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“Freedom to” vs “freedom from”: why our attitude determines fate

This is not a shortlist of to-do things to be free, but we wish there was a way to rationalize the concern that prevents us from identifying “freedom” not only as a right but also as a duty that connects us to others.

To French philosopher Simone Weil, freedom is not a mere struggle to protect one’s boundaries and “property” (like John Locke) but had to shift from negative freedom to a “positive” one consisting in our ability to act and change things for the better if we assume that freedom is also an obligation towards other people.

Varlam Shalamov in 1929, age 22. Photo from the secret services’ archive (NKVD, later KGB/FSB)

To Hannah Arendt, “freedom” cannot be access to “abundance and endless consumption,” since this nominal emancipation represents a superficial quest, more related to the “ideals of the poor” than to a real comprehension of our needs:

“Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity because his freedom is always won in the never wholly successful attempt to liberate himself from necessity.”

Against the will of whom?

That’s why one of the most celebrated passages of Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the encounter between young and wealthy Pierre Bezukhow with an old, miserable soldier, a Russian peasant called Platon Karataev. Hostages of the Napoleonic troops ransacking Moscow, both soldiers will share all they have, a piece of old bread and a little conversation. They do it with such freedom of spirit and personal agency that the little dialog represents a masterclass of overcoming contingencies even in the direst situations.

So many unfortunate events and misunderstandings of our time are somehow related to the partial, partisan, infantile, or somewhat abusive understanding of one term to which we concede unbound importance: “freedom.”

The assumed definition by everybody can be understood in as many ways as a Biblical parable since its conceptual composition relegates the term to the domain of ideas: “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.”

An online search, though, will retrieve superficial entertainment content that has little to do with the Kantian definition of the term. To Immanuel Kant, one of the pillars of the modern definition of concepts we associate with the human condition, freedom is “the ability to govern one’s actions on the basis of reason, and not desire.”

When freedom begets responsibility

Kant dedicated his philosophy to elucidate why individuals seem to share universal concepts despite their unrelatedness as if they all shared a bunch of important “subjective universals.” Another German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, will call it “intersubjectivity.”

Thanks to a complex, mainly unconscious process, the relation and coincidence of people’s thoughts and feelings explains why every era seems to have its own type of common sense or agreement upon fundamental abstractions.

We sense equally the concepts of freedom, justice, injustice, and so on. And, if we cannot define the boundaries of freedom unequivocally, we can at least explain what freedom is not anymore by its absence, a logical inference used by the Stoics and vindicated by critical rationalist philosopher Karl Popper: from a conditional statement, we can define its contrapositive. If vindicating our freedom means risking others’ freedom, then the action invalidates itself as an act of maximalist “freedom.”

But freedom also implies the existence of certain qualities. If a person forcibly retained against her won’t fall into despair nor gives up his qualities, he may be showing an attitude associated with the positive definition of “freedom.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about the hardships of the Soviet gulag without losing the possibility of hope, even if it barely manifests itself, that can come out of personal endurance, as long as one person’s core character doesn’t completely give up hope and a sense of preserving a personal drive. His was the “responsibility” of telling a story that would be methodically erased by authorities in the official History books. Hence the Gulag Archipelago’s dedication:

I dedicate this
to all those who did not live
to tell it.
And may they please forgive me
for not having seen it all
nor remembered it all,
for not having divined all of it.

Varlam Shalamov’s contradictions: the hope of a nominal nihilist

Varlam Shalamov, another writer under the same dire circumstances in the Siberian cold of remote gulag encampments, took a darker view of the whole Dantesque experiment of engineered mass suffering. Solzhenitsyn wrote in his Gulag Archipelago that Shalamov had made an apology of destitution and hardship in his Kolyma Tales.

Unlike Dostoevsky (mentioned by both authors and he himself a victim of deportation to a Siberian prison camp in the mid-nineteenth century) or Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov’s misanthropy came from a personal experience of horror as perceived by someone who didn’t hold the Christian belief of the redemptive power of hardship. Solzhenitsyn will express it in the following terms (from The Gulag Archipelago):

“Prison causes the profound rebirth of a human being… profound pondering over his own ‘I’… Here all the trivia and fuss have decreased. I have experienced a turning point. Here you harken to that voice deep inside you, which amid the surfeit and vanity used to be stifled by the roar from outside… Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering…”

Shalamov had become an atheist at the age of 13, but this lack of faith didn’t prevent him from surviving hard work, beatings, extreme weather, and chronic hunger for 25 years in Kolyma, north-east of Siberia, accused of “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities.”

