45. Kierkegaard on Freedom and Suffering

In a previous post (see here) I presented an essay exploring the relationship between freedom and critical thinking. Here I want to briefly suggest that human freedom, that most elusive yet visceral of phenomena, can be understood in a very immediate way when we suffer from being objectified. In one his journal entries (54 XI I A 407), Soren Kierkegaard wrote something worth pondering:

“No one who has not suffered from human bestiality will ever become spirit. Man has been so constituted that this kind of suffering, just as suffering ‘at the hands of human beings’ in general, is part of becoming spirit.”

Being treated humanely is to be treated as a subject worthy of respect. Humans are subjects that can respond to each other with mutual respect, dialogue, reason, and compassion. But humans are also capable of using each other as objects and disregarding each other’s subjectivity. Now, I think what Kierkegaard is getting at is this: when you are treated as something that only has use value, as something with no voice, no rights, and no worth, then you will suffer from human bestiality; and this suffering enables you to directly experience yourself as spirit. To exist as spirit is to exist as a free self or subject (see Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death where we learn that “spirit is the self” and “the self is freedom”). 

I still recall the look on my son’s face when he was rudely pushed out the way by some older boys in a store. They looked at him, knocked him down, laughed, and moved on. He was like a chair in their path; a ball in their way. He was two and a half at the time, and the experience stayed with him for hours. He wanted an explanation as to why “they treated me like that”. It wasn’t the physical pain; and it wasn’t the embarrassment in front of others. Perhaps it was the fact that he, as a free self worthy of respect, was violated. Perhaps, in the face of human bestiality, his spirit came into focus through his suffering. We can all recall many small violations like this, both done to us and done to others, and how we felt afterwards. Perhaps they reveal our freedom.

But it is probably in those extreme cases of human bestiality – cases of evil – that freedom is invoked most vividly. Roger Scruton has pointed out that rape becomes inexplicable if we don’t have the notion of a free subject. One might say that the condition for the possibility of raping someone, using someone as an sexual object against their will, is that there is a free subject that can be used.  After all, you can’t use an object in the sense of violating it. Scruton writes:

“Precisely because desire proposes a relation between subjects, it forces both parties to account for themselves. Unwanted advances are therefore also forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and any transgression is felt as a contamination. That is why rape is so serious a crime: it is an invasion of the sanctuary which harbours the victim’s freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. If you describe desire in the scientistic terms used by Freud and his followers, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain.” (See An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, chapter 10, p. 133).

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