Freedom is a cardinal issue in life. Political philosophers and philanthropic thinkers have debated alike on it. As a great sociological thinker and propagator of Fabian socialism, Shaw is found to treat this very issue in his radio-talk on freedom, delivered in 1935, which forms the present essay Freedom.
At the very beginning of his talk, Shaw raises the question-“What is a perfectly free person?” – and gives his views, no doubt provocative, on this. He starts with his definition of a free person. A free person is one who can act according to his liking, his own free will. He must have the freedom to do whatever he likes, go wherever he may feel inclined to and whenever he chooses to do this or that. This is the concept of an absolute freeman.
But does such a free person exist? Shaw dismisses the idea of such a free person categorically – “Well, there is no such person, and there never can be any such person.” He points out, too, why such a free person is not possible. He mentions man’s two types of slavery- his natural slavery to Nature and his unnatural slavery to man-human institutions-, which act as a bar to the enjoyment of absolute freedom.
Shaw first refers to man’s natural slavery, that which he is bound to do according to the law of nature. There are his basic Natural needs of food, sleep, housing, dress, and so on. Whether he likes or not, he must sleep for several hours. One cannot refuse to sleep to assert his or her freedom. Nature makes a man sleep for a specific portion – about the one-third of his time – every day. Here his exercise of absolute freedom is restricted. Again, man is bound to feel hungry and must spend some time, about a couple of hours, in eating and drinking. This, too, is a natural necessity that cannot be denied. There is also the demand of nature for washing, dressing and undressing human bodies, and that, too, involves some hours and restricts the exercise of freedom in some way.
Shaw, thus, strongly affirms that man remains a slave to his natural necessities for almost half the day, no matter whether may be fabulously rich or miserably poor – “For half the day we are slaves to necessities which we cannot shirk, whether we are monarchs with a thousand slaves or humble labourers with no servants but their wives.” Moreover, the wives have the additional natural slavery, and a heavy one, too, of child-bearing. This natural slavery to nature is a strong barrier to the exercise of freedom by any individual, man or woman.
Shaw next takes the other type of slavery- man’s enslavement to man. This is rather cruel slavery, which a person or a group of persons impose on an individual or a group of individuals. Of course, this slavery mostly results from man’s natural necessities. He requires food, water, clothes, beds, a house, and so on to meet his natural necessities of hunger, thirst, rest, accommodation, and so on.
Man’s food, drink, clothes, house and other necessary amenities are to be produced by human labour. In the remote past, man used to toil hard to meet all his necessities. But with the sophistication of human needs, the process of production has grown complex, and an individual can hardly secure his necessities by his efforts or labour. When a person cannot labour all by himself to meet his own needs, he must have to use the labour of others for the purpose. Shaw humorously terms this as the labour stolen from others.
Those who have power, authority, riches and position in society, compel others to work for them and take advantages of their misery and helplessness. This is how the exploitation of human labour goes on. And this means the curtailment of freedom. In the language of Shaw, the exploitation of the labour of a man, woman, or child is possible if the exploiter can get the upper hand of them by force or fraud or trickery of any sort. So human exploitation curtails human freedom.
Besides, in the civilised order of the modern world, there are rules and laws to regulate human conduct. One’s freedom is much restrained by the enforcement of laws and orders in the country. The intervention of police in case the exercise of freedom leads to violation of right or liberty of any person. All this involves human slavery to human authorities or institutions, and that is, without any doubt, the loss of freedom.
Two other human forces affect the exercise of absolute freedom. These are landlords and employers, both of whom exert immense influences on the conduct of any individual. They have the power to determine his or her way of living and thinking.
In such circumstances, absolute freedom is not at all possible in the human world. Man should not expect to be a free person. So Shaw declares emphatically -“Wipe out from your dreams of freedom the hope of being able to do as you please all the time.”