Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism

Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism

by Frank Ruda
Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism

Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism

by Frank Ruda


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Pushing back against the contemporary myth that freedom from oppression is freedom of choice, Frank Ruda resuscitates a fundamental lesson from the history of philosophical rationalism: a proper concept of freedom can arise only from a defense of absolute necessity, utter determinism, and predestination.

Abolishing Freedom demonstrates how the greatest philosophers of the rationalist tradition and even their theological predecessors—Luther, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Freud—defended not only freedom but also predestination and divine providence. By systematically investigating this mostly overlooked and seemingly paradoxical fact, Ruda demonstrates how real freedom conceptually presupposes the assumption that the worst has always already happened; in short, fatalism. In this brisk and witty interrogation of freedom, Ruda argues that only rationalist fatalism can cure the contemporary sickness whose paradoxical name today is freedom.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803288782
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 05/01/2016
Series: Provocations
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 210
File size: 439 KB

About the Author

Frank Ruda is an interim professor for the philosophy of audiovisual media at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, and a visiting lecturer at Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. He is the author of Hegel’s Rabble: An Investigation into Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and For Badiou: Idealism without Idealism.

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Abolishing Freedom

A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism

By Frank Ruda


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8878-2


Protestant Fatalism

Predestination as Emancipation

Well, if I frighten you, we can always go our own ways.

— Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist

Predestined, why not?

— Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words

I got so much soul in me that I am barely alive.

— Every Time I Die, "Decayin' with the Boys"

Is There a Choice?

In 1525 Luther retaliated. His reply to Erasmus of Rotterdam was so drastic that the latter retorted, "You plunge the whole world into fatal discord." Their dispute concerned the question of free choice. Erasmus was for it, Luther against it. Luther thereby opposed any form of Aristotelianism, since for him Aristotelians derive their concept of justice from a human (ontic) context, where it normatively describes the appropriate way of acting, and transpose it onto the (ontological) doctrine of God. In so doing Aristotelians forget the ontic-ontological difference. They believe that human beings can contribute to their salvation by means of good works because God shares our normative standards (of justice and reason): there is thus continuity between man and God.

Luther countered such Aristotelianism by pointing out that it conflates man and God: it derives an image of God from the image of the human as a free being. For Luther, however, things are precisely the other way around: God works in us even against our will, which is why true faith never begins with free choice but with a forced reorientation of one's life. To believe is not to actualize a human capacity. Rather the origin of belief, as well as its direction, is God. The advent of faith constitutes a fundamental break in one's life and implies that one quits relying on good reasons and normative or objective capacities. Faith begins "only where the illusion of a remote 'inner world' is disturbed."

Luther here follows St. Paul. Belief emerges from a conversion experience similar to Paul's on the road to Damascus. There is no inner realm (of freedom) from which faith can emerge. Rather "my 'inner' approaches me radically from 'the outer.'" I experience faith only when I encounter God, and I am thus forced to renew myself. This is why anyone who thinks he is free (in matters of faith) and who believes that his or her freedom is manifested in deliberately decided actions is ultimately an Aristotelian (i.e., a nonbeliever). In true faith one encounters an abyss of despair while traversing the illusion that one has anything (objectively) at one's disposal — one learns to break with the idea of freedom as something one possesses. Nothing guarantees salvation, not even incessant striving for good works. On the contrary, if I presume that my works can influence God's judgment and that there is a common measure between man and God, I end up committing blasphemy. The one who is truly free does not identify freedom with a given capacity, but instead experiences the despair that there is nothing we can do to achieve what we do not even know how to properly strive for. This is the precondition for encountering God, an encounter that forces us to believe "where [such an] event happens, a fresh breeze overthrows my life." Faith results from encountering something that I would not have believed to be possible before experiencing it. In other words, we do not have the freedom to start believing in something. Freedom is rather that which becomes absolutely necessary for me, but only after an event of faith. Faith strikes me contingently. It seems to be something ungrounded, solely depending on God's will. It seems to result from an absolute necessity and forces me to believe. I have no power against God's will. Freedom and belief result from an event of grace. Franz Rosenzweig rightly stated that Luther's believer "has neither belief nor unbelief, but both ... happen to him." Hence there is no free will.

