This article is the first in a three part series on freedom. Part 1 will deal with limitless "existential" freedom. Part 2 will deal socially constructed freedom. Part 3 will discuss the role of Christian liberty in a free society.
At the dawn of the 20th century, a sickly German professor named Friedrich Nietzsche crafted a madman and set him loose on Western philosophy. "Whither is God?" declared the madman, "I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I! All of us are his murderers!"
So begins existentialism’s assault on morality. With the death of a moral lawgiver, the madman shatters all moral law, creating a freedom from morality, a freedom from responsibility, a freedom that takes away all of man's accountability.
Straying Through An Infinite Nothing
Nietzsche's madman proved to be prophetic. Within 50 years of his writing, existentialism reached its pinnacle, along with its associated concept of existential freedom. This existential freedom was free from moral constraints, free to construct itself in whatever way seemed fit. It encapsulated the modern American mentality of self-determination, with a motto of "be true to yourself" and "do what feels right."
|A painting of Friedrich Nietzsche|
Nietzsche's madman perceived this well before his time. He prophesied that the "death of God" would result in a society that was "plunging continually, backward, sideward, forward, in all directions." A society without morality is "straying through an infinite nothing," constantly searching for some bearing to orient itself, while the light of moral truth plunges humanity into a bitter, cold night.
How does one build a system of values without moral grounding, while "straying through an infinite nothing"? And how does one derive a sense of purpose in life without a concept of something valuable? It’s like building a house without the ground.
If man is to be set loose with this "existential freedom," he must come up with some way of crafting personal value, something worth pursuing that gives his life a sense of purpose. With nothing outside of himelf to stand on or strive for, he turns inwards towards himself. But with all transcendent purpose removed and the image of God within him defaced, he finds nothing but emptiness, or, in the words of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, “nothingness.”
Here we find the existentialist at wit’s end. He concludes, in Sartre’s words, that man is "condemned to be free." Freedom has turned to imprisonment. Sartre's colleague, Albert Camus, cuts to the chase, starting his treatise with the statement "there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." As limits dissolve and man becomes “liberated,” he finds that his freedom only pushes him to anguish and despair.
Enter Nietzsche's madman, whose predictions have so far proved eerily accurate. The madman, bearing a lantern intended to provide a light of guidance in a world without moral constraints, decides that humanity is not yet ready to hear him. Humanity is not yet strong enough to throw off the yoke of morality and traverse an infinite nothing. So the madman throws the lantern to the ground, shattering it and declaring "I come too early, my time is not yet."
But as Christians, we know that time will never come. We realize that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1). Freedom comes from the realization that our value is entirely bound up in our relationship with Christ, and that it is from that relationship that we derive our purpose. We realize that the very Apostle who penned the declaration that Christ had set him free, also calls himself a "slave of Christ" (Romans 1:1). We know that true freedom has limits and “limitless freedom” is not freedom at all, rather, it is slavery.
Next week, we’ll discuss the ways in which this concept of “freedom” has shaped the way that political philosophers conceive of society and the role of government.
Posted by Nick Barden.