Natural and Spiritual Freedom

Martin Hägglund
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

One late summer afternoon, I am sitting on top of a mountain in northern Sweden. The ocean below me is calm and stretches toward an open horizon. There is no other human being in sight and barely a sound can be heard. Only a solitary seagull is gliding on the wind. Like so many times before, I find it mesmerizing to follow a seagull as it hovers in the air and lingers over the landscape. For as long as I can remember, seagulls have been a part of my life. Every summer morning at our family house I wake up to their shrill vocals as they ascend over the mountains or descend into the sea. When we return from fishing they accompany us, waiting for their part of the daily catch. In the evenings, I often stand on the beach just to watch their line of flight. Even in foreign cities, the sight or sound of a seagull feels like a message from home and brings back a flood of memories. Yet I have never encountered a seagull the way it happens this afternoon. As the seagull stretches its wings and turns toward an adjacent mountain, I try to imagine how the wind may feel and how the landscape may appear for the seagull.

Of course, I will never know what it is like to be a seagull. Nevertheless, inhabiting the question of what it means to be a seagull leads me to the notion of freedom at the heart of this essay. In trying to apprehend a life that is so different from my own, I am reminded that I am both a natural being (in what I take myself to share with the seagull) and a spiritual being (in how I take myself to be different from the seagull).

Let me begin with what the seagull and I have in common. We are both living beings. As such there is always something at stake for us in our activities. We must do something–acquire nourishment, adapt to our environment–to sustain our lives. Likewise, both of us are capable of self-movement and self-determination. The seagull walks or flies of its own accord, and no one except the seagull can determine how long it will linger in the air before diving into the ocean to catch a fish or settling down on a mountain to rest. Furthermore, both the seagull and I are responsive to a distinction between appearance and essence, between how we take things and what they turn out to be. If the seagull dives for a fish that it takes to be edible and it turns out to be inedible, the seagull will respond by discarding the fish. This is not simply a response to stimuli but a response to stimuli in terms of what counts as food for the seagull. The seagull is not merely an object in the world but an agent for which things appear as nourishing or damaging, appealing or threatening.

The agency is especially clear if we compare the seagull with the mountain on which it lands. The mountain is not alive. The mountain was there long before the seagull or I existed–and it may be there long after we are gone–but the mountain does not care. Whether the sun is shining or the rain is pouring down, whether there are earthquakes that rip it apart or centuries of stability that leave it intact, the mountain does not care. Nothing that happens to the mountain will ever make a difference for the mountain, since it has no self-relation. For the same reason, the mountain has no capacity for self-movement and self-determination. Because nothing is at stake for the mountain, it cannot do anything and cannot relate to anything as anything. The mountain has no purpose for itself and only acquires one for a living being that makes use of it in some way (as when the seagull lands on the mountain to rest).

The seagull, by contrast, relates to the environment through its own sentience and responds to what happens in light of its own ends. For example, certain kinds of predators show up for the seagull as something to avoid and certain kinds of fish show up as something to catch. These forms of purposive activity can become much more advanced in highly developed animals, but they are all forms of what I call natural freedom. Natural freedom provides a freedom of self-movement, but only in light of imperatives that are treated as given and ends that cannot be called into question by the agent itself. As distinct from natural freedom, spiritual freedom requires the ability to ask which imperatives to follow in light of our ends, as well as the ability to call into question, challenge, and transform our ends themselves.

Philosophers often account for the difference between human beings and other animals in terms of a difference between norm-governed behavior and instinct-determined behavior. As human beings, we are socialized into a normative understanding of who to be–e.g., man or woman, black or white, working class or aristocrat–and we act in light of those social norms. In contrast, the behavior of all other animals is supposedly hardwired by their natural instincts. This way of describing the difference, however, is misleading for at least two reasons. First, an instinct is already expressive of a norm, since it specifies something that the animal ought to do and that it can fail to do (e.g., the seagull instinctually understands that it ought to eat fish and it can fail to find any fish to eat). Second, many animals can be socialized into forms of behavior that are not hardwired by their natural instincts. For example, there are cats that behave like dogs because they have been raised by huskies, and there are huskies that behave like cats because they have been raised by cats. Such behavior is clearly not hardwired by the nature of cats or dogs but acquired through a specific way in which they are raised.

