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Religion & Liberty: Volume 33, Number 2

Ryszard Legutko: the cursing of freedom

What is freedom? Do we need freedom? And if so, to what extent? These are questions that have been debated for millennia. Particularly in our time, when everyone is allegedly in favor of freedom and liberality, the discussion has heated up. In The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols, Ryszard Legutko aims to define “freedom,” but also to make a scathing critique of prominent definitions of the term in our modern culture.

The cunning of freedom: saving the self in an age of false idols.

Ryszard Legutko. Encounter Books. 2021. 200 pages.

Legutko is undoubtedly one of the more interesting figures in the ascending national conservative crowd. A philosophy professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, he has simultaneously become a Member of the European Parliament and co-chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists. He’s one of the most prominent political figures – and the intellectual heavyweight – of Poland’s Law & Justice Party, which has been engulfed in controversies over its allegedly illiberal policies. 

Legutko reflects on three major themes of freedom: negative freedom, positive freedom, and inner freedom. Negative freedom is understood as freedom from coercion. It is best embodied in the mantra of “being able to do whatever one wants to do as long as one doesn’t hurt anyone.” For Legutko, there are varying degrees of negative freedom. He finds “absolute freedom” – which means being completely free as an individual from anyone else, depicted by Robinson Crusoe on a lonely island – to be a “nightmare” of “loneliness.” Similarly, “maximum freedom” – the state-of-nature ideal of Locke and Rosseau but also the “department store” version of libertarianism – is unrealistic and bound to fail, according to Legutko, for it dismisses anything beyond mere individual pleasure and pain.

Legutko understands the least extreme version of negative freedom, “freedom from tyranny,” having lived through Soviet Communism. However, he still is dissatisfied by the emphasis on freedom itself. Isn’t there much more to life than freedom? For Legutko, political systems only based on individual liberty are nonsensical. More so, there are no inalienable rights – or any rights whatsoever, from natural rights to modern human rights. It is somewhat strange that a Roman Catholic like Legutko brushes aside any notions of God-given rights, but he seems to interpret the debasement of human rights – which includes abortion and LGBTQ rights – as indicting the whole system.

Legutko makes a convincing case that setting maximum freedom as an ideal is not only wrong, but also incompatible with human anthropology as social and political beings. Libertarians, he argues, may think that a society is possible in which everyone can simply pick what he or she wants. But this is impossible in practice, because the citizens’ many, competing longings – religious beliefs, cultural and religious norms, and traditions –are incompatible with one another and, therefore, cannot always coexist in the same polity. A libertarian society can only realistically work if it gets rid of everything opposed to this openness, he argues. Legutko seems too pessimistic about the prospects of pluralism and diversity, but at the same time, he raises legitimate concerns.

The second part of the book – positive freedom – presents different ways to actively strive for freedom by presenting different personality types: the philosopher, aristocrat, entrepreneur, and artist. It is clear that while he thinks all of them are on the wrong track in today’s world, he sympathizes the most with the first two. Neither the philosopher nor the aristocrat strives for self-fulfillment, nor do they pursue goals based only on a cost-benefit analysis – and they do not align with the politically correct status quo for fear of being cancelled. They try their best not to succumb to bodily/worldly needs and pleasures, unlike most of Western society. Rather, they strive for self-control, cultivation of virtue, and greater knowledge, especially of transcendent matters. This is, he explains in the third part, the “inner freedom” we should want to achieve. Particularly this third section of the book, where Legutko analyzes the preconditions of “inner freedom,” is stimulating and may give all readers food for thought in their personal lives. Yet his explanations occasionally suffer from an extreme form of dualism between body and mind: It is unclear why the “theology of the body” makes no appearance. Nonetheless, this is the strongest part of the book.

If only the same could be said about his analysis of the entrepreneur. He starts with a long quotation by Michael Novak on how the entrepreneur “is made in the image of God” and, through his creativity, pursues a “noble vocation,” to quote Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti. Nonetheless, Legutko descends into a heavy-handed critique of the “entrepreneur without a soul,” who lacks the courage to stand up for his own values and does what society wants him to do. Legutko may even be right about the “Woke entrepreneurs” of Big Tech whom he has in mind. But he hardly differentiates between Woke capital and the many entrepreneurs who are not social justice warriors and pursue God’s work through their innovations.

This is precisely the main problem with The Cunning of Freedom: It lumps together different notions of freedom, liberalism, and entrepreneurship that are quite different in reality. This is most noticeable in the conclusion. Legutko argues that his critique of liberalism holds for left-wing liberalism, classical liberalism, libertarianism, ad infinitum, because “in each version, the problem remains the same.” He subsequently moves on for a final attack, showing how the types of freedoms he has analyzed result in creating “liberalism as a super-theory” which eventually encompasses – indeed, forces top-down – all of society’s currents and processes into one bland whole of “openness,” “diversity,” and “pluralism.” Everyone who does not agree with what the liberals think is “freedom” will be ostracized.

This is in many regards a shockingly accurate critique of left-wing liberalism as we see it in its most extreme forms (and how Legutko has undoubtedly experienced it in the European Parliament). But how is this a critique of classical liberalism? Similarly, why is Woke capitalism used to bedevil free enterprise as a whole? Why is it necessary to throw out any notion of rights because human rights have been so falsely reconstructed? Why, indeed, is it necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

This is all the more frustrating, since Legutko actually glances a potential solution. A few pages buried in the section on “inner freedom” laud David Hume’s emphasis on “habits, social practices, and a general rootedness in [a]. society” that has evolved over time and history – “a social conservatism” not based on government force, but on “the power of custom.” Legutko pairs this idea of spontaneous order with an equally important argument by Blaise Pascal: Even an individual in such an organic society needs faith and reason to attain inner freedom. Indeed, those who want to be free still need to cultivate themselves and their communities.

“The evolution of modern philosophy gradually undermined custom and social convention,” Legutko writes. It was this “weakening of custom and the decline of classical metaphysics, epistemology, and Christian religion” that put us on the wrong path of freedom. But why abandon the liberal order completely? Why not try to rebuild this idea of freedom based on individual and communal liberties and responsibilities, the cultivation of virtues – the spirit of free enterprise, with traditions, mores, and institutions building a strong social fabric?

Sadly, Legutko doesn’t answer that question in The Cunning of Freedom.

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Kai Weiss is the research and outreach coordinator at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Hayek Institute