Monday, August 11, 2008

Freedom Paradox (Book Review)

“We have built ourselves a grand castle of freedom but choose to live in a shack nearby”
- Kierkegaard

In his first two books, Growth Fetish and Affluenza, Clive Hamilton began to unmask the prevailing philosophies of our time and expose the high price being paid for our unwitting enslavement to them. In his latest work Freedom Paradox: Towards a Post-Secular Ethics, Hamilton directly addresses the question which emerges from these two works: Why it is that our unparalleled time of economic prosperity and choice has left us with lower levels of life satisfaction and happiness? Has the modern promise proven empty, and left us unfulfilled, with less freedom, rather than more?

Beginning his journey with the father of modern liberalism John Stuart Mill, Hamilton begins a journey which dialogues with great thinkers through the ages, seeking explanation for the deep unease which permeates Western Culture, in spite of the promise of freedom which the great economic growth spurt promised us. By juxtaposing three alternative views of life: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life, the framework is set for exploring the dialectic between liberty and limits.

Whereas modernity has conceptually enthroned the individual, Hamilton suggests that we have exchanged submission to obvious powers (church, state) for more subtle ones which subvert our capacity for freedom. Our ability to freely consent has been compromised by our capacity for self-deception, our tendency for akrasia (the ability to act in contradiction to one’s considered judgment), and in response to the subtle forms of coercion from the market and from socio-economic forces, all of which have served to diminish rather than enhance our freedom.

Having articulated some of the ways in which freedom has been compromised at the socio-political level, Hamilton explores the realm of metaphysics for an exploration of the relationship between inner freedom and greater wellbeing. In revisiting questions of the nature of reality, Hamilton boldly suggests that which modernity first announced and post-modernity has buried – the transcendent – remains accessible. The dense argument which comprises the middle stages of the book outlines a philosophical and metaphysical basis for access to the noumenon (the reality which lies behind the world of appearances) which Hamilton argues is based within humans (rather than God-centred), which provides a basis for the real Self as the centre of moral autonomy. In engaging with the mystical world of Buddhism, Sufism and of Christian mystics, Hamilton suggests that the “secret door to the citadel” is in finding the universal Self, where the God within and the God without are united, in the words of William Law, “in the deepest and most central part of thy soul.”

Hamilton examines – in a brief digression – the question of the existence of God, taking issue with Dawkins (whom he criticises for his poor metaphysics), Kant (with his view of God as separate and remote from humanity), and attempts to equate the concept of God as expressed in words with the Supreme Being, abandoning the idea of a God as cosmic policeman (my term) for a “more sublime notion of eternal justice”.

The basis for morality is thus grounded no longer in rational ethics, or an external moral code, but the Universal Self – where our independent existence merges into the Universal Self, shared by all. Morality is therefore grounded in metaphysical empathy, in which we recognise our common humanity, not merely as independent selves sharing a common core, but united by participation in the being of each other. Here Hamilton seeks to redeem emotion, compassion, intuition and conscience as a source for morality. The greatest moral acts are often counter to the prevailing social-cultural norm, citing Gandhi, Mandela and the Dalai Lama as avatars of virtue who have lived life on a higher moral plane.

“The freedom to do as we please is the most subtle form of unfreedom ever conceived,” he concludes. In seeking to reclaim access to the noumenon within the phenomenal world we experience, Hamilton suggests that the journey towards true freedom begins in being rather than doing. Many readers will welcome his call to rediscover the transcendent, although some will argue that he has been too optimistic of the human capability to overcome these forces and gives too little attention to what Christian theologians continue to hold in spite of its contemporary unpopularity: the nature of sin in the human condition, although we perhaps need to confess that the church has often placed this too much at the forefront and so shadowed the good news of grace it seeks to embody.

The Freedom Paradox offers a healthy critique of modernity, post-modernity and institutional religion and seeks to point us back to the deeper reality of which the spiritual giants of history have sought to point towards. ‘Tis a pity that too often we have wrestled with the words rather than the reality.

Clive Hamilton, Freedom Paradox: Towards a Post-Secular Ethics, Sydney: Allen & Unwin 2008

Review by Gary Heard

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