Freedom from compulsion


This morning I lay in bed thinking, as you do, about T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton. The bit that was going through my head was this:

The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion

I started wondering what freedom from all compulsion would feel like. This was Sunday morning and I didn’t have to go to work. This, presumably, was freedom from the outer compulsion. Freedom from inner compulsion would probably be freedom from say, hunger or the need to go for a piss.

Eliot seems to make a distinction between outer compulsions (e.g. my job), inner compulsions (bodily functions, perhaps) and practical desires (wanting to have breakfast) on the one hand and, presumably, non-practical desires on the other. I can only guess that a non-practical desire is, say, listening to music. Personally I can’t really see the difference between wanting to go to the toilet, wanting to have breakfast and wanting to listen to music. All of these urges seem to rise up in me from nowhere and I derive pleasure from assuaging them all.

Pleasure is surely like scratching an itch. And being able to scratch all your itches strikes me as being the very essence of free will. What greater freedom could there be than this? However, I know that some people feel we can only have real freedom if we choose our urges in the first place. This strikes me as wanting to pull yourself up by your bootstraps or to give birth to yourself, an impossibility.

Even if it were possible for us to choose our compulsions and desires, or even to choose to have none, I don’t think this would make us any happier or freer than we presently are. We would feel just as much a victim of our lack of desires as we would of our desires. Freedom from all compulsions and desires would leave us at a loss as to what to do next. We would probably just lie in bed and let random thoughts drift through our heads until we finally expired, finished off by dehydration, hunger, infected bedsores and the sheer tedium of it all.


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