Searching for Our Human Face: The Nihilism of the Voluntarist Will

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

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One gets the sense from contemporary pedagogy that freedom and rights are the most precious things that a culture can bestow on its people. Young people know all about MLK and Rosa Parks and seem to think that western civilization is mainly a long history of oppression that is only slowly being altered by progressive, secular ideology. “Free at last, free at last” and they never think that their notion of freedom might be deeply inadequate.

Yes, you most likely.

Only there is something rather misty about all this freedom, if pressed just the slightest bit. Where is this freedom going? What is it for? If there is anything that is an unquestioned truism of modern education, it is that knowledge is power. The dimmest of bulbs will brighten up with the recitation of the fundamental axiom of the novum organum. (In the flyleaf of William Blake’s copy of Bacon’s propaganda, the poet wrote “good advice for Satan’s kingdom.”) For the invocation of “knowledge is power” is already the kernel of Nietzsche’s will to power, and both are based on a forgetting—a forgetting of the meaning and praxis of contemplation, of prayer, and of the notion that the most important knowledge is not power.

But this last bit is almost an unthinkable thought for modern people. Buddhism can approach it, a letting be that is not simple passivity, but even then, it lacks an affirmative, elemental celebration that is only possible with the thought of creation. In phenomenology that takes a religious turn or in the powerfully creative thought of Christos Yannaras, for example, one finds a repudiation of the linkage between the person and nature, though this is a mechanized nature, doomed to death, indifferent to the suffering of the transient beloved. Shestov righteously raises his fist against this cold nature. So did Dostoevsky, so should you. But perhaps this is not all there is to nature. Pascal was tempted to terror and despair before the vast void of Galilean space. Perhaps “these void spaces poignantly named by Pascal are already a degraded creation. God’s creation is not a void infinity of empty space. We do not have to think of either God or nature in terms of such vacant infinity” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, 188.)

There is an older sense in which nature is consonant with the aspirations of the person. William Desmond draws a distinction between the conatus essendi (the striving, struggle for living) and the passio essendi (the pure giftedness of our being which is the prior foundation upon which the latter derives). Modernity is largely blind to the passio essendi and it would not see it as freedom. Instead, it identifies freedom with something that is derivative, secondary, and not really a metaphysically coherent concept of liberty. True freedom as the perfected flourishing of one’s being is an eschatological fruition that can be anticipated insofar as one’s actions bring one closer to the unique gift of one’s being/vocation granted by the creator God. David Bentley Hart highpoints the difference:

It has become something of a commonplace among scholars to note that—from at least the time of Plato through the high Middle Ages—the Western understanding of human freedom was inseparable from an understanding of human nature: to be free was to be able to flourish as the kind of being one was, so as to attain the ontological good towards which one’s nature was oriented (i.e., human excellence, charity, the contemplation of God, and so on). For this reason, the movement of the will was always regarded as posterior to the object of its intentions, as something wakened and moved by desire for rational life’s proper telos, and as something truly free only insofar as it achieved that end towards which it was called. To choose awry, then—through ignorance or malfeasance or corrupt longing—was not considered a manifestation of freedom, but of slavery to the imperfect, the deficient, the privative, the (literally) subhuman. Liberty of choice was only the possibility of freedom, not it’s realization. (In the Aftermath, p. 89)

One might conceivably see passio essendi as being lacking will, but I think it is better to see it as a compact, elemental gift from which all other powers derive. It is not so much a lack of freedom as a richness that includes a joyous reception of being that grounds reason and will.

Modern, voluntarist notions of freedom are akin to the way scientism approaches the existence of reality. Scientism never really asks the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It can’t understand that an infinite series of finite causes still can’t address origins—or even feel the need for such, apparently. Similarly, voluntarism is fixated on finite, concrete situations and never sees that the source of freedom is prior and other. Concomitant with voluntarism is the notion of the individual. For an autonomous self with clear boundaries, all associations must be purely elective; all relations necessarily extrinsic, for any other kind of relation would impinge upon freedom and put in question the clear and distinct identity of the self. The self is like one of those hard, billiard ball atoms of the nineteenth century. It has not yet heard of the discoveries of the quantum world, of entanglement, of inexplicable, strange alliances in being.

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Voluntarism is the conception of freedom as a will utterly unbound from the dictates of the given. Eric Voegelin warned against the latent Gnosticism in modernity. Anything outside the bounded confines of the buffered cogito is an alien other, the enemy that must be overcome by the superior gnosis—increasingly identified with our technological mastery of nature. This separation of choice from the heteronomous teleology of nature is precisely what a modern thinks freedom is. Why do you think there is such rejoicing and admiration amongst the media and elite cognoscenti when an aging decathlete moves on from a failed nose job to a gender modification? It is the triumph of the will, with apologies to Leni Riefenstahl. The minority that controls propaganