Why is absolute freedom bad

Discussion series on the subject of freedom
Philosophy of freedom

Freedom is independence. As an independence, however, it is dependent in different ways. The question arises: independent in relation to what? And the phrase “in relation to what?” Already suggests that freedom is a relative concept and a relative experience.
 

By Prof. Tadeusz Gadacz

We are not independent in terms of time. Nobody can choose the epoch in which they live, just as little as their own life itself. We are not independent in terms of our culture and our language. Our experience of freedom is constituted in a specific cultural and linguistic area. We are not independent with regard to our family, their tradition, their religion and their circumstances. We are also not independent of the blows of fate. Just as we have no control over the time of our life and our family, we also have no power over fate. Freedom is not an absolute term. It always takes place in a specific situation. As long as we are free, however, we can actively influence our situation. This is precisely how the free person differs from the object. A piece of wood thrown into a river must go with the flow. People can swim against the current if they want to. Plotinus was aware of this when he wrote that we had no control over the role we had to play in the drama of existence, the role that fate had given us. However, we do have an impact on the game itself.
 
This independence in its various forms of dependency also means an obligation for us. An obligation to our era, our homeland, our culture, our language, our family, their tradition and religion - and finally to our own life. Some people may experience this obligation at times as a limitation or even as a yoke. Because of this, some people change their country and language and try to break with their own tradition. Anyone who makes such a break, however, is forced to take root somewhere else or to live as an eternal wanderer from now on.
 
Freedom is always rooted somewhere. Because what does the statement "I am free" mean? What does "I" mean? I am rooted in my homeland, in the culture and religion in which I grew up, in the values ​​that were taught, in the language I speak and in my family. All of this belongs to me: my homeland, my language, my religion, my culture, my values, my family. All of these relationships determine who I am, determine who I am. Only this identity enables me to understand my freedom. Freedom is therefore not an abstract concept, not an unbridled, rootless force. Such roots do not constitute a restriction on freedom. On the contrary, it is a necessary precondition for it. Without being rooted, freedom can turn into a destructive force. Of course, that doesn't mean that I can't change my home, my language or my environment. Precisely because I am free, I am allowed to do this. But even such a change ultimately results in new roots. And acknowledging one's roots is a prerequisite for freedom. Freedom must therefore never cut its roots.
 

Freedom is independence. However, complete freedom would be complete solitude. Freedom is something between people.

If man were alone in the world, he would probably not even be aware of his freedom. Perhaps he would experience freedom as an infinity of space. However, he would hardly interpret anything that is not in accordance with his nature as a restriction of his freedom, for example that he cannot go for a walk on the moon. On the other hand, he would definitely interpret it as a restriction of his freedom if someone forbade him to carry out any public activity. So the question arises: Is the freedom of the other a limit to my own freedom, or rather an opportunity that presents itself to my own freedom, a gift offered to it? Jean-Paul Sartre was particularly aware of this dilemma.
 
Sartre's best-known theses on the subject of freedom can be found in The being and the nothing. Sartre understood freedom in the Hegelian sense as being for oneself. As long as we are exclusively related to objects, we classify them and fit them into our own world. However, as soon as another subject appears in our world, a conflict arises. This is expressed in the fact that we make the other an object through our gaze. We try to fit the other into our own world. However, since the other is not an object but is also free, he tries to do the same with us. It is precisely this experience that is expressed in Sartre's well-known sentence “Hell, that's the others” [1]. However, it is not a matter of controlling the other as we control an object. We want to rule him in his freedom, that is to say possess him as an object and as freedom at the same time. With the help of analyzes of normal and pathological sexual behavior, Sartre tried to show that our aim is always to seize an alien freedom. We not only desire the other's body, but also the other in himself. However, this is impossible. We are always guilty of making the other an object or letting them make us an object. The discovery of the freedom of the other and thus also of one's own freedom originally takes place in struggle.
 
