Freedom and Restraint


True freedom necessitates restraint.

This week’s episode explores Bach fugues, improvisational jazz, poetry, and a kid's cartoon to suggest the idea that true freedom necessitates restraint.

Students talked loudly about wanting to be free to dance, to make love, to be themselves. So do I. So we left literature and talked about the body, and I kept asking questions: what is it in you which gives you this freedom? Finally one of the young men, with great reluctance, pulled out the word: skeleton. It is our bones, our structure, which frees us tot dance, to make love. Without our structure we would be an imprisoned, amorphous, blob of flesh, incapable of response. The amoeba has a minimum of structure, but I doubt it it has much fun.
— Madeline L'Engle, Circle of Quiet

I am a mediocre pianist.

There’s no being nice about it, that’s the truth. I can play most pop songs by ear, and I can tumble my way through sheet music, but true mastery is not my own. Perhaps you would think this would make me a free pianist, unfettered as I am by the strictures of classical training. My fingers are not trained to the relentless matchings of scales and repetition (at least they haven’t been for a very long time), I do not hold my hands the right way. Am I freer than the classical pianist? Certainly not. The classical pianist is free to be excellent, to play a fugue with merciless precision, and to play the tired old chords of every third pop song you hear on the radio. She, the classical pianist, is more free than me. She knows the rules, and so she can break them. I am free only to be average, to plunk, to sound out an easy tune.

I think this is analogous to our situation in the modern world. We do not like to be given restraints of any kind or told that we must behave or live in a certain way. Ostensibly, this is because it curtails our freedom, makes us unable to do and live in any way we please. It makes us less free. But is this true?

what is freedom?

We think of freedom as lack of restraint. But lack of restraint leads to bondage. Think of Romans 6: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness…  When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” What Paul is arguing here is that freedom to sin is not freedom at all. A few centuries later, Saint Augustine would formulate his own version of this, arguing that true freedom is the ability to choose the good.

If we are only free to choose sin, we are like the mediocre pianist. We are really only free to choose the worst option. This means that to learn to be free, and truly free at that, we must learn to accept the reigns of restraint.

Today we’ll explore how restraint makes us free, and think about what this might mean for our moral, practical, and skllful lives.

  1. Musical — Counterpoint in Bach’s Fugues, with Joel Clarkson

Even the most infamous modern composers had to know the rules before they could break them. Their so called “freedom” from form, ultimately became a rigidly choreographed divergence from

2. Literary — “Bach Invention” by Jane Tyson Clement


Bach Invention

Jane Tyson Clement

If I could live as finished as this phrase,
no note too strong; each cadence purposed, clear,
the logic of the changing harmony
building and breaking to a major chord
strangely at home within a minor web
of music; if I could define my end,
from the beginning measures trace my course,
I might be old and prudent, shown by laws
how to devise a pattern for my days
and still be free, unhampered, yet refined.

He sat before the keys and turned the notes
into a fabric of design and peace;
here are the notes, the keys, my fingers free
to run them through their course, and here my mind
seeing his wisdom work within the chords,
finding his knowledge in the finished line.
I would be wise if such restraint were mine.

Smith College, Massachusetts

maxresdefault (4).jpg
I might be old and prudent, shown by laws
how to devise a pattern for my days
and still be free, unhampered, yet refined.
— Jane Tyson Clement

In this beautiful little poem, Jane expresses her desire to a life as beautiful as a Bach Invention.

What I love best about Jane Tyson Clement’s poetry, is her fervent desire to live a wise life, and to figure out how to do that in a world where all the options seem like bad options, or at least like complex options. In this poem, she expresses her desire to have a life as ordered and prudent as a Bach Invention. She uses many words which indicate restraint and discipline: purposed, logic, define, trace, prudent, law, pattern. And yet, ultimately, this structure is what gives a Bach invention such pleasure in its freedom, which she reflects with words and images like breaking, free, unhampered. The structure of the invention is not a march, but a dance.

It reminds me of a beautiful passage of scripture, Galatians 5:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

The christian life is learning to keep step with the spirit.

Another way to think of this is as a dance.

I love this image presented to us. It makes me think of Ceilidh dances in Scotland. These traditional dances are anything but restrained, and yet without restraint, without learning the rules, and without keeping step with your fellow dancers, your toes would be in terrible danger! I can speak from experience when I say that learning the rules of Scottish dancing gives one such a sense of pleasure and freedom, to be able to whirl and swirl without (too much!) fear of toenail annihilation.


good dancers do not step on each other’s toes because they know the dance.

by the way, we discussed JTC’s poetry on last week’s episode, in case you missed it.

How do we learn the art of the restraint that leads to freedom? This brings me to my final example…

3. Visual — Avatar the Last Airbender


The Avatar must learn to master all the elements.

In the imagined world of this show, there are four nations based on the four classical elements: fire, water, earth, and air. In each nation, some of the people can “bend” one of these elements (or control it). The Avatar is a special person who has power over all four elements, and acts as a mediator and peace keeper between the warring nations. When Aang (the new Avatar) comes to power, he must learn to master the four elements very quickly, to prevent the Fire Nation from taking over.

note: this series deals with eastern concepts like reincarnation and meditation, so for older kids with developed skills of discernment. It definitely opens up interesting conversations about world views! Overall, I think the series develops these ideas as a part of its story telling tool, it’s mythic logic, so while I may disagree with some of its philosophical conclusions, it’s beautifully and thoughtfully made.

  1. don’t discount the little things


Aang has to allow himself to look silly, to do the same, unimpressive techniques over and over again. If we want to learn the restraint that leads to freedom, we must not be too proud for small and repeated training.

2. Everybody needs a master


One of the key themes throughout the series is that everyone needs a master. You cannot learn to fire-bend without a fire-master. One of my favourite examples of this is the tea loving, humorous, and yet completely terrifying Uncle Iroh. This has been surprisingly true for me in my Phd, and I have been very thankful for my academia-bending master. I think this has many parallels to the Christian idea of discipleship— we learn through relationship and community. We cannot become virtuous on our own.

SUPRISE: Uncle Iroh is actually super jacked.

SUPRISE: Uncle Iroh is actually super jacked.

3. keep in step with the spirit


Though Aang must learn to master all of the elements, his true victory can only come through a triumph of character, a right orientation of his loves and loyalties. We learn restraint, we follow the step of the Spirit, so we can give ourselves in completeness for the people we love.

FYI: The Movie version is anathema. Don’t watch it.

Tune in next week for another episode!

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Joy Clarkson1 Comment