Excerpt #23 — David Bentley Hart on Modern Freedom

We all talk about freedom, or freedoms: the modern period is shot through with liberating the individual from the tyrannical claims of the group, and various self-help and movement-politics trends position themselves as furthering the cause of freedom.

Talk of freedom –the concern for further spreading freedom-as-liberties, for maximizing personal freedom-as-autonomy– is everywhere today, and the pursuit and establishment of freedom are a hallmark of the modern period. Financial success and stability is marketed as offering freedom. The Stoic trend that has steadily risen in philosophically-oriented self-help fora concerning liberation from one’s own passions is one form of this concern for freedom — it simply turns the eyes of the individuals from liberation from external forces and conditions that enslave to liberation from internal masters (endogenous over exogenous concerns). There are so many movements that seek to overturn conventions and taboos for the sake of freedom (exogenous over endogenous concerns). Fears about potential or actual threats against journalistic freedom are another form of this; concerns about religious freedom are another form of this (both from some of the religious and some of the non-religious); movements to bring about a state of greater economic parity between segments of the population are yet another form of this. I could go on.

None of this is objectionable, and we all want people to be free. The concern for freedom is everywhere. But what is freedom?

David Bentley Hart, who has his own tag here at Into the Clarities, writes about modern freedom, and does not paint a pretty picture of it. He seems to think that there is something in the background that is a void:

I shall venture an even more presumptuous, and intentionally provocative, assertion: To be entirely modern (which very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. This is not to say it is to have no beliefs: the truly modern person may believe in almost anything, or even perhaps in everything, so long as all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental and radical faith in the nothing – or better, in nothingness as such. Modernity’s highest ideal – its special understanding of personal autonomy – requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is – to be perfectly precise – nihilism.

This word is not, I want immediately to urge, a term of abuse, and I do not employ it dismissively or contemptuously. […] Nevertheless, we live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve. The will, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself. This, for many of us, is the highest good imaginable. […] All of this, undoubtedly, follows from an extremely potent and persuasive model of freedom, one that would not have risen to such dominance in our culture if it did not give us a sense of liberty from arbitrary authority, and of limitless inner possibilities, and of profound personal dignity. There is nothing contemptible in this, and there is no simple, obvious moral reproach to be brought against it. Nevertheless, as I have said, it is a model of freedom whose ultimate horizon is, quite literally, nothing. Moreover, if the will determines itself principally in and through the choices it makes, then it too, at some very deep level, must also be nothing: simply a pure movement of spontaneity, motive without motive, absolute potentiality, giving birth to itself. A God beyond us or a stable human nature within us would confine our decisions within certain inescapable channels; and so at some, usually unconscious level – whatever else we may believe – we stake ourselves entirely upon the absence of either. Those of us who now, in the latter days of modernity, are truest to the wisdom and ethos of our age place ourselves not at the disposal of God, or the gods, or the Good, but before an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills, whose decisions are their own moral index. This is what it means to have become perfect consumers: the original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world – and thus we are free.

Now this is […] a willfully extreme formulation of the matter, and life is rarely lived at the extremes. For most of us, the forces of conformity that surround and seduce us […] are necessary shelters against the storm of infinite possibility.

DBH, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009), 36-39

There is Hart, for what it’s worth.

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