Freedom from Reality

The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty

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D. C. Schindler
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , August
     456 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With Freedom from Reality, an ambitious and erudite study of the modern understanding of liberty, D.C. Schindler has taken his place among the various, eminent modernity critics that have arisen in recent decades to express their disquiet about the world created by liberalism. The subtitle of the book, The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, may raise the suspicion that Schindler and the other critics of modernity, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank (and less well-known figures from the previous generation, such as George Grant and Eric Voegelin), are simply reactionaries, railing at the loss of some idealized past. However, Schindler’s work aims not to dismiss modern ideas and institutions as wholly misguided, nor to call for their elimination. Instead, he wants to argue that the modern understanding of liberty needs “not a rejection but a reorientation, from the innermost depths, to the good” (195).

He undertakes this task in three stages: “Part 1 is an exploration of the thought of John Locke, who is taken to offer a formulation of the concept of freedom, both at the anthropological and at the political level, that is representative of modernity generally. Part 2 explains the precise sense in which this concept is ‘diabolical’ and endeavors to show the traces of this ‘diabolical’ concept in the basic institutions and values of modern liberalism. Finally, part 3 seeks to retrieve an alternative conception of freedom by going back to original sources” (4–5), which means specifically retrieving the conception exemplified by Plato and Aristotle.

The first part presents a complex intervention into the interpretative debates about the different editions of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Dover, [1690] 1959). Schindler argues that examining Locke’s revised understanding of freedom in the second edition enables us to understand how Locke makes a decisive break with the classical or premodern understanding, which he still accepted to some degree in the first edition. In the second edition, Locke’s attempt to protect free will from being determined by external causes leads him to define freedom in a way that makes it detached from an objective reality of given ends or goods. Schindler’s interpretation may be familiar among critics of Locke, but the fifty pages of meticulous argumentation in the first chapter provides particularly compelling proof that Locke’s thinking marked a real break with his medieval-scholastic forebears.  

Schindler’s concern is not, of course, with Locke specifically. The exegetical work of the first part is to serve Schindler’s overall claim that “the modern conception of freedom has an inherent, indeed logical, tendency to subvert itself” (13) and “that this tendency comes to a certain perfection of expression in the thinking of Locke” (13). There are certain dangers in this approach. One could always claim that there are other key modern thinkers that do not commit Locke’s mistakes. However, in part 2, Schindler convincingly argues that Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza, although typically taken to be radically different from Locke, share the same underlying definition of freedom as autonomy and spontaneity, which nonetheless tends to collapse “into various natural, ethical, and political determinisms” (7), and into an argument for the extensive regulation of behavior by the sovereign (122). The concepts of the symbolical and diabolical, inspired by Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer, are then defined in chapter 4, so that they can later be deployed in chapter 5 to show that the modern notion of liberty, exemplified in its incoherence by Locke, is deeply embedded in many contemporary values and institutions, such as self-determination, human rights, the free market, and technology. Relying on the etymologies of the Greek terms sym-ballō (to join together) and dia-ballō (to divide), Schindler argues that the premodern, symbolical perspective saw human freedom as ontologically rooted in the first cause, and hence as being always/already in relation to a given reality and to an objective hierarchy of goods. By contrast, the modern “diabolical” view divides freedom from reality and the good by defining freedom as a power that is not determined or orientated by anything external to the will. The contrast between these two perspective provides Schindler with a powerful heuristic device by which to launch his critique in chapter 5 of the various values and institutions that are commonly associated with liberalism. 

In the three chapters of part 3, Schindler urges us to return to Plato and Aristotle to recover an authentic, symbolical understanding of liberty. This is not because Schindler thinks returning to Plato and Aristotle is a sufficient solution by itself to the problems identified in the previous chapters, nor does he claim their thought is without room for improvement and correction. In a footnote he states that the present book will be followed by “two connected volumes . . . a genealogical volume that seeks to account for the emergence of the distinctively modern conception of freedom from the complexity of the Christian appropriation of the classical tradition” (364), followed by third volume presenting “a largely constructive ‘metaphysics of freedom’” (364). Schindler’s project will need to be completed before a fuller assessment can be made. The subsequent volumes will need to make up for the relatively oblique references to Christian theology in this volume. Nevertheless, judging by this book, it is a project to which we ought to give our attention. Schindler has begun it with a sophisticated and penetrating study of modern liberty, comparable to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) or George Grant’s English-Speaking Justice (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985). It also does not hurt that Freedom from Reality is written in a pellucid style that avoids the ponderous and pretentious prose found in too many academic publications.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

 Mehmet Ciftci is a Gilson Postdoctoral Fellow at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.    

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

D. C. Schindler is professor of metaphysics and anthropology at the John Paul II Institute, Washington, DC. He is the author of a number of books, including The Catholicity of Reason.



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