Philosophy and Culture
"The Melancholic Gift: Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy and Fiction"
Thomas Pfau, Duke University
This paper presents some thoughts on the antagonism between nineteenth-century European liberalism (taken here in its broadest sense as a self-regulating narrative of economic and civic progress) and the simultaneously spreading idioms of cultural pessimism, anti-rationalism, and decadence. Behind these two ideological strata stands a more fundamental tension between a modern conception of political liberty with its supplemental language of rights, on the one hand, and an alternately mystical or mournful reflection on modern freedom and the metaphysical costs of modernity, on the other. Representative voices of the latter would include Burke, Coleridge, Carlyle, Schopenhauer, Burckhardt, Wagner, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, and Spengler (to name but the most conspicuous). My central contention with regard to these writers' pessimistic conceptions of freedom and their overall anti-modern pathos is that we ought to read them less as a separate current opposing the dominant narrative of nineteenth-century liberalism and its identification with rights, institutions, and the competitive individualism they foster than as a Blakean contrary surfacing within and disrupting the master narrative of nineteenth-century liberalism. What accounts for the aesthetic force and pervasive appeal of Romantic conservatism, cultural pessimism and/or neo-Stoicism within the industrial, nationalist, and imperialist phase of European modernity is something that liberalism's rights-based theory of social and economic organization was unable to accommodate—namely, the metaphysical dilemma of freedom.
At the heart of nineteenth-century liberalism, the political and economic self-description and self-legitimation of which is furnished in various inflections by Locke, Smith, Paine, Thelwall, Bentham, and Mill, we find two central notions—that of individual self-generation (epigenesis) and that of historical caesura (epoche), according to which, as Thomas Paine puts it, "every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require, . . . [for] the living, and not the dead, are to be accommodated" (Paine 42). It is in the languages of "bourgeois radicalism" (as Isaac Kramnick has called it) that political legitimation and economic expediency converge most fully, a phenomenon articulated forecefully in Marx's and Engels's paean to the revolutionary force and infinite resourcefulness of capital with its "constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation" (Marx and Engels 224). In transposing the self-originating and iconoclastic force of the Cartesian cogito into the domain of political and economic life and so melting "all that is solid into thin air," the classical liberalism of Hume, Smith and, even more so, the Whig radicals of the 1790s, construed liberty as the absence of external constraints on individuals' pursuit of their contingent motives. Accounting for the status of these motives within a broader social framework or general theory of the polis was no longer a recognized obligation for either homo economicus or homo politicus. Hence Hume's and Smith's influential construction of sympathy as a kind of virtual social compound supplants, as John Milbank puts it, "the irreducible primacy of an inherently ethical end or telos and . . . ground[s] the moral in something specifically pre-moral, natural and sub-rational," just as the virtues of justice are now anchored in "force of habit" in the "regular exercise of property and contractual laws, so that we perceive that we have an 'interest' in justice" (Milbank 29).
