Ancient and Modern Liberty in Attack on Titan

The final chapter of the hit manga Attack on Titan was released this April. After peaks and valleys and long absences, the series–which I hold dear to my heart and regard as one of the foremost pieces of popular fiction of the 2010s–is coming to a bittersweet conclusion. The first half of the anime’s final season ended the last Sunday of March and the second half will not be released until winter of 2022. I therefore believe it to be the proper time to write a review of both works––one which focuses on their pre-eminent theme.  

The manga and the anime, which follows it closely, follow the story of Eren Jaeger. Eren is a boy confined both by the enormous walls which surround his city and by the man-eating and eponymous Titans behind them. As the story advances, Eren learns to harness the power of the Titans, moving past the boundaries of the towering walls only to discover new ones. Beyond the prison of safety offered by Walls Sina, Maria, and Rose, Eren is faced with the sea, and beyond it, mighty and modernized nations who desire the extinction of the people of Eren’s island—Eldians—as atonement for past grievances. Though the manga’s author, Hajime Isayama, has interwoven a variety of profound topics into his work–meditations on violence, suffering, the moment of death, how far the oppressed ought to go in combating their oppressors, and even the existentialist refrain of the protagonist: “Because I was born into this world”–the predominant theme can be summed up in a single word: freedom. This is the first theme touched on in the entire manga and it will be the last word penned onto the final page. It is the eternal fixation of the main character, who proffers it as his motivation at both his highest and darkest moments. But a motivation so simple is open to interpretation: what does “freedom” mean?  

Benjamin Constant also tangled with this question in his essay “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns.” Addressing the Royal Athenaeum of Paris in 1819, he was much more concerned with liberalizing the newly restored French monarchy than he was with Attack on Titan’s carnivorous giants and genocidal foreign coalitions. Nevertheless, his exposition on the differences between Ancient and Modern Liberties will help us categorize Eren’s oft-referenced freedom. Though he is speaking in the 19th century, Constant’s description of modern liberty sounds familiar to 21st century ears: he lists freedom of speech, religion, association, and movement, and even the freedom “to occupy [one’s] days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.” Finally, and almost as an afterthought, he tacks on the right to exercise “some influence on the administration of government,” although he seems not to care whether this takes the form of actual elections or mere petitions to a (hopefully) sympathetic magistrate.  

“The Liberty of the Ancients” is almost exactly the opposite. Whereas participation in civil government is all but negotiable for moderns, ultimately serving little end other than to safeguard liberal rights, the ancient man was all too willing to sacrifice personal freedom for the right to participate in public life. The ancient’s duties are many, “deliberating… over war and peace…forming alliances with foreign governments… voting [for] laws… pronouncing judgments… examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates,” but their rights are few. Freedom of speech was unthinkable, freedom of religion blasphemous. Constant even notes how one Therpandrus of Sparta “could not add a string to his lyre without causing offense” to the theocratic religious leaders of his polis. The individual was, at least according to Constant, a sovereign in public matters, a slave in private matters. He was “lost in the nation, the citizen, in the city.”  

The historicity of Constant’s description aside, his paradigm provides an excellent framework to analyze Eren’s own conception of freedom. Is Eren Jaeger a modern? An ancient? A Liberal? Or a Spartan? Though the hard choices and even atrocities the character commits in the name of his ideals might bias the scales in favor of the latter option, he must ultimately be evaluated by his own arguments. In the first chapter of Attack on Titan, Eren pointedly asks a soldier assuring him of the walls’ safety: “Isn’t that like being a caged animal?” The omniscient narrator, clearly sympathetic to Eren’s point of view, repeatedly refers to the walled settlements as birdcages, and (mixing his metaphors) to the people who lounge peacefully inside them as cattle. Clearly, Eren hates to be stifled; a boy who cannot bear to remain within walls built to defend him could scarcely comprehend a polity which would prevent him from adding an errant string to his lyre. This more liberal conception of freedom remains his motivation through most of the first three seasons: freedom to go beyond the walls he was born in and to see, or rather, to help his friend Armin see, the great ocean which the two boys had only read about in books. The ocean itself symbolizes this negative liberty: its vast openness contrasts with the suffocating heights of the walls, its beauty demanding freedom to enjoy beauty.  

