In a November 2018 New York Times op-ed, Andrea Long Chu acutely details an eye-opening account of what we could call “a new type of liberty.” Chu is genetically male, and has sought to medically “transition” to a woman. Chu describes the depths of pain that this involves, notably the increased physical exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and increase of suicidal thoughts. And yet, with all that being said, Chu is rather emphatic about the transition:
I still want this, all of it. I want the tears; I want the pain. Transition doesn’t have to make me happy for me to want it. Left to their own devices, people will rarely pursue what makes them feel good in the long term. Desire and happiness are independent agents. (Emphasis added)
What is worth considering in Chu’s conclusion is a startling revelation. For Chu, happiness is not the aim of the decision to begin the gender transition. Rather, more emphasis is placed upon the detachment of happiness from desire. The paradigm for one’s choosing become the desire or choice that I make, regardless of its metaphysical and moral content.
It is at this point that we can come to a consideration of D. C. Schindler’s newest book, Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty. Schindler’s book is aptly focused upon a kind of liberty that is witnessed in the personal example of Andrea Chu. For Schindler, there is a rather common account of freedom in the contemporary world that he calls “diabolical.” For Schindler, it is more often the case to only have a description of freedom without a deep and substantive account of what it is. There is an “ontological emptiness” that is characteristic of modern liberty. As such, this predominant notion of freedom is not something which can deepen, but only something that ought to be protected. The diabolical nature of modern liberty is the
effort to clear space, to excise as radically as possible whatever is given a priori, precisely in order that the individual might have the power to make choices, to determine himself, to acquire property and pursue his own happiness, to have his own voice in political matters […] The very condition of this power is the elimination of a truly ontological good […] Goodness can be retained only as a moral obligation, which comes to expression in the form of empty laws and neutral procedures.
In Schindler’s picture, the essence of modern freedom is revealed here, wherein power becomes dissevered from actuality. Tracing an initial lineage that can be found in the work of John Locke, a typically modern account of freedom contends that goodness is not already present in nature and things, something that makes an “a priori claim on my will”. Rather, nature is “little more than nothing.” Such an anti-teleological conception of nature is present in the moral sphere as well. Goodness is not something we are inclined towards by our nature; rather, my acting is simply the result of a brute force that is foisted out into the world. My willed action is what puts meaning into the world and things. Understood in this way, what comes to predominate is an ontological inversion that places appearances over-and-above reality, which Schindler argues can be witnessed in modernity’s normative belief that property is reducible to money, human relationships are transformed into contracts and rights, and become merely the sign of social cohesion. “In short,” according to Schindler,
… the more fully freedom is exercised in this way, the more deeply one is driven into an isolation from both the world and other people (not to mention oneself), which is coincident with an abject vulnerability to being swallowed up impotently into these relations.
Schindler’s judgment of modern liberty, even in its social and political expression, is reminiscent of Tocqueville’s concern that the democratic soul may tend to understand itself as “greater than kings and less than men.” This is one of the great achievements of Schindler’s book, namely, that his acute analysis gives philosophical muster to Tocqueville’s social description of modern freedom. This condition of freedom can be a sort of exaltation, where we appear as “all-powerful technician” and yet become transformed into “the helpless product”.
As we begin to experience an increase in liberty, disconnected from an already existing order of nature, it can make us unhinged or unbound. As limits are gradually transgressed and overcome, we are at first thrilled. Yet over time this experience of freedom leaves us exhausted. The more we become inundated by appearances, separated from the actuality of goodness, from the concreteness of real things and people, the more our existential agitation grows. The “delinking” of happiness from desire as separate “agents” is simply a different way of saying that we are “greater than kings and less than men.”
With this diagnosis in mind, the architectonic aim and prescription of Schindler’s book comes to light. In contrast to a diabolical conception of freedom, there is “the need to recover a fundamentally ontological conception of freedom, one that is rooted, at its core, in goodness.” Goodness is not an abstract entity, but a wellspring: “… a metaphysical reality, an actuality that is fruitfully present to all things as their ultimate source and destination.” The symbolical notion of freedom is a completeness, a fullness of being that begins from an awareness of what freedom is, and why it exists. In attempting an initial thrust to overcome the Kantian heteronomous/autonomous modern lens, Schindler advises a recovery of the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, whereby the question of freedom is first and foremost ontological. Schindler wants to provide a philosophical critique of our contemporary understanding of culture and its manifold institutions. To provide a critique of certain contemporary “values” with respect to the moral and political realm leaves an elephant in the room: what is the standard by which such values are worth valuing? Schindler demonstrates that common answers to this question are often quite vacuous and devoid of any substantive defense beyond either the individual or collective will.
