Ryszard Legutko knows about freedom. He experienced a lack of freedom when his native Poland was under communism, and the State controlled everything. He felt the exhilaration of liberation when the captive nation was freed in 1989.
And now he senses the suffocating climate of freedom’s suppression by ideologues that proclaim freedom yet deliver what he calls the “tyranny of liberalism.” In his book, The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols, the learned Polish philosopher explores the meaning of freedom and its abuse.
The book could not be more timely. Just think of the present political chaos.
Freedom Is Cunning
Indeed, freedom is cunning since it presents itself in many ways. Some think it only to be a lack of coercion (negative freedom), while others see it as a means of controlling the unruly passions (positive freedom).
Modernity represented the constant tension between these two classic concepts. Thus, today, most people define freedom positively as a system of absolute equality to do anything one wants, which is negatively limited by others’ rights that must be respected and unharmed.
Such a definition impoverishes freedom and puts it in the service of self-interest and self-gratification. It prepares for postmodernity’s annihilation of freedom, leading to what the author calls the “minimal self.” Without true freedom, people then enter into the enslaving realm of unreality and fantasy.
Freedom Beyond the Platitudes
Prof. Legutko’s analysis is a much-needed look beyond the freedom reduced to platitudes and slogans in today’s shallow culture. Thus, freedom becomes doing whatever, whenever and wherever. It means living the forever present with a disregard for the past and unconcern for the future.
The author chronicles modernity’s philosophical assault upon freedom, which often uses freedom against itself. Most importantly, he unmasks counterfeit notions of freedom, which are veiled attacks upon Western civilization and the Church. Indeed, modern philosophers attack freedom by suppressing free will and adoring the rule of the lower faculties. Postmodern thinkers go further by hating reality, logic and all the internal structures that prevent the march toward nihilism.
A Rich Legacy to be Recovered
However, the book is not all criticism. The author describes the magnificent contribution of Christendom toward making man truly free.
This perspective is why his book is so important. He recovers the classical notion that freedom is a regime of self-discipline that allows a person to live free of the tyranny of the passions. He builds upon this classical notion and presents freedom’s great attraction in facilitating a life full of truth and beauty. People today would do well to orient their lives accordingly. They would sense greater freedom.
These concepts are, thankfully, not the author’s imaginings. They are part of the rich legacy of Catholic thought based on human nature and divine law. They formed part of the vast metaphysical infrastructure that most pre-modern people took for granted. It becomes evident how much was lost . . . and how much must be recovered if the West is ever to return to order.
Prioritizing the Soul over the Body
A central concept for true freedom is that individuals are only masters of themselves when guided by what is best in human nature: the soul. Thus the soul serves as a beacon utilizing lofty ideals, reason, logos, metaphysics and moral norms to steer the individual toward the good, true and beautiful and ultimately, with grace, toward God.
Prof. Legutko claims that the desire to prioritize the soul over the body inspired “a spectacular development of communities, institutions, and ways of life” in medieval Christendom. It proved that “life according to the soul was not only possible but worth pursuing.” This concern for the “health of the soul” formed the foundation of a civilization that favored the full development and sanctification of the individual; it served as the basis for social harmony and rich culture.
The Classic Concept of Shame
Although not a major point, the author’s treatment of the classical concept of shame is especially beautiful. It builds upon the notion of the soul governing the body. The author notes that shame is “the reaction of human nature’s loftier elements to the incursion of its baser instincts.”
The sense of shame was supported by “the vehicles of the soul—religion, metaphysics, and the ethics of virtue.” Thus, order was maintained since “We felt ashamed when we did or said something that contradicted these high standards, and when we knew that by doing or saying something we were giving in to temptations, weaknesses or morally dubious desires.”
Once that order was overturned, it gave rise to the enslaving influences of vulgarity, pornography, sexualization and other taboos that dominate the present anti-culture.
Attacks Upon True Freedom
Modernity’s brutal attack upon this freedom consisted of continuous broadsides against the prioritizing of the soul over the body. It did this by seeking above all to destroy the metaphysical foundation that facilitates this governing of the soul. That is why Nietzsche, for example, claimed that “the soul and its lofty ideals were a sham, a sheer fantasy hostile to life.”
Modern philosophers employed all sorts of formulae to justify the stripping off of social, moral and religious norms in the name of an evermore elusive freedom. Their postmodern successors went further by diminishing the notion of being and self, thereby undermining the will and all certainties.
Prof. Legutko shows how this process leads to “the tyranny of liberalism” that he later discovered in his liberated Poland. He was astonished that the present order of political correctness and identity politics is creating a brave new world that will make true freedom difficult.
The Cunning of Freedom is an important book because it pierces through the darkness of today’s shallow notions of freedom. The author exposes the dangers of continuing on the present course.
However, his positive treatment of the theme leaves readers feeling liberated. The book exposes people to transcendental truths long abandoned in the postmodern wasteland. This perspective is accessible to all. Thus, the author indicates a metaphysical path whereby postmodern man might find that truth that will set him free.