carry in their backpacks.
Instead of spending ten hours a day or more on their phones, Wyoming Catholic College students have the potential for true freedom. Rather than being prisoners of a culture shrinking into itself, they have the ability to look outward, to “choose their doom,” to be upright, unfettered, and loving human beings.
“Know thyself,” said the Delphic oracle. Socrates took this up as a key principle of philosophy. So did Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, where it morphed into “Know thyselfie.” Apps such as Facetune take the selfie further and further from the self.
At which point I would have to say: screen the screen from your life, and embark upon an education of freodom.