Was in The being and the nothing the other is still "hell", so can be found in the Designs for a Moral Philosophywhich emerged a few years later, but were only published posthumously in 1983, already gave a more positive interpretation of the relationship to the other. Sartre argued that one cannot strive for one's own freedom without at the same time striving for the freedom of the other. He distinguished three types of encounter: the request, the demand and the appeal. The request and the demand are two variants of the relationship between master and servant. In the request, the servant submits himself to the master by simply asking for grace. An expression of such submission is also prayer to God as Lord. In the demand, on the other hand, the master enforces the subordination of the servant and in this way makes his freedom an object. In contrast to the request and the demand, two human freedoms are revealed in the appeal, which are always in a concrete situation in which one freedom recognizes the other and turns to it. One is neither superior to the other (as in the case of the demand) nor inferior to the other (as in the case of the request), but they are on an equal footing with each other. The appeal is a call to act in solidarity, in which the freedom of all involved is respected. It is a request and a gift at the same time, and the morality that takes place in it is generous and selfless. Sartre illustrated the moral of the appeal using the example of a person standing on the platform of a bus that was just leaving: When he saw someone else running towards the bus, he held out his hand to help him jump onto the platform . As soon as the runner reaches out his hand, he becomes a gift for the one who has reached out his hand. A new value arises, like in a creative act. Each freedom conditions the other and is the basis for it. [2]
 
So the other is not necessarily a limit to my freedom. On the contrary, his freedom is a chance for my own freedom, a chance to give each other gifts. However, it can also be a limit. Sartre's changed view does not cancel the previously expressed possibility. However, if freedom is interpersonal, we must not ignore the freedom of the other in trying to realize our own freedom. Because in this case we would misunderstand freedom, namely as arbitrariness, as the freedom of an emperor. This is based not only on the fact that an emperor does what he wants, but also on the fact that he often does this against the will of others. The Emperor tries to be free in a way, as if he were alone in the world. Plato called this freedom the freedom of a despot, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel the freedom of an emperor.
 
If freedom is a relative concept, then it is only possible in relation to other people. Freedom is therefore not an end in itself. Often freedom is opposed to coercion. Martin Buber is right, however, when he claims that the opposite pole of coercion is not freedom, as one would initially assume, but attachment. Freedom is a means, a way, an opportunity to create a bond. It is like a bridge that one crosses but that one does not live on [3]. The others are by no means, as liberal doctrines like to assert, a limit to my freedom. The others are an obligation and fulfillment of my freedom from the start.
 
Roman Ingarden described this aspect of freedom as a phenomenon of freedom. Free action is your own action. And one's own action takes place where there is independence, both in thinking and in action. Of course, independence does not mean self-sufficiency, it does not exclude cooperation with others or openness to the world. A person is independent, i.e. free, when he can take his own point of view [4]. A standpoint of one's own in this context means independence, freedom in relation to the acquired knowledge and the acquired culture. Such independence, however, has to come from within. “Independence must arise not from its periphery, not from its everyday behavior, but it must be rooted in the innermost core of the human being.” [5] If there is no independence, according to Ingarden, in a certain sense there is no human either. Ingarden may have adopted the idea that independent, personal and thus free action arises from deep within the human being, from Henri Bergson, for whom freedom is the origin of one's own action and the spontaneity of one's own initiatives. We feel as the cause of our actions, ergo we feel free. Even if freedom cannot be measured, it can still be experienced and grasped intuitively. A key to Bergson's understanding of freedom is the distinction between “surface me” and “deep me”. The surface ego has an external character, it is impersonal and social in nature. The deep self is personal and unique. “The deeper one digs under this surface, the more the ego becomes itself again, the more its states of consciousness also cease to be associated with one another, in order to interpenetrate one another and fuse into one another, with the individual adopting the coloring of all the others. So each of us has his own special way of loving and hating, and this love, this hatred reflects our overall personality ”[6]. Free action is action of the deep self. Human actions, however, are mostly actions of the surface ego, so they are not free. It seems to us that we are free because we are autonomous. However, this is based on the fact that we live “the way you live”: We read books “that you have to read”, watch films “that you have to see” and visit places “where you have to see” must have been ". The experience of freedom is thus rare.
 
