Ryszard Legutko, a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Poland and a member of the European Parliament, has been pondering this problem for some years, sharing his thoughts in lectures, books, and journal articles, some of them in recent issues of First Things. In his view, a certain type of liberty (or freedom—he uses the terms synonymously) is indispensable to the functioning of any republic. But everything depends on the kind of liberty prevailing there. “Positive” liberty, as he notes in his most recent book, The Cunning of Freedom, is the liberty that aims at cultivating the skills and habits that enable people to live together as citizens of a flourishing community. “Negative” liberty is the kind that aims at a utopia in which people can boast, “There is no one else to hinder or stop me from doing what I want to do” or “force me to do something I do not want to do.” The reductio ad absurdum of this, Legutko thinks, would be the life of Robinson Crusoe on his desert island. He lived in absolute freedom there: He could do whatever he pleased and take orders from nobody. But it “would be more like a nightmare that we shake off with relief once we waken.”
Crusoe’s island is, of course, mythical, meant to illustrate the trap we can fall into by embracing negative freedom. Legutko uses the closer-to-home analogy of a department store.
Walk into it, behold the many items on display, and take your pick. In similar fashion, a typically modern, heterosocial community may be composed of people of all religions, philosophies, and lifestyles: “Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists; heterosexuals, homosexuals, innumerable genders, nationalities, and ethnic backgrounds; conservatives, liberals, socialists, anarchists, communists, and those with other political beliefs; pornographers, priests, hedonists, and moral ascetics.” Legutko takes us through this rather comical display of lifestyles to underscore the weakness of the department store analogy. In the real world, we are dealing not with purses, pots, and pans, but with subgroups holding vastly different worldviews—differing views of freedom, of human nature, of “man’s destiny and what constitutes good political order.” For example, “freedom for Christians has always been interpreted in a way liberals found unacceptable, and vice versa.” All too often, according to Legutko, it is the Christians who cave: “Lured by the alleged virtue of open-mindedness, they adapt their language to liberal ideology, believing that by doing so they pay very little price as Christians and gain a respectable position in a liberal/multicultural society.”