Liberty Within a Structure

Updated: Mar 31


"Golden Youth", Thomas Cooper Gotch (1854 - 1931), British

Human beings love their privacies and freedoms. One could argue that no matter how close a human being is to their neighbors, friends or family, no matter the amount of intimacy, closeness and companionship shared, very few, if any, humans enjoy a neighbor or a friend counting their bites, ordering them how things are done and telling them how to run their household. If one has lived long enough or lives in a culture that is traditional enough to have two or three generations under the same roof, they have probably heard many anecdotes about the conflicting relationships between members of the household - very often the conflicts are about feeling one's individual freedom has been violated. The desire to be with others, yet to remain separate, in own existence, is perhaps a natural inclination of most of the human beings.


The seductive element of individual freedom, once experienced even in a drop, is that it makes a human being feel boundless - suddenly there is a sense that there is nothing one cannot do, no mountain that one cannot conquer, no appetite that one cannot satisfy. When there is no social, legal or economic punishment or consequence for actions that "harm nobody" as it is often said, the seduction is even greater. Acting in any manner one desires, responding to any whim, seemingly becomes free of consequences and the promise for acting on them appears to be nothing but happiness and self realisation. Throughout history of humanity, there were countless institutions and structures that one could say, in one way or another, were sometimes restricting personal, individual liberties and sometimes violating boundaries where restriction or direction had taken form of oppression and tyranny. The seductive idea that a human being can exist without restrictions, that restrictions and structures are always, without exception oppressive, or at least, potentially oppressive, has brought about destruction of any objective structure and standard that connects individuals - individual is left alone, an isolated island, uprooted, speaking langauge that others do not understand, his or her life, bureaucratised. Many centuries ago in his "Republic", Plato has stated that: " “[I] don’t suppose that tyranny evolves from any constitution other than democracy — the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom.” Whether one takes exoteric interpretation of the said quote - that a tyrant only waits for the chaotic situation of absolute anarchy to step in and seize power, or esoteric interpretation - that in the utmost freedom of desires, whims and appetites, one becomes their slave, the pattern is observable in both realms.

Play, Sport and Dance

"The Forbbiden Swimming", Évariste Carpentier (1845 - 1922), Belgian

It would not be hard to find a significant number of quotes, be they work of saints of any religion, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic philosophers, popular life coaches and entrepreneurs or even famous novels such as "Dune", about importance of discipline and structure, about how they were their best companions on the path towards actual freedom, integrity and satisfaction. It is enough to do a simple search on the Internet to find countless interviews, books by Nikola Tesla in which he often claims, that his saintly lifestyle was crucial to his many inventions and inspiration. For this text, however, I have decided to take a lighter, softer example that can show how structures do not have to be oppressive and restrictive but rather how a balanced, organic and holistic structure is perhaps the only means for real self-expression and improvisation. The realm in which humans so often feel free but still operate within a structure is realm of games, sports dance and music. "Inside the playground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it "spoils the game", robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. (...) . Play casts a spell over us; it is "enchanting", "captivating". It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony. (...) Play is "tense", as we say. It is this element of tension and solution that governs all solitary games of skill and application such as puzzles, jig-saws, mosaic making, patience, target-shooting, and the more play bears the character of competition the more fervent it will be. (...) Though play as such is outside the range of good and bad, the element of tension imparts to it a certain ethical value in so far as it means a testing of the player's prowess: his courage, tenacity, resources and, last but not least, his spiritual powers-his "fairness"; because, despite his ardent desire to win, he must still stick to the rules of the game. (...) All play has its rules. They determine what "holds" in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt. (...) Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. (...) The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a "spoil-sport". The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. (...) He robs play of its illusion-a pregnant word which means literally "in-plai' (from inlusio, illudere or inludere) . (...) The little community does not enquire whether the spoil-sport is guilty of defection because he dares not enter into the game or because he is not allowed to. Rather, it does not recognize "not being allowed" and calls it "not daring". For it, the problem of obedience and conscience is no more than fear of punishment. The spoil-sport breaks the magic world, therefore he is a coward and must be ejected." - "Homo Ludens", Johan Huizinga Johan Huizinga, a Dutch linguist and cultural theorist had an aesthetic approach to history - art, spectacle and play, for him, are not just an accidental consequence of civilization but rather its important, sometimes, fundamental part. I have chosen an excerpt from his book "Homo Ludens", because it so beautifully illustrates how even in the children's play, there is an innate sense of structure, and it, like Huizinga suggests, reveals a profound and noble innate sense of rhythm. Children in their game, it is said here, do not have tolerance for the spoilsports. The world of game, of play is a tiny, enchanting microcosm in which the individuals communicate through rules they have created and agreed on. It is their creation and spoilsport is a deconstructionist without a vision - who takes more pleasure in destroying, in alienating than in creating and connecting.

