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August 11, 2022
Book Reviews

Freedom and Aristocracy


The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols


by Ryszard Legutko
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz



Freedom and Aristocracy

One of the greatest tragedies following the implosion of Communism was the failure to “not primarily opening up a free space but reconstructing ‘the old order,’ bringing back what was real, good, proper” (p. 52). Thus, anti-Communism should have been largely, if not entirely, reactionary. Instead, for the lack of conservative elites in places like Poland, liberalism filled the void.

Ryszard Legutko seems to have a ready alternative for the liberal totalitarian affliction of our times. It is res publica, a commonwealth with a mixed constitution. Sadly, he does not devote much of The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols (New York and London: Encounter Books, 2021) to its advocacy. Instead, he brilliantly sets out to dissect freedom and distill an anti-dote to liberalism for us. Unlike Roy Dreher’s attempts to recreate the sui generis Polish dissident paradigm of the 1970s and, perhaps, 1980s, in contemporary America, Ryszard Legutko’s proposition is not ahistorical; it is universal.

First, Legutko pledges to derive liberty from “the classical philosophical tradition.” Then, he dismisses most contemporary thinkers, including his erstwhile guru Isaiah Berlin and, in particular, the latter philosopher’s idea of a dual manifestation of freedom as bunk: “a collection of platitudes and falsehoods” (pp. 2-3).

Next, the thinker wants us to suspend the disbelief: “The argument that the liberal order may be inimical to freedom is not only treated with disbelief but dismissed entirely as a product of an unstable and perverse mind.” The liberal enemy posits that to execute his “modernizing project,” one must make a clean start, a Pol Potian “Year Zero,” without mass terror. However, “the conservative side rejects the clean-slate strategy that the modernizers espouse – that is, the strategy to cleanse the Polish minds from most historical and cultural traits and replace them with the current pieties of liberal democratic ideology” (p. 55). One should add: not only Polish but also American and other.

Then, Legutko delves into the nature and manifestations of freedom. There are three types of liberty: negative, positive, and inner. Lack of coercion denotes negative freedom but fails to set limits to liberty externally. An ability to govern oneself and others reflects positive freedom but, internally, fails to define what the individual’s freedom entails (or, as the author puts it: “positive freedom is a set of qualities and conditions needed to achieve important aims,” (p. 59); and he cautions: “positive freedom makes little sense if it amounts to adapting oneself to changing conditions and to one’s biological inclinations,” (p. 105); and, finally, inner freedom expresses itself in enabling one to stay true to oneself, even if the ability to harmonize freedom with human essence remains confusing. “The third sense of freedom concerns authorship of one’s actions, words, and thoughts…. In the concept of positive freedom, one references external criteria to fashion for oneself a suitably free existence. In the concept of inner freedom, objective criteria do not count” (p. 113).

To understand the distinction between the three freedoms well, Legutko refines the definitions of communism and liberalism from his previous work. “Communism was an artificial construct, conceived as an ideological project and derived from a deeply flawed philosophy that made people live in an artificial reality” (p. 51). Liberalism is “a super-theory that has enforced itself on modern society as the best regulator of human diversity” (p. 170).

In a way, as I see it, liberalism is thus an ideology of conflict management. Nevertheless, it also has a much more ambitious and dangerous dimension. It aims to equalize and deify man in congruence with Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Satre’s precepts. “So, man is nothing, and man is God” (p. 126).

Liberalism further counters nationalism. However, national distinctiveness comes from the culture that shaped each people. “The concept of ‘culture,’ which spread rapidly once conceived, conveyed the complex makeup of a nation’s singular distinctiveness” (p. 156). According to Legutko, “People continue to need a community that naturally unites them through a common language, history, social practices, and is cemented by loyalty, love, and even sometimes by the ultimate sacrifice.” The author qualifies this by agreeing that “populations have no need for nationalism during stable eras but, in times of crises, silly notions may be fed into complacent minds and prompt irresponsible conduct under the pretense of serving one’s country” (p. 157).

Thus, nationalism should endure, but one must be aware of its capacity for abuse. Liberalism rejects such sage advice. It follows its own way.

To achieve its goal of regulating “human diversity,” liberalism champions multiculturalism. That is a fatal flaw. Pace liberals, society is not “a gigantic department store, where people can move freely through every conceivable department whenever they want, in pursuit of the goods they wish to have” (p. 22).

The author explains that “each community has a different understanding and evaluation of society’s values. Besides, each has differing notions of freedom and human nature as well as divergent (sometimes irreconcilable) notions about man’s destiny and what constitutes good political order.” Because of such diversity of view – national, ethnic, and religious – “a utopia built on diversity has never really exhilarated mankind’s imagination and is unlikely to do so in the future” (p. 22).