Pared down to the mere lubricant for a means-end rationality whose most dogmatic form would be that of utilitarianism (as in Bentham, Ricardo, and Mill), "liberty" thus is defined as the sum total of so many disaggregated "rights." Just as the accent in James Steuart is on "wage-labor as a mode of discipline, not as a mode of freedom" (Milbank 35), the rights of life, property, and contract serve one purpose only, namely, to facilitate the pursuit of so many discrete and non-negotiable "motives." It is therefore quite inconceivable, as Bentham bluntly states, that "the word right can have a meaning without a reference to ultility," for what possible "motive . . . can a man have to pursue the dictates of it" (Bentham 7)? In its radical, utilitarian inflection, Liberalism's strength lies in its unwavering, indeed wholly unreflected commitment to a notion of process as interminable, self-regulating, and essentially non-transparent to the individual agents who advance it. What Max Weber would later scrutinize with growing alarm as the hegemonic role of Zweckrationalität in the modern, bureaucratic nation-state already troubles Hegel in 1807. For in constricting the notion of "value" to mean solely a given thing or notion's ability to accommodate an end forever deferred to a hypostatized future, utilitarianism's strictly instrumental concept of rationality treats a given thing as something pure and absolute, to be sure—albeit only as "absolute for an other." It constitutes "pure insight, not as such, but insight conceived by it in the form of an object." Hegel sees it steeped in an unacknowledged, unreflected, and hence dangerous metaphysics. Impelled by what Charles Taylor has described as the "ethics of inarticulacy," the "punctual or neutral self" on whose opaque agency utilitarianism and liberalism are premised in turn defines its own private pursuits by appealing to a likewise unreflected notion of "utility" as the new and exclusive criterion of value and meaning. Having pared the Aristotelian notion of "ends" down to merely intuited "motives" and fantasized outcomes and mediated both through a strictly formal notion of utility, Bentham's skeletal rendition of classical liberalism can locate utility only in an object outside its punctual agent whose self "is defined in abstraction from any constitutive concerns" and whose "only constitutive property is self-awareness" (Taylor 49). Hence, as Hegel puts it, utilitarianism does indeed constitute a "metaphysics, but not as yet the comprehension of it. [It] is still a predicate of the object, [and] not itself a subject" (Hegel 354).
Not only does the "bad infinity" (schlechte Unendlichkeit) of utilitarianism instrumentalize all things within a general and unreflected economy of exchange (namely, as accommodating contingent motives with their varying degrees of utility); it also instrumentalizes consciousness itself. Unconstrained by, indeed necessarily opposed to, any normative set of ends or social frameworks, classical liberalism's model of individual, competitive agency understands its flourishing to be premised on the absence of external constraints and obligations and on its positively merging utilitarianism's notions of "instrumentality" and "efficiency." Yet in carving out the space of opportunity by appealing to liberty as the sum total of "rights," classical liberalism forgets that its own ideological justification, too, is driven by historically contingent and ephemeral circumstances. As Alasdair McIntyre remarked some time ago, the language of rights invariably appeals to "the existence of a socially established set of rules" that "only come into existence at particular historical periods under particular social circumstances" (McIntyre 67). Not only does the language of rights manifestly coincide with the rise of economic and political liberalism and utilitarianism, but its putative universality has been reduced to a value-free formalism.
Invoking the pivotal role of Hobbes, Hannah Arendt thus speaks of a "process of never-ending accumulation of power necessary for the protection of a never-ending accumulation of capital [that] determined the 'progressive' ideology of the late nineteenth century.. The realization that power accumulation was the only guarantee for the stability of so-called economic laws" established a new conception of history as limitless progress, one that "not only did not want the liberty and autonomy of man, but was ready to sacrifice everything and everybody to supposedly superhuman laws of history" (Arendt 191-192). Aided by the new discourses and methods of speculative dialectics, statistics, probabilistic theory, and an array of evolutionary paradigms, individual agency proves most efficient when least cognizant of the deep structural logic of which it is but one fleeting manifestation. Arendt observes that "public life takes on the deceptive aspect of a total of private interests as though these interests could create a new quality through sheer addition. All the so-called liberal concepts of politics . . . simply add up private lives and personal behavior patterns and present the sum as laws of history, or economics, or politics" (Arendt 192). If, as Marx put it, "the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development [das Produkt eines langen Entwicklungsganges]" (Marx 1977, 223), the trajectory in question involves the continual recalibration of means and ends whereby initially conceived goals or outcomes, once attained, are treated as the material base for further and equally transient objects of conquest. In such a world, there are no longer any "ends" but only mutations of capital awaiting future investment.
