Interpreting the Definition of Freedom in Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Though freedom is the ultimate pursuit of most western ideologies, its practicality remains a topic of heated discussion. By examining how oppressive systems operate and feed injustice, Paulo Freire offers a guide for the oppressed to escape the cycle of oppression in his renowned work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Among his numeral critical takes in the book, freedom is an essential idea he attempts to enunciate. He conveys freedom as a continuous state of community in which all people are physically independent and intellectually competent enough to critically examine power systems and recognize each other’s humanity and corresponding basic rights.

Without freedom, certain groups of people become subject to oppressions. An oppressive system relies on the ignorance of the oppressed to stay in place. The constrain of intelligence and information “of economic, social, and political domination—and of the paternalism” keep people from unaware of their power, rights, and responsibility of changing the system (Freire, 215). Rather than being encouraged and equipped to know and respond to the concrete realities of their world, they were kept “submerged” in a situation in which such critical awareness and response were practically impossible. As a result of ignorance, the oppressed feeds into the culture of silence as they play by the rules of the oppressors and mimic the powerful to mistreat others. Even when information is attainable, people cannot be fully free when their mindset is shaped by the oppressive party to blindly conform to the logic of the existing system without critically examining the legitimacy of the power dynamics. As a result, to have the ability to strive for freedom, “the oppressed must confront reality critically, simultaneously objectifying and acting upon that reality” (Freire, 52). The two requirements of objectifying and acting are called praxis, which has two components: one of the mind/perceptions and one for the physical execution of tasks. The former entails the oppressed being educated and enlightened enough to see through the reality fabricated by the oppressors to realize that equality and basic human rights belong to all. The significance of this realization has been proven through countless historical revolutions, such as American Revolution which was inspired by enlightenment thinking. The latter component of praxis requires actions to be made based on the new realization to bring justice and freedom to everyone. Again, this is exemplified by the formation of the Confederate army to systematically fight against British authorities. When carrying out the first part of praxis (aka. reflection), people must not simply look to pure objective view or subjective view because the world with people is shaped by both. And to form an accurate understanding of true reality, one must evaluate the conditions critically by examining them based on rational analysis of the facts rather than based on logic told by the oppressors. In addition, this knowledge cannot be stagnant but rather must be created through “invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry” (Freire, 220). It must be continuous because the oppression system is constantly evolving and requires different ways to be understood and dealt with. The lasting vibrancy of this pursuit and formation of knowledge is key.

Merely having intelligence and knowledge of the system is not enough to sustain freedom. To fulfill the second part of Praxis, actions, people must have genuine recognition of ourselves’ and others’ humanity, without which the oppressed can become the oppressors to enforce false generosity that further limits freedom rather than strengthen it. False generosity is initiated by the oppressors to “perpetuate injustice” and consolidate “unjust social order” (45). Actions done to serve false generosity create a distorted reality, in which the oppressors are elevated to a state of inherently superior, perceived as respectable saviors that the oppressed have grown to rely on heavily for improving their lives. This is because the oppressors treat the oppressed as possessions and bestow generosity as a form of exercising their perceived rights to manipulate others (59). By reducing humanities to objects, they promulgate the idea that some people are born to be exploited and the rights to command others are inherent and just. Consequently, rather than upending the system that oppression stems from, the oppressed develop a false perception that makes them idolize/romanticize and mimic the actions of the oppressors despite having some knowledge and intelligence As the system of oppression gains fervent supporters both among oppressors and the oppressed, the cycle of unjust power domination and its ramification of violence, poverty, and pain are fueled. The solution, Freire argues, is true generosity, which people work towards when they are fighting for the restoration of humanity (45). True generosity stems from the desire to protect the rights of individuals not to remain in power or to grow possession, but “to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture” (Freire, 67). The ability to construct and create requires people to both recognize their value of deserving better treatments as humans and the capability of making a difference based on individual ideas and actions. In a community, that entails also acknowledging the potential of others to give people space for developing and exploring their humanity, which characterizes human lives. 

The interpretations of intellectual enlightenment I offered above are likely to be recognized by most readers of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This transformation of the mind is undoubtedly essential for driving actions that transform the world. However, it should be noted that humans are innately comprised of not just the soul but also the body, which is thus necessary to be taken care of in the effort of achieving freedom. Freire recognizes this by stating that freedom does not simply exist in more to eat, but “it does involve having more to eat and cannot fail to include this aspect” (67). As an indispensable part of humanity, our flesh inevitably became tools by which the oppressors utilize to limit freedom. Perpetual manipulation results from people’s inability to think, which the dominant party achieves through deprivation of basic survival needs and infliction of physical pain through violence (Freire, 149). Thus, to escape the cycle of oppression, the oppressed must obtain physical independence from the oppressors. Specifically, they must be able to have enough rest, nutritious food, a safe shelter, and necessary medical services. Without those, people easily succumb to the pressure of pain, hunger, or death in two ways: First, they lose their will to fight and wither away by complaining about their tragic life. Second, they turn against each other and serve the oppressors in exchange for some comfortableness and power.  

All in all, Freire contends that the intellectual capabilities to understand humanity and objectively examine oppressive systems, coupled with sufficient physical necessities, sustains freedom, which is not a concrete moment when the aforementioned conditions are achieved by individuals. Rather, it is a continuous state of community, in which the conditions are ensured. It is continuous because the impossibility to eliminate the temptation to oppress others and ignorance renders constant critical reflection of power structures a necessity. It is about community rather than individual because self-centeredness leads to developing superiority while the genuine connection with others nurtures rightful understanding and respect for others’ humanity. The “trust” between reformers and the oppressed advocated by Freire attests to this. Since the heart-driven recognition of the essential equality of all is the intrinsic motivation for safeguarding freedom, continuous collective effort to sustain community tie constitutes the utmost freedom.  


  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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