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Over the past two and a half centuries, the word “liberty” has become talismanic in the West. At least two revolutions, the French and the American, were fought in its name, and it is ritualistically invoked by all sides in political debates, each one claiming ownership of it. But every attempt to define it runs into roadblocks. “The right to do as you please” won’t work, at least without serious qualification, since today we know all too well what some people have been pleased to do. In the nineteenth century, the philosopher John Stuart Mill famously refined the definition with his “harm principle.” The “only” reason, he wrote, for stopping someone from doing what he pleases “is to prevent harm to others.” But the harm principle has its own problems. What kind of harm? Physical? Emotional? Spiritual? Left alone, liberty can pull us into some dark doings.

Ryszard Legutko, a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Poland and a member of the European Parliament, has been pondering this problem for some years, sharing his thoughts in lectures, books, and journal articles, some of them in recent issues of First Things. In his view, a certain type of liberty (or freedom—he uses the terms synonymously) is indispensable to the functioning of any republic. But everything depends on the kind of liberty prevailing there. “Positive” liberty, as he notes in his most recent book, The Cunning of Freedom, is the liberty that aims at cultivating the skills and habits that enable people to live together as citizens of a flourishing community. “Negative” liberty is the kind that aims at a utopia in which people can boast, “There is no one else to hinder or stop me from doing what I want to do” or “force me to do something I do not want to do.” The reductio ad absurdum of this, Legutko thinks, would be the life of Robinson Crusoe on his desert island. He lived in absolute freedom there: He could do whatever he pleased and take orders from nobody. But it “would be more like a nightmare that we shake off with relief once we waken.”  

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

Walk into it, behold the many items on display, and take your pick. In similar fashion, a typically modern, heterosocial community may be composed of people of all religions, philosophies, and lifestyles: “Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists; heterosexuals, homosexuals, innumerable genders, nationalities, and ethnic backgrounds; 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 underscore the weakness of the department store analogy. In the real world, we are dealing not with purses, pots, and pans, but with subgroups holding vastly different worldviews—differing views of freedom, of human nature, of “man’s destiny and what constitutes good political order.” For example, “freedom for Christians has always been interpreted in a way liberals found unacceptable, and vice versa.” All too often, according to Legutko, it is the Christians who cave: “Lured by the alleged virtue of open-mindedness, they adapt their language to liberal ideology, believing that by doing so they pay very little price as Christians and gain a respectable position in a liberal/multicultural society.”

Most of The Cunning of Freedom is profoundly pessimistic. Legutko thinks that liberty has undergone an Orwellian redefinition in the West that has changed it into its opposite: fear of expressing anything at odds with liberal orthodoxy. “Formerly, such concepts as pluralism, diversity, tolerance, and openness were intended to soften human interaction and to temper the strictness of the political and moral order. . . . Today, these words have acquired a sinister meaning. The erstwhile soft concepts have turned into ideological sticks with which to bludgeon opponents.” We live in a Western world supposedly threatened by Orwellian “thoughtcrimes”—“sexism, racism, Islamophobia, binary thinking,” and so on—the number of which, Legutko thinks, has surpassed even those conjured up by the Russians. 

Is there any relief from this? Is any good ending possible? Glimmers of hope emerge in the book’s concluding chapters, which discuss positive freedom at some length. Legutko sees a route 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 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 has to be gradually disclosed 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 how we see the world.

For Legutko, the cave represents the physical world, the world we see every day. He beckons us to see beyond it, into the metaphysics underlying it. Here he turns to the philosophy of Aristotle and the work of Catholic philosophers who rediscovered Aristotle centuries later. Though he admits that Aristotle never used the term “metaphysics,” Legutko believes it accurately sums up the Aristotelian project, which he describes as “philosophical inquiry into ultimate principles and causes.” Aristotle thus leads us to the conviction that the goal of our existence transcends physical limitations, and that in seeking it we will acquire a new self-confidence, “a strong sense of self.” Legutko likens the effort to acquire virtues such as courage, justice, and prudence, to that of an aspiring concert pianist. His or her skills can be acquired only by continual practice. In similar fashion, it is only by acting courageously, justly, and prudently that we can hope to acquire their motivating virtues.  

Here, then, is the “positive” freedom that Legutko hopes will be rediscovered in our time. Its opposite, “negative” liberty, is starting 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 thinking would enable us to look deeper into ourselves and our life on earth: “Homo metaphysicus knows there is more to his being than the imperatives of everyday life and he deems . . . his real status as being higher than the pitiful condition that his existence would indicate.” 

But how can these hopes translate into reality? Are there any signs on the horizon of an actual Aristotelian renaissance? Legutko says little on this subject, and what he does say does not sound optimistic. The nation-state, our substitute for the ancient city-state, has survived the “globalizations and global ideologies” coursing through the world today. “Nevertheless, liberal ideology continues its conquest of Western societies, penetrating every nook and cranny of our existence.” As he views the situation in the West, Orwellian conformism and woke ideology remain the order of the day. The only glimmers of hope Legutko finds are in some Central European countries, particularly in his native Poland, where “there is a real pluralism of opinions spanning left to right.” 

Legutko’s account of contemporary culture in the West deserves careful consideration by anyone alarmed by the dark passage the world has been taking over the past half-century. But there may be some flashes of light. The philosophical pursuits of certain Western writers, particularly Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Rod Dreher, Adrian Vermeule, and Pierre Manent, give us reason to hope for a renaissance of Platonic and Aristotelian thought and the Christian thinkers inspired by them. The contemporary thinkers do not always agree—far from it—on the means of resistance to the dangerous tendencies in modern social thought, but they all draw broad sketches of how it 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 together with him on a podium.

George McKenna is professor emeritus of political science at City College of the 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 licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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