The difference between human beings and other animals, then, cannot simply be explained by the difference between instincts and norms. Rather, the decisive difference is the difference between natural and spiritual freedom. Even when a cat behaves like a husky, she does not call into question the husky way of life but treats it as the given framework for her actions. She is able to learn the husky norms but not able to understand them as norms that could be otherwise. The cat cannot understand her norms as something for which she is answerable and which can be challenged by others, since she cannot hold herself responsible for the principles that govern her actions. The cat is responsive to success and failure in her pursuits, but whether the norms that govern her pursuits are valid–whether she ought to behave like a cat or a husky–is not at issue for her.

For human beings, by contrast, the validity of norms is always implicitly and potentially explicitly at issue. We act in light of a normative understanding of ourselves–of who we should be and what we should do–but we can also challenge and change our self-understanding. We are not merely governed by norms but answerable to one another for what we do and why we do it. Even when we are socialized into an identity as though it were a natural necessity–as when we are taken to belong naturally to a certain gender, race, or class–there remains the possibility of transforming, contesting, or critically overturning our understanding of who we are. Who we can be–as well as what we can do–is inseparable from how we acknowledge and treat one another. How we can change our self-understanding therefore depends on the social practices and institutions that shape the ability to lead our lives. Moreover, any ability to lead our lives can be impaired or lost by damages to our physical and psychological constitution. Yet as long as we have a self-relation–as long as we lead our lives in any way at all–the question of who we ought to be is alive for us, since it is at work in all our activities. In engaging the question “What should I do?” we are also engaging the question “Who should I be?”–and there is no final answer to that question. This is our spiritual freedom.

The difference between natural and spiritual freedom is not a matter of metaphysical substance but a difference in the practical self-relation exhibited by human beings and other animals. Many kinds of animals exhibit forms of mourning, play, courage, deliberation, suffering, and joy. They may even in some cases (as studies of primates have shown) be able to experience a conflict of choice when certain instincts or loyalties are at odds with one another. Yet no other species we have encountered is capable of transforming its understanding of what it means to be that species. Changes in the environment can cause animal species–or certain members of species–to change patterns in their behavior, but the principles in light of which they act remain the same for as long as the species exist.

In contrast, the understanding of what it means to be human–as manifested in the actual behavior of human beings–varies dramatically across history and across the world at any given moment of history. The difference between a monk who renounces filial bonds for an ascetic life in a monastery and a father who devotes his life to taking care of his children is not merely an individual difference in behavior. Rather, the two forms of life express radically different understandings of what it means to be human. The two men may not only have different degrees of courage, but what counts as courage for them is radically different. They may not only experience different degrees of grief and joy, but what counts as grief and joy for them is radically different. Even the experience of suffering is never merely a brute fact for us as human beings but an experience we understand and respond to in light of what matters to us. Such mattering is not reducible to our biological-physiological constitution; it depends on our commitments. We are certainly subject to biological constraints–and we cannot even in principle transcend all such constraints–but we can (and do) change our relation to these constraints. There is no natural way for us to be and no species requirements that can exhaustively determine the principles in light of which we act. Rather, what we do and who we take ourselves to be are inseparable from a historical-normative framework that must be upheld by us and may be transformed by us.

Let me be clear about the status of my argument. I am not asserting that only human beings are spiritually free. It is possible that we may discover other species that are spiritually free or that we may create artificial forms of life that are capable of spiritual freedom. That is an empirical question, which I do not seek to answer. My aim is not to decide which species are spiritually free, but to clarify the conditions of spiritual freedom. Whether certain other animals are spiritually free–or whether we can come to engineer living beings who are spiritually free–is a separate and subordinate question, which in itself presupposes an answer to the question of what it means to be a free, spiritual being.