In fragmentary writing from 1961, Forty-Five Things I Learned in the Gulag, Shalamov writes:

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

Free-will vs. survival

Friendship, comradeship, or solidarity could not arise under such extraordinary constraints, for friendship, Shalamov argues, “arises in difficult but bearable conditions.”

According to Shalamov, the longest-lasting feeling is anger. But also:

7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.

As for hope surviving during hardship, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn celebrates in his Gulag Archipelago, Shalamov embraces a belief that borders nihilism as seen by Arthur Schopenhauer (for whom the “will to live” is a mere pulsion or competition of living things to flourish and secure reproduction):

17. I understood why people do not live on hope—there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will—what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.

Principles, even in the gulag

At the same time, Shalamov contradicts himself in point 18, where he shows the very principles of integrity associated with a humanist tradition. In the end, his upbringing (he was the son of a patient teacher and priest) would influence him more than he may have acknowledged.

18. I am proud to have decided right at the beginning, in 1937, that I would never be a foreman if my freedom could lead to another man’s death if my freedom had to serve the bosses by oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.

Even considering himself an atheist, Shalamov vindicates a spiritual inner strength that may have been crucial for his survival. If both his physical and spiritual strength “turned out to be stronger than I thought” is because he was able to preserve his choice, is an agency to “act” in some way or another in crucial things, such as “selling somebody”:

“19. (…) and I am proud that I never sold anyone, never sent anyone to their death or to another sentence, and never denounced anyone.”

Freedom of choice remains even in dehumanized situations

Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl experienced a similar hardship in a Nazi concentration camp. From his experience, he’d write Man’s Search for Meaning, an account that diverges from Shalamov’s in his humanistic perspective and the importance he concedes to being able to feel hope even during the harshest of moments (for example, him thinking of his wife making it out of the camps to rejoin him soon, which didn’t happen; he would later know she had died in the camps.)

Viktor Frankl and his barrack inmates would precisely know the moment when somebody had lost any hope: that person would stop taking care of taking any action, wouldn’t keep his personal hygiene, would refrain from moving. That person would die soon after as if giving up any will would be the antechamber of demise.

Varlam Shalamov in 1937, 30 years old. He’d be later send to Kolyma by Stalin

On the contrary, caring for others (people one has some influence on, people one wants to see again, Etc.) as well as holding a belief in the potential of humankind (not only for bad but also for good) would transform the nature of extreme suffering. Even in the most extreme of situations, says Frankl, there’s a fundamental freedom of choice that allows anybody to keep his character and hope.

Prison and concentration camp literature show that some people accused of intellectual or political crimes will reinforce their qualities in dire situations, part of the reason why they may have been retained, to begin with.


Even those who claim their misanthropy and nihilism (such as Shalamov) will at least acknowledge the existence of two types of men: those decent and those indecent (Frankl argued he had known decent Nazi guards and indecent kapo prisoners.)

The deterministic laws of our “lower” or “animalistic,” Darwinian nature, as believed by Arthur Schopenhauer or Varlam Shalamov, discount the potentially transformative power of attitude.

Is it possible to find the optimistic (or at least hopeful) side of one’s condition even in hell-on-earth environments? To Frankl, the sole possibility of freedom and of making a difference for others by displaying the example of his attitude towards hardship was enough not only to survive himself but to reinforce others’ ability to survive.

And finally, through his professional and literary work, Frankl was able to increase the impact of a type of endurance nurtured from the possibility of hope, goodness, and love:

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or, in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”

Socrates’ passage to immortality: dying as he lived

Socrates’ death is also related to the possibility of making an impact on others through personal integrity. Socrates’ “search for meaning” (in Frankl’s terms) consisted in not running away from a sentence to death, even an unjust one for that matter. He was conscious his behavior in such a situation would inspire the debate about free will for generations to come.