Thus, confusion reigns. Two contradictory phenomena illustrate this best. First, “we witness the desperate attempts of individuals to manifest the exceptional nature of their true selves through the sincerity of their words and actions.” Second, “we witness a most depressing parade of captive minds, chanting the same cliches in unison and mimicking whatever they have been told to mimic.”

Paradoxically, these are complementary phenomena. “As the process of homogenization has accelerated, individuals have become increasingly less distinguishable in their views, conduct, language, and actions, thus rendering the search for one’s uniqueness all the more urgent” (p. 116).

Legutko claims further that “Liberalism stimulated the process of stripping our social life and ourselves of many elements along the lines that liberal philosophy had envisaged. It had its share, for example, in pushing society towards individualism, in which a collection of self-contained agents collaborated through contracts, akin to liberal philosophy’s social order. We are closer to this order today than ever before” (p. 141). Even more frightfully, “The liberal order requires social engineering to be implemented and this, in turn, means not only restructuring society but marginalizing those who oppose the process” (p. 171).

Thus, liberalism has degenerated into soft totalitarianism. “Most people accept liberalism because it offers an easy and comfortable solution. Its alluring power lies in a combination of two factors. On the one hand, it is meant to address people as individuals, telling them that everyone has both the right and the freedom to become whomever and whatever they want. On the other hand, liberalism is a political system that secures those rights, bolstered by an ideology that regulates people’s conduct, tells them right from wrong, what to love and whom to hate. The combination of these two elements generates a seemingly self-evident conclusion that one should fully identify with the system in order to be free; then, the system will reciprocate by enlarging freedom for everyone. Blending into this system is a natural outcome, given the relatively high degree of loneliness that characterizes the world of negative freedom. It’s a highly disconcerting conclusion” (p. 176).

Liberty is suppressed ostensibly in the name of liberty. Freedom of speech suffers first. Instead, lies serve to uphold liberalism. “Once one particular freedom is confused with the legal framework of freedom, then the language of freedom is likely to become mendacious. And this is what has happened over recent decades in the Western world” (p. 10).

A new form of speech emerged, conditioned and policed by political correctness. “The overall effects of political correctness have been disastrous for freedom, as well as for other basic ideas such as beauty, goodness, and truth” (p. 24).

Liberalism makes promises which are illogical and unmoored from history and faith. One can make a compelling case, perhaps that “all men are created equal.” However, according to the author, it is absolutely unjustifiable to posit that humans “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… among these … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He finds this ahistorical and false. “There is nothing in the Christian religion that would even indirectly supply grounds for such an outlandish contention, nor is there anything of the kind in the history of philosophy” (p. 31).

Obviously, Legutko believes that America’s Founding Fathers should have just asserted that we were all children of the Lord. Everything else is just fluff, empty promises, particularly under a limited government. And the objective of freedom should be to maintain such a regime. “The Polish nation, for example, was obsessively apprehensive of political absolutism for many centuries, and was inclined to treat every attempt to reverse the state’s gradual dismantling as a sinister plan to restore absolutum dominium” (p. 32).

Radical forces have presumed to speak in the name of freedom and arrogate to themselves the championship of freedom as it reflects their interests and pursuits. “Various interest groups have hijacked freedom and have made the success of their crusades their sole criterion. These groups have somehow managed to convince public opinion – or, more often, the ruling elites – that they pave the way for greater democracy by opening up more free space for hitherto marginalized groups… They [thus] have greatly restricted liberties in practically every area of life, including free speech, free inquiry, and free thought” (p. 10).

As a result, “these and similar processes have had a debilitating effect on people’s minds not only because they have destroyed the language of communication and reversed the meaning of basic concepts. From the very beginning, liberalism has made itself the sole champion of liberty, pluralism, tolerance, and diversity, and the ardent enemy of discrimination, intolerance, and exclusion. This etymological trick – the word ‘liberalism’ stems from ‘libertas’ – the Latin word for freedom – has worked perfectly” (p. 173).

At this stage, liberalism is none of that anymore. Now “Pluralism means monopoly; diversity – conformity; tolerance – censorship; openness – ideological rigidity. In just about every private or public institution, school, or corporation, there are offices responsible for diversity, tolerance, and pluralism. All of them are gruesome ideological agencies, spreading fear and imposing conformity, not unlike their inglorious Communist predecessors” (p. 174).