Two clarifications are here in order. First, the distinction between natural and spiritual freedom is not a hierarchical distinction. That we are spiritually free does not make us inherently better than other animals, but it does mean that we are free in a qualitatively different sense. Because we can call into question the purposes of our own actions, we can hold ourselves to principles of justice, but we can also engage in forms of cruelty that go far beyond anything observed in other species. Second, the distinction between natural and spiritual freedom does not legitimize the exploitation of other animals. Many contemporary thinkers are critical of any distinction between humans and other animals since they fear that such a distinction will serve to justify sexism or racism, as well as buttress the mistreatment of other species and the willful extraction of natural resources. Yet such “post-humanism” rests on a conflation of historical facts and philosophical arguments. As a matter of historical fact, it is true that a human/animal distinction often has been employed to classify certain genders or races as “subhuman” and to legitimize ruthless exploitation of the nonhuman world. The critique of such politics is well taken, as is the reminder that we too are animals and dependent on the fate of our environment. However, it does not follow from these facts that any distinction between humans and other animals is illegitimate or politically pernicious. On the contrary, the pathos of post-humanist politics itself tacitly relies on a distinction between natural and spiritual freedom. When post-humanist thinkers take us to task for being sexist, racist, or too centered on our own species, they must assume that we are capable of calling into question the guiding principles of our actions. Otherwise it would make no sense to criticize our principles and enjoin us to adopt different ideals. Likewise, it is clear that no post-humanist thinker seriously believes that other animals are spiritually free. If they were, we should criticize not only humans but also other animals for being sexist and too centered on the well-being of their own species.

To deny the distinction between natural and spiritual freedom is therefore an act of bad faith. Any political struggle for a better treatment of other animals–or for a more respectful relation to the natural environment–requires spiritual freedom. We have to be able to renounce our prior commitments and hold ourselves to a new ideal. No one is inclined to place the same demands on other animals because we implicitly understand the distinction between natural and spiritual freedom. It would be absurd to reproach the seagull for eating fish, but it can make sense for me to stop eating other animals, since I am capable of transforming my relation to the norms that structure my world. For a naturally free being like the seagull, there is a normative “ought” that guides its actions (e.g., to eat fish in order to survive), but it cannot call into question the norm–the ought–itself. Natural freedom has a single ought structure, since the agent cannot question its guiding principles and ask itself what it should do. Spiritual freedom, by contrast, is characterized by a double ought structure. As a spiritually free being, I can ask myself what I should do, since I am answerable not only for my actions but also for the normative principles that guide my actions. There are not only demands concerning what I ought to do; there is also the question if I ought to do what I supposedly ought to do.

To be clear, our spiritual freedom does not entail that we can question all the norms of our lives at once, and we are not free to invent our principles out of nothing. Rather, our spiritual freedom should be understood in terms of the philosophical model that is known as Neurath’s boat. “We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry dock,” we learn from the famous argument by the philosopher of science Otto Neurath. “Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. By using the old beams and driftwood, the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.” Neurath presented his boat as a model for the acquisition and transformation of scientific knowledge, but his boat analogy can help us to grasp the conditions for any form of spiritual freedom. In leading my life, I cannot retreat to an unshakable foundation or a view from nowhere. I find myself in Neurath’s boat, which is out on the open sea from the beginning until the end. Who I can be–how my boat is built–depends on socially shared norms, which I am bound to uphold, challenge, or transform through what I do. I can alter or replace parts of the boat, as long as enough of the other parts remain in place to keep myself afloat. I can even undertake major renovations, but my life depends on maintaining some form of integrity. Even if I try to wreck the boat–or try to refrain from repairing the boat so that it will sink–I have to sustain that decision with integrity for it to be my decision; I have to try to wreck the boat and try to give up my life.

I can ask myself what I am doing with my life and transform the commitments that define who I am. Yet all such transformations are possible only from the practical standpoint of trying to lead my life, just as all renovations of the boat are possible only from a practical standpoint that is trying to maintain the integrity of the boat. Even when I question who I am–even when I tear planks from the bottom of the boat–the questioning itself only makes sense because I am committed to having integrity as a person. To grasp anything as part of my life–as something that I do or experience–is not a theoretical observation of myself but a practical activity of spiritual self-maintenance in which I am always engaged.

