The following was originally written in 2012 as a chapter in a short book titled Philosophy in a Time of Emergency. It feels relevant given our current political situation, so I’m sharing it again.
The Nature of Human Freedom
By Matthew D. Segall
The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”1 This is not the Kantian position that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind, but rather the inverse proposition that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”
Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.2
In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re- emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature itself.
The human freedom to decide to be good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial scission of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their enactment of original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical collaborator Fr. Baader:
it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals.3
The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, as this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I am essentially nothing more and nothing less than the freedom to decide for good or evil. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom—which in fact is not mine at all. It is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.4 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin—the natural human propensity to do evil—is a necessary side- effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom of which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure the particularity of our own organism and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,
the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.5
Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:
the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.6
Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature itself. Further, because nature remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of itself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to re-create itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, for the human there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the eternal circulation of sacred marriage. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected.
Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. He believed the state was ultimately an affront to free human beings and would eventually wither away as the human spirit awakened to its true potential. Schelling characterized secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”7 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno- science.8 The present military-industrial techno-capitalist empire can thus be said to be predicated upon the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.9 After all, evil doers can quickly be destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric chemicals, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.
Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day—untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self- grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s hubristic elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:
If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.10
It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the instrumental solutions and superficial palliatives of modern life. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,
to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.11
Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.12 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there is no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”13 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which in the consumer capitalist context offer an untold number of options for temporary escapist diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.14
Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.15 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.16 Though an aging Schelling was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels,17 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.18 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”19 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least ensure that “the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.”20 Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.21
From Schelling’s perspective, true human salvation does not lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil becomes real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”22 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”23 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.
By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.24 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”25 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.26
Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.27 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:
the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.28
While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.29 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.
This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.30
Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological grounds of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by members of democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to techno-capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.31
1 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.
2 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.
3 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.
4 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.
5 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47.
6 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.
7 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.
8 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.
9 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.
10 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.
11 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.
12 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.
13 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181
14 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.
15 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.
16 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.
17 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.
18 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.
19 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.
20 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.
21 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.
22 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.
23 Matthew 5:39.
24 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.
25 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.
26 John 3:5.
27 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.
28 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.
29 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.
30 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.
31 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.