We often equate this authentic dimension of freedom with personality. Personality, freedom and authenticity are therefore in a certain sense synonymous. Freedom should therefore not only be independent, but also authentic. While independence is expressed in every action, authenticity reveals itself above all in creative actions and in interpersonal relationships such as love, loyalty, respect etc. Therefore, anyone who is not himself cannot be free.
 
Man has both a substantial and an external identity. The former is responsible for being "the same". Everyone is the same from birth to death. For this reason he can act as an autonomous subject and still bear responsibility for his own actions many years later. The bearer of this identity is the body (the genetic code, the papillary lines). The second identity is external in nature, it is responsible for being “yourself”. The basis of this second identity is loyalty to oneself and one's own values. A person who is true to himself is predictable to others. The opposite of this identity is the person without characteristics, who is reminiscent of an empty vessel that can be filled with any content, depending on what is opportune at the time. Such a person can sometimes be a democrat and sometimes an autocrat, sometimes a universalist and sometimes a nationalist. This is facilitated by the predominance of a mercantile personality for whom it is more important how you sell yourself than who you are. If you are someone else every time, then at some point you can no longer say who is actually free.
 
If freedom is independence, then that independence cannot only be external. We speak of external independence when a person is not anyone's slave or prisoner. When he has the opportunity to make his own decisions and to realize himself. When his freedom is not subject to any external restrictions. One expression of this freedom is the ability to move freely from one place to another, to profess a particular religion, to express one's political views and to decide for oneself about one's education and one's profession. The essence of freedom, however, is based on an inner independence. If a person is free inside, he can be free in any situation, even under the most extreme conditions. If, however, he is not internally free, then one cannot guarantee his freedom by creating appropriate legal and constitutional requirements. Emmanuel Mounier wrote that people cannot be given freedom from outside, through privileges or constitutions, because then they would fall asleep amid their freedoms and wake up as slaves. External freedoms are only opportunities that are presented to the spirit of freedom. [7]
 
Even the Stoics - especially Epictetus in his Doctrinal conversations - described inner freedom as independence. They differentiated between the volitive and the non-volitive. The non-volitive are external things that exist independently of us and that we can easily lose. Those who bind themselves to them and make themselves dependent on them lose their freedom as a result. Inner freedom therefore presupposes inner independence. For Epictetus, this inner freedom was the essence of freedom. Inner freedom is also a value that cannot be taken from anyone, since it is guaranteed by death. Death is not, as is sometimes claimed, the end of freedom, a blow to freedom, but its necessary precondition. A person threatened with the loss of his freedom, who is forced to do evil and renounce his principles and ideals, can always choose death as the last resort. You cannot take freedom away from anyone, you can only lose it yourself. The loss of freedom is merely an expression of an already existing bondage. By accepting the freedom given to him, the person making it possible to become aware of his own bondage. Because one can be unfree due to the dependence on ambitions, on career, on material goods and even on life.
 
There are known incidents in the past political epoch in which a young, aspiring engineer was called to the management of the company he worked for. The conversation could go something like this: “Mr. Engineer. We keep an eye on you. We know that you are a gifted and ambitious person. We help you with your career. But you know ... we need to know what the other workers are thinking, what they are talking about. They will report back to us. ”That engineer replied that this was beneath his dignity and left the room. However, he could also agree to cooperate. There was no one who defiled him, only someone who made him aware of his inner dependence on his career.
 
Freedom is not only independence, but also the ability to make decisions and take action. The greater the choice of alternatives available to me, the freer I am.If I can choose not just between two, but between many universities, if I can shop not just in two but in many shops, if I have not just one but several political parties to choose from, then the extent of my freedom appears to me much bigger. However, this only appears to be so, because “can” means “wanting”, means “having the will to act”. In Sławomir Mrożek's play The turkey, which I once saw at the Old Theater in Krakow, directed by Jerzy Jarocki, there is the following scene: Three peasants in Krakow costumes sit at a round table and sleep. After a while the first one wakes up, says "We could sow something" and falls asleep again. After a while, the second wakes up, asks "What is it?" And falls asleep again. Finally, the third person wakes up, explains “What for?” And falls asleep again.
 