Inevitably, then, all frameworks and norms had to yield to the iconoclastic and self-certifying rationality of historical and economic progress. It was Marx, above all, who clearly grasped and forcefully articulated how the shift from an intentional to a systemic paradigm of rationality would eventually merge capital with "the species-being of man" and, in so doing, render "both nature and the intellectual faculties of his species into a being that is alien to him" (Marx 1977, 81-82). Nineteenth-century liberalism's conception of historical process as inexorable, instrumental, and self-regulating thus presupposes the constitutive blindness of individual agents to the deep structural significance of their economic, social, and cultural practices and pursuits. Indeed, it is this very non-transparency of the dialectical process to its individual agents—be it Hegel's "natural consciousness" or Marx's competitive and delusively "free" bourgeois—that guarantees its forward momentum and eventual articulation as a history of progress. At the same time, such a model leaves its individual agents in a metaphysically precarious and volatile position. Already in his 1844 economic manuscripts, Marx's musing that "the production of human activity as labor—that is, as an activity wholly alien to itself and non-transparent to consciousness and expressive life alike—the abstract existence of man as a merely laboring being" carries within itself the perpetual risk that the latter "may on any given day crash down from the determinate nothingness into absolute nothingness, into his social and hence actual non-being." The lack of any stable, supra-individual framework (an issue to which I'll return at the end of this paper) is the price paid for the intrinsic volatility of capital itself which, as Marx was to analyze in exhaustive detail later on, realizes its local purposes and macro-historical mission by metastasizing into myriad forms, a process facilitated by so many free, competitive, and uncomprehending individuals. Notwithstanding their profound and well-known differences, Hegel and Marx both find in dialectics a logical framework that allows them to articulate the rationality of a supra-historical process—the plot of freedom—that can be advanced only by individual agents and only at the price of remaining essentially opaque to them. The advancement of the material narrative of history thus appears to rest on the terminal loss of meta-narrative perspectives now reserved solely for the closeted expertise of "critique."
For Hannah Arendt, it is this opaque, "unconscious," or "repressed" element, this lack of conceptual and expressive clarity that is positively constitutive of bourgeois liberalism and at the same time accounts for the ideological susceptibility of the so-called "free bourgeois individual" to the totalitarian utopias of the twentieth century. Echoing Marx's analyses and presaging Charles Taylor's critique of liberalism's "ethics of inarticulacy," Arendt thus sees imperialism as the extension of classical economic liberalism, even as this later phase also reveals the entirely partial and self-serving status of modern "rights" and "liberties" within its expansionist master-narrative. It is above all the long shadow of Hobbes that looms large in Arendt's diagnoses of the transition from classical liberalism to bourgeois imperialism and from the Enlightenment's deliberative to utilitarianism's instrumental paradigm of rationality. In what she calls "the conquest of the state by the nation" during the nineteenth century, we find "hardly a single bourgeois moral standard which has not been anticipated by the unequaled magnificence of Hobbes's logic. He gives an almost complete picture, not of Man but of the bourgeois man: 'reason is nothing but Reckoning'; 'a free Subject, a free Will' . . . [are] words . . . without meaning" (Arendt 186). It is here that the full conflict between the operational logic and the public claims, between the grammatical structure and propositional content of liberalism's language of self-legitimation comes into full view. Let me close, then, by adumbrating one particularly forceful instance of anti-Liberal and anti-progressive thinking, namely, Arthur Schopenhauer's 1839 Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will.