Plato, his most famous disciple, sets his dialogue Phaedo in the last hours leading to the death of Socrates (who, like the Sophists, would dismiss written text in favor of orality). Socrates had been unfairly accused and condemned to either leave the city or face death but leaving the city would mean publicly disavow his integrity and coherence as somebody living up to his values and action.

The Phaedo focuses on the topic of the immortality of the soul (Plato will shape the fate of Western culture by stating the separation of the realms of the soul (also, ideas and purity) and the body (mortality, source of impurity), but it depicts the tension of Socrates’ final moments when he proclaims to his disciples that he goes the way he chooses and that by doing so he is not capitulating but reaffirming his convictions. They shouldn’t cry, since his goal is to die in a tranquil environment devoid of the hubbub of dishonor or disgrace.

As the poison extended through his body and he was feeling cold and rigid, Socrates merely went on to remind one of his disciples to pay a debt that was due (Phaedo, 118a):

“The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said—and these were his last words—”Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Crito, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question, he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.

“Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.”

Integrity even when nobody looks but oneself

To Socrates, the unexamined life was not worth living. Knowledge and wisdom intermingled, while self-control required the projection of the intellect in command of conscience.

By choosing to stand by his principles despite the death warrant against him, Socrates makes a statement on free will and coherence that his disciples, and then posterity, will interpret as his main philosophical legacy. Two of his disciples, Plato and Xenophon, will write about his trial and death by hemlock on their respective Apologies of Socrates.

Socrates’ understanding of freedom and freedom of expression is a reflection of his personal choice of staying coherent when the city (Athens was then a democracy) thinks his teachings are too controversial and impious.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the gulag; in this picture of “Chtch-854” exists the “freedom to” write “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”

To a judgment that is subjective and at best debatable, he responds with integrity, for the alternatives (scandal, mere recognition of his faults as a teacher, or at least the forced exile to stay alive) contradict his idea of personal freedom.

Thoreau’s musings

We underestimate how, under any circumstance, attitude will make the biggest difference. Choice, or agency, will define whether a situation is ideal or unbearable.

Henry David Thoreau’s statement in Walden is not as much a display of hardcore individualism as it is a personal quest for the physical and spiritual boundaries between self-reliance, community, and the natural surroundings.

Thoreau is aging and he feels more and more connected with his principles, while it is getting harder to conciliate them with his reality as a citizen of Concord, Massachusetts.

It feels senseless to sacrifice one’s tranquility and freedom in order to find secure work that allows acquiring a respectable house that will be paid through a long mortgage. Some of those mortgages, he says, involve even the next generation, as the amount due is increasing due to prices and new amenities of his time.

The place in Walden Thoreau camped out to buy the cabin that would shelter him for a little more than two years belonged to his friend and neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Though he could have attempted a more sophisticated build, he aimed at building himself a rugged one-room cabin from the most basic materials, with the most basic furniture.

It was his choice: instead of visiting houses to buy with a mortgage, he dedicated 28 dollars and 12 1/2 cents (a little under 1,000 dollars in today’s dollars) to get all the materials, utensils, and furniture:

Boards: $ 8.03-1/2; mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles for roof sides: 4.00
Laths: 1.25
Two second-hand windows
with glass: 2.43
One thousand old brick: 4.00
Two casks of lime: 2.40 That was high.
Hair: 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron: 0.15
Nails: 3.90
Hinges and screws: 0.14
Latch: 0.10
Chalk: 0.01
Transportation: 1.40 I carried a good part on my back.
In all: $28.12-1/2

False comfort: the limits of gregariousness

He used wooden shingles on the roof, the old bricks shaped the chimney, while salvaged glass furnished the two paneled windows. He used laths, lime, and horsehair to give consistency and durability to the plaster used in finishes and insulation; a salvaged mantle tree iron supported the chimney. Nails, hinges, screws, chalk, and latch completed this cabin reduced to the bare necessities of somebody of confronting life’s four essential necessities so, once fulfilled, one shall flourish if he pleases: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel.

