A review of “The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols,” by Ryszard Legutko (Encounter Books, 200 pages, $25.99)

Free and Captive Minds

We all have a notion of what freedom is, and even if we aren’t the sort to spend all our days and hours contemplating it, we have an inherent desire to be free. Unfortunately, there is always something that will oppress us and it’s only human to look for a way out of that assumed captivity. 

But what if freedom is difficult? What if the latest iteration of Western liberalism has nothing to do with liberty but instead offers various forms of captivity? What if we are so obsessed with freedom that we become prisoners of that obsession?

Ryszard Legutko’s new book, The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols, takes a deeper look at freedom, beyond clichés and pseudo-philosophical theories. Legutko is a superb political philosopher with an astute sense of both history and philosophy, aware that we live in a real world with real consequences. In order to illuminate the current ideological trajectories that have covered the joys of human life in darkness, Legutko makes three important distinctions in types of freedom—negative, positive, and inner.

Negative freedom is “an absence of coercion,” and “maximum freedom,” which on the surface appears to be exactly what we want and need. Legutko uses the example of Robinson Crusoe who has absolute freedom on an island but realizes that life without an encounter with another human being is not free at all. If there is no definition of freedom at all, then how can we possibly make sense of our own lives and the lives of others? As Legutko notes, “Those who defend negative freedom agree that societies face destruction from uncontrollable conflicts in the absence of clear, stable criteria outlining how freedom is apportioned.” Without any contemplation on what a free person or society might look like, one person’s idea of freedom is another person’s idea of captivity. Or even worse, one person’s act of freedom as defined only by himself might result in coercion for another. In this case, we are entering totalitarian territory.

This means that oftentimes, authoritarian regimes have the so-called right to define freedom. Legutko points out that liberalism has been the biggest offender in this category, and in actuality has enacted tyranny as opposed to freedom. One of the strongest elements of liberalism (or multiculturalism) is the use of language. It is oftentimes given the complete opposite meaning it originally had, thus creating Orwellian reality. As Legutko points out: 

The most notorious examples of the liberties gained in Western societies in recent decades [are] the public use of vulgar language, public media’s public broadcasting of explicit sex and violence, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the right for homosexuals to adopt children, almost unlimited rights to abortion.

These, in fact, are not examples of real freedom at all. Rather, they are about “fundamental ideas of good and evil, of life and death.”

By contrast, the second category Legutko defines is “positive freedom [which] is a set of qualities and conditions needed to achieve important aims.” If negative freedom had more to do with unbridled and savage passions with no society in sight, then positive freedom is about rationality, goals, and political space in which man can relate to others and one hopes, create a community rather than an ideological collective. For example, Legutko notes that a philosopher is free even if imprisoned because he possesses an interior freedom that allows him to always contemplate philosophy.

Legutko’s philosophical triad is completed with “inner freedom,” which turns toward the reality and meaning of the self. It is in this sphere of freedom where we can ask what an authentic self might look like. How do we know whether our actions are genuine? According to Legutko, the way to know this is to live a virtuous life. One must think critically and rationally and it is only through virtue that man can find authenticity in existence. This means that man is not subject to ideology but has an interior life and dignity, which allow him to flourish as a human being, as well as a member of a community. 

Reflecting on Communism, Legutko wonders whether those who supported the regime were genuine or whether their authenticity only truly revealed itself when they became dissidents? “Neither,” Legutko brilliantly observes, “because on both occasions, whether being Communist or anti-Communist, they were floating with the current.”

This gets to the heart of the matter not only when we speak of Communism historically, but also about current forms of ideologies, such as the liberalism/leftism that promises perfect freedom for all. That perfect freedom doesn’t extend, of course, to those who stray from the doctrine that appears to be changing as fast as the Twitter feed. Freedom in itself, Legutko argues, has lost its meaning because so many perennial ideas have been perverted and negated. Concepts that are meant to be liberal—as in, freedom-related—have become the objects of coercion, intimidation, and control. “Pluralism means monopoly; diversity-conformity; tolerance-censorship; openness-ideological rigidity.”

Most often, those who propose extreme individuality and the affirming of their own truths (as opposed to truth as a larger concept), in reality, are not free at all. As Legutko writes, “we witness a most depressing parade of captive minds, chanting the same clichés in unison and mimicking whatever they’ve been told to mimic.” Freedom does not exist in a collectivist society, and the only way that it can exist is if we reject collectivism, and affirm the idea of community.

Although Legutko correctly analyzes the empty decadence of leftism and other ideological offshoots that mimic Marxism, he fails to bring forth a better discussion of the United States’ founding document, the Declaration of Independence. This is the only weakness in his book. The idea of “natural” or “inalienable” rights leads to confusion, according to Legutko. He is suspicious of the term “inalienable,” because it was “believed to have come from some mysterious pre-political, even pre-moral, world independent of actual conventions . . . ” 

He is critical of the Declaration of Independence, which to his way of thinking implies that America is a nation created upon a confusing idea. That “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . among these Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is “puzzling” to Legutko. In fact, it is “an outlandish contention.” Why are these “truths . . . self-evident?” and “Who held these truths to be self-evident?” 

According to Legutko, such a claim “opened the way for the peculiar conviction, never openly articulated but deeply ingrained in people’s behavior, that one could have the best of both worlds; that is, that one could move from the state of nature, where rights had their grounding, to civilization which had instruments to fulfill them.” 

It would be a mistake to think that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and other founders were in any way thinking about extreme individualism when they drafted the Declaration of Independence. The document was born out of the desire to not live under tyrannical rule, and with a knowledge that freedom is difficult, but that each human being has inherent dignity and a right to live a life in which he or she can flourish. It is precisely this flourishing that is at the center of the Declaration of Independence. 

Let us not forget that this is a political document, and in addition, it is not a declaration of freedom but of independence. This is a crucial difference because the founding fathers had acknowledged that a life free of tyranny will not produce perfect or maximum freedom, nor did they envision such a dreadful society. Rather, to be free from the tyrant’s power means having personal responsibility that rests in the virtuous life, and that it is but a small step toward independence of an individual, community, and of course, a country itself. 

Despite the fact that Legutko has not presented a better and more cogent picture of the United States (which is a small part of his book), he still succeeds in dismantling current ideologies that seek to destroy the order of things. He is not in any sense a naïve thinker, and he exhibits the uniqueness of Eastern European intellectual strength as well as an ability to observe human behavior. His objective is not to merely criticize ideology, like Communism or today’s endless forms of identity politics. After all, anyone can voice an opinion about such questions. Rather, Legutko thoughtfully and elegantly provides a critique of our own society through a prism that is both philosophical and historical, and is genuinely calling on the reader to consider both the possibilities and limits of freedom. 


About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

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