Schindler’s book certainly places him in the fold of Leo Strauss and the mid-20th century tradition of American scholarship that has sought to diagnosis what the novelist Walker Percy called the “malaise of modernity.” If what Schindler argues is generally the case—namely, that the typically modern account of liberty is one which leads toward fracturing, isolation, and being dissevered from the real—then what can be done? We could phrase this question differently by wondering, in Straussian terminology, what the political import of Schindler’s philosophical insights would be? Schindler’s emphasis, which can certainly be missed, is that first principles are not distant entities, but become incarnate, and made manifest in our social and political lives. Aristotle argued in Book II of the Politics that metaphysics is not politics, for political philosophy is a practical science. This claim, however, cannot neglect the other side of that coin, which is that every political order, institution, and human activity presupposes a metaphysical worldview. There is some paradigm that all citizens and every society seek to imitate.
The question that Schindler is putting before his readers is the following: what is the paradigm for being human? To help answer this question, let us turn briefly to an essay from Schindler that is intimately connected to the thesis of the book. According to Schindler, health is going to be a motif for moving towards the possibility of any real “recovery” human freedom. Assessing what is considered to be a common notion of health in modernity, Schindler argues that this
notion is a specifically unhealthy notion of health insofar as it considers a single aspect of health precisely without regard to the whole […] it gives the parts primacy over the whole, rather than the reverse. But if health just is wholeness, then this understanding of health is itself a kind of disease. The very notion of health in the modern world represents a fragmentation or breakdown of wholeness. And in this case the irony becomes a tragic one: this unhealthy understanding of health, insofar as it informs our actions and so also our ordering of society, in a certain sense performs what it represents. The understanding itself fragments. In a word, the reductive notion of health causes disorder, which means that the very energies devoted to the pursuit of this health may turn out to be a profound cause of disease. (“The Healthy and the Holy,” Communio, Fall 2014: 549)
With a symptoms-based approach to health, where the part becomes elevated to the whole, the attempt to restore a patient to health encounters a serious obstacle. The application of a healthy remedy that is rooted in a false understanding of health fosters disease. Disease and sickness remain and multiply because the paradigm for heath and wholeness is one that is not in accord with our embodied human nature. The actualization of health will always be remote when we look to replace true health with a mere part. As the American political theorist Joshua Mitchell argues, this is a condition where supplements become substitutes.
In a similar vein, Schindler says that modern man struggles to actualize his freedom precisely because it is based upon only a partial account. The lack of a true form of freedom places citizens in an oscillating type of gridlock where
there can be no freedom without external regulation, but the very intrinsic limitlessness of freedom means that there is likewise no principle of constraint for regulation; the law, and the governmental machinery needed to prop it up, can intrude as deeply as deemed necessary into the lives of individuals precisely in the name of freedom.
And it is in speaking of health that we could pose a question that Schindler could, perhaps, pursue in greater detail with a further study. In his short treatment on religion Schindler echoes Columbia University Mark Lilla’s argument in his book The Stillborn God. According to Lilla, the angst that seems characteristic of contemporary democratic life can trace its origins to what he calls the “Great Separation.” The severing of politics and religion finds its origins in Thomas Hobbes, and this loss of political theology has been a catalyst for the demise of the West ever since. While there are clear differences between Lilla and Schindler, both would certainly agree that the almost-complete absence of theology in our accounting of human affairs has led to a state of being unhealthy. What Lilla’s Stillborn God has overlooked is the fact that the initial severing of politics and religion, and Christianity in particular, finds its source in Augustine. What would be worth exploring for Schindler is the manner in which a healthy conception of the relation between religion and political life, through an Augustinian lens, is possible for modern democratic citizens. While this question falls outside the scope of Freedom from Reality, it is a dangling question that seeks to be addressed.
This critical question, of course, should not make one overlook Schindler’s achievement. What he has shown in this book recalls Francis Fukuyama’s judgment that the end of history will be a sad time. Without philosophy or metaphysics, human life will lose contact with an Ultimate Paradigm that is the source of human goodness. Cut off from the real order of things, and the actuality of goodness, we can be tempted to believe that happiness is not our telos. Instead, we might settle for being “less than men,” making only my desire penultimate. In Schindler’s book, we not only discover a first move towards a truer account of freedom. More than this, we get to participate in the very activity of philosophizing.
Freedom from Reality. The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty
By David C. Schindler
University of Notre Dame Press, 2017
Hardcover, 456 pages
(Editor’s note: This review essay was previously published in Philosophy and Canon Law, no. 4 : 235-240, and is posted here in slightly different form with the kind permission of the author.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!