Erasmus, however, was not at all happy with Luther's radicalism, as he considered free will to be the precondition of all religiosity. If we were in the hands of a predestining God, Erasmus argued, mankind would be a mere object: we would be neither responsible nor guilty and could never achieve anything on our own. He therefore vindicated "a certain power of freedom" but also granted that Scripture contains "secret places ... into which God does not want us to penetrate more deeply." Freedom of the will is one of these places. So, if God wants some things to remain unknown to us until we die or Judgment Day comes, "it is more religious to worship them, being unknown, than to discuss them, being insoluble."Luther therefore generates confusion and disorientation, amorality, and an irreligious attitude. This is why Erasmus tried not to take sides for or against free will, instead playing the role of a neutral referee, taking sides against taking sides (and thus against Luther).

Letting God be ... (Good)

Erasmus claims that Scripture is ambiguous and can be used both for and against free will. But we should not question its consistency, as otherwise the basis of faith and morality starts to teeter. He proposes to call freedom "a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them." Thus freedom is a capacity that has a certain amount of efficacy: neither a great amount nor zero efficacy. Take the question, Why did Adam sin? Because he was able to and because his "will seems ... to have been corrupted by immoderate love toward his spouse." Immoderation is a sin, and Erasmus's God dislikes it as much as Erasmus does. One should never love anything more than God (which makes God appear quite jealous), as this was Adam's sin. But a moderate reading of Scripture argues that even the immoderation of original sin only "obscured" and did not extinguish free will. It made free will tend toward sin. Yet "by the grace of God, when sin has been forgiven, the will is made free to the extent that ... even apart from the help of new grace it could attain eternal life ... so it is possible for man, with the help of divine grace (which always accompanies human effort), to continue in the right, yet not without a tendency to sin, owing to the vestiges of original sin in him." Thus, for Erasmus, original sin contaminates our capacity to act, but we are still able to strive for salvation and to attain it with God's help.

To clarify this point, Erasmus introduces three kinds of laws: the law of nature, of good works, and of faith. The first functions like a (trivialized) categorical imperative. It "declares it to be a crime if anyone does to another what he would not wish done to himself." The second issues commands and sanctions that exceed our power but can be met with the help of God. The law of faith commands impossible things, but "because grace is plentifully added to it, not only does it make things easy which of themselves are impossible," it makes them also "agreeable." This is a gradual exposition of how freedom contributes to salvation: we can (law of nature) avoid doing to others what we do not want to be done to us. In the first instance freedom is thus a capacity to avoid doing certain things. Second, we ought also to strive to follow God's commandments (law of good works), even if such works exceed our capacity. Freedom thus comes with an insight into one's limitations. Third, with divine help (law of faith) we can do what we are by nature incapable of doing. But striving for good works is not futile. It is a precondition of salvation. This is human-divine cooperationism.

At any rate we have the capacity to follow natural law only because divine grace has already intervened after original sin and (almost fully) reconstituted our capacity. The law of faith is always already in effect. It "always accompanies human effort" and therefore (logically) precedes the law of nature. The law of faith is the invisible bracket written around the set of three laws. And God therein is the unmoved mover, who out of mercy enables us to circle around him. Mankind therefore stands in a continuous relation with God: we are always already indebted to God, without whom we could do nothing. But God must be thought of as separated from all the evil we perform. Evil is a misuse of the capacity given to us by God's mercy, but he himself is eternally good. For Erasmus God's goodness is linked to four kinds of grace: (1) grace that is granted naturally (free will as natural capacity); (2) grace that has an extraordinary status (operative grace) and provides an occasion to change one's life; (3) grace that emerges when the offer (of operative grace) is accepted (cooperative grace); and (4) grace that is linked to achieving one's goal (truly cooperative grace). In short, our natural constitution entails the capacity (natural grace) to accept an invitation (operative grace) to effectively strive to perform good works that we are otherwise incapable of (cooperative grace) but can realize with God's help (truly cooperative grace). Human nature was equipped by God to work with him if he reaches out to us. This is why "no sinner ought ever to be secure ... [and] none ought despair." If there were no free will, we could not work toward receiving God's mercy. Without freedom the whole religious realm would collapse: with no grace, responsibility, sin, and commandments, God would simply be playing dirty games with us. One can thus see that the debate between Erasmus and Luther ultimately revolves around the proper causality of grace and of freedom.

