The recent images, on videotape or film, have the immediacy of motion. Nelson Mandela beams on election night, his smile masking steel, his fist raised in victory. Berliners use sledgehammers to smash the graffiti-covered Wall, breaking off chunks that they hold aloft, a gray monolith of repression atomized into mere souvenirs. An anonymous man stares down a file of tanks in Beijing, defiant and free, if only for a day. Gaunt prisoners of war stagger home from Vietnam. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. looks out over a hopeful multitude at the Lincoln Memorial and speaks to the ages, defining a dream that will no longer be deferred. Allied tanks crunch through the rubble of liberated Europe, unshaven GIs flashing the victory sign as pretty young French girls wave and blow kisses.

Searching backward through time, your mind's eye begins to see black-and-white photographs, deep with shadow and resonance. Gandhi sits cross-legged in his homespun, unraveling an empire. Determined women, wearing sober long skirts and prim white blouses, line up to vote for the first time. Former slaves pose for a portrait in a photographer's studio, their clothing threadbare but scrupulously clean, their pockets empty, their heads held high, their spirits buoyed by their only valuable possession, the new adjective they've recently acquired: free.

Still further back, the images have the heightened reality of oil on canvas. Simon Bolivar, astride a rearing black horse, lifts high his liberator's sword. An angry, righteous mob storms the Bastille, its thick dark wall looming like the face of a cliff. George Washington, on his way to attend the birth of a nation, stands improbably erect as his tiny craft crosses the Delaware.

Earlier still? Allegorical paintings, maybe -- white-robed goddesses representing liberty. Or perhaps scenes from religious texts, like the Exodus.

The truth is that you begin to run out of historical images.

As far back as you care to imagine, you can picture love, beauty, truth and all the rest of the great ideals that inspire and govern our lives at the turn of the millennium -- all but freedom. At least as we think of it today, freedom is something new.

When the current millennium dawned, no political freedom that we would recognize existed in any of the world's great civilizations. China, heart of the most developed part of the world, was strictly hierarchical, its offshoot Japan proto-feudal; the Islamic world, stretching from Iran to Spain to the sands of Mali, was exquisitely cultured but unfamiliar with the concept of individual liberty; and Europe, something of a tribal backwater, was just beginning to tinker with a new unit of political organization called the nation-state.

Throughout the world, if you were high-born you were granted the right to lord it over the lower-born. You could order them around, force them to work for you or pay you tribute, in many societies buy and sell them like chattel. Even if you were noble, you were subject to the whims of grander nobles. Residing at court and structuring your days according to the desires of an imperious monarch -- whether Norman, Mayan, Ethiopian, Persian or Sung Dynasty -- represented the pinnacle of privilege, but not our idea of freedom.

You might have lived, for example, under the dominion of the Fatimid Caliphate.

The Fatimid caliphs, who were Shiite Muslims, governed an advanced and powerful state whose lands encompassed much of northern Africa, or about half the world of Islam. The royal court was based in Cairo, which was beginning to rival fabled Baghdad as a cosmopolitan center of knowledge and commerce.

In the 11th century, Fatimid Cairo was arguably the best urban place in the world. Certainly its residents lived amid refinement and luxury beyond the dreams of coarse, unlettered Europe. But they also lived under the capricious Caliph al-Hakim, who took power at the age of 11 and thereafter ruled with an adolescent's naive but thorough cruelty.

He was the soul of caprice. One day he would outlaw an arbitrary list of foods, the next day the keeping of dogs, the next certain items of clothing. He might lavish a minister with gold, then suddenly decide to chop off the poor man's hands.

His mood swings were so violent that some believed he was the fulfillment of an apocalyptic prediction made by the Prophet Muhammad himself -- an impression that was furthered when, in 1021, al-Hakim mounted the steps of his observatory, presumably to fiddle with his copper astrolabe, and vanished into thin air. So goes the legend, at least.

No matter: Another capricious caliph quickly took his place. Such was the order of things, and there was nothing to be done about it, not in Cairo or anywhere else. You had a narrow range of options, and you lived within that range. There were things you could not say, things you could not safely even think. There were many things you could not do. There were places you could not go. There were stations in life to which you could not aspire. There were men and women to whom you could not make love.

Freedom? It hadn't yet been invented. Our idea of freedom is a cultural artifact of fairly recent fashioning.

Modern freedom was given abstract shape by thinkers whose tomes fill miles of library stacks. Two entirely arbitrary, but perfectly serviceable, bookends: Pierre Abelard, the 11th-century French ladies'-man-turned-monk, who focused new attention on the accomplishments and rights of the individual at a time when individuality was still a suspect notion; and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate whose elegant prose helped hector his country's most recent group of kleptocratic military dictators out of power.

