Published On: October 31, 2015

Democracy, Literature and Freedom

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By Gustavo Dalaqua

If we check a dictionary, we’ll find that the definition of freedom is essentially negative: to be free and not to be a prisoner, not to live in captivity, not to be subject to coercion, etc. In general terms, this corresponds to the negative sense of freedom that Isaiah Berlin defends in his famous essay, “The Two Concepts of Freedom.”

Yet, beyond not being a prisoner or captive, freedom also has a positive meaning, which denotes a presence and not an absence of something. As stated in Berlin’s essay, the positive concept of freedom refers to political participation as “self-realization.” In this perspective, we are free when everyone participates in politics, and furthermore, when we realize and develop an individuality that is our own, a self with desires and genuine impulses.

In the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, a positive concept of freedom looms heavily. For Mill, democracy is a system more befitting freedom because it permits everyone to develop her individual potentialities through political participation. Through democratic debate, more various points of view of a topic are expressed and analyzed.

Nelson Mandela



In truth, the way people from their own social circle think molds, in large part, their vision of the world. Mill was aware that the socio-cultural position of an individual imbues her with preconceptions that are difficult to abandon. These preconceptions diminish her freedom because they limit her capacity to imagine and access another reality. To soften the shock that comes with multiple perspectives, democratic deliberation extends the understanding an individual has about a specific topic. We don’t see only the ideas of the members of one social class, race or specific gender. In a democratic debate, we are urged to see things beyond our own biases. In the best instance, for someone to be moved to comprehend the very different reality of another, deliberative democracy leads to self-transformation. Ideally, I would be transformed into another. To be able to access multiple perspectives and break the barriers of the static and predictable – this is true freedom.


Additionally, the same experience of freedom can be observed in literature. As Susan Sontag expressed so well in her book Where the Stress Falls, to write and read literature involves inhabiting “other selves.” Literature gives us the chance to perceive the world through others’ eyes, to transform ourselves into others. By loosening the moorings that our own social background impresses on us, literature incites us to think freely and cultivate other selves. When I read, I open myself up to the adventure of thinking outside the realm of a white middle-class man, who is imbued with the preconceptions and typical ways of thinking from my position in the world. When I read, I feel dislocated by a new situation that alters my axis and modifies me. Literature and democracy constitute, therefore, two sides of the same experience of freedom: the freedom to be many.



Gustavo Dalaqua is from Curitiba and a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at USP in São Paulo.



{This essay was originally published in Portuguese in the journal RelevO and is reprinted by permission. It has been translated by Michael Rubin with the assistance of the author.}

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  1. I.M. Levin says:

    Thank you to M.Rubin for making it possible for me to read in English the view of freedom,as so beautifully stated by the author.

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