Category: History of Ideas

Welcome (and Farewell) to Freedom

Welcome (and Farewell) to Freedom

Just published Riccardo Baldissone’s tour de force new book considers the meanings of liberty, freedom and related concepts. It ranges from classical texts to the present. From the introduction the author explains some of the transformations associated with the word and why a new vocabulary might be helpful even liberating. Farewell to Freedom is available in open access digital editions and available to order in print. 

“Actually, the notion of freedom is not even a Platonic invention, as the Greek word ἐλευθερία9 [eleutheria] is previously attested in Pindar: Plato improves and systematizes an already active process of production of abstractions. Havelock associates this process with the construction of the first Greek written alphabetical language, which the Socratic-Platonic semantic enquiries culminate. The book argues that before this process there is no literal freedom, but just free things, and then, free humans. When the word ἐλεύθερον [eleutheron], free, appears in the Homeric text, it does not grammatically refer to human subjects, but it metaphorically hints to their state: for example, we now translate the Homeric expression ἐλεύθερον ἧμαρ [eleutheron hēmar], literally free day, as the day of liberty, that is, the condition of freedom. Only in the fifth century BCE, does the appearance of the word eleutheria in two Pindaric odes herald a series of neologisms, such as, for example, Thucydides’ αὐτονομία [autonomia], which we now render in English as ‘autonomy.’ These terms become part of a wide constellation of locutions that construct a plurality of freedoms: a similar constellation also revolves around the Latin words liber, free, and libertas, liberty. Later on, Christian authors such as Augustine identify a proper freedom and relocate it in the afterlife, whilst associating its mundane limited exercise with will. As compared with the GraecoRoman and Germanic variously grounded notions of liberty and freedom, the Christian emphasis on individual salvation takes further the Stoic and Neoplatonist retreat towards interiority, and it produces a radical decontextualization of personal choice. After the turn of the first Christian millennium, medieval theological debates focus on freedom both as a divine faculty and as a secular practice. The latter aspect is also developed by lay legal scholars and political thinkers, following the recovery of Roman law codes and Greek philosophical texts. Paradoxically, Luther and Calvin’s stress on predestination allows then the redirection towards worldly tasks of individual agency, and its unlimited expansion. As early modern constructions of freedom emerge from a clash of religious fundamentalisms, despite their claim of absolute novelty they often recast medieval theological notions. However, seventeenth-century English parliamentary debates also revive the Roman phraseology of slavery, in order to articulate the concept of freedom as absence of dependence. This concept is formulated by Hobbes on the model of the new physics. In the eighteenth century, Rousseau follows Hobbes in reshaping medieval mystical bodies in the form of the general will. Moreover, he redefines freedom as the obedience to a self-prescribed rule. Similarly, Kant claims absolute autonomy through a voluntary subsumption of the individual under the universal.

German idealist thinkers’ inflation of the concept of freedom reveals it as a mere hyperbole, which can be realised either as absolute compulsion or in the absence of others. Hegel endeavours instead to capture freedom within a framework of evolving historical necessity. The reaction to the Hegelian dynamic totalization opens the way to a variety of theoretical challenges to the very notions of subject and will, which are the foundations of the medieval and modern constructions of freedom. From Stirner on, a veritable fault-line opens up in Western thought between the pursuit of a conceptual definition of liberty and the attempt to rethink freedom as the human production of novelty. Whilst Marx anchors this production to material processes, Nietzsche takes further Stirner’s questioning of ideas by challenging the unity of the Western subject. Nietzsche’s effort to reconstruct conceptual entities as processes allows us to revise the discourses of freedom in terms of human practices. In particular, a radical shift of the very locus of freedom and autonomy results from a double change of theoretical focus: Simondon rethinks individuals as processes of individuation, and Foucault constructs subjects as processes of subjectivation. These processual approaches undermine the raison d’être of the notions of freedom and autonomy: regulative properties such as freedom and autonomy only apply to an enclosed and selfconsistent entity – the individual, or the collective – as distinct from others, and they cannot fit subjectivation processes that are based on the constitutive participation with others. Hence, a new theoretical lexicon is needed to strike a dia-nomous middle path between autonomous and heteronomous alternatives: such a relational third way requires likewise relational notions. Of course, it may seem impossible to transcend the horizon of freedom: the very plurality of the discourses of liberty may rather appear to justify the hope in some understanding of freedom that transcends its pervasive neoliberal version. Nevertheless, also more articulate discourses of liberty can hardly face our current challenges, both in the public and the private sphere. For example, these discourses also still claim the freedom to exercise an absolute power over oneself – a mastery that in fact is their paradoxical cornerstone. If the discourses of freedom appear exhausted and even counterproductive, couldn’t we treasure instead the neoliberal unwitting demonstration of the performative power of words, and thus realise that other words may help catalyse other (and participative) practices? In this case, we could take advantage of our knowledge of the past to construct a different vocabulary, which may empower us to claim the life that we all deserve”.

(Reproduced without footnotes. The full text of the opening chapter ‘Antiquities before Christianities’ is available from the publisher’s site to view and download). DOI: https://doi.org/10.16997/book15a