The Fallacy of Human Freedom

By Merry, Robert W. | The National Interest, July-August 2013 | Go to article overview

The Fallacy of Human Freedom


Merry, Robert W., The National Interest


John Gray, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 288 pp., $26.00.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously lamented, "Man is born to be free--and is everywhere in chains!" To which Alexander Herzen, a nineteenth-century Russian journalist and thinker, replied, in a dialogue he concocted between a believer in human freedom and a skeptic, "Fish are born to fly--but everywhere they swim!" In Herzen's dialogue, the skeptic offers plenty of evidence for his theory that fish are born to fly: fish skeletons, after all, show extremities with the potential to develop into legs and wings; and there are of course so-called flying fish, which proves a capacity to fly in certain circumstances. Having presented his evidence, the skeptic asks the believer why he doesn't demand from Rousseau a similar justification for his statement that man must be free, given that he seems to be always in chains. "Why," he asks, "does everything else exist as it ought to exist, whereas with man, it is the opposite?"

This intriguing exchange was pulled from Herzen's writings by John Gray, the acclaimed British philosopher and academic, in his latest book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. As the title suggests, Gray doesn't hold with that dialogue's earnest believer in freedom--though he has nothing against freedom. He casts his lot with the skeptic because he doesn't believe freedom represents the culmination of mankind's earthly journey. "The overthrow of the ancien regime in France, the Tsars in Russia, the Shah of Iran, Saddam in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt may have produced benefits for many people," writes Gray, "but increased freedom was not among them. Mass killing, attacks on minorities, torture on a larger scale, another kind of tyranny, often more cruel than the one that was overthrown--these have been the results. To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake."

Such thinking puts Gray severely at odds with the predominant sentiment of modern Western man--indeed, essentially with the foundation of Western thought since at least the French Encyclopedists of the mid-eighteenth century, who paved the way for the transformation of France between 1715 and 1789. These romantics--Diderot, Baron d'Holbach, Helvetius and Voltaire, among others--harbored ultimate confidence that reason would triumph over prejudice, that knowledge would prevail over ignorance, that "progress" would lift mankind to ever-higher levels of consciousness and purity. In short, they foresaw an ongoing transformation of human nature for the good.

The noted British historian J. B. Bury (1861-1927) captured the power of this intellectual development when he wrote, "This doctrine of the possibility of indefinitely moulding the characters of men by laws and institutions ... laid a foundation on which the theory of the perfectibility of humanity could be raised. It marked, therefore, an important stage in the development of the doctrine of Progress."

We must pause here over this doctrine of progress. It may be the most powerful idea ever conceived in Western thought--emphasizing Western thought because the idea has had little resonance in other cultures or civilizations. It is the thesis that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably over the centuries from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and civilization--and that this human progression will continue indefinitely into the future. "No single idea," wrote the American intellectual Robert Nisbet in 1980, "has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization." The U.S. historian Charles A. Beard once wrote that the emergence of the progress idea constituted "a discovery as important as the human mind has ever made, with implications for mankind that almost transcend imagination. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Fallacy of Human Freedom
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.