This is what is at stake in Luther's doctrine of divine foreknowledge and predestination, which Erasmus therefore had to refute. Erasmus seeks to defend free will without limiting God's power (spoiling his omnipotence), thus conceptually distinguishing divine foreknowledge from predestination. He argues that we know that certain things will happen in the future (say, a solar eclipse), but they do not happen because we know them. The same holds for divine foreknowledge. Erasmus thus introduces a distinction between two types of necessity: antecedent necessity (which predetermines free will) and consequent (after-the-fact) necessity. With consequent necessity one can still account for guilt, sin, merit, and human responsibility tout court. Without it, God's punishments would be "either mad or cruel." He would madly or cruelly throw the powerless sinner, "guilty of nothing ... into eternal fire." God would not be good; he would be a sadist. Mankind would be his nasty object, and the world would be nothing but one gigantic stage for a sadistic play that cannot even turn into a proper tragedy. A good God punishes only someone who deliberately violates the law of nature or of good works and may even hate him in advance. (God foresees the criminal eclipse the way we foresee the solar one.)

For Erasmus, however, it is crucial to emphasize that we are not just mere puppets in God's predetermining hands. We are, as he argues with Aristotle, God's servants. When servants obey their master, they are active and their works are their own. Just like them, we are the cause of our good works, even though they depend on God's grace. (He refers to instances in which people say, for example, God gave me lovely children, etc.) Erasmus explains the causality of human action as follows: First there is thinking, then willing, and finally doing. There is no free will in thinking and doing (both are caused by God's grace), but a deliberate act of will (consent of the agent) necessarily mediates thought with action. God is thereby the main cause of an action, even if free will is a necessary secondary cause: a causal cooperation leaving room for freedom. This is why for Erasmus a true believer is able to accomplish some things while nevertheless ascribing everything to God, his master and guide. Human nature entails the capacity of free will, but humans are never the sole authors of their actions since their nature depends on God. Based on this complication, Erasmus develops an ontological claim about the nature of all things: Everything has a beginning, a progression, and an end. The first and the last fully depend on God. The capacity to will originates in God's grace, and we can cultivate this capacity if we consent to cooperate with him. He has always already reached out to us. God is a supportive and supporting cooperation partner in matters of human salvation, an "advisor and helper, just as an architect helps his assistant ... shows him the why and wherefore. ... What the architect is to his pupil, grace is to our will." Thus "there is nothing that man cannot do with the help of the grace of God."

God is a good, charming architect who enjoys helping and advising. So how do we make sense of those parts of the Scripture that suggest otherwise? In reading them "we are forced willy-nilly to seek some moderation of our opinion." So again, when there seems to be a contradiction in Scripture, or it contradicts our idea of God, there is a simple solution: "We shall be ordered to adore that which is not right to pursue." Moderate interpretation is needed when the consequences of the letter might become a threat to belief, otherwise one cannot avoid "absurd ... consequences."

To adore what we cannot comprehend is crucial, yet what also "is to be avoided" is to "overthrow free choice, for if this is done away with I do not see any way in which the problem of the righteousness and the mercy of God is to be explained." By claiming that there is no freedom and only "absolute necessity," as Luther argues, we "ascribe cruelty and injustice to God, a sentiment offensive to pious ears (for he would not be God if there were found in him any blemish or imperfection)." For Erasmus evil has to remain external to the notion of God. When man is considered to be incapable of something, God becomes cruel and imperfect, since he is the one responsible for evil. In other words, from Luther's perspective, Erasmus's God is dead. There is only a cruel supreme sadist issuing commandments that are impossible to fulfill by a human nature so weak that it can achieve nothing on its own. For Erasmus this "immeasurabl[y] exaggerate[d] original sin" implies an "excess of zeal" and "a delight in ... extravagant statements." And it is from "such exaggerated views that have been born the thunders and lightnings which now shake the world," "paradoxes on account of which the Christian world is now in an uproar" — an obvious reference to the peasant revolts of the time. Luther is excessive, extravagant, and he exaggerates. He brings conflict, despair, and fatalism to the entire human race. He is an inhumanist, defending a "pessimistic anthropology" (so the entire issue of humanism is at stake here) with an "apocalyptic perspective." To oppose this extreme position, according to Erasmus, we need moderation, reasonable interpretation, and a humanist theory of cooperation. The fate of the (Christian) world depends on this.