Meanwhile, the world is changing around them. Borders open, new economic, social and political opportunities arise. To be free, you have to want to be free. It is not enough to have freedom only as a possibility of action. You can create the conditions for freedom, but you cannot force anyone to take initiative, to act freely.
 
However, there are also situations in which you want to but can't because you are faced with insurmountable economic barriers. Once, in the former political system, I wanted to take a German summer course at the University of Vienna and for many years tried in vain to get a passport. At the passport office in Kraków, I was asked to go to a separate room on the upper floor at a specific time each time. You didn't have to be an educated person to know what it was about. I never showed up on time. At the counter on the ground floor, where all the other citizens were queuing, I learned that my appointment had passed and I hadn't received a passport. It went on for so many years. I only received my passport during the political thaw. I can still remember the feeling of freedom that I felt when I crossed the border strip between Czechoslovakia and Austria for the first time - after a strict personal check - and got off at Vienna's Westbahnhof. I felt the freedom in the air I breathed. I felt like I could do anything I wanted. Unfortunately, this feeling only lasted until the next day, when I stood in front of the shop window of the Herder bookstore and saw all the wonderful editions of classical works of philosophy in German translation. I would have liked to have bought them all and couldn't even afford one. I only had ten dollars in my pocket, which every Polish citizen could legally purchase and export in Poland.
 
We experience freedom particularly clearly in the act of liberation. But what is the purpose of freedom? Is it not only freedom from something, but also freedom to something? Is it not only negative but also positive?
 
There is no negative freedom without positive freedom. The terms “negative” and “positive” can have different meanings. Negative freedom is first and foremost freedom from obstacles, limits and conditions. Every free action and every free decision implies this negative moment. The absolutization of this negative moment, however, can lead to an equation of freedom with turmoil and anarchy, a freedom whose only program is negation. Hegel referred to such freedom as revolutionary freedom because it is most often found in revolutionary fanaticism: “This, for example, belongs to the terrible time of the French Revolution, in which all differences in talent and authority should be abolished. This time was a tremor, an earthquake, an incompatibility with anything special; for fanaticism wants something abstract, not a structure: where differences emerge, it finds this indeterminate and undefined and cancels them. That is why the people in the revolution destroyed the institutions they had made themselves, because every institution is contrary to the abstract self-confidence of equality ”[8]. However, negative freedom in its pure form is not possible, since absolute negation ultimately destroys freedom itself.
 
Negative freedom must therefore be combined with positive freedom. Positive freedom is a freedom of choice: to act or not to act, to act one way or another. Positive freedom is the freedom to make bonds and make commitments. We break free of something to make new bonds.
 
Friedrich Nietzsche made this connection between the negative and positive moment of freedom clear in Thus spoke zarathustra in its three metamorphoses of spirit: from spirit to camel, from camel to lion, and from lion to child. The camel is the slow spirit that takes the burden of morality, established beliefs and values, and religion. As soon as this burden becomes too heavy for him and he throws it off, he also throws off the camel's skin at the same time and becomes a lion. The freedom of the lion is a negative freedom. The lion knows what he is getting rid of, he knows what he does not want, but he does not yet know what he wants. Only when the mind begins to create new values ​​does it become a child.
 
During the so-called Arab Spring, when the whole world watched with fascination as young people in particular took to the streets for their freedom, I followed these events with concern. This was a moment of negative freedom. Freedom from tyranny. I asked myself the question: what's next? How does the transition from negative to positive freedom take place? How do these societies deal with their newly acquired freedom? Today we realize that this is a fundamental problem. That liberation alone is not enough.
 