Freedom's concrete political form was forged in revolts, uprisings, wars and revolutions, each of which ended up going further than its leaders had intended. The stormers of the Bastille could not have imagined that so many beautifully coiffed heads would be lopped off in the service of liberty; nor did Thomas Jefferson intend that his soaring words so soon be used to justify freeing all the slaves. Freedom, like some kind of virulent pathogen, has a way of getting out of hand.

Freedom is one of mankind's great inventions, its development one of history's great sagas. And now that saga is complete.

Finished. Done. End of story.

True, much of humankind has yet to taste of freedom. Also true, this bloody century is filled with examples of the grail's being snatched away -- witness, for example, the suffocating strictures under which women live in Afghanistan, or the spectacle of Chinese retirees being hauled to jail because they practice an eccentric form of calisthenics. But the mere fact that those examples shock is instructive: It shows just how universal the idea of freedom -- a commonly held, worldwide idea -- has become.

In the battle for humanity's hearts and minds, freedom has won. Freedom is everywhere. We're awash in the stuff.

But:

Is it real?

And are we happy?

The Master of Go

The central event in the life of Yasunari Kawabata, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968, was Japan's defeat in World War II. He had had no use for his country's brutal campaign of conquest, but after the war he also rejected Japan's headlong embrace of the liberal West. In 1945, he vowed that from then on he would write only elegies. There was so much, there were so many, to mourn.

Kawabata is said to have considered "The Master of Go" his finest work. The slim novel is one of modern literature's greatest, most poignant elegies. It is also about freedom's sometimes exorbitant cost. Freedom does not come free.

Go is a simple, subtle, profound board game that was invented in China four millenniums ago and is believed to have reached Japan around A.D. 500. It is often compared to chess, with which it is roughly analogous, except that go is much easier to learn and much harder to master. Suffice it to note that a powerful computer using well-written software can give the greatest chess master a run for his money, whereas no computer ever built and no program ever devised has been able to challenge an accomplished player at go. The number of possible moves at every turn is so stupefyingly large that often the only guides are instinct, proportion and sense of shape.

Kawabata's book is the slightly fictionalized story of an actual match in 1938 between an aging go master and a brash challenger. The master is a sick old man, getting sicker by the day as the match progresses. The challenger is too strong for him, and he knows it. The master, by exerting himself so mightily in this final match of his career, is endangering his health, indeed risking his life. It does not really spoil the ending to tell that the master loses, and soon thereafter dies -- Kawabata reveals this outcome in the first few pages.

The master had lived his life in the service of a game to which he owed the duty not only of winning, but winning with beauty and elegance, respecting history and convention. His opponent, a modern man, was largely unconfined by tradition. He was always superficially respectful of the old master, but he had the freedom to play in an up-to-date, powerful, concentrated way. "One conducted the battle only to win," Kawabata laments of the times, "and there was no margin for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of go as an art."

The master was a slave to the game of go; his own health, even his own life was a lesser consideration, not really important. The challenger was a free man. He had his life, his family, his house, his health, his ambition. He had options.

Kawabata, as must be obvious by now, identified with the old master, who lived his life the way he had to live it, not the way he wanted. His range of action was circumscribed by a rigid code, one no less restrictive than the tightest straitjacket of law or coercion. Within those confines, he did what he had to do, and he did it nobly, without complaint, without self-pity. His life and death were given meaning by the absence of freedom.

So, then: Is it possible that in this last century of the millennium, as we have lost our shackles, we have also lost structure that gave meaning to our lives?

There was a time when it was mandatory to believe in God; now, in most countries, religion is mandatory only for presidential candidates. There was a time when circumstances mandated that most people were born, grew up, married, worked and died in the same community; now, almost everyone has the freedom to go almost anywhere. There was a time when for a man and a woman having sex always meant the possibility of procreation, with all the responsibilities that entails; when elders were accorded the preemptive right to make decisions, even foolish ones; when being virtuous according to prevailing standards was of supreme importance, and being seen as virtuous was more important still.

Freed from the requirement to be bound by convention, we create new conventions, shallow ones that involve things rather than ideas. We wear identical Gap khakis because everyone else does; we drive identical SUVs because everyone else does; we bounce from fad to fad en masse, from French-blue shirts to "Ally McBeal" to Pokemon, in what looks suspiciously like an attempt to reimpose some of the structure we lost when we gained our freedom.

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe writes in his best-known book, "Things Fall Apart," of how a traditional society in the Niger River delta copes with its first encounters with European colonizers. The missionaries and officials who come to live among them offer freedom from superstition, from cruel practices like abandoning newborn twins to die in the forest because they are thought to bring bad luck, from chronic medical complaints, from arbitrary leadership, from needless internecine war. But in the process they also obliterate the glue that holds the society together. For the protagonist, a proud man named Okonkwo, this is all too much. He finally hangs himself from a tall tree.

