Tuesday, January 27, 2004

(Photo of Trinity Hall Jerwood Library, copyright A. Miller)

Freedom, student life and choices (Blogger Idol week 2)

Why are villains always more fun?

I mean, I like Richard in Richard III and Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (and come to that Jamie Delano or Neil Gaiman’s take on Lucifer), and I suspect most people do. (Alright, one murdered half his relatives and the other destroyed earthly Paradise, but they did it with panache, didn't they?)

Villains in fiction act without constraint - as if ties of family, society, duty and, well, other people in general just don’t matter. They speak their mind. They are the perfect rationally self-calculating individual of economic theory. They make the choices we don’t dare to.

And that’s the rub of it.

Freedom implies free will and freedom of choice. The paradox being that the majority of us will never exercise most of the choices we have available. (Despite teeth-grating irritation, for example, few people ever murder that one really insufferable flatmate.)

One thing I noticed on my Singapore trip was that while most locals supported Singapore’s gradual political liberalisation quite a few told me they thought now was not the time to push too far too fast. Political and social cohesion were strongly associated with past economic success, and in a weak global economy most didn’t want to rock the boat. Regardless of what I might think of the argument that civil liberties run counter to economic development, it illustrates a basic truth: most people would willingly trade a certain amount of “surplus freedom” for material security.

But the opposite is true as well. Greater wealth and possessions can make you less free.

Being free of material possessions and societal commitments is a fairly tricky business, but has it's own rewards, as Kundera kinda sorta said. Having under 80 kilograms of possessions and no job or firm plans come June is a really different experience for me: the man who doesn’t pack light and always knows what’s round the corner. The freedom to float and think is wonderfully liberating, but rather stressful at times.

Still, in a professional life that’s mostly been about slowly moving away from corporate to public law it’s been nice to remember how comfortable life can be on a student income. The majority of the world survives on considerably less than this, and many are happy. But I'm lucky I was offered the choice of a more materially lucrative career than the public-law career path I'm now (hopefully) on.

I guess that’s the other appealing thing about villains, right? They spurn the safe options. I mean, fictional heroes sometimes do that too, but there’s always so much hand-wringing.

And their dialogue is never as crisp.

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