Instead, liberalism is the ideology of power. “Both international institutions and sovereign governments have created this moral disorder and then anointed it by giving it a ‘European’ label, although their revolution has been a shameless violation of European moral tradition” (p. 35). According to Legutko, “Governments could not achieve these ends without creating a system of meticulous legal regulations and a powerful bureaucracy to supervise the new order… Some of the changes have been really disturbing because they have annihilated the principles which for decades had been considered non-negotiable, even sacred.” (p. 45)

The aim of the radical forces is no less than a revolution. Under the guise of promoting individual freedom, a revolutionary transformation of society is at hand. The revolutionaries aim at the most intimate spheres of life. Private is to be public. Thus, every aspect of human activity shall be scrutinized, exposed, and regulated. According to Legutko, “The champions of the sexual revolution made devastating incursions into social practices, morality, culture, and politics, dramatically changing the world in which we live by liquidating a complex system of obligations and inhibitions that had been built over centuries to tame human sexuality.” (p. 140)

It is sex that serves as the most powerful battering ram of the revolution. “Sex is probably the best illustration of this. Even though it concerns an individual’s particular personal experience, sex has in recent decades transformed into a powerful instrument for creating collective ideologies that regulate life’s most private aspects. Feminism is another good illustration of this tendency. The concept began with the assumption that women’s identity had been hijacked and enslaved by the centuries of men’s perfidious oppression and that women should finally be free to express their feminine concerns and interests and articulate them in a feminine language that was part of a larger all-encompassing feminine world view. But this initially libertarian plan instantaneously transformed itself into a rigid orthodoxy, imposing minuscule rules and regulations not only on women but on society as a whole. It codified the rules of language, rewrote history, and forced others to succumb to new, politically correct versions. It condemned ideologically suspect thoughts, gestures, and emotions and made laws increasingly inquisitorial. Since Marxism’s demise, there has been no other ideological movement in recent history that has managed to produce as many captive minds as feminism.” (p. 117)

Astonishingly, the revolutionaries have accomplished so much of their collectivist agenda because they disguise their postulates as emanating from freedom itself. And they manipulate the language. They tend to attach sublime words to base issues they champion.

For example, “in classical doctrines (supported by common sense) dignity was always about obligations as the principle noblesse oblige unequivocally indicates – but never about rights… Today’s doctrine… could be compared to the ideology of hereditary aristocrats, who claimed that simply through birth, they were entitled to certain liberties and privileges, except that today these have been extended to all human beings… Dignity, in other words, should be about the high and sublime, not the low and vulgar.” (p. 38)

Legutko shakes his head sadly: “There is something odiously dissonant when in the name of dignity, one derives the right to abortion, pornography, prostitution, impropriety or to any other morally dubious practices.” As a result, “What people find irresistible is its simple message: everyone can explain their demands, irrespective of their moral quality, in the language of rights, and once thus formulated these demands acquire both a nobler status and legal protection.” (p. 38)

Further, in an apparent act of deception, the slogans of the liberals contain both absolutist and morally relativist propositions, as it fits their strategic goal. On the one hand, the liberals invoke “human rights,” very imaginatively crafted to accommodate nearly anything. On the other, consider the fact that “All rulings that courts make about matters of life and death are moral judgements, yet the concepts of good and evil are absent.” (p. 28)

Deception works because it is served to the public as a matter of individual liberties. At the same time, it is disguised with a generous dose of moral relativism. And only afterward is it reinforced by totalitarian laws. “Leaving the questions of abortion, marriage, or euthanasia for individuals to decide is in itself a decision that dramatically changes society, a decision comparable to a revolution… After all, one cannot live in a society in which the law allows something that is morally reprehensible. Therefore, soon after such a law is passed, new laws are introduced to make moral opposition to this law more difficult and legally risky.” (p. 27)

The author bemoans the loss of the body/soul duality to modernity within the context of positive freedom. “Universities would not have been possible without a profound acceptance of the body/soul dichotomy.” (p. 69) And further, “Certainly, the university did not liberate a gentleman from earthly entanglements, but it did enable his mind to look at them from a larger, more profound historical and philosophical perspective and thus preclude hasty commitments or rancor. His mind could not be held hostage by the outbursts of popular crazes, ideological crusades, or the premature certainties preached by ephemeral prophets. Nor could it be paralyzed by agnosticism and relativism.” (p. 70)

Legutko equates it with the loss of liberty and humanity. Summing up the historical evolution underway, he warns us that individual positive freedom bears the history of the degeneration of the philosopher, entrepreneur, and artist from antiquity to the present. Only the aristocrat has not succumbed to the spirit of the times.

