The Uneasy Balance Between Freedom and Responsibility

5 min read
Naci Yavuz/Shutterstock

Naci Yavuz/Shutterstock

I have been intrigued by the life and work of the Greek philosopher and scientist, Hypatia (Υπατία) of Alexandria for many years. Hypatia was one of the few notable Greek female scholars of classical antiquity. Not to say that such women did not exist—only that they were not permitted to demonstrate such intellectual capacity in public view. Hypatia was one of the exceptions and, in the end, was brutally murdered because of her passionate commitment to freedom of thought and expression, her boundless curiosity, her unique perspective on the meaning of life and the workings of the cosmos, and her unbridled influence on those around her. Such attributes made her a clear and present danger to the existing power structures (both religious and secular), which were grounded in fear and intolerance, and, sadly, Hypatia had to pay the ultimate price for speaking her own truth.

In many ways, it seems like not much has changed since 415 AD. Fear and intolerance continue to dominate the public stage, to say nothing about what goes on in the private sector. Unlike Hypatia, for example, I suspect that most managers today, be they in business or government, would be unwilling to die for what they believe in. The same can probably be said for most political leaders along with their counterparts on the higher rungs of the corporate ladder. And, unlike Hypatia, these same leaders and managers, both men and women, don’t appear able or willing to rely on the forces of reason and intuition when making decisions, even those that significantly impact their respective constituencies.

By not doing so and, importantly, by not also committing to sound ethical principles that require authenticity, transparency, and accountability, which are the staples of integrity and servant leadership, their actions in effect mirror those who lived in Greco-Roman Egypt—a no-win situation for everyone!

Moreover, instead of seeking higher ground to reach “common ground,” more often than not, the blame game (fueled again by fear and intolerance) comes into play. Any semblance of personal and collective responsibility goes out the window as finger-pointing takes over in the rush to “CYA” and stay out of the crosshairs of those with whom you may disagree and/or whom you do not understand. With no room for open and focused—that is, authentic—dialogue, the prospects for meaningful engagement and change are dim and become dimmer.1

Fast-forward from the time when Hypatia walked the halls of the famous Library of Alexandria to the present day. What can we observe that seems oddly familiar in style if not in substance? Are there instances where we can hear the blame game and finger-pointing at work—in other words, echoes of ancient times past?

Let’s consider a few possible examples of what I’m referring to here. How many of you have heard the current administration blame the intractable problems facing our country on the previous administration? Moreover, how often is “passing the buck” used by politicians and government officials as a strategy for engaging in power politics, both in domestic and international affairs? And what about the ongoing geopolitical challenges and humanitarian crises that seem to pop up around the planet as if political leaders are playing a futile “whack-a-mole” arcade game rather than seeking real solutions to the world’s most serious, albeit intractable, problems?

Do you remember anyone stepping up to the plate and assuming responsibility for such situations and moving to get them resolved quickly, efficiently, and effectively? Or do you recall, like I do, many days and weeks of questionable tactics on all sides and at all levels, pointing blame on the “other guy”? Isn’t there enough blame to go around for everyone to share? More importantly, isn’t it time for our leaders (and managers) to instill trust and confidence in their leadership by assuming responsibility, being accountable, and taking decisive action?

Let us not forget that with great liberty comes great responsibility.2 You can’t have one without the other. We can’t always have it “our way” and ignore the consequences of doing so. In this connection, true freedom in a democracy has its price, and it doesn’t come cheap. The Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl had experienced first-hand the horrors of totalitarianism. But he was also aware of the dangers of letting the pendulum swing too far in the other direction when he warned: “Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere license and arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”3 For this reason, he proposed that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of the United States should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast as a reminder to American citizens that there can be no real freedom without responsibility.

Even freedom of thought and expression, as Hypatia tragically found out, can be difficult to exercise. Striking a balance between freedom and responsibility is no easy task, especially in an era of political correctness and cancel culture. But let’s still try to learn from the past, including our ancient past, so that we may avoid the temptation to regress and simply repeat what, upon reflection, has not really served our highest good as a society or humanity. Let’s also strive to detect the meaning of life’s moments along the way so that we may build a more positive future—one that is no longer grounded primarily in fear and intolerance. As Dr. Frankl would say, “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”4

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