To the official self-image of modern Liberalism—viz., a progressive, secular nation whose economic expansion and civic progress is driven by literate, industrious, and self-possessed competitive individuals—Schopenhauer is surely the politically incorrect other par excellence. An essentialist, necessitarian, and neo-Stoic pessimist, Schopenhauer is quick to separate his inquiry from theories of "liberty" and "rights," which "only refers to an ability, that is, precisely to the absence of physical obstacles to the actions of the animal" (Schopenhauer 4). Instead, his 1839 essay focuses on "moral freedom," which concerns the relationship between the will and its rational, self-conscious individual. Once the question becomes whether "the will itself [is] free," the concept of freedom, "which one had hitherto thought of only in reference to the ability to act, [is] now brought in relation to willing" (Schopenhauer 5). The customary assertion of the self-possessed and entrepreneurial self of classical liberalism—"I can do what I will"—hardly helps answer the underlying question, namely, "whether the will itself is free" and whether "you can also will what you will" (Schopenhauer 6). Forever secondary and re-active to the primary determinant of the will, self-consciousness can only respond to the affective cues ("repugnance, detesting, feeling, fearing, being angry, hating, mourning, suffering, etc.") that enter "immediately" into it as "something agreeable or disagreeable to the will." It is, as Schopenhauer puts it, "very greatly, properly speaking even exclusively, concerned with the will" (11). For the self-conscious individual to say "I can will, and when I will an action, the movable limbs of my body will at once and inevitably carry it out the moment I will it" is to define freedom strictly as "being able to do in accordance with the will" (14). Yet there's the rub; for even as "self-consciousness asserts the freedom of doing under the presupposition of willing," Schopenhauer reminds us that "what we have inquired about is the freedom of willing" (14). To the extent that it is claimed as an attribute by and for self-consciousness, modern freedom only allows individuals to act in accordance with motives whose appeal to the will is logically prior and hence inaccessible to any deliberation.
What's more, the entire Cartesian axiom of reflexive, deliberative self-possession—of rational agents examining and then choosing this or that course of action—is itself illusory: "to imagine that, in a given case, opposite acts of will are possible . . . [is to] confuse wishing with willing; [people] can wish opposite things, but can will only one of them; and which one it is is first revealed to self-consciousness by the deed" (Schopenhauer 15). While enjoying an "infinitely wider range of view" (30) than the animal, the human agent is free in only the most relative and conditional sense. Driven by motives rather than instincts, the human being can represent to himself the motives whose influence he feels on his will in any order he likes. In this way "he certainly is relatively free, namely from the immediate compulsion of objects that are present through intuition" (31). Yet this does not fundamentally change the determinacy of action by a given motive: "its advantage lies merely in the length of the guiding wire" (31). For to construe the mere absence of a readily identifiable, intuitively present motive as positive evidence of a "free will" is to assert ex negativo the existence of something that will ultimately prove absurd on its own terms. In fact, the axiom of "a free will . . . determined by nothing at all" (8) merely confirms that "clear thinking is at an end," since the proposition in question asserts "an effect without a cause" (40). To make a purely formal appeal to an absent "determinacy" is a meaningless proposition, since to talk of "determination" (or lack thereof) can signify only if the claim itself is acknowledged to have been licensed by a specific framework of possible meanings.
As Schelling had argued in his 1809 essay on "Human Freedom," some notion of "essence" and "ground" is fundamentally indispensable for the work of philosophy. Although he writes less in the tradition of Boehme than that of Epictetus and Seneca, Schopenhauer echoes Schelling's claim that "in the final and highest instance there is no other Being than Will. Will is primordial Being [ Wollen ist Urseyn ]" (Schelling 26). Most famously, of course, it is Schopenhauer who posits the will as the very essence of the human. Inasmuch as "every existentia presupposes an essentia" (Schopenhauer 51), the empirical reality of human (deliberative) action rests on the tacit, indeed inscrutable premise of the "real self, the true kernel of his being; it therefore constitutes the ground of his consciousness, as something absolutely given and existing beyond which he cannot go.. Therefore to ask him whether he could will otherwise than he does is tantamount to asking him whether he could be different from what he himself is; and this he does not know" (18). Characteristically, Schopenhauer drives home this crucial point with a few succinct metaphors, as when he speaks of the will's essential role vis-à-vis the self-conscious, deliberate human agent: the human agent is "like a crab in its shell" (44), a noble projection encrusted within a primitive hard casing. Flagging the exalted scope and ambition of the intellect (logic, concepts, thoughts, etc.), Schopenhauer cautions that for the self-conscious subject "great brightness and clarity" do indeed present themselves, albeit only "outside; but inside it is dark, like a well-blackened telescope. No principle a priori illuminates the night of its own interior; these lighthouses shine only outward" (19).
