The Illiberal Conception of Freedom

30 May 2018

Wednesday


On 17 April 2018 French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech to the EU parliament in which he stated, “There is a fascination with the illiberal, that is growing all the time.” Since being elected French president Macron has campaigned passionately and tirelessly for reforms in the EU, and while Macron seems to be pretty “woke” to the actual problems facing the EU, his “solution” to this problem is not anything controversial from an EU standpoint, but rather the familiar EU talking point that, if the EU isn’t working quite as well as way hoped, then the solution is more EU. In other words, Macron is doubling down on the EU. To be fair, Macron is also insisting upon changes in the EU that might make a small difference, but at a time when closer European unity is so controversial that EU leaders don’t dare put it to a popular vote, Macron’s reforms are too little, too late. Nevertheless, he gets a gold star for trying.

Macron’s 17 April 2018 speech wasn’t the only speech in which he cited growing illiberalism as a concern. In his speech to the US Congress on 25 April 2018 he said the following:

“Together with our international allies and partners, we are facing inequalities created by globalization; threats to the planet, our common good; attacks on democracies through the rise of illiberalism; and the destabilization of our international community by new powers and criminal states.”

Last year on Hallowe’en, Macron gave a speech at the European Court of Human Rights which included this:

“We are witnessing a resurgence of authoritarian regimes or a fascination in many parts of Europe for illiberal democracies; in my opinion, it is here that the coherence and strength of the responses to the challenges just mentioned must be built.”

Earlier in the same speech, in speaking of the, “traumatic experience of Europeans” (i.e., the Second World War and its aftermath), Macron said:

“Who could seriously claim that the worst is behind us and that we can afford to dilute the strength of the universal principles which bind us? Who could consider that these risks of illiberal democracy, an inward-looking approach and a surreptitious or assumed undermining of our values and our principles are now far behind us?”

This passage is especially interesting for its explicit contrast of Enlightenment universalism with illiberal democracy, and the connection of illiberal democracy with an “inward-looking approach.”

Macron’s warnings of illiberalism got me to thinking. It would probably be fair to say that I am fascinated with illiberal ideas, so when I heard this coming out of Macron’s mouth it really got my attention. Macron didn’t name names — perhaps he was thinking about Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or perhaps he was thinking about how Hitler came to power democratically — when he warned of “illiberal democracy,” but we can ask ourselves, from a principled standpoint (in contradistinction from particular historical examples), what an illiberal democracy would be. Could we even ask, what an illiberal democracy ought to be? Can we even speak in terms of “ought” when we are talking about something that is being derided as a danger?

Thinking about the possibility of illiberal democracy led me to think about what could be called the illiberal conception of freedom, and with this we find ourselves in the presence of an ancient idea in western thought that has been a touchstone of western civilization — but a touchstone that has been among the traditions that the rise of the Enlightenment has at very least occluded, when it hasn’t actually openly attacked the illiberal conception of freedom. So this is important. This is a crucial point at which the Enlightenment project parts ways with the most ancient sources of the western tradition, and in so far as the Enlightenment project is the central project of contemporary civilization (an argument I intend to make elsewhere, but have not yet formulated in detail), this is one of the points at which the Enlightenment represents a rupture with the past and a new form of civilization derived from this preemption of the previous central project of western civilization.

What is the illiberal conception of freedom? I happened to find a perfect evocation of it in Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Herder, in which Berlin, discussing the Protestant Pietists, writes of, “…above all their preoccupation with the life of the spirit which alone liberated men from the bonds of the flesh and nature.” (Vico & Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, New York: Vintage, 1977, p. 152) There you have it in a nutshell. The traditional conception of human nature is that it is in slavish bondage to the flesh, to nature, to the world, and can only be freed from this bondage through the cultivation of the spirit.

The illiberal conception of freedom is implicit in Plato’s critique of democracy in Book VIII of the Republic. Democracy, according to Plato, in seeking to place personal freedom above and before all else, inevitably degenerates into tyranny because it places demagogues in power who ultimately destroy the institutions that raised them to high office. Freedom thus issues in its opposite. Thucydides’ description of revolution on Corcyra (modern Corfu) in his History of the Peloponnesian War is eerily reminiscent of Plato’s more abstract and theoretical account of the collapse of democracy into tyranny. The Platonic critique of democratic freedom is often formulated as a distinction between true freedom and mere license (which latter is presumably what leads to the ruin of democracies). For a treatment of the positive content of Plato’s conception of freedom cf. Siobhán McLoughlin’s The Freedom of the Good: A Study of Plato’s Ethical Conception of Freedom.