"Indian Summer", Serge Sudeikin (1882 - 1946), Russian

Similar to what is attributed to children's play can be said of dance and sports. Every dancing style, be it ballet, tango or various folk dances, or every particular form of sport be it volleyball, basketball or another, have their own particular sense of rules and structure. To take part in any of those means taking part in their inner structure, the one who does not like the structure and rules, simply does not participate. The particular, specific rules may sometimes change but the main structure always holds, otherwise that specific dance form or sport form loses its characteristic. It is exactly a specific structure and rules that make salsa a different kind of dance than Slavic kolo/horo. What is significant, and often ignored is that despite the very strict structure and rules, there is a vast, enormous space and potential for improvisation and individual expression. Every big, important dancer has their individual style, recognisable signature step that one could recognize them for even in the darkest night. Similar could be said of athletes, who, while playing within a greater structure, become known for their specific style of game. Once the basic moves, rules and ways of a dance have been learned, there opens a large space for all kinds of individual differentiation. Without the structure and rules, there is no dance but rather random, aimless movements that hardly anybody would call a dance, without specific order of notes, there is no music but rather an uncomfortable noise, there is no sport but rather aimless, running and hitting, and without rules, there is no game, no play. Huizinga in the selected excerpt brings one more important element to the rules that apply to carefree and light world of games, sports and dance - and that is that the game (or sports and dance) requires specific skill. To acquire a skill is a difficult, time-consuming process that very often, at first glance, makes a human being want to give up. It is enough that a human sees a combination of basic waltz movements to think: "This is too hard. I cannot do it." Still a desire to participate in the game is sometimes stronger than fears and beliefs in own inadequacy. Opposite to superficial promise of boundless existence, the skills necessary to participate in a game, bring awareness to one's own limitation and the fact that he or she will have to learn certain set of skills to be part of this magical world of game. At the same time, those skills are often, so universal that almost every human being, although not with equal amount of excellence, can learn them. One may never be Sergei Polunin but one can learn certain steps that he does, and in that, feel both the tremendous ability and limitation of one's own not just body, but mind, will and determination. Like Huzinga suggests, it is not just the physical skill that is tested, but one's ethical integrity, one's will, strength and courage.


"A Harvest Festival", Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836 - 1912), Dutch

Fear of structures, rules, laws and their potentially puritan, violent, oppressive powers is so human that it is difficult to look at it without compassion. Perhaps, in each of us, there is a tiny chaotic Dionysian self sitting, feeling violated by rules and wanting free rein of blood, senses and perennial violence. But so very often, that chaotic self, once it has annihilated every ideal standard, every whisper of reason, every trace of order and rules, begins, in lack of ability to destroy externally, to destroy internally. It forces the will to bow before appetite of a pig and anger of a wolf until will is so powerless, so quiet that it appears non-existent. The only true freedom is, like Plato suggested in his Republic, when the Philosopher King rules the other realms of our inner constitution. Only when the Philosopher rules and directs the angry Ares and hungry Dionysus within us, does the real self expression happen - it is then an expression of the will and not a confusing chorus of pigs and wolves.

Links "Republic", Plato "Homo Ludens", Johan Huizinga

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