The activity of spiritual self-maintenance should not be conflated with self-preservation, and it is not necessarily conservative, since it is the condition of possibility for all forms of self-transformation. For anything I do to be intelligible as my action–and for anything that happens to be intelligible as something that I experience–I have to grasp it as part of my life. Moreover, since my life always runs the risk of falling apart, I must always sustain or renew my life in practice. The form of my self-consciousness is not primarily an explicit reflection regarding who I am but the implicit activity of spiritual self-maintenance that is built into everything I do and everything I experience. The integrity of my life cannot be established once and for all but is inherently fragile. Indeed, the fragility of integrity–the risk of breaking apart and sinking to the bottom of the sea–is a necessary part of why it matters to maintain any form of integrity in the first place.

For the same reason, my self-consciousness cannot place me outside of my life. Even in my most explicit forms of self-reflection, I cannot be detached. On the contrary, my self-consciousness only exists in and through the practical activity of sustaining my life, which means that there is no contemplative self to which I can withdraw. Even the project of retreating into passivity is still a project that requires my engagement–a project to which I have to hold myself–and by the same token a project that I can transform or call into question. This practical activity of leading my life is the minimal form of my self-consciousness and the condition of my spiritual freedom.

The distinction between natural and spiritual freedom proceeds from the secular notion of life that underlies all my arguments. From a religious perspective, a life that ends in death is meaningless and without purpose. For life to have meaning and purpose, it must ultimately be grounded or absorbed in something that is infinite–something that will never die. My argument is, on the contrary, that any purpose of life depends on the prospect of death. This is not to say that death is the purpose of life. Death is not a purpose, not a completion or fulfillment of anything, but rather the irrevocable loss of life. The point, however, is that nothing can be at stake in life–that no purpose can matter–without running the risk of death. Life can matter only in light of death.

Our individual and collective efforts to sustain life bear witness to our relation to death. It is a central feature of our spiritual life that we remember the dead, just as it is a central feature of our spiritual life that we seek to be remembered after our death. This importance of memory–of recollection–is inseparable from the risk of forgetting. Our fidelity to past generations is animated by the sense that they live on only insofar as we sustain their memory, just as we will live on only insofar as future generations sustain the memory of us. This form of living on should not be conflated with a religious notion of eternal life. If we are compelled to keep the memory of the dead–if we make ourselves responsible for keeping them alive in us–it is because we recognize that they are dead. Likewise, if we are concerned that we will be remembered after we are gone, it is because we recognize that we will be dead. Without the prospect of death–without the prospect that our lives will be lost forever–there would be no purpose in maintaining either natural or spiritual life. Life cannot make sense as life without death. Only a finite life can make sense as a life. This is the argument that I will deepen here, in showing how finitude is the condition of possibility for both any form of natural life and any form of spiritual life.

The starting point for my argument is the concept of life as characterized by self-maintenance. A living being cannot simply exist but must sustain and reproduce itself through its own activity. The concept of self-maintenance underlies all definitions of living organisms and living systems as self-organizing. To be alive is necessarily to have a self-relation, and any self-relation consists in the activity of self-maintenance. Nonliving entities do not have any form of self-relation because they are not doing anything to maintain their own existence. A stone simply lies on the ground for an indefinite amount of time. Whether the stone is moved or broken has nothing to do with an activity of its own. This is the categorical distinction between the nonliving and the living. Entities that exist without the activity of self-maintenance are intelligible neither as living nor as dead but as nonliving. In contrast, an entity is intelligible as living if its existence depends on its own activity of maintaining itself. If the activity of self-maintenance ceases, the entity is intelligible no longer as living but as dead.