The will thus names every human's unconditional, holistic, and strongly evaluative take on the world. Yet "world" here means not some distinct correlate of perception, deliberation, and a host of intermediate steps taken according to the principle of causality. Rather, it is at all times already something ontologically "given," a "framework" within which alone specific perceptions are able to acquire significance and so delineate possible avenues for human practice. Schopenhauer's entire conception thus is diametrically opposed to Cartesianism's and classical liberalism's ontology of in-der-Welt-sein, which is built on the cogito as a self-originating and supposedly value-neutral point of departure. By premising its concept of "world" (or an all-encompassing framework by some other name) on an originary act of reflexive self-possession, Cartesian epistemology and the political philosophy of classical liberalism revolve a model of agency constituted ex negativo—that is, defined by the alleged absence of any inner pre-determination. At the same time, that very subjectivity exhibits a fierce commitment to taking possession of a world avowedly "separate" and "indifferent" through its methodical cultivation of skepticism. The modern self is thus defined by its utopian journey towards reacquiring the world it had disavowed on principle, namely, as the determinate "other" of its countless acts of negative predication (i.e., Descartes' dubito). In transposing that pure method to the realm of political economy, the classical liberalism of Locke, Smith, and Hume reconstitutes skeptical prevarication as progressive acquisition. As an inherently temporalized agency, subjectivity in the eighteenth century is plotted as a trajectory of self-creation whose perennially emergent self discovers itself happily to be free from the interference of either inner presuppositions or external constraints.
Hobbes's dismissive view of the free will as an illusion held two distinct and momentous implications, only one of which liberalism was prepared to acknowledge. He posits that individuals prove acutely responsive to motives long before self-consciousness has the opportunity to grasp and evaluate these motives in the form of intersubjective representations. Conceding the absence of a rational framework a priori, the Scottish political economists and their utilitarian successors thus argue for the self-regulation of reason as a framework that will eventually and involuntarily be distilled from the unchecked pursuit of so many interests and motives. Yet while that projected rational framework operates as a Benthamite fiction or Kantian "regulative idea"—that is, as a utopia forever deferred—liberalism also asserts, departing from Hobbes, that the individuals thus enslaved to their contingent motives and interests are nonetheless "free." It credits them with the power of deliberating on and choosing in accordance with nothing but their own interests—their political "liberties" and "rights" having been guaranteed by the modern nation—and unconstrained by anything else. In a formal-logical and in a metaphysical sense, this conflation of liberty qua "rational choice" with a freedom that is inscrutably volitional proves at once illogical and dangerous. It is no accident that virtually all of the great nineteenth-century novelists take a jaundiced or ironic view of the prevailing, expedient view of history as the progressive, rational, and dialectically (self-regulating) realization of freedom. More programmatically than Flaubert or George Eliot, Dostoevsky zeroes in on the vexing, not to say terrifying, implications of "freedom" conceived as absolute indeterminacy when, through the grim eloquence of his Grand Inquisitor, he chastises Christ for going "into the world . . . empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which they in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend, which they dread and fear—for nothing has ever been more insufferable for a man and for human society than freedom! . . . Man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born" (252; 254). According to the Grand Inquisitor, there are only two ways to remedy this dilemma: either focus on the means ("bread") or (quasi-Aristotelian) ends of life: "with bread you were given an indisputable banner: give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience—oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience. In this you were right. For the mystery of man is not only in living, but in what one lives for. Without a firm idea of what he lives for, man will not consent to live" (Dostoevsky 254). Schopenhauer's and Dostoevsky's critiques reveal Liberalism's propensity to conflate liberty with freedom and to construction of subjectivity largely ex negativo—that is, as a strictly formal or pragmatic concept of agency achieved by jettisoning any norms, values, and frameworks that would coordinate the discrete projects of modernity's vita activa with a significant telos.
Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair McIntyre, and Charles Taylor have extended that critique by challenging the methods and assumptions about selfhood in such disciplinary formations as behaviorism, rational-choice theory, or Foucauldian deconstruction. In closing, let me draw attention to Charles Taylor's particularly strident criticism of liberalism's central premise, namely, that any "framework" (including the purely formal, anti-normative project of modern reason) is but a historically contingent, perhaps altogether arbitrary construct realized vicariously through the aggregate effort of so many self-interested, "punctual" selves—each singular agent understanding his or her project within a world conceived as a value-neutral tabula rasa for an entrepreneurial intelligence. Writ large as the Napoleonic fantasy of l a carrière ouverte aux talents, the projects of classical liberalism (of Humboldt, Louis Philippe, Bentham, Mill, Macauley, Gladstone, and Bismarck) invariably proceed from the utopion vision of a harmonious national community in the theoretical future. Since the attainment of that vision pivots on the absence of any actual normative framework and ethical constraint on free agency in the present, economic liberalism in particular accepts pervasive material injustice and social inequality—indeed the broader reality of historical life tout court—as a necessarily fluid and inherently provisional state that is not to be constrained by normative commitments of any kind. This "naturalist fallacy," as Charles Taylor calls it, thus dismisses frameworks as
things we invent, not answers to questions which inescapably pre-exist for us independent of our answer or inability to answer. To see frameworks as orientations, however, does cast them in this latter light. One orients oneself in a space which exists independently of one's success or failure in finding one's bearings, which, moreover, makes the task of finding these bearings inescapable. Within this picture, the notion of inventing a qualitative distinction out of whole cloth makes no sense. For one can only adopt such distinctions as to make sense to one within one's basic orientation. . . . The portrait of an agent free from all frameworks rather spells for us a person in the grip of an appalling identity crisis. Such a person wouldn't know where he stood on issues of fundamental importance, would have no orientation in these issues whatever, would not be able to answer for himself on them. If one wants to add to the portrait by saying that the person doesn't suffer this absence of frameworks as a lack, isn't in other words in a crisis at all, then one rather has a picture of frightening dissociation. (Taylor 30-31)A fundamental challenge to the current field of critical theory, and indeed to literary and cultural studies broadly speaking, is to reflect on the extent of its commitment to the constructivist position that Taylor here critiques. To do so certainly does not entail signing on to Taylor 's project in its entirety (any more than to the partially cognate arguments of Arendt, McIntyre, and Milbank). Yet as the foregoing reflections suggest, a significant body of nineteenth-century writing (novelistic and philosophical) makes a strong case for why it is no longer possible for contemporary critique to predicate its own specialized type of lucidity on the nominalist, constructivist, and individualist model of rationality that classical liberalism had derived from Descartes. As I argue in greater detail elsewhere (Pfau), today's specialized, institutionally embedded, and professionalized mode of intellectual production will likely fail to recognize itself as yet another symptom of a wholly "deregulated" modernity by construing the endless accumulation of new critical perspectives as the practical realization of liberty. Yet the emancipatory gestures of contemporary critique will likely ring hollow for as long as the irrational and ineffable underpinnings of modern "liberty"—premised on what Schelling called the "non-ground" (Ungrund) of freedom—remain unexamined.
1 "Die Produktion der menschlichen Tätigkeit als Arbeit, also als einer sich ganz fremden, dem Menschen und der Natur, daher dem Bewußtsein und der Lebensäußerung gleich fremden Tätigkeit, die abstrakte Existenz des Menschen als eines bloßen Arbeitsmenschen, der daher täglich aus seinem erfüllten Nichts in das absolute Nichts, sein gesellschaftliches und darum sein wirkliches Nichtdasein hinabstürzen kann-wie andererseits die Produktion des Gegenstandes der menschlichen Tätigkeit als Kapital " (Marx, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte, in Werke, I, 578 [trans. mine]).
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