By the time Eren dips his feet in that saltwater at the end of season three, he cannot enjoy it, shackled as he is with new chains of his own making. Eren now feels only the weight of duty and fate: having seen a vision of himself leading an army of Titans to crush all the nations that wish to wipe out his own, he concludes that it must be necessary. He accepts this destiny as a deviant from the enthusiasm wherewith he had previously revolted against the walls and Titans which had taken away his choice. To this new bondage of his will, he gives a name: freedom. Now, whenever Eren uses this word, he means national freedom–the freedom of his country Eldia from its historic rival Marley and an uneasy coalition of allies united only in genocidal hatred of his homeland. “My goal,” he explains in chapter 123, “is to protect the people of [this island], who bore me and raised me.” To this end, he takes up a deeply ascetic lifestyle, even temporarily blinding and maiming himself to infiltrate the enemy nations and probe out their weaknesses. Gone is the cheerful boy of early chapters and seasons. What remains is a singular purpose wearing the clothes of a man. Earlier in the story, a dying criminal and hedonist had noted that “Everyone is a slave to something.” By the end of the story, Eren Jaeger has become a slave to freedom.  

Is Eren’s national freedom the same as the Ancient Liberty as described by Constant? There are certainly some similarities. For example, Eren’s notion of freedom seems only to concern the nation, the race, the state–having little regard for the individual. This is to be expected; on the civilizational level hierarchy of needs, existence must precede freedom. No member of an extinct people can be free; the dead have no liberty. One might argue, however, that neither does Eren submit himself personally to the state; he declares a personal war against Marley in violation of his government’s wishes. Although he accepts court martial and imprisonment for this insubordination, he knows no prison can hold him. Finally, he overthrows the government of his own country–not once, but twice. This might seem more radically libertarian, even anarchist, but Eren makes no rights-based claims to justify his actions. He, like the Constant’s ancients, has “no notion of individual rights.” Whatever ideas he might have had about personal freedom as a child, by the time of that pivotal scene at the sea, his concept of freedom has been baptized in the oceanic waters. Dying to individualistic and modern liberty, he has been born again as a warrior for his people’s Ancient Liberty.  

Or perhaps not. In chapter 108, Eren, speaking to his friends, informs them that he will not allow any of them to inherit his Titan powers after their inbuilt thirteen-year lifespan ends his life. He does this despite knowing that it will potentially prevent them from completing his life’s mission, “because you’re important to me. More than anything.” Although the later seasons switch to political drama and deep philosophical themes, the first season was a simple shounen: a classic story of a boy and his friends combatting insurmountable odds. The friendships forged in that crucible of anti-Titan warfare becomes the motivation for the main character even as the main enemies he faces shift from Titans to human nations. It is ultimately the desire to protect that cohort, and not his nation, that drives him. In every iteration of freedom that he cares about, whether it be the freedom to live outside the walls or the freedom to survive, Eren has primarily cared for not just himself and not for his whole country, but for his comrades, his brothers in arms. That is why Eren can ally with foreign volunteers to overthrow his own nation’s government, and why he gives up every vestige of personal liberty in his great crusade for freedom. It is his friends’ freedom he cares about; his person and even his nation are mere means to secure that end. For this reason, Eren’s conception of freedom is neither Ancient nor Modern. It is Postmodern: he did not embrace a non-individualistic view of freedom out of ignorance of individualistic ideals, but because–having been originally acquainted with them–he had outgrown them. He weighed modern liberty in the balance and found it wanting. But having tasted the freedom of choice, he can never go back to unchosen associations and duties. His friends are, to borrow the phrase from another character, “the comrades in whom [he] has placed his trust,” and not those whom he is, like the ancient citizen, obliged to serve by dint of birth. Eren has created a non-individualistic hierarchy of values from out of the more individualistic society he was born into, and to the perpetuation of this cadre, he has given the name of Freedom. And, having done so, so he imposes a duty upon himself: to save his group of friends, even if it means becoming a monster. 

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

Categories: Arts

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