Philosophically considered, the concept of life must be distinguished from specific biological forms of life. To assume that life depends on specific forms of biology is question begging. We cannot define life merely by listing the traits we encounter in various species of life, since this begs the question of what makes it possible to identify these species as species of life in the first place. Current biological notions of life confirm the concept of life as self-maintenance, but they do not exhaust all possible forms of life. The concept of life is formal in the sense that it is not specific to a certain substance or substrate. We may be able to engineer forms of life that rely on an artificial substrate, and we may discover species of life (e.g., on other planets) that do not exhibit the carbon base of our currently known forms of life.

The philosophical question is what makes any life intelligible as a life. Identifying a material substance or a set of material properties is not by itself sufficient to make something intelligible as living. Rather, an entity is intelligible as living only insofar as it exhibits the purposive activity of self-maintenance. If E.T. lands in your living room, you can make sense of him as a living being, even though he is made of a material that you have never seen before. Likewise, if you land on another planet, whether the entities you encounter are living or not depends on the activity they exhibit rather than on the material of which they are made.

Which kinds of material substrates are compatible with living activity is an empirical question that cannot be settled in advance. The philosophical task is to deduce the necessary features of life from the formal characteristic of self-maintenance. What is at stake is the very idea of life–all the way from the most elementary forms of natural life to the most elevated forms of spiritual life.

The first feature we can deduce is that life must be inherently finite. The purposive activity of self-maintenance presupposes that the life of the living being depends on the activity, which is to say that the living being would disintegrate and die if it were not maintaining itself. Without this prospect of death, the purpose of self-maintenance would be unintelligible. Living activity is intelligible only for someone or something that has to keep itself alive in relation to an immanent possibility of death. If life could not be lost, there would be no vital interest in the activity of self-maintenance.

The second feature we can deduce is that life must be dependent on a fragile material body. Life cannot be reduced to a specific material substrate, but it requires some form of material body that is in need of self-maintenance. The material body of a life must be fragile in the sense that it must run the risk of disintegrating or ceasing to function. If the living being were not dependent on a fragile material body, there would be neither a subject nor an object of self-maintenance. To be alive is necessarily to be engaged in the activity of sustaining a material body that may cease to be animated.

The third feature we can deduce is that there must be an asymmetrical relation of dependence between the living and the nonliving. Any form of animation necessarily has a relation to the inanimate (the prospect of its own death), but the inverse argument does not hold. Inanimate matter does not need any form of animation in order to exist. While the living cannot exist without a relation to nonliving matter, nonliving matter can exist without any relation to the living. This is why it is intelligible that a material universe can exist before there are any living beings and why it is intelligible that a material universe can remain after all forms of life are extinguished. The very existence of life is a fragile and destructible phenomenon.

The concept of life as self-maintaining must therefore be distinguished from any idea of life as self-sufficient. The form of self-maintenance is not a form of sovereignty but a form of finitude. The reason a living being must maintain and reproduce itself is that it is not self-sufficient but susceptible to disintegration and death.

These features of the concept of life make any life intelligible as a life. To be alive is a formally distinctive way of being an entity, which is characterized by the self-maintaining activity of a fragile material being. The concept of life has two genera, which I call natural life and spiritual life. In keeping with the concept of life itself, the genera of life are defined not in terms of material substances or material properties but in terms of two different forms of life-activities. The genera of natural and spiritual life are two formally distinctive ways of being a living being, which are characterized by natural and spiritual freedom, respectively.

The genus of natural life comprises all species that exhibit the traits of natural freedom. Any species that is engaged in the purposive activity of self-maintenance–while being unable to call into question the purpose of the activity itself–belongs to the genus of natural life. The genus of natural life thereby encompasses all known species of life except human beings, all the way from plants to the most advanced primates. While these forms of life are vastly different, they all belong to the genus of natural life insofar as they remain within the bounds of natural freedom. Any forms of life that we would be able to engineer–and any forms of life that we would discover on other planets–would also formally belong to the genus of natural life, insofar as the life activities of these species were restricted to a form of natural freedom.