The Nobel laureate Kawabata didn't think much of the modern world's freedoms, either. He committed suicide in 1972.

Fake Freedom

One issue that freedom presents is telling the genuine from the fake. We use the word so much that we may be in danger of debasing the ideal itself.

Walk down the aisle of a drugstore. You can purchase freedom from embarrassing foot odor, freedom from dandruff, freedom from cellulite, freedom from acne, freedom from dental plaque and gingivitis. Nor is freedom reserved for humans, or even for animate objects: In supermarkets, our foodstuffs themselves enjoy precious freedom from evil fat.

Even real freedom, it turns out, is like full-fat gourmet ice cream -- it comes in more than one flavor. Political freedom is something on which the world now agrees, more or less. About other kinds of freedom, we're much less sure.

A thousand years ago, the name of the game in economics, insofar as economics existed, was feudalism. With the exception of a few nobles and tradesmen, people were tied to the land, and to the cycle of the seasons. The rise of capitalism and the startling changes sparked by the Industrial Revolution freed us from the soil and began a massive migration to the cities that continues to this day. (Communism, viewed from future centuries, may end up being a mere footnote.) Free markets are the operating system of the world's economy, more firmly entrenched, even, than Windows in our crash-prone desktops.

That means we're free to make money, as much as we'd like. But that particular liberty carries with it a good deal of baggage.

The Yanomami Indians of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela never cared about money, at least until fairly recently. They live in the rain forest practically the same way they lived 700 years ago. Except that now they have contact with the modern world, often with results that border on disaster. Gold prospectors periodically invade the Yanomami lands, bringing useful things like synthetic fishing line (much stronger) and rubber flip-flops (they help the wearer avoid the bicho do pe, or "foot bug," which burrows under the toenail and does unspeakable things). Thus, freedom from needless labor and needless pain.

But they also bring guns, which are much too effective at settling minor disputes; malaria, which has killed many children; and money, which gives the Indians a new frame of reference, a new way of thinking about the world. When some prospector would give a group of Yanomami a pittance for the use of their land, and then the Indians found they could give that money back to the prospectors to buy food, quite logically the Indians ceased tending their crops. Detached from the land, they didn't know what to do with themselves. Their belief system began to come unhinged. They also began exhibiting classic signs of stress.

But that may be too extreme an example. The important point, surely, is that humanity is well on the road toward freedom from backbreaking, life-shortening agricultural toil.

And we should all remember that fact each morning as we dress in basically identical clothing, climb into our cookie-cutter cars and stew in traffic jams on the way to our offices, where we sit in cubicles bathed in artificial light, staring at imperceptibly flickering screens. We're free to do that.

Mikolaj Kopernik was the man who gave rise to one of our more unsettling freedoms -- our freedom from the tyranny of certainty. Kopernik, the brainy, well-educated son of a German merchant, spent some of his later years in the employ of the king of Poland, pondering monetary reform. He came up with a few ideas about money, making noteworthy contributions to the nascent field of economic theory. The world remembers him, though, for an insight he had much earlier in his career, when his gaze and intellect were focused not upon filthy lucre, but upon the stars.

In 1510 he advanced an idea that changed everything: that the Earth revolves around the sun. Suddenly we were free in a way that no one, certainly not the man history knows as Copernicus, ever intended.

Up to that point, human beings had occupied a privileged place in the universe. Everything, it had been believed, revolved around us. We had been the very center of Creation, the fixed hub. Copernicus sent us wheeling into space. He set us free -- free from our moorings.

His was the essential insight. It was only a matter of the passage of time, the increasing cleverness of our instruments and the ingenuity of our mathematical techniques before we arrived at the current understanding of our position in the scheme of things: We inhabit a smallish planet circling a garden-variety star on the fringe of an average spiral galaxy that belongs to a middling cluster of galaxies lost somewhere in an unimaginably huge cosmos.

Along the path of that journey, we discovered other things as well: that the universe works like a clock without the need for either human or divine intervention (Newton), that everything, even time, depends on the observer's point of view (Einstein), and that there are firm limits not just on what we know, but on what it's even possible for us to know (Heisenberg).

Where in the world does that leave us?

We don't really know.

Where a thousand years ago we had certainty, we have uncertainty. Where a thousand years ago we had duty, we have options. Where a thousand years ago we had a higher authority to obey, we are the higher authority, we ourselves, with the burden of making our own choices.

Freedom is a new, scary condition for the human animal. Stealing its template from Heaven was a Promethean act, perhaps the most audacious thing humankind has done in the past thousand years. Our task for the next millennium is to learn how to use it.