The illiberal conception of freedom is one of the central themes of Spinoza’s Ethics, Part IV of which is “Of Human Bondage,” in which Spinoza seeks to demonstrate (and I do mean demonstrate) that the human will is in bondage to emotion (which in most translations is rendered “affects”). Spinoza opens Part IV with a forthright statement of this thesis:

“Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.”

In Part V of the Ethics, Spinoza attains remarkably heights of eloquence and intellectual nobility in praising the life of the man who can overcome the bondage of his emotional life through the exercise of the intellect. While Spinoza’s formulations are thoroughly rationalistic, his message is essentially the same message of his contemporaries the Pietists, about whom Isaiah Berlin was writing in the passage I quoted above, and who expressed these ideas in a spiritual form rather than a rationalistic form.

With the arrival of the Enlightenment, the idea of a spiritual discipline leading to an inner freedom seemed, if not merely quaint, to be actually opposed to “true” human freedom. Hume, one of the great representatives of the Enlightenment, ridiculed the traditional forms of spiritual discipline in the western tradition:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

It is interesting to compare this famous passage from Hume with a remarkably similarly passage from Spinoza, also in Part IV of the Ethics:

“…it rarely happens that men live in obedience to reason, for things are so ordered among them, that they are generally envious and troublesome one to another. Nevertheless they are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury. Let satirists then laugh their fill at human affairs, let theologians rail, and let misanthropes praise to their utmost the life of untutored rusticity, let them heap contempt on men and praises on beasts; when all is said, they will find that men can provide for their wants much more easily by mutual help, and that only by uniting their forces can they escape from the dangers that on every side beset them: not to say how much more excellent and worthy of our knowledge it is, to study the actions of men than the actions of beasts.”

We can see from these two passages that Spinoza and Hume are, at least in some respects, closer to each other than any simplistic contrast between liberal freedom and illiberal freedom would suggest. Spinoza and Hume might find common ground if their shades could discuss the question, but the social context of freedom has radically changed both from that of Spinoza and that of Hume. While the world that Spinoza knew is entirely lost, we can also say that what the Enlightenment was in Hume’s time was not yet what the Enlightenment project has become for us today.

Especially since the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of freedom has come to mean “doing your own thing,” which Plato would have called “license” and which more or less involves indulging the individual’s appetites to their limits and beyond. From a superficial perspective, the liberal conception of freedom has triumphed, and as it has triumphed it has trapped us in the idea of realizing our own “authenticity” (in the language of existentialists) and “self-actualization” (in the language of psychology and psychiatry). And yet, for all the authenticity and self-actualization we have lived through, the psychoanalysts have also diagnosed a condition of the “existential void.” That an existential void would attend the indulgence of human appetites would not have surprised any of the theorists of the illiberal conception of freedom.

Is there any place for or possibility of the illiberal conception of freedom today? Should we regard the illiberal conception of freedom as a relic of traditionalism of which we are best rid? Or is there any perennial wisdom in the idea that may have some applicability to the world today? Has the world changed too dramatically for the individual today to seek inner spiritual perfection (and hence spiritual freedom)? Is the illiberal conception of freedom a retreat from the world, an admission of defeat? Is it necessary to turn from the world in order to cultivate the life of the spirit, or can one remain engaged with world and also with the life of the spirit? I will leave these questions for another time.

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3 Responses to “The Illiberal Conception of Freedom”

  1. James Groenewald said

    Interesting thoughts and questions.

    I see the illiberal and the liberal as products of the different brain components homo sapiens sapiens have to their brains. The illiberal emanates from the amygdala and is hormone driven, or chemically bounded logic as it were. The liberal emanates from the frontal cortex and has the capacity for predicated logic as expressed through words.

    Mathematically speaking one could see the illiberal as a closed set of responses to a limited or bounded set of stimuli. In the liberal the former set is open, but Bayesian in predictability, as the frontal cortex has the ability to create/respond with innumerable meanings to the same set stimuli.

  2. […] The illiberal conception of freedom Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

  3. […] the secular soul, for their failings give grave offence to our enlightened eyes. Worse yet, their insultingly illiberal conception of freedom threatens the true freedom of … the market, or was it democracy? Whatever, you know the line. You […]

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