Paradoxes of Modern Liberty PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 15 April 2010 19:44

The Enlightenment was ambivalent about liberty from the beginning.  On the one hand, many thought that modern science had unveiled the secrets of the universe.  Newton was a quasi-divine figure in Kant’s imagination.  But a well-oiled universe didn’t leave much room for human choice, and so Kant worked mightily to carve out some zone for freedom.  On the other hand, what Jonathan Israel has called the “Radical Enlightenment” was inspired by an aspiration to “absolute freedom” (Hegel’s phrase).

Which is it? Absolute determination by the laws of nature?  Or absolute freedom of the will?  If the former is true, then we’re not much more than robots.  As Hegel realized, however, the apparently more humane and attractive possibility of absolute freedom eventually turned wolfish and so ate up itself.

The possibility of inversion was inherent in the ideology of absolute freedom.  Theoretically, the ideology of absolute freedom fails, Hegel said, because its conception of liberty is purely negative.  Absolute freedom is freedom from constraints of any and every kind, the refusal to accept any authority that has not been chosen.  By that definition, my family, my ancestry, my nationality, my early education, my own body count as unchosen constraints that need to be overcome if I am going to be truly free.  The psychological toll is massive.  I am who I am because I am related to others, but according to the notion of absolute liberty those others are chains that limit my freedom.  Absolute freedom is a bid to be as God, but in the end it leaves me even less than myself.

Absolute freedom is far from a purely abstract theory, and as a practical political agenda it is also destined to frustration or worse.  Guided by the principle of absolute freedom, French Revolutionaries turned on the structures of the ancien regime, and when those structures had been reduced to rubble they had to free themselves from themselves by turning the same destructive power on the revolution itself.

Celebrating his survival of an assassination attempt during the preparations for the Feast of the Supreme Being, Robespierre gave an impassioned speech in which he swore “by the daggers already reddened with the blood of martyrs” that he would “exterminate every single one of the criminals who want to rob us of happiness and liberty.”  A few days later, he wrote a set of laws designed to protect the Republic’s freedoms against her enemies.  Over the next month, over 1300 people were guillotined for offenses against the state like sawing down a tree of liberty, producing sour wine, or shouting “A fig for the nation.” Hegel discerned the inner continuity between the witty salon talk of Voltaire and Diderot, and the bloody regime of Robespierre.  Enlightenment liberty was not betrayed by the Terror.  Terror was its fulfillment.

Terry Eagleton summarizes Hegel’s argument this way:

Since limits make us what we are, the idea of absolute freedom is bound to be terroristic.  There is certainly the case for Hegel, who finds such absolute freedom epitomized in the French Revolution and names it ‘the freedom of the void.’  Such liberty has a taste of death about it – but a death which is struck empty of meaning, ‘the sheer terror of the negative that contains nothing positive, nothing that fills it with a content.’  This purely negative brand of liberty, so he considers, is a ‘fury of destruction,’ which can break with the ancien regime but proves incapable of building another in its place.  This is a logical incapacity, not an empirical one, since whatever such freedom might fashion would inevitably constitute a constraint on it.  It can feel alive, Hegel observes, only in the act of destruction . . . Aspiration is thus strangely close to a kind of nihilism.

Postmodern nihilism is not so much an assault on Enlightenment as an unmasking of its hidden core.

Recognizing the practical need for constraint, mainstream liberal democracy officially abandoned the aspiration of absolute liberty.  Liberal democracy limits freedom for the sake of political order by insisting that an individual’s liberty ends where another’s begins.  Liberal democracy is a clumsy sort of political order, but it has admittedly proved more or less workable for most of the people of America and Western Europe.

Yet liberal democracy too reflects the Radical Enlightenment’s ambivalence about liberty, and this has lent long-term instability to democratic institutions.  Liberal democracy shares with the ideology of absolute liberty a hostility to all “positive” institutions, everything that has been established on the slender basis of custom or religion rather than on the solid basis of Reason.  Liberal societies can no longer claim, as the documents of the American founding did, that liberties and rights are grants from Nature’s God.  Democracy permits no cosmic framework.  Liberty must be self-grounded, and so liberal freedom ends up being, metaphysically, as absolute as the absolute freedom dreamed of by the Radical Enlightenment.

Liberal democracies have difficulty justifying constraints, and as a result there is constant pressure toward expansion of freedom, pressure to absolutize freedom, a pressure most visibly evident today in the various impulses toward sexual liberation.

Most fundamentally, liberal democracy fails to provide a sound basis for liberty because of the individualism of its implicit or explicit anthropology.  As John Courtney Murray put it, social contract theory – the founding myth of liberal democracy – treats each individual as a hard, indissoluble atom of human-stuff, who choose to form a loose aggregate for mutually beneficial ends.  With such an assumption about human nature, liberal democracy cannot but treat others as obstacles to individual freedom.  Given the anthropological assumptions of liberal theory, the notion of a “free society” is very close to a contradiction in terms.

Post-Enlightened modernity offers several paths, but they all end with similar results.   Scientific rationality truncates human beings and forces them into a shape that ill suits them.  As Dostoevsky saw, to subdue the human potential for irrationality was to subdue humanity itself, and to subdue it with a subtle or not-so-subtle violence.  So the Underground Man, and the Devils of Dostoevsky’s later fiction, instead advocate absolute freedom, freedom for irrationality, but this too can only end in violence and tyranny.  Liberal democracy has offered the best available hope, but over time its measured realism has eroded under pressure from movements more consistent with the fundamental premises of Enlightened liberty.

No matter which path it chooses, secular liberty gets tangled in a labyrinth, and its tangles become the chains of tyranny.  From a theological perspective, this is hardly surprising.  Having renounced the Spirit who is the Spirit of liberty, Enlightened freedom can only darken in unfreedom.

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