Thoreau implies that Spartan living can foster an awareness of the surroundings that may awaken our ability to reflect on ourselves and our relationship with the world, as well as the interrelation of all things. This confrontation of “the essential facts of life” so he wouldn’t find out later in life he had not lived an authentic existence, indirectly associates simple living to freedom:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

To live these inauthentic existences, people work very hard and pay deeds that extend to generations to come:

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

Most of the boards came from an abandoned cabin, and the rest from some surrounding trees; despite doing most of the work himself, Thoreau acknowledges the help of some friends. A little desk, a round table by one of the 2 windows, a single bed by the other window, a chimney at the end, and a couple of extra chairs to house occasional visits make for the whole setup.

Surprising bonds

To Thoreau, this experience in simple living was the best way to recognize the boundaries between a life too accommodative and the rigors of commanding oneself through the exigencies of simple living and introspection.

Born a nobleman, Lev Tolstoy, one declared admirer of Thoreau’s writings on simple living and civil disobedience, tried to live up to the noble aspirations of some of his most celebrated characters, like Konstantin Levin from Anna Karenina, who will choose the Spartan and hard-working rigor of the countryside for the sophistication of the city.

Solzhenitsyn will joke about Tolstoy’s drive to simple living and a very personal Christian anarchism:

“Lev Tolstoy was right when he dreamed of being put in prison. At a certain moment, the giant began to dry up. He actually needed prison as a drought needs a shower of rain… And I say without hesitation: ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!’…”

To Thoreau, as for his admirer Tolstoy, freedom doesn’t equal being free from the difficulties of life and some of its most disagreeable surprises, but to carry the drive to preserve and cultivate integrity, comprehension, love. A drive to act and choose a better version of oneself, even when it’s only oneself who will know whether the choice leans towards good or towards bad faith.

Their voluntary simplicity will also inspire a young functionary from the British Empire of Indian origin while posted to South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi, who will grow to inspire many others as well, among them Nelson Mandela.

The man Stevenson met

Prison literature shows us how some people were able to celebrate their existence and vindicate their human condition, even when they were retained against their will.

When Victorian poet William Ernest Henley wrote Invictus in 1875, he was conscious that the four final verses would resonate in other people determined not to give no matter how dire their situation.

One century after, while in prison, Nelson Mandela would go over those final lines, a personal command of the forces defining the human condition:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

William Henley’s biography is not that of a man of action, but his struggles with health since childhood —he suffered chronic pain from tuberculosis abscesses— did not prostrate him to his bedroom nor obscured the nature of his character.

A professor of English literature, Henley’s ability to up the spirits of alumni and acquaintances contradicted his health issues. One of his friends, Robert Louis Stevenson, created John Silver, the pirate’s archetype from Treasure Island, after Henley’s.

Stevenson’s stepson Lloyd Osbourne described the poet’s effect around him:

“[He was]…a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet.”

The prison of extreme, chronic pain alone could not terminate Henley’s inner character, a conscious will to affirm himself in his convictions, to decide by himself, not letting his illness take over it all.

Human need according to Nietzsche

But to remain invincible from some of the quotidian challenges associated with the human condition is no easy task. The process of modernity has been associated with uprooting and alienation as old tasks and daily endeavors swerved from agrarian almanacs to urban abstractions.

Romanticism and other movements highlighted the tradeoffs associated with the construction of modernity; and the transition from the eternal return of the seasons (an old-time that allowed myth and naïveté, where beliefs held the rigidity of social stratification) to a rationalization of social life where everything is defined in terms of utility would bring the vertigo of personal freedom.

In the classical theory of democracy, every person was supposed to be in command of their time and destiny but, instead of agency and celebration, this freedom from the force of fate or God opened the door to the temptation of nihilism, as Nietzsche would dedicate his work to elucidate.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; he chose the responsibility to contain multitudes, so their stories wouldn’t die unknown

Technical societies who tried to replace the old precepts of humanism for a new social contract under extraordinary conditions that required to put the end before the means —and totalitarianism profited from growing angst among individuals who preferred to be commanded on a greater scheme of things rather than being masters of their own destiny.

For Nietzsche and those influenced by him, secular skepticism towards God and the central role of technique and science as step stone of a new value system would propel the majority of people (those who needed to be ruled and wanted to “believe” on an order of things bigger than themselves) towards one or another idealist cult: God could be Science, Nation, Class, or all of the above.

