Tag Archive: positive liberty

Radiant with triumphant calamity

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment’s program was the disenchantment of the world. It wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge. Bacon, “the father of experimental philosophy,” brought these motifs together. He despised the exponents of tradition, who substituted belief for knowledge and were as unwilling to doubt as they were reckless in supplying answers. All this, he said, stood in the way of “the happy match between the mind of man and the nature of things,” with the result that humanity was unable to use its knowledge for the betterment of its condition. Such inventions as had been made—Bacon cites printing, artillery, and the compass—had been arrived at more by chance than by systematic enquiry into nature. Knowledge obtained through such enquiry would not only be exempt from the influence of wealth and power but would establish man as the master of nature. [2]

Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke

In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual, or the fam­ily, do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair-play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usu­ally done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is cus­tomary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to fol­low: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?[ch. III, 78-9]

The only dignified form of human coexistence

The struggle for freedom may also fail in other ways. It may degenerate into terrorism, as in the French and Russian Revolutions. It may lead to extreme bondage. Democracy and freedom do not guarantee the millennium. No, we do not choose political freedom because it promises us this or that. We choose it because it makes possible the only dignified form of human coexistence, the only form in which we can be fully responsible for ourselves. Whether we realize its possibilities depends on all kinds of things — and above all on ourselves. [92]

The empty shell of democracy

[Tariq Ali:] What we are witnessing is that democracy is becoming more and more denuded of content. It’s like an empty shell. And this is what is angering young people who feel whatever we do, whatever we vote for, nothing changes.

The freedom to use reason publicly

Neither Kant nor his contemporaries thought that they actually lived in an enlightened age. By ‘enlightenment’ they meant a process – the process of lessening the darkness, the beginning of the spread of light. The human mind was starting to shrug off the rule of arbitrary authority in the spheres of thought and belief. Intellectual immaturity is characterised by a need for direction from others; intellectual maturity is characterised by independence. ‘Nothing is required for enlightenment except freedom,’ Kant wrote, ‘and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.’ [137]

Awareness of principles

That our own governments are busy destroying civil liberties, and creating large new problems in the process, should dismay all who live in the West. But it is happening with too little awareness, too little discussion, and too little account­ability. When the financial markets of the world collapse, discussion of every aspect of what it means and why it happened is endless, and governments spend billions to bail out the banks who caused the problem in the first place with nothing short of feckless greed. Arguably the irresponsibility and cupidity of people in the finance industry has done far more harm than terrorism. But an even greater collapse in the socio-political order of the rights, freedoms and autonomy of individuals is discussed only by a few, and almost always too late: the contrast is stark and telling. [6]