Hart on reason and freedom

August 5, 2009

In this selection, David Bentley Hart argues that the modern period adheres to its professed ideals of reason and freedom with unequal fervour.

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“The modern period has never been especially devoted to reason as such; the notion that it ever was is merely one of its ‘originary’ myths. The true essence of modernity is a particular conception of what it is to be free, as I have said; and the Enlightenment language of an ‘age of reason’ was always really just a way of placing a frame around that idea of freedom, so as to portray it as the rational autonomy and moral independence that lay beyond the intellectual infancy of ‘irrational’ belief. But we are anything but rationalists now, so we no longer need cling to the pretense that reason was ever our paramount concern; we are today more likely to be committed to ‘my truth’ than to any notion of truth in general, no matter where that might lead. The myth of ‘enlightenment’ served well to liberate us from any antique notions of divine or natural law that might place unwelcome constraints upon our wills; but it has discharged its part and lingers on now only as a kind of habit of rhetoric. And now that the rationalist moment has largely passed, the modern faith in human liberation has become, if anything, more robust and more militant. Freedom for us today is something transcendent even of reason, and we no longer really feel that we must justify our liberties by recourse to some prior standard of responsible rationality. Freedom — conceived as the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will — is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestionable truth. It is true, admittedly, that the modern understanding of freedom was for a time still bound to some concept of nature: many Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of human liberation concerned the rescue of an aboriginal human essence from the laws, creeds, customs, and institutions that suppressed it. Ultimately, though, even the idea of an invariable human nature came to seem something arbitrary and extrinsic, an intolerable limitation imposed upon a still more original, inward, pure, and indeterminate freedom of the will. We no longer seek so much to liberate human nature from the bondage of social convention as to liberate the individual from all conventions, especially those regarding what is natural.”

David Bentley Hart
Atheist Delusions.

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