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Rules, Habits and Whims Published: Sunday, March 4, 2001 By: Dr. Manuel Angel Morales

Last week, my daughter Dalismar which is in seventh grade was studying and struggling with Homer`s The Iliad. She asked me, what was the book all about? I said, it was one of my favorite books because it is about the philosophy of freedom. Homer tells the story of Héctor, the Trojans` most celebrated warrior, feet planted firmly outside the walls of Troy, waiting for Achilles, the choleric champion of the Greeks. Héctor was well aware that Achilles is much stronger than he, and will probably kill him. He acts out of an obligation to defend his family and his fellow citizens against the ferocious assault. Héctor was a hero and a brave man. He went out to confront Achilles because he wished to do that. He could have said that he was ill or that he had no wish to go up against someone stronger than him. His people might call him a coward or ask him what other plan he had to deal with Achilles.

The point is that Héctor could refuse to be a hero. However much pressure other bring to bear on him, he could always choose not to do what he was suppose to do. So his gesture to go and fight Achilles had enormous merit. Héctor was free and for his decision we admire his courage. His natural programming made him want protection, shelter, and the help of others, all of which he found in the city of Troy. It was naturally for him to think affectionately of his wife with whom he had many pleasures, and his son to whom he felt strong biological ties. He felt part of Troy, sharing the language, its customs and traditions. He was brought up to be a good warrior at the service of his city, and that cowardice was something abhorrent, unworthy of a man.

Héctor could have said, forget the whole business. But he chose to fight and die for his country. What are the lessons? We are not free to choose what happens to us (being born on a certain day, to certain parents in a certain country; suffering from an illness, car accident; being ugly or handsome), but we are free to respond to what happen in such a way. Being free has nothing to do with omnipotence, which is getting what you want however impossible it may seem. Of course, the more ability we have, the better the results we can obtain with our freedom.

Octavio Paz said, in The Other Voice, that freedom is a stirring of conscience that causes us to utter, at certain moments, one of two monosyllables: Yes or No.

Erich Fromm, in Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, alerted us, that man`s life cannot be lived by repeating the patterns of his species; he must live. Human beings, contrary to animals, can be bored and be discontented, and can feel evicted from paradise… So what are the motives of our daily behaviors.

One kind of motive is that of rules, which tell people to do this or that. In other cases, is that you have always done things in the same way, almost without thinking, or that you see around you everyone else doing things in ways they are used to and we call these habits. In other cases, the motive can be lack of motive, just something you felt doing, as when you kicked the can and we call these whims. Rules and habits have one thing in common: they come from outside, and they impose themselves without asking your permission. Whims come from the inside and they spring up spontaneously, nobody orders them, nor you are trying to imitate others. If rules are not enough to resolve a new situation, habits are still less help.

Aristotle tackle these questions. A boat is carrying an important cargo from one part to another. In the midpassage, it is caught in a tremendous storm. The only way to save the boat and its crew, it seems, to jettison the cargo which is valuable and also a burden. The captain faces the following problem: should he jettison the cargo or risk ridding out the storm with it on the hold in the hope that the weather will improve and the boat hold out. If he abandons his cargo, he prefers not to take the risk, but it would be unfair to say he wants to abandon it. Given the stormy circumstances, however, he prefers saving his own life and the lives of his crew instead of saving his cargo, however valuable it may be. The storm is not a matter of choice, but the captain can choose how he acts in the face of danger…

Sometimes as human beings we are all in the same boat…

 


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