Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence

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This can include having marks from your essay deducted, totally failing your essay or even being expelled from university. Post Comment. Modern man continues to ponder: What will I get out of life? What escapes his attention is the fundamental, yet forgotten question, What will life get out of me? Absorbed in the struggle for the emancipation of the individual we have concentrated our attention upon the idea of human rights and overlooked the importance of human obligations.

More and more the sense of commitment, which is so essential a component of human existence, was lost in the melting pot of conceit and sophistication. Oblivious to the fact of his receiving infinitely more than he is able to return, man began to consider his self as the only end. Caring only for his needs rather than for his being needed, he is hardly able to realize that rights are anything more than legalized interests. Needs are looked upon today as if they were holy, as if they contained the totality of existence.

Needs are our gods, and we toil and spare no effort to gratify them.


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Suppression of a desire is considered a sacrilege that must inevitably avenge itself in the form of some mental disorder. We worship not one but a whole pantheon of needs and have come to look upon moral and spiritual norms as nothing but personal desires in disguise. Specifically, need denotes the absence or shortage of something indispensable to the well-being of a person, evoking the urgent desire for satisfaction.

The term need is generally used in two ways: one denoting the actual lack, an objective condition, and the other denoting the awareness of such a lack.

Abraham Joshua Heschel - 1972

It is in the second sense, in which need is synonymous with interest, namely an unsatisfied capacity corresponding to an unrealized condition that the term is used here. Every human being is a cluster of needs, yet these needs are not the same in all men or unalterable in any one man. There is a fixed minimum of needs for all men, but no fixed maximum for any man.

Unlike animals, man is the playground for the unpredictable emergence and multiplication of needs and interests, some of which are indigenous to his nature, while others are induced by advertisement, fashion, envy, or come about as miscarriages of authentic needs. We usually fail to discern between authentic and artificial needs and, misjudging a whim for an aspiration, we are thrown into ugly tension. Most obsessions are the perpetuation of such misjudgments.

In fact, more people die in the epidemics of needs than in the epidemics of disease. Yet the stream unchecked may sweep away civilization itself, since the pressure of needs turned into aggressive interests is the constant cause of wars, and increases in direct proportion to technological progress. We cannot make our judgments, decisions, and directions for action dependent upon our needs.


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  4. The fact is that man who has found out so much about so many things knows neither his own heart nor his own voice. Many of the interests and needs we cherish are imposed on us by the conventions of society; they are not indigenous to our essence. While some of them are necessities, others, as I pointed out before, are fictitious, and adopted as a result of convention, advertisement, or sheer envy.

    But who knows his true needs?

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    How are we going to discern authentic from fictitious needs, necessities from make-believes? Having absorbed an enormous amount of needs and having been taught to cherish the high values, such as justice, liberty, faith, as private or national interests, we are beginning to wonder whether needs and interests should be relied upon.

    While it is true that there are interests which all men have in common, most of our private and national interests, as asserted in daily living, divide and antagonize rather than unite us. Interest is a subjective, dividing principle. It is the excitement of feeling, accompanying special attention paid to some object. But do we pay sufficient attention to the demands of universal justice? It is just because the power of interests is tyrannizing our lives, determining our views and actions, that we lose sight of the values that count most. Short is the way from need to greed. Evil conditions make us seethe with evil needs, with mad dreams.

    Can we afford to pursue all our innate needs, even our will for power?

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    In the tragic confusion of interests, in which every one of us is caught, no distinction seems to be as indispensable as the distinction between right and wrong interests. Yet the concepts of right and wrong, to be standards in our dealing with interests, cannot themselves be interests. Determined as they are by temperament, bias, background, and environment of every individual and group, needs are our problems rather than our norms. They are in need of, rather than the origins of, standards. He who sets out to employ the realities of life as means for satisfying his own desires will soon forfeit his freedom and be degraded to a mere tool.

    Acquiring things, he becomes enslaved to them; in subduing others, he loses his own soul. It is as if unchecked covetousness were double-faced; a sneer and subtle vengeance behind a captivating smile. We can ill afford to set up needs, an unknown, variable, vacillating, and eventually degrading factor, as a universal standard, as a supreme, abiding rule or pattern for living. We feel jailed in the confinement of personal needs. The more we indulge in satisfactions, the deeper is our feeling of oppressiveness.

    To be an iconoclast of idolized needs, to defy our own immoral interests, though they seem to be vital and have long been cherished, we must be able to say No to ourselves in the name of a higher Yes. Yet our minds are late, slow, and erratic. What can give us the power to curb the deference to wrong needs, to detect spiritual fallacies, to ward off false ideals, and to wrestle with inattentiveness to the unseemly and holy?

    This, indeed, is the purpose of our religious traditions: to keep alive the higher Yes as well as the power of man to say, Here I am ; to teach our minds to understand the true demand and to teach our conscience to be present. Too often we misunderstand the demand; too often the call goes forth, and history records our conscience as absent. Religion has adjusted itself to the modern temper by proclaiming that it too is the satisfaction of a need.