However, we can understand the term “negative freedom” in another way: as a negative experience. According to this interpretation, a person experiences freedom most strongly when he loses it. Just as light cannot be recognized without darkness, good cannot be recognized without evil, and health cannot be recognized without illness, so neither can one recognize freedom without bondage. “We have never been freer than under the German occupation. We had all lost our rights and, in the first place, the right to speak; every day we were thrown abuse in the face and we had to be silent; We were abducted en masse as workers, Jews, political prisoners [...] It was precisely the cruelty of the enemy that drove us to the extreme limits of our human existence and forced us to ask ourselves the question that is bypassed in peacetime: [...] « If I am tortured, will I hold out? " So the real question of freedom arose, and we were on the verge of the deepest knowledge man can have of himself. ”[9] Of course, with these words Sartre was not practicing an apotheosis of fascism. He wanted to show how the experience of freedom intensifies in a situation characterized by negative experiences and deadly threats. This is the source of romantic freedom.
 
According to this interpretation of the term negative freedom, positive freedom reveals itself in creative action. Creative acts are different from other forms of human activity. They are not oriented towards possession. They also do not represent an intervention in the realms of others. The creative act is a “pure gesture” which the world does not submit, but rather expresses itself in relation to the world [10]. Enriched you with a new value. Man expresses himself through creative actions and in this way fulfills his freedom.
 
The emphasis on the creative character of freedom is important because for decades people in Poland experienced freedom primarily as a romantic freedom, as an object of longing and struggle. However, I do not believe that the loss of freedom is the right way to realize it. And even if it were, the price one pays for this knowledge would be too high. A person who experiences freedom through negation - in the fight against something, in resistance against something - often loses the ability to express his freedom in a positive way. Of course, I do not want to deny the importance of this negative path of knowledge. In times when the idea that the oppressed had a deeper knowledge of freedom than his oppressor was a simple and cheap form of self-soothing, this path was certainly an attractive alternative. However, national mentalities are difficult to change. For this reason, a freedom that suddenly offers the possibility of positivistic action can sometimes turn out to be a fateful gift, as Józef Tischner wrote.
 
Positive freedom takes work and effort. Let's imagine the following situation: Someone is making a decision about their future profession. He weighs up the many possible alternatives and finally makes a decision - free of internal or external constraints. He decides to become a violin virtuoso. Once he has made this decision, he must be free from all other possibilities for self-realization. You can't do all of your jobs at once. Once he has made his decision, however, he must move on to the next, positive phase of freedom: “freedom to do something”. Because his decision opens up the world of music to him, in which he has to move freely from now on. In order for this to be possible, he must learn the rules and laws of this world and, through long and intensive practice, acquire the necessary dexterity and security in handling his instrument. The more familiar he is with the rules of music and the better he masters his instrument, the more free and at the same time more perfect he will be as a violinist. However, such freedom requires work and responsibility. Work and responsibility determine the meaning of the original decision and the meaning of the freedom expressed in this decision. Because what sense would the free choice and the decision to become a violinist have if that person locked away the music the next day and put his instrument in the corner. In this way he would make his own choice and his own freedom meaningless. In fact, through his creative endeavors, he faithfully reaffirms his previous decision and gives it meaning. Complete and real freedom thus has two complementary synonyms: loyalty and perfection.
 
Finally, let's ask about God. Is the existence of God a restriction on human freedom? In any case, this is how Friedrich Nietzsche asserted: “If there were gods, how could I stand not being a god! So there are no gods ”[11]. For Nietzsche, the consequences resulting from it were of just as or even greater importance than the “death of God”. Only through the decline of faith does humanity have the opportunity to develop fully, because God is a threat to the will to strength and to live. "All gods are dead: now we want the superman to live" [12]. When God is dead, man no longer has to turn to the hereafter. "Since he was buried in the grave, you have only risen again." [13] From then on, people decide about truth and lies, good and bad. “Indeed, we philosophers and“ free spirits ”feel as if the news that the“ old God is dead ”is illuminated by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, astonishment, suspicion, expectation - finally the horizon appears free again, assuming that it is not bright, finally our ships are allowed to sail again [...] ”[14]. That horizon gives a certain direction. Elsewhere, however, Nietzsche asked: "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon?" [15]. And: “Is there still an up and a down? Are we not erring as if through an infinite nothingness? ”[16].
 
