As If We Were Free

“The Execution of Emperor Maximilian”
Edouard Manet, 1867

As If We Were Free

We are just back from the pleasant French city of Montreal in Canada, where Jerry and I gave papers and attended the presentations of others at the meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society, a group affiliated with the American Political Science Association.

Who and what was Eric Voegelin?  He was a political and philosophical contributor to European and American intellectual culture.   His life overlapped the high tide of the two ideology-driven, soul-destroying totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century: Nazism, from which he narrowly escaped, and communism.

You and I — each of us — has a life assignment that we try to figure out.  His became to understand how some of the first-rate intellectuals of his day could have embraced ideologies that hacked a path so deep, wide, and destructive through the times of their lives.

As he saw it, these ideologues were attempting to dodge the difficulty of being human!  He defined that as a rather precise difficulty: not deprivation or inequalities of various degrees.  Some of the prominent ideologues had enjoyed high social standing before joining their personal fates to these new, world-reshaping political aims.  So their shape-change must have had some deeper motivation.  What was it?

As any one of us can testify, it’s rather a hardship to be human.  Our questions – who are we?  how’d we get here? where are we going? — are real.  Our answers often less so.

We have longings – to be better than we are, to know more than we can, to escape the ruinous deformations of our birth, early circumstances, health (precarious or worse), and our desires.  We each wish we could escape everything about ourselves that’s too late to mend.  Each of us lives in-between worse and better; unfinished and unfixable.  We don’t want to kill ourselves, but we do want OUT.    

Two deceptive paths promise escape.  The reductionist path leads downward, enfolding us under biological, chemical, and physical laws that cynically discount the creative spirit, deny the possibility of moral integrity, love and truth, or else pretend to explain away all these divine sparks.  What the contrasting ideological path does is over-simplify the human situation in what looks like an upward direction, advocating a world remade in the image of their futuristic, end-of-history fantasy.  Once they gain power, the inevitable human resistance to their top-down totalizing programs will be crushed by mock trials, coerced confessions, mass executions, and imprisonments, with personal ties subordinated to the ideologue’s newly-contrived, officially mandated loyalties.  

Nevertheless, human reality is more complex than either reductionism or ideology admits. There is a spiritual component in it that both over-simplifications deny.

The conference in Montreal included speakers who’d escaped from current ideology-driven regimes.  They are still intimately connected to struggles for freedom in which they and their friends are now engaged.  So their voices and reports had real blood and real tears on them.  They were not the paler reflections of political theorists and philosophers who come on stage after the fact.

At the Q & A of one panel, I asked a question.  It had hovered over me, preventing sleep, for most of the previous night.  It was not concerned with twentieth-century Czech or Hungarian experiences under communism nor with regimes of present-day Venezuela or Cuba about which others had spoken.  My question shifted attention to us here in the USA. 

In our country today, I said, we who are academics and communicators find ourselves in situations that share some features with the regimes described by our panelists – but not all of those features.  Thus, we don’t meet with ideologues armored with steely, all-encompassing theories of history.   We don’t suffer under one-man rule or massive, single-party police control.  We look and behave as if we are free.  

But, the boundaries of the no-longer-sayable keep expanding. When we get together in small groups, among the friends and colleagues we trust, almost every one of us has horror stories to share.  We are more conforming outwardly than we think ideally we should be.  Like survivors living under totalitarian regimes, we are aware of a penumbra of fear.  We are fearful of being denounced anonymously.  Our confinement does not need prison walls.  It lies in moral habituation to not saying all that we think relevant to say, and finally trying not to think it either.  

One doesn’t know where, personally, to draw the line and refuse to go along.  It may always seem that the current case is too trivial compared to the social or professional risks.  It lacks the big picture.  If one draws the line too soon, it may do no good; one could become just one more indiscernible cipher – alone, defeated, evicted from social space. 

After the panel where I asked that question, several battered veterans of such struggles on foreign shores thanked me – for bringing the problem home to our present localities.  The point, as one of them said to me, is that 

no one is safe.

The denouncer of today is tomorrow’s denouncee.  The small conformer of today becomes tomorrow’s plastic person, exteriorized, having nothing inward left to defend.

Another veteran said that the mass executions and gulags of yesterday are no longer needed.  They were the last century’s cruder tools.  Today’s tyrants need only summon the moving finger of anonymous denunciation.  The pretexts are unpredictable and nothing high or low – no prominence, no obscurity – can keep one protected.

Shared social space disappears,

and with it the precious fellowship

of those who won’t lie.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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1 Response to As If We Were Free

  1. castaway5555 says:

    Thanks Abigail … such a good piece … then, or now, the tools of the demagogue are ruthless … and the home front is worrying … there are folks who are more than willing to trade away the difficulty of being human for the “safety” and “security” of a vision of “unity” against “enemies.”

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