The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel worked tirelessly to show the inherent limitations of something he called absolute freedom. Absolute freedom is the license to be free from any and every external limitation, for example, the laws of government, the mores of society and the demands of others. The problem with this, contends Hegel, is that little word, from. If I am free from something, then my freedom is defined in opposition to that something; my freedom is a ‘negation’ of that something. Thus, says Hegel, absolute freedom- to be free from any limitations- is essentially negative freedom.
Let’s talk English. Say you have a teenager. The teenager wants to do certain things that you do not allow. Smoke weed, stay out past curfew, etc. “Not under my roof” The teenager experiences your law as a hindrance to her freedom. What does she do? She breaks the rules. And by breaking the rules she experiences freedom- freedom from you, the external limitation. We have, ladies and gentleman, a rebel. A rebel does exactly as she wishes. She is absolutely free. But it is still a negative freedom. Why?
Because what happens when our little rebel moves out? She was defining herself in relation to her parent, the enemy. But without that external element she lacks any real motive. She’s now free to do whatever she wants- but all of a sudden realizes she doesn’t know what she wants. We now have (say it with me) a Rebel Without a Cause. AKA Negative Freedom.
Depicted wonderfully by James Dean. The angst he displays on screen is the angst of somebody experiencing negative freedom. The result? Tragedy. Not one but two meaningless deaths.
Hegel saw the French Revolution the exact same way (yes, I’m comparing the two). The revolutionaries wanted everything and the kitchen sink out the window: the king, the church, the aristocracy, the church, even the Gregorian Calendar. They wanted to be absolutely free from any limitation in order to set up an ideal society, free from everything they believed was fucking it up before. Well, they got rid of all these things, even the calendar, beginning again with year zero. After they did they looked around asking, What next?
Like James Dean, they didn’t have a clue. They started killing each other. “We need to be free from counter-revolutionaries”. The revolution turned in on itself (it became an involution). Why, O Why?
It was inevitable, says Hegel, because from the beginning the revolution defined itself in the negative, in opposition to other forces. At his most poetic, Hegel describes the end result: a human head, removed as easily as “a head of cabbage”. A meaningless death, just like James Dean’s.
By now you might be asking, well what the hell is the alternative? You probably guessed it, positive freedom. Which is? … Again it comes down to a single word. ‘Positive freedom’ is the freedom to. Two letters. T-O. To do what? Freedom to… love, paint a picture, go fishing, fulfill yourself, etc. Quite the rosy picture, right?
Wrong. Ultimately, where Hegel is headed that true positive freedom is the freedom to follow the law. In four words: the freedom to submit. “Free to submit” sounds like a paradox, if not a contradiction. But let’s return to the teenager example.
What if the teenager worked with her parents to reach some sort of compromise? She wouldn’t smoke weed but could stay out late, etc. For this to happen both sides have to give up something, neither side gets to be ‘the master’. The result? Our teenager now feels that she has a part in the rules she must follow, and freely chooses to do so. This, says Hegel, is called Reconciliation. In the German, Versöhnung. We’ll come back to this crucial term… but for now…
If you smell in the phrase “free to submit” something proto-fascist, you may be right. While Hegel’s philosophy definitely did not cause the rise of Hitler, you can correlate the two. Hegel’s logic does not give the individual absolute freedom from the group. The particular is “liquidated” in the universal.
It’s not that the individual can’t rebel, it’s that in an ideal society there would be no need to rebel. You would not feel alienated from the law. Still, I think most of us have a gut reaction against any law, be it taxes or speed limits or social norms. But look at it this way: you need rules in order to play the game. In chess, if a rook could move diagonally, or as many spaces as the player wills it, then chess would cease to be possible. Same in society. There are certain rules we must follow.
Now, you may still not be convinced. You may still hold that true freedom is to be free from restrictions put upon you by other imperfect and self-seeking humans. “Fine” says Hegel “human law is just one level of my argument. I’m also talking about divine law”. That is, nature.
There are certain limitations put on us by nature. We can’t breathe under water. We can’t fly. Of course, being humans, we find ways around these laws, and invent ways to be free of them (scuba gear, the aeroplane). Some laws, however, cannot be broken. They are the big three: sickness, old age, and death. (what Buddha called the divine messengers, for their all-too-truthfulness) No matter what you do to prevent these from happening, they will. You, I, we cannot be free from them. Negative freedom, finally, has met its match.
Does this mean we should smoke cigarettes etc. to get sick, age quicker and die? No, I don’t think positive freedom makes sense here. What does make sense is that word we came to above- reconciliation, Versöhnung, or its closest synonym: atonement. At-one-ment. (Yes, that’s where the word comes from)
Can I reconcile myself to sickness, old age and death? Can I be at-one with the cosmos that demands my eventual dissolution? Sure. I can be at peace with it, accept it. But as soon as I do or shortly after I’m still here, alive and healthy and disturbed again by the specter of death.
So I must keep reconciling myself to the laws of nature that allow me to play the game.
This is hard, because so long as we’re not dead, we have to keep doing it again and again. Hegel said the same thing about history. Again and again, there is tragedy, loss, nihilism. But at each stage there is some sort of reconciliation, whereby the mistakes of the past are incorporated and surpassed. Are forgiven.
That’s our personal history, a clash of forces, an experience overflowing with struggle and resolution. One day at a time.