The author is such an aristocrat. The aristocrat is a master of himself. He rejects and scorns excess (pleonexia) and uncontrollability (akolasia). “The aristocrat was a free man because, unlike an animal, he was capable of mastering himself.” (p. 99) Legutko explains: “Put differently, being a master of oneself meant that the body should be ruled by what was best in human nature; that is, by the soul and its guardians such as reason, logos, lofty ideals, and moral norms…. The aristocrat, therefore, had a noticeable element of lordliness about him.” (p. 100)

Four attributes of an aristocrat stand out: “the rejection of historical inevitability; the defense of the ethic of obligations; an acceptance of body/soul dualism with the soul taking the dominant position; and a classical concept of shame. All of them are interrelated.” (p. 104)

The aristocrat further appreciates metaphysics. Metaphysics is indispensable to the salubrious development of all other elements. It defines them and everything else. “Metaphysics is a philosophical inquiry into ultimate principles and causes.” (p. 158) According to Legutko, “Metaphysical man is driven by the pervasive conviction that the goal of his existence transcends physical and societal limitations and though beyond his immediate grasp, it will determine his destiny.” (p. 158)

Here the author invokes Plato’s allegory of the cave so we would be able to relate to the significance of metaphysics, which liberalism judges superfluous. (p. 160) Paradoxically, the Platonic cave is liberalism incarnated. It created a self-contained world of uniformity. No other points of view are permitted. “By eliminating such perspectives, the cave becomes the entire world and their point of view the only legitimate one. Whoever disagrees and begins ruminating on the possibility of some transcendent fulfillment of human existence, or on being created in God’s image, is diagnosed as suffering from delusion or a serious health defect.” (p. 162)

Legutko further draws a parallel between Socrates and an aristocrat. Over the ages, we witness the replaying of the fate of Socrates, who was forced to commit suicide by democratic mediocrities. He does what is right invariably. “The aristocrat in a liberal democratic society reenacts this ancient drama with Socrates and others as its protagonists. The aristocrat is one of the final defenders of the soul in its classical understanding (with the loftier portion controlling the lower portion).”

The mark of the aristocrat consists of remaining true to himself. That means defending universalism that is applicable under any circumstances. There are immutable and permanent values, and one is sworn to uphold them. “The true aristocrat makes it clear that any decision about his soul cannot be measured in pre- or post-revolutionary terms, by democracy or pre-democracy, liberalism or illiberalism, or by such notions as anachronism, progress, the dustbin of history, or historical inevitability. Whoever defines himself by such criteria (and today it is common practice) deserves to be called a slave in Aristotle’s sense, rather than a free man.”

And finally, according to Legutko, “The aristocrat embraces this philosophy of human nature not only because his refined taste reinforces the distinction between high and low, but primarily because he believes that the principles and qualities which make a free man essentially immune from historical contingencies. In this, the aristocrat differs from the modern man.” (p. 106)

Contrary to him, the philosopher fails his litmus test of timeliness because, having abandoned the body/soul dichotomy, he was tempted into embracing the spirit of the times, whatever it may have been. “Flirting with revolution, violence, and radicalism in the era of aggressive totalitarianism did not serve intellectuals well, including those who believed they had inscribed freedom into human existence by depriving it of its essential properties.” (p. 130)

The entrepreneurs “prefer to adapt themselves to the prevailing conditions rather than strive for something politically and ideologically risky.” (p. 79) Accommodation or even collaboration is their default. As a result, “Entrepreneurs, both individually and collectively as corporations, have willingly joined the ranks of the ideological crusaders’ army and have spent astronomical sums of money supporting the cause. The notion that money is nonideological, so often disapproved in the past, has become completely discredited.” (p. 81)

The betrayal by the artists went even deeper. “Inevitably, natural attraction formed between artists on the one hand, and politicians and ideologues on the other.” (p. 91) The results were disastrous. “Never since the collapse of the Communist empire has there been such a close union between art and political institutions. Not only do artists readily expound racial and sexual liberation, condemn the discrimination of homosexuals and non-white groups, fight imperialism and patriarchy, unmask new forms of inequality, deride Euro-, logo-, and phallocentrism, but they do so with the massive support of their powerful friends and allies.” (p. 95)  Legutko means philosophers, entrepreneurs, and politicians.

Ultimately, liberalism promotes mediocrities. It destroys individualism and replaces it with collectivism under any circumstances. “Once eccentricity became the fashion or the norm, it unleashed a wave of collectivism, not creativity. Throngs of self-proclaimed eccentrics shouting the same slogans against every form of real or imagined ancien regimes have always made a rather depressing spectacle of human conformity and bear no trace of the individual geniuses that [John Stuart] Mill had anticipated with such certainty.” (p. 155)

Legutko never disappoints. His is a true wisdom lover’s serenade of logocentrism. Iron logic flows through his arguments. A champion of classical Greece, the author deploys Fides et Ratio against soullessness and unreason to restore the true meaning of freedom and work out a feasible position of a decent human being under the currently reigning totalitarian liberalism.

The Cunning of Freedom is a rigorous cri de coeur against liberalism’s “minimal self” and for redeeming liberty by the aristocrat.

No bones to pick here.












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