Exaggerating Exaggeration, or Letting (God) Be ... (God)

Erasmus's position follows the implicit imperative "Let God be good!" Luther opposes it with his own: "Let God be God!" If Erasmus argues that Luther exaggerates, one should here recall what Adorno once claimed about psychoanalysis: "In psycho-analysis nothing is true except the exaggerations." The same holds for Luther. It is precisely his exaggerations — his defense of absolute necessity, of predestination, and his radical disidentification of freedom and capacity — that, I will argue, touch on a crucial dimension of a radical concept of freedom. Why? Because the one who exaggerates literally goes beyond a certain limit and produces something excessive. Such an excess is at stake in Luther's exaggerations. I thus take Erasmus's critique as an entry point into Luther's thought. This move is justified because Luther himself contends that Erasmus forced him to exaggerate his previous exaggerations: excessively exaggerating exaggerations. Peculiarly and provocatively Luther suggests that this redoubled and excessive exaggeration (maybe even a meta-exaggeration) generated greater clarity in articulating his own position. How should we understand this exaggeration without measure, something immeasurably excessive, that ultimately coincides with absolute clarity? In his "Manifesto for Reformation," Luther, the Reformation Hercules, demonstrates the inconsistency of Erasmus's position by demonstrating its necessary yet unintended outcome. He drives Erasmus straight into the arms of Pelagius, who contends that in order to avoid (religious) fatalism one needs the primacy of free will over divine grace.We witness here the practice of absolute necessity. We should thus read Luther as a Hegelian avant la lettre, taking the claims of a position seriously by showing how the assumptions on which it relies lead to the very opposite of what the position wanted to assert.

Against Erasmus, Luther seeks not only to defend absolute necessity but also the absolute clarity of Scripture. The latter is both internally clear (i.e., noncontradictory) and externally clear (i.e., it can be understood by any true believer). Why should God have given it to us otherwise and in any other form? These two claims are dialectically linked: Scripture is clear, but it can be adequately comprehended only if it is read in the right spirit. It thus demands that the spirit of the reader itself demonstrate internal clarity, in the same way that, for example, St. Paul is "his own best interpreter." If the reader encounters ambiguous parts in the Scripture, that is already a sign that she is not a true believer. Or, in more dialectical terms, anticipating a theoretical maneuver that will later become crucial for Descartes, Scripture can be absolutely clear about something by being paradoxical if the thing itself cannot but appear paradoxical to our understanding. This is also to say: No true belief without clarity of Scripture; no clarity of Scripture without true belief. This conclusion is derived from reading Scripture to the letter. A consequence of this is that the composition of Scripture is absolutely necessary the way it is, and thus one needs to read it with the assumption of absolute necessity, to accept "what God says ... quite simply at its face value." This is why, for Luther, Erasmus argues like a sophist. He is a "wordy rhetorician," "a fluent orator," bending God's word, introducing allegedly subtle but ultimately worthless distinctions. Erasmus reads Scripture "so that anything might be made of anything." In short, he is a postmodernist avant la lettre and in the pejorative sense of the term.


Excerpted from Abolishing Freedom by Frank Ruda. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Fatalism in Times of Universalized Assthetization,
1. Protestant Fatalism: Predestination as Emancipation,
2. René the Fatalist: Abolishing (Aristotelian) Freedom,
3. From Kant to Schmid (and Back): The End of All Things,
4. Ending with the Worst: Hegel and Absolute Fatalism,
5. After the End: Freud against the Illusion of Psychical Freedom,
Last Words,

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