In his essay, “Learning to Read,” Malcolm X writes about his incarceration and how, through his discovering a love of books and knowledge, he ultimately becomes a powerful civil rights activist. Malcolm X exclaims upon beginning to read and write that, “[he] had never been so truly free in [his] life.” This statement from a man who is jailed in a prison, the antithesis of anything remotely related to liberty! Yet indeed, Malcolm X was free because although he could not speak as he pleased, or socialize without restraint, (or do much else with any semblance of personal choice) Malcolm X possessed the truest independence there is: the freedom of thought. Through introspection and much diligence, Malcolm X transformed himself from a lowly street criminal into a world-renowned and respected civil rights advocate.
What exactly is “Freedom by Thought?” Malcolm X actually exerted his independence of unrestrained thought through the action of studying. One may, in fact be compelled to question the notion of a liberty such as thought, if it is not one that can always be used and applied. There are countries such as Iran and Burma that prohibit such manifestations of independence as uncensored speech, the right to bear arms, and freedom of assembly. Yet, on closer inspection, the answer is “Yes.” Yes, there are oppressive regimes that prohibit people from gathering, for fear that ideas and thoughts may be exchanged. Yes, there are countries like Iran and Burma, in which people are killed for holding certain religious or moral beliefs that may offend the controlling government. But this is exactly the point. All these forms of self-authority can always be influenced and controlled, if not directly prohibited by external forces such as governments or individuals who don't want to allow certain liberties to their fellow people, while hypocritically crying out for the preservation and even protection of their own.
The enabler of all liberties, and therefore the most valuable of them all is thought. Even while individuals are not allowed to exchange ideas, the individual self can still have ideas. And if an individual is verbally and mentally strong enough and persuasive enough, these ideas will eventually manifest themselves in the individual's actions and teachings.
Witness the great leader Mahatma Gandhi, whose ideas on non-violence and peaceful disobedience ultimately led to the emancipation of India. Gandhi, who theorized and preached that pacifism, simplicity in day-to-day living, and truth are the cornerstone of a virtuous life, began his journey of leadership with the idea that emancipation from the oppressive British Empire was ideal for the Indian nation. It was not solely through his activism (or rather inaction) that Gandhi gained support, but it was his teachings and ideology which garnered such a large following. The actions of Gandhi inspired numerous other activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. It was Gandhi's teaching that caused others to fight to enact their ideas, yet it was by the inability of government and society to restrict unbridled thought that allowed these leaders to rise.
The power of truly independent thinkers to reform society is so compelling that mighty historical empires such as Athens have killed people like Socrates, who attempted to express their thoughts. Yet, even as he was about to die, Socrates was still teaching his ideas, leaving behind devoted followers and scholars such as Plato, to pass down his ideas for the benefit and enlightenment of all future generations. For, no matter how liberated one may be in their lifetime, no matter how much they are permitted to speak and to assemble, there is always the inevitable restriction of death; the master and ultimate regulator of all man's actions. Men will always attempt to act and do as they please, yet it is only their teachings, their legacy, their thoughts, and their ideas that will outlast them and stand the test of time. It is only through one's thoughts that one may escape any and all oppression and restriction, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual. It is because thoughts cannot be suppressed that great men attempt to leave a legacy.
“Thought” alone is the truest representation of Freedom. As Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardoza writes in his opinion for Palko v. State of Connecticut: “Freedom of thought is...the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” It is from the cradle of thought that all forms of freedom are raised.
The U.S. Constitution
“Learning to Read” by Malcolm X
“Indian Independence movement” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Independence_movement
“Mahatma Gandhi” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahatma_gandhi
“Freedom of Thought” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_thought
Palko v. State of Connecticut “FindLaw for Legal Professionals - Case Law, Federal and State Resources, Forms, and Code.” http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=302&invol=319 (accessed October 17, 2007).
The Apology by Plato