Condemned to be free

Two world wars and the physical and moral ruin of entire populations didn’t settle the blind quest of those who felt “orphaned” in modernity, due to the absence of a strong belief in God (like in the Middle Ages), the lack of any strong attachment to the old rhythms of the Almanac due to industrialization, migration to the city, abstract work, and bureaucratization —an “iron cage” of modernity, according to German sociologist Max Weber—), and the quest for a “master” or “goal” to replace the angst of being in charge of one own’s destiny.

In the mid-twentieth century, Albert Camus, who had been tempted himself by nihilism and the absurdist task of trying to concede a “meaning” to existence, wrote an editorial in the publication Combat. After the Holocaust and the atomic bombs deployed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he explained, a return to innocence or naïveté was impossible. The West needed more than physical reconstruction; in fact, the spiritual reconstruction was the one most in need.

Viktor Frankl had put it this way:

“Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake.”

In a 1945 conference at the Maintenant, a club created after the liberation of Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre stated that the philosophy his generation professed, existentialism (in his opinion, the only valuable framework in a world where every individual needed to seek their purpose in life) was also a type of “humanism”:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

From “freedom from” to “freedom to”

Those who had not been weak enough to look for a substitute of old structures to command their lives, nor cynical enough to avoid the risk of contempt towards humanity due to the consequences of mass gregariousness, risked falling into a deep feeling of disgust and misanthropy.

Another German philosopher, Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom, 1941,) analyzed this existential tension within freedom itself: the “freedom from”, or negative freedom, refers to the weakening of social conventions once promoted by structures and institutions, but such conventions had lost credibility as positivism and industrialization forged a secular society.

What Fromm calls “negative freedom” coincides with the burden explained by existentialists as Sartre; most people will rather prefer to feel commanded by strong ideas and personalities than to be in charge of their own action, an structure of dependence associated with the lost power of institutions from the past: the church, traditional guilds, the farm hamlet. To them — argues Fromm, — freedom feels more like a curse or condemnation than Enlightenment’s conquest.

Nietzsche will describe postmodernism whose characteristics will fully manifest almost a century after his death, as a tension between our inability to command the newly acquired personal freedom, and the possibility of embracing assertive freedom, one which Erich Fromm will later call “positive freedom” as opposed to the negative type. This positive freedom is a “freedom to”, an action or intentionality that implies our agency to command ourselves so we can channel our potential in creative acts:

“In the spontaneous realization of the self, man unites himself anew with the world.”

To be ready for positive freedom

But the fear of nihilism, the existential void of ascertaining that we cannot believe in the Abrahamic God the same unconditional way others did before modernity, leads to the attraction and Romantic, sometimes reactionary force of “freedom from” since this emancipation from old restrictions and ways of life was a historical process whom most of the population wasn’t even conscious about or aware.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century will display the tension between negative and positive freedom in the evolution of ideas. On one hand, many works will cry what is being lost in the name of modernity, utility, and bureaucratization. But positive freedom will concede to whoever is ready the opportunity of deciding by themselves, creating their own lives and work, emancipation from old worship, and subordination to heroes and gods.

Philosophy, but also literature and art, will display extraordinary works of symbolism and decadentism, with poets like Charles Baudelaire celebrating the old, insalubrious Paris that disappeared with the rational, anti-flanêrie Haussmannian boulevards, and celebrations of the decadent sensuality and sophistication of a lost world such as A rebours, the novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans celebrating the anti-social, hyper-reclusive, and aesthete Jean des Esseintes, an over-the-top nobleman after nobility makes sense at all.

Paintings and architecture will sometimes vindicate an ideal traditionalism, or the aspiration of a pantheon of the canonic beauty of classical antiquity, as expressed in the late-baroque and neo-classical styles of official progress (United States government buildings, French Empire and Rococo styles, Renaissance Revival, Etc.).

Affirming existence

At the same time, new ideas will foster new types of philosophy and expression vindicating the pulsion (Schopenhauer) or necessity (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) to create, since expression —they will consider— is essential to affirm existence, working on vitalist freedom, as expressed by the action or intentionality of Erich Fromm’s expression “freedom to”.