    This conception, which is surely diametrically opposed to the prophetic attitude, has richly contributed to the misunderstanding and sterilization of religious thinking. To define religion primarily as a quest for personal satisfaction, as the satisfaction of a human need, is to make of it a refined sort of magic. Did the thunderous voice at Sinai proclaim the ten Words in order to satisfy a need? The people felt a need for a graven image, but that need was condemned.

    The people were homesick for the fleshpots of Egypt. They said: Give us flesh. And the Lord gave them spirit, not only flesh. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Religion is spiritual effrontery. Its root is in our bitter sense of inadequacy, in a thirst which can only be stilled by greater thirst, in the embarrassment that we really do not care for God, in the discovery that our religious need is utterly feeble, that we do not feel any need for God. We must beware of converting needs into ends, interests into norms. The task is precisely the opposite: it is to convert ends into needs, to convert the divine commandment into a human concern.

    Religion is not a way of satisfying needs. It is an answer to the question: Who needs man? It is an awareness of being needed, of man being a need of God. It is a way of sanctifying the satisfaction of authentic needs. It is an inherent weakness of religion not to take offense at the segregation of God, to forget that the true sanctuary has no walls.

    Religion has often suffered from the tendency to become an end in itself, to seclude the holy, to become parochial, self-indulgent, self-seeking; as if the task were not to ennoble human nature but to enhance the power and beauty of its institutions or to enlarge the body of doctrines.

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    It has often done more to canonize prejudices than to wrestle for truth; to petrify the sacred than to sanctify the secular. Yet the task of religion is to be a challenge to the stabilization of values. The mind of the prophets was not religion-centered. They dwelt more on the affairs of the royal palace, on the ways and views of the courts of justice, than on the problems of the priestly rituals at the temple of Jerusalem. We today are shocked when informed about an increase in juvenile delinquency, or an increase in the number of crimes committed in our city.

    The normal amount of juvenile delinquency, the normal number of crimes does not cause us to be dismayed. At this very moment somewhere throughout the nation crimes are being committed. The sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as a typical ingredient of social dynamics. A single act of injustice—to us it is slight, to the prophet it is a disaster.

    Turning from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets, one may feel as if he were going down from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities.

    Insecurity of Freedom by Abraham Joshua Heschel

    Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, one is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. The prophets make so much ado about paltry things, employing the most excessive language in speaking about flimsy subjects. So what if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich?

    So what if some old women found pleasure and edification in worshiping the Queen of Heaven? Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation? Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely get indignant or overly excited. To the prophets a minor, commonplace sort of injustice assumes almost cosmic proportions.

    Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence

    They speak and act as if the sky were about to collapse because Israel had become unfaithful to God. How should one explain such moral and religious excitability, such extreme impetuosity? His rebuke is harsh and relentless. But if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to the deep callousness to evil which the prophet bewails? They drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils; but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph Amos The niggardliness of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures, is a fact which no subterfuge can elude.

    Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience. The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man.

    The prophets had disdain for those to whom God was comfort and security; to them God was a challenge, an incessant demand. He is compassion, but not a compromise; justice, but not inclemency. Tranquillity is unknown to the soul of a prophet. The miseries of the world give him no rest. While others are callous, and even callous to their callousness and unaware of their insensitivity, the prophets remain examples of supreme impatience with evil, distracted by neither might nor applause, by neither success nor beauty.

    They feel fiercely because they hear deeply. The weakness of many systems of moral philosophy is in their isolationism. The isolation of morality is an assumption that the good is unrelated to the morally neutral values. However, there is an interrelatedness between the moral and all other acts of man, whether in the realm of theory or in the realm of aesthetic or technical application, and the moral person must not be thought of as if he were a professional magician, moral in some situations and immoral in others.

    Consequently the moral problem cannot be solved as a moral problem. It must be dealt with as part of the total issue of man. The supreme problem is all of life, not good and evil. We cannot deal with morality unless we deal with all of man, the nature of existence, of doing, of meaning. The prophets tried to overcome the isolationism of religion. It is the prophets who teach us that the problem of living does not arise with the question of how to take care of the rascals, of how to prevent delinquency or hideous crimes.

    The problem of living begins with the realization of how we all blunder in dealing with our fellow men. The silent atrocities, the secret scandals, which no law can prevent, are the true seat of moral infection. The problem of living begins, in fact, in relation to our own selves, in the handling of our emotional functions, in the way we deal with envy, greed, and pride. What is first at stake in the life of man is not the fact of sin, of the wrong and corrupt, but the neutral acts, the needs.

    Our possessions pose no less a problem than our passions. The primary task, therefore, is not how to deal with the evil, but how to deal with the neutral, how to deal with needs. The central commandment is in relation to the person. But religion today has lost sight of the person. Religion has become an impersonal affair, an institutional loyalty.

    It survives on the level of activities rather than in the stillness of commitment. It has fallen victim to the belief that the real is only that which is capable of being registered by fact-finding surveys. By religion is meant what is done publicly rather than that which comes about in privacy. The chief virtue is social affiliation rather than conviction. Inwardness is ignored. The spirit has become a myth. Man treats himself as if he were created in the likeness of a machine rather than in the likeness of God.

    The body is his god, and its needs are his prophets.