The first trait of natural freedom is the activity of self-reproduction. Any form of natural life is acting for the sake of self-preservation or the preservation of the species and thereby exhibits a fundamental form of self-determination. The continuous reproduction of the individual organism across a lifetime, as well as its possible replication or procreation in the form of other individuals, is an expression of the natural freedom of self-determination. The capacity for self-determination can vary greatly among different species of natural life. There is a vast difference between a plant that can replicate merely by disseminating its seeds or an insect that necessarily dies in the act of copulation, and an animal that can survive its own act of procreation to live on with its descendants. The latter has a greater capacity for self-determination, since it can care for its own progeny and recognize itself in a generational chain, rather than being immediately subsumed by the reproduction of the species. Yet all these forms of life remain within the bounds of natural freedom, insofar as they cannot call into question the purpose of procreation and cannot transform the given ends of generational life.

The second trait of natural freedom is the ability of a living being to bear a negative self-relation. When faced with adversity, a living being does not passively submit to what happens but engages in some form of active resistance in accordance with its own self-determination. Even in disease or other forms of internal rupture, a living being is not simply negated but maintains itself in the negative experience of suffering. A stone, by contrast, cannot suffer from anything, since it has no self-relation and no ability to bear the negative within itself. The latter ability is a minimal condition for the natural freedom of self-determination. The ability to bear a negative self-relation makes it possible for a living being to strive to be itself, even when the striving entails great difficulty and pain. Moreover, the striving to be itself is intrinsic to any form of life. A living being always has to continue striving, not because it is incomplete or necessarily lacking anything but because it has to keep itself alive. There is no final goal or completion of life, since life can come to an end only in death. Even in its fullest actuality, a living being must continue to strive to be alive, since life is essentially a temporal activity. The relation to the negative cannot be eliminated, since a living being is subject to constant alteration and has to maintain itself as it changes across time. The relation to the negative is therefore internal to the living being itself and part of its positive constitution.

The third trait of natural freedom is the relation to a surplus of time. The striving self-maintenance of a living being necessarily generates more lifetime than is required to secure the means of survival, so there is at least a minimal amount of “free time” for every living being. The capacity to engage with free time is of course something that varies greatly among different species of natural life. Even a simple plant generates free time in itself, since it does not necessarily have to devote all its time to absorbing the light, water, and other forms of nourishment that are needed for its sustenance. If you remove a plant from any form of nourishment, it can still survive for a period of time, which is why the plant is a source of surplus. A plant, however, does not have the capacity to use its free time for itself, insofar as there is no activity that is distinct from the activity of self-preservation in the life of plants. In contrast, animals that can play games, explore new aspects of their environment, or be absorbed in purring, have a capacity for self-enjoyment that is distinct from self-preservation. Through this capacity, they are able not only to generate free time in themselves but also to enjoy their free time for themselves. In the free time of self-enjoyment, animals exceed the realm of necessity that is defined by self-preservation and open the realm of freedom. Yet even animals with highly refined capacities for self-enjoyment remain within the bounds of natural freedom, insofar as they cannot ask themselves how they should spend their time and thereby cannot relate to their time as free.

The seagull is once again an instructive example. Like all living beings, the seagull is acting in relation to its own death. Even the most elementary purposive behavior of a living organism (the purpose of maintaining the life of the organism and the species) only makes sense in relation to the prospect of death. Yet the purpose of maintaining the life of the organism and the species is not itself in question for the seagull. The seagull is always acting in light of that purpose and is therefore restricted to a form of natural freedom. For us, on the contrary, the purpose of our lives is itself in question. Even when we are completely devoted to what we do and who we take ourselves to be, our fundamental commitments can come into question. We can wake up in the middle of the night, asking ourselves what we are doing with our lives. What used to be utterly meaningful can lose its grip and what we do can cease to make sense to us. These forms of existential anxiety can be paralyzing (as in boredom or depression), but they can also transform, change, and reinvigorate our commitments. Existential anxiety is a sign of our spiritual freedom. It is because our fundamental commitments are not given that we can bind ourselves to an ideal rather than a natural purpose. Moreover, it is because our fundamental commitments are mutable and may fall apart that we can even engage the question of what to do with our lives.

Martin Hägglund is professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale University. This essay comes from his book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom.
Originally published:
January 1, 2019


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