Jean-Paul Sartre saw this a little differently and it is difficult to contradict him. “Man is nothing other than what he makes himself. This is the first principle of existentialism ”[17]. Man is the creator of himself, his existence precedes his being. However, the non-existence of God was no reason for Sartre to rejoice: "Because Dostoevsky is right when he says," If God did not exist, everything would be allowed ". That is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed: Everything is allowed if God does not exist, and consequently man is abandoned, since he cannot find a way to cling to himself or outside himself [...] in other words, there is no longer any predetermination [...] "[18]. The goal of Sartre's existentialism is not the negation of God, but the awareness of one's own freedom: “Even if there were a God, that would not change anything; that is our point of view. Not that we believe that God exists, but we think the question is not that of his existence. Man must find himself again and convince himself that nothing can save him from himself, if it were also valid proof of the existence of God ”[19]. Human actions are never relative. “By saying that man chooses, we mean that each of us chooses; but by this we also want to say that by choosing himself, he is choosing all people. In fact, there is not one of our actions that, by creating the image of the person we want to be, does not at the same time create an image of the person as we think he should be ”[20]. We can do what we want because we are free. But we thereby constitute certain possibilities, patterns of being human that others may follow. In constituting these patterns, we are responsible for all those who follow our example. The non-existence of God does not relieve our freedom of responsibility. On the contrary, it makes us all the more aware of this responsibility.
 
We live in a time that is characterized by two dangers: the fear of freedom and the absolutization of freedom. We fear freedom because it requires courage, sincerity, independent thinking, creative effort and responsibility. But the absolutization of freedom is also dangerous. Freedom is not an end in itself. It is not absolute, it is not the freedom to do everything and to break all ties, as in Plato's description of the democratically governed state, which is intoxicated with freedom: “[…] that the father gets used to becoming like the child and is afraid of his sons, but the sons are like their father and have neither shame nor fear of their parents, so that one might be free [...] the teacher fears his students in such a condition and pats them, and the students disregard the teacher , as well as the boys' supervisor, and in general the boys make themselves similar to the older ones and compete with them in word and deed [...] as well as the horses and the donkeys will get used to walking about freely and proudly, and on the street against them turn down anyone they meet if they don't get out of the way; and in the same way all other animals will also be filled with fraudulent freedom ”[21]. Freedom requires maturity. In a thoughtless, uncritical society, in a society without bourgeois virtues, democracy can quickly turn into its opposite. It is important to be free. However, it is no less important how we fill our freedom with content.

[1] J.-P. Sartre: Closed society. German by Traugott König. 5th appearance, Hamburg 1991, p.59
[2] See: J.-P. Sartre: Cahiers pour une morale (1947-48), Paris 1983, p. 300
[3] See: M. Buber: Reden über Erziehungs, Heidelberg 1953
[4] Cf. R. Ingarden: Wykłady z etyki, Warszawa 1989, p. 234.
[5] Ibid.
[6] H. Bergson: Time and Freedom. Frankfurt am Main, 1989.
[7] See E. Mounier, Oeuvres Completes, Vol. 3, Paris 1961-1962, p. 483.
[8] G. W. F. Hegel: Basics of the Philosophy of Law (Works. Volume 7), Frankfurt a. M. 1979, p. 395 f.
[9] J.-P. Sartre: Republic of Silence. In: Philosophy magazine. Special edition 09. The existentialists. Live your freedom, Berlin 2017, p. 79
[10] Cf.: M. Buber: op. Cit.
[11] F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A book for everyone and no one. In: Friedrich Nietzsche: Works in three volumes. Munich 1954, Volume 2, p. 343.
[12] Ibid., P. 339.
[13] Ibid., P. 521.
[14] F. Nietzsche, The happy science. In: Friedrich Nietzsche: Works in three volumes. Munich 1954, Volume 2, p. 205.
[15] Ibid., P. 126.
[16] Ibid.
[17] J.-P. Sartre: Is existentialism a humanism ?, Zurich 1947, p. 25
[18] Ibid., P. 24 f.
[19] Ibid., P. 67
[20] Ibid.
[21] Plato: The State (Politeia). Plato's State, Stuttgart 1857, Chapter 9.
 

Translation: Heinz Rosenau
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Poland
March 2018

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