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A New Framework for Freedom by Kurt Hofer

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A New Framework for Freedom

"Boy with Anchor" (1873), a 19.4 x 34.9 cm watercolor and gouache with graphite on paper by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), located in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

As an adolescent in the early 2000s, my understanding of freedom was entirely clear, and clearly informed by the hippy counterculture of the Boomers. The search for my most “authentic self” was to be found in experimentation—with drugs, alcohol, and sex. If I could get all three, great, but even a couple of them would be hallmarks of liberation. In order to get these, I intuitively understood, I would need money; whether as the enabler of the aforementioned freedoms or the guardrails against their excesses, I probably couldn’t have told you. But I do remember these words of my immigrant grandfather, who clearly assimilated the connection between freedom and money: “Never underestimate the power of money; money gives you freedom,” he told me. 

This definition of freedom—like postwar liberalism itself–is not standing the test of time. The older I get, the more I understand that my freedom–the freedom to be who I am and what I desire to be—is contingent not upon discovering my own inner palimpsest of selfhood. Freedom is not a psychological process of excavating the “true” inner self. Such a notion of freedom derives, as Carl Trueman rigorously and meticulously documents in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2021), from the Rousseauist-Romantic myth of individual purity (the “state of nature”), later corrupted by society. But true freedom is neither an end in itself nor the shedding of externally imposed limitations. Rather, freedom is, as I recently wrote in First Things and paraphrasing the wisdom of others, an “anchoring.”

Thankfully, just as the liberal-romantic notions of freedom as a paradoxically institutionalized counter-culture are plumbing ever-greater depths of radicalized self-discovery—pronoun policing is one such example—a new framework for freedom is emerging. Rusty Reno and Yoram Hazony, among others I must be neglecting, are laying the groundwork for the new—which is really the old—freedom as we speak. As Reno pointed out during a recent intellectual retreat in Phoenix on the subject, freedom “come[s] not from permission but instead from commitment.” Reno sometimes refers to these commitments as the “strong gods” of family, faith, and nationalism; bonds which can only be cemented by constant and continual acts of loyalty and dedication and personal sacrifice. Likewise, in his forthcoming book Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Hazony explains the seemingly counterintuitive relationship between “freedom and constraint”—between liberty and limits—in a subsection of his book:

Every freedom emerges through a well-structured constraint… In Hobbes’s Leviathan… fear of the government provides the constraint… In a free society, [by contrast] the principle constraining force comes not from fear of the government, but from the self-discipline of the people, who provide the necessary constraint upon themselves by upholding inherited relations and the obligations that attend them.

These constraints include necessary deference to hierarchies—religious, familial, and patriotic—that serve to perpetuate the aforementioned institutions. As Hazony points out, without a hierarchy through which norms—and, when necessary—reforms are transmitted from one generation to the next, the institution falls from disuse, to desuetude, and finally, implosion. Hence the idea of menstruating “men” and “birth persons,” for instance. No institutions—none–can survive without hierarchy; and hierarchy, of course, involves subordination, which infringes upon the right to self-invention. Such is the regime of negative freedom under which we live. At some point, unfortunately, with nothing left to tear down and no barriers to dismantle, anarchy and degeneracy ensues. This is when the Leviathan of Hobbes is called upon.

To criticize this false anthropology of human freedom, however, is not enough. If a new framework for freedom is to emerge in America and across the West, it must be recognizable. The stories of the kind of freedom—anchored freedom, rooted freedom—Hazony and Reno envision must be told. They must be disseminated with the same adamance in mass culture, whenever and wherever possible, as the Boomer myth of freedom. On this point Reno—and I suspect Hazony—are guardedly optimistic. The anarchic freedom of 1960s counterculture which has birthed the present chaos shows us two things: firstly, the power of a nascent cultural paradigm to disrupt the status quo; and second, the moral-cultural envenerating of a society that produces no loyalties to anything beyond the whimsies of an implacable, ultimately tyrannical genus of subjectivity that has become insatiable, rapaciously devouring the culture that feeds it. But it is possible to leave the Boomer framework behind. For this, I believe, and I hope, is what I have achieved in my own personal life. 

The New Praxis of Freedom

Particularly if you hail from America’s urban areas, it seems, you are told that religion—or religious dogma—is an impediment to freedom. Orthodoxy impedes the free-thinking self. I am reminded of a friend who grew up in a loosely observant Jewish household who now identifies as a “Jew-Buddhist” and practices meditation wherever he deems he has found a sense of the sacred. This included, in one instance in which I was present, a Catholic Church. Of course, this religious syncretism is nothing new; the Catholic Church, especially in indigenous regions of the Americas such as the Peruvian Andes, struggled to identify—and where they could, root out—such fusions of religion. In any case nowadays such syncretism has been repackaged—it is unique, unflappable, and brave.

While it is certainly true that Christianity—through its preoccupation with the inner state of the soul as opposed to mere observance of ritual or law—has made meaningful contributions to our modern democratic culture of freedom, Christian freedom is, if not diametrically opposed, fundamentally different nonetheless. 2 Corinthians 12:8, Galatians 2:20, and Romans 6 all speak of freedom as a form of death to the self and rebirth in Christ. Freedom is not, then, what you want. Freedom is what Christ wants. Freedom is the living God, crucified, in-dwelling within us: “We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin” (Romans 6:6). In Orthodox Christian teaching, we are most ourselves when we are most surrendered to another—to Christ. We will never be perfectly surrendered to the will of Christ, but in the attempt—even just the attempt—we find some measure of freedom.

Yet another common misconception is that sexual liberation brings freedom while marriage, monogamy, and children are a millstone around the neck. But why is it then that, as a married man with children, I feel infinitely more free—more myself—than when I was a single graduate student who could quite literally do as I pleased? This is because the forming of a new family is as much a vehicle of freedom as growing up in a stable household is for the young. Within the refuge of the family, alongside those who know us best and to whom we are most committed, our sense of priorities is heightened. The unfettered individual makes his cost-benefit analysis based on the whims of the psychologized self—to use Carl Trueman’s term—while the individual in the family has freedom within boundaries. Freedom without constraints, without clearly delineated guardrails, becomes pure anarchy. Anarchy is what we see today.

A last note is necessary on freedom in—and through—patriotism. In Pericles’ funeral oration, the speaker implores his audience to “realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts.” Love of Athens, Pericles explains, does not simply impel Athenians to fight for their homeland, although that too is important; rather, the war dead are commemorated and admired for their freedom. By sacrificing to something higher than themselves, they have found freedom in their patriotic purpose: “These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war.”

Without having to interpret these words in the strictest literal sense, we can nonetheless intuit that devotion and, when necessary, sacrifice to a homeland, is itself a form of freedom—freedom through commitment. In an age in which “global citizenship” and consent-based social contract theory have become the basis of militant anti-nationalism, it is worth remembering how something as seemingly banal—or banal to the liberal intelligentsia, at least—as patriotism can be freeing. As my friend, the journalist Jorge González-Gallarza Hernández explained recently at the National Conservatism Conference in Brussels: Ukranians, after all, are not dying in the streets for liberalism, but for nationalism—their love of home and hearth. 

Death and war are not to be celebrated, but dying to defend one’s people must be acknowledged for the species of freedom that it is. As the Ukranians know better than I, he who is without a home is not free—be it the home of the family, the home of inherited religion, or the home of patrimony. With a wrench thrown in the gears of globalization for the foreseeable future, it behooves us, it seems, to better understand and appreciate the new—which is in fact, the old but forgotten—framework for freedom as it (re)emerges. 

Kurt Hofer writes from Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Golden Age literature.