Charlie Chaplin on Freedom

"More than machinery, we need humanity."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

One cannot talk about the silent era of film without mentioning Charlie Chaplin and his on-screen character, the Tramp. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin put aside the Tramp character to write, direct, and star in the film The Great Dictator — a satirical political comedy denouncing authoritarianism.

In the film, while running for his life, Chaplin's character, the Barber, gets mistaken for Hynkel, the great dictator. The Barber seizes the moment to address a crowd as Hynkel, to explain that he's had a change of heart.

King of the silent era, Charlie Chaplin only did a handful of "talkies," but in his first speaking role, Chaplin delivers what many consider to be one of the greatest speeches ever to be recorded:


I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible — Jew, Gentile, black, white…

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world, there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind.

We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood, for the unity of us all.

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me I say, ‘Do not despair.’

The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes! Men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder!

Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men — machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate!

Only the unloved hate — the unloved and the unnatural.

Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it’s written ‘The kingdom of God is within man,’ not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power.

Let us all unite.

Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will!

Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people!

Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate, and intolerance!

Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

What Is Freedom?

Often in society, two or more groups/ ideologies will be in conflict, with varying definitions of freedom. And, perhaps, they use "freedom" to justify their actions without properly defining what freedom is to that party. We will fight for freedom without knowing what freedom is.

Chaplin asks us to question our values, and what the natural conclusions are to our actions. What do we represent? Who are we helping? What does freedom mean to us?

Freedom is a State of Mind

We have machines and efficiency; the original intent was to make our lives easier so that we may have more time to pursue human interests — humanities. Work less, but have more because we have the assembly line, machines, and better production. Yet, rather than machine efficiency making our lives more human, we have become more like machines. Or worse, like cattle, to be used and branded.

Productivity has become the new god. And we sacrifice our humanity so we can produce, not for pleasure or for good, but just to produce for the sake of producing. And in this pursuit, what can produce more than machines? As machines are made to be more like us, we try to become more like machines. We use metaphors comparing ourselves to machinery: our brains like hard-drives, our bodies like cars.

Yet when describing machines, the goal is to make them more like us, to be less a slave and more sentient and feeling. That is the highest ideal. From the view of productivity, freedom will look like a weakness, because it will never produce enough — too much freedom to do whatever you want. For productivity, having no freedom makes the most sense, then you aren't free to do anything else other than produce.

It's wonderful to make something of yourself, but what good is it to be something if you're no longer human? If we give up our feelings, we can work more, but what's the point if we can no longer feel? We seek efficiency to be happier, yet our misguided chase for machine efficiency only destroys happiness.

How can we separate freedom from humanity? They are one and the same. To think and feel, to be aware of our feelings, and the feelings of others, this is humanity, but this is also freedom. You can be like a hammer, a hammer is useful, but it is not free, it is a utility tool. Freedom means the worthiness of your existence is not based on your utility. It's an inalienable right as a human being . . . if you choose to take advantage of it. Utility is supposed to be helpful, not oppressive.

Our actions support the liberties of the few at the sacrifice of the many. They dictate, we comply. And when the few disagree, we fight on their behalf — so that they may be free to do whatever they want. We will work so they can do as they please.

We mistake physical liberties for freedom. Since we have designer jeans, titillating TV shows; since we can tattoo our bodies and grow our beards; since we have access to every imaginable merchandise at the click of a button, we believe we are free. Yet that freedom is much easier to attain. The freedom of the few relies on our consumption. And we willingly give our freedom away, enticed by a little marketing and dazzle.

Freedom allows our minds to wander.

Thinking for ourselves, that is the difficult task — yet what a beautiful freedom. Do not rely on a few to tell you what to think and feel. Design your own life; pursue those natural things that make you human. Wonder, explore, imagine, and see — see things for yourself. The arts, poetry, literature, volunteering, good deeds, travel, and creating new relationships — not to network, but to be human — these are our true freedoms that we discount because they are free. And there it is staring us in the face, it's free, that is freedom.

But Chaplin warns, most importantly, we must stick together. Helping one another, that is a natural human quality, but it must be cultivated. For greed is also a natural quality, and it too can be cultivated. Chaplin cautions that if we do not unite, if we are fractured and splintered, dictators will rise. And we will do as we're told, because we failed to work together.

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