Reclaiming a Positive Vision of Freedom | George McKenna

Oor two and a half centuries, the word “freedom” has become talismanic in the West. At least two revolutions, the French and the American, have taken place in its name, and it is ritually invoked by all parties in political debates, each claiming ownership of it. But any attempt to define it comes up against obstacles. “The right to do as you please” will not work, at least without serious reservations, because today we know only too well what some have had fun doing. In the 19th century, philosopher John Stuart Mill refined the definition with his “evil principle”. The “sole” reason, he wrote, for preventing someone from doing what they want “is to prevent harming others”. But the harm principle has its own problems. What kind of evil? Physical? Emotional? Witty? Left alone, freedom can drag us into dark deeds.

Ryszard Legutko, a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Poland and a member of the European Parliament, has pondered this problem for some years, sharing his thoughts in lectures, books and journal articles, including some in recent issues of first things. According to him, a certain type of freedom (or freedom – he uses the terms as synonyms) is essential to the functioning of any republic. But everything depends on the type of freedom that reigns there. “Positive” freedom, as he notes in his last book, The trick of freedom, is the freedom that seeks to cultivate the skills and habits that enable people to live together as citizens of a thriving community. “Negative” freedom is that which aims for a utopia in which people can boast: “there is no one else to stop me or prevent me from doing what I want to do” or “force me to do something that I don’t want to do”. . The reductio ad absurdum of this, Legutko thinks, would be Robinson Crusoe’s life on his desert island. He lived there in complete freedom: he could do what he wanted and not take orders from anyone. But it “would be more like a nightmare that you shake off with relief when you wake up.”

Crusoe’s Island is, of course, mythical, meant to illustrate the trap we can fall into when embracing negative freedom. Legutko uses the closer-to-home analogy of a department store.

Go inside, admire the many exhibits and take your pick. Similarly, a typically modern heterosocial community can be made up of people of all religions, philosophies, and ways of life: “Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists; heterosexuals, homosexuals, countless genders, nationalities and ethnicities; conservatives, liberals, socialists, anarchists, communists and those with other political beliefs; pornographers, priests, hedonists and moral ascetics. Legutko takes us through this rather comical display of lifestyles to highlight the weakness of the department store analogy. In the real world, we are not dealing with purses and pots and pans, but with subgroups that have very different worldviews – different views of freedom, of human nature, of “man’s destiny and what constitutes a good political order”. For example, “freedom for Christians has always been interpreted in a way that liberals found unacceptable, and vice versa.” Too often, according to Legutko, it is Christians who give in: “Lured by the supposed virtue of open-mindedness, they adapt their language to liberal ideology, believing that in doing so they pay very little price as as Christians and earn a respectable position in a liberal/multicultural society.

The most of The trick of freedom is deeply pessimistic. Legutko believes that freedom has undergone an Orwellian redefinition in the West that has changed it into its opposite: the fear of expressing anything that contradicts liberal orthodoxy. “Previously, concepts such as pluralism, diversity, tolerance and openness were meant to soften human interaction and temper the harshness of political and moral order. . . . Today, these words have acquired a sinister meaning. The soft concepts of yesteryear have turned into ideological sticks with which to bludgeon opponents. We live in a Western world supposedly threatened by Orwellian “thought crimes” – “sexism, racism, Islamophobia, binary thinking”, etc. – the number of which, Legutko thinks, even exceeded those mentioned by the Russians.

Is there any relief to this? Is a good ending possible? Rays of hope emerge in the final chapters of the book, which deal at some length with positive freedom. Legutko sees a path to freedom in his studies of ancient Greek philosophy and traditional Catholic social thought. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, “arguably the most important allegory in all of Western culture,” he finds an innate human desire to know truths beyond appearances. This desire is greater than our perverse resistance to the truth. In particular, he finds two “dispositions” at the heart of classical Western culture: first, we believe that the world is not self-explanatory; its meaning is hidden and must be gradually revealed through a long and arduous process. Second, the search for truth leads to enlightenment, which opens our minds to higher things, completely changing us and changing the way we see the world.

For Legutko, the cave represents the physical world, the world we see every day. He invites us to see beyond, into the metaphysics that underlies it. Here he turns to the philosophy of Aristotle and the works of Catholic philosophers who rediscovered Aristotle centuries later. Although he admits that Aristotle never used the term “metaphysics”, Legutko thinks he accurately summarizes the Aristotelian project, which he describes as “a philosophical inquiry into principles and ultimate causes”. Aristotle thus leads us to the conviction that the purpose of our existence transcends physical limitations, and that by pursuing it we will acquire a new self-confidence, “a strong sense of self”. Legutko compares the effort to acquire virtues such as courage, justice and prudence to that of an aspiring concert pianist. Its skills can only be acquired through continuous practice. Similarly, it is only by acting with courage, accuracy and prudence that we can hope to acquire their motor virtues.

This, then, is the “positive” freedom that Legutko hopes to see rediscovered in our time. Its opposite, “negative” freedom, begins to look like a caricature of itself with its endless list of evils that must be suppressed by ever new laws and decrees. A rediscovery of metaphysical thought would allow us to look more deeply into ourselves and our life on earth: “metaphysical homo knows that there is more to his being than the imperatives of daily life and he judges. . . its actual status as being above the pitiful condition that its existence would indicate.

But how can these hopes be translated into reality? Are there signs on the horizon of a genuine Aristotelian renaissance? Legutko says little about it, and what he says doesn’t sound optimistic. The nation-state, our substitute for the ancient city-state, has survived the “globalizations and global ideologies” that traverse the world today. “Nevertheless, liberal ideology continues its conquest of Western societies, penetrating every nook and cranny of our existence.” In his view of the situation in the West, Orwellian conformity and woke ideology remain the order of the day. The only glimmers of hope Legutko finds are in some central European countries, especially in his native Poland, where “there is a real pluralism of opinions from left to right”.

Legutko’s account of contemporary culture in the West deserves special attention from anyone alarmed at the dark passage the world has taken in the past half century. But there may be some flashes of light. The philosophical research of certain Western writers, in particular Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Rod Dreher, Adrian Vermeule and Pierre Manent, allow us to hope for a revival of Platonic and Aristotelian thought and of the Christian thinkers who are inspired by them. Contemporary thinkers do not always agree, far from it, on the means of resistance to the dangerous tendencies of modern social thought, but they all outline them. could work. I believe Professor Legutko is familiar with the work of some, perhaps all, of these writers. My dream would be to see and hear them with him on a podium.

George McKenna is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at City College, City University of New York. He is the author of The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism and The drama of democracy.

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Image by Katarzyna Czerwińska under Creative Commons license. Cropped image.

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