It’s the day after the Fourth of July—Independence Day—in the U.S.
Something feels ironic and subversive about this post given that Americans just celebrated “independence” and one of the core themes of this newsletter is “interdependence”—the idea that we can understand ourselves better not as individuals but as inter-dividuals (this term is explained in great detail by Jean-Michel Oughourlian in this excellent book.)
So, in honor of the Fourth of July, I’m going to explore the common and often misunderstood word “freedom” today, and I’ll do it in a somewhat Girardian context.
(I want to also use this as an opportunity to thank the massive international readership this newsletter has found, which came as a total surprise to me—but shouldn’t have, given the universality of mimetic desire.)
Freedom as a Metaphysical Concept
“No passion rules modern society like the passion for freedom,” writes the Girard scholar Stephen L. Gardner. Freedom is a myth of modernity, he argues, and it’s not the same as liberty. He continues:
“Liberty is something real that can be measured by law and custom; freedom is as an object of imagination, an object of desire, a ‘metaphysical’ passion for an exemplary state of being.”
We could put “freedom” right up there with other confused, modern abstractions like:
—“equality” (at least if we are restricted to worldly, political ideas about it)
The idea of perfect freedom is, in Girardian terms, a Sisyphean object of metaphysical desire—one that promises to remain forever just out of reach.
I’m going to use the term “freedom” here as a concession to the reader. Understand that when I use it, though, I almost certainly mean something different than anyone else on the planet—just as you have a unique relation to the idea and it means something unique to you, too.
I think we’d all benefit from looking at whatever this idea is from different sides, though.
There is a negative and positive side to freedom. More than 60 years after Isaiah Berlin’s famous 1958 essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”, there is still not a widespread appreciation of these two sides: the difference between Freedom From and Freedom For.
Freedom From means freedom from obstacles that prevent us from doing what we want. “Don’t tell me what to do” is the rallying cry of those in the Freedom From mentality. It views any imposition, even any normative prescription, as a threat to freedom.
Freedom For means having the freedom to do something positive. A person who hasn’t had the discipline to learn basic skills on the piano doesn’t have the freedom to play whatever he wants. Likewise with jazz. The “freedom” commonly associated with jazz is predicated on a base level of musical virtue.
The problem with the sexual revolution is that it is predicated on Freedom From and not Freedom For. What is sex for? Mass confusion. Our culture has focused so much on liberating sex since the 60’s that we now have a generation of children addicted to porn. A fixation with Freedom From always leads to its own perverse kind of slavery.
These two sides are the horizontal dimension. Now let’s take a look at the vertical dimension: three layers of freedom.
Before we get to the layers of freedom, let’s look at an example of layered thinking: how to understand the layer of mimetic desire through the lens of crypto.
Crypto is connected to freedom; in fact, you can’t understand it without understanding the desire for freedom. So this detour is not as non-sequitur as it may seem. Independence Day is a beautiful day to talk ETH. (Okay, any day is…)
I was just on the excellent BanklessHQ podcast (which is out now) to talk about the role of mimetic desire in crypto markets. We discussed a way of thinking of memes in relationship to mimetic desire, and we did it by looking at a few different layers of the game:
Layer 0: Mimetic Desire. This is the based layer, social layer, the anthropological layer. This is the layer that Girard was focused on in his studies. It’s the layer that operates underneath politics, economics, even religion.
Layer 1: Memes. Memes are a product of culture, and culture is shaped in and through mimesis.
Layer 2: The Application Layer. This is how people apply political action, coordinated effort, marketing, and business models to promote various memes, which combines mimesis with the meme.
Now, let’s apply a similar framework to freedom, but in reverse order.
Here are three:
Physical Freedom: this is the freedom from physical barriers that prevent us from doing what we want. Someone in jail does not have physical freedom. Neither does someone who smokes daily and has bad knees: they probably don’t have the freedom to run a marathon tomorrow.
Psychological Freedom: We lack the psychic freedom to think certain things or get out of the prison of our own minds, our own skull-sized kingdoms, or we suffer from psychic wounds from childhood which Alice Miller describes powerfully in her Drama of the Gifted Child and especially (and more deeply, in my opinion) in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. Lack of awareness is psychological unfreedom.
Spiritual Freedom: This is the hardest freedom to attain, but it is the kind of freedom associated with someone who is able to love freely and without restraint. It’s the kind of interior freedom that Victor Frankyl was getting at (but never fully developed, IMO) in Man’s Search for Meaning. For a Christian, freedom finds its ultimate expression in Jesus. “I surrender my own life, and no one has the power to take my life from me” is the greatest flex of all time. The martyr is totally free because there is nothing you can do to take away his freedom over his own spiritual life. (And here’s a great and beautifully written essay about the freedom of necessity—about a weasel who takes hold of an eagle’s neck the way that we should take hold of life).
This deepest level of freedom also offers the best protection from becoming merely a product or child of the age we happen to be living in. Ideas gain currency and become fashionable (and unfashionable) in certain milieus—there is an invisible market for them, we just can’t see it the way that we can see the market for BTC. But investing your energy in them can be no different than buying a bubble.
(Does someone want to tokenize ideas? Make a futures market for them? I’m in. I’m only half-joking here. It’s worth thinking about in this way: which ideas would you buy and which ones would you sell if a market existed today and you could put skin in the game?)
It seems that we all deeply desire freedom, but our freedom is always contingent. One great paradox and mystery of human life: we have to surrender our sense of freedom in order to gain it.
This is what Girard means in the last chapter of Deceit, Desire, & the Novel—it’s only when the author admits that he is subject to the forces of mimetic desire, not entirely free from them, that he gains the freedom to write a truly great novel. He surrenders his idea of the Romantic Lie.
A similar “conversion” experience is necessary to become a great anything: a great investor, father, writer, human, friend.
Have a great week.