Existentialists will define the delicate situation of the individual in the world as a conflictual trade-off between the nostalgia of a lost tradition and the inability to recreate the old ways or bring back the lost naïveté. Most people won’t choose their own path nor listen to their own intuitions.

In this respect, transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau had sensed the struggle of conciliating one own’s spirit with the standardized mandates of modernity:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

In the modern world, or so proclaims existentialism, individuals will unconsciously behave in “bad faith”, or inauthentically, if they sense there’s a something or somebody bigger than them taking care of things.

They will rather succumb to external pressures and behave the way they are expected, shedding in the process their ability to use their innate freedom to act with authenticity. To Nietzsche, such conformity and gregariousness will create a tamed, predictable, dependent, and mediocre society with cohorts of “last men” behaving like herd animals (and hence creating the psychosocial conditions that will facilitate the rise of authoritarianism and prosecution of anything too dangerous or extreme.)

Risks of a world of ignorant specialists

To Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the banality of gregariousness is the main problem of the twentieth century: old trades of masters and disciples, which required a general knowledge and a humanist experience and education, have been replaced by hyper-specialized, highly technical jobs that are compartmentalized and transform the masters of yesterday into clerks of partial knowledge, or mere cogs in a machine propelled by inertia and with no sentient machinist.

“Is it permissible merely to carry out orders and commit one’s conscience to someone else’s keeping? Can a man do without ideas of his own about good and evil, and merely derive them from the printed instructions and verbal orders of his superiors? Oaths! Those solemn pledges pronounced with a tremor in the voice and intended to defend the people against evildoers: see how easily they can be misdirected to the service of evildoers and against the people!”

Philosophers José Ortega y Gasset and Martin Heidegger, among others, will explain why this evolution from old tasks to modern ones may end up creating uprooted realities devoid of any basic humanity, such as real personal pride and sense of personal responsibility. Hannah Arendt will define the role of Nazi high ranks such as Eichmann as mere cogs in the machine of extermination, and hence the expression of the “banality of evil.”

According to José Ortega y Gasset,

“The specialist serves as a striking concrete example of the species, making clear to us the radical nature of the novelty. For, previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.”

Freedom in postmodernity

Later, postmodernism or the post-postmodernism appearing in late modernity (a “liquid” environment where the digital realm hasn’t only replaced old media but builds a parallel reality, a mirrorworld where people try to build their ideal self or manifest their sociopathic pulsion) will accentuate the differences between the two freedoms defined by Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom. It’s easier to construct a personality in reaction or fear of losing something than to be free and create one’s own path.

In the path towards authenticity, the “freedom to” intention or the so-called positive freedom, the outcome is not the goal but the process of becoming, the ability and determination of going all-in with one’s life. Nietzsche expresses the quest for personal authenticity through the exploration of one’s potential in a parable from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Back in the “public market” (the city), Zarathustra sees a tightrope walker walking between two towers, and hence showing intention with vitalism and personal affirmation (or, in today’s meme terms, showing a willingness of betting with “skin in the game.”) But a jester shows up behind him, mocks him for defying orthodoxy and showing such a clumsiness.

When the jester jumps right over the tightrope walker, the latter falls to the ground. Zarathustra meets him as he lays dying. The tightrope walker expresses the fear of damnation, but Zarathustra explains there’s no devil and no hell outside of our own perception, of our own way of seeing things and behaving in the world. He has shown the determination to make his own way, and because of it his life cannot be meaningless:

“You have made danger your vocation; there is nothing contemptible in that.”

Towards agency

This display of personal agency deserves respect, so Zarathustra will bury him with his own hands: Nietzschean affirmation does indeed blend with Erich Fromm concept of “positive freedom” or “freedom to”. Or, as expressed in one of his notes:

“If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”

Can any of us, in the age of digital bad faith and what Kevin Kelly has called “Mirrorworld”, or the attempt to bring the human condition to the Internet, aspire to authenticity, one in which the risk of falling for a comfortably unexamined life gives way to the act of creation and affirmation that Erich Fromm calls “freedom to”?

How to project ourselves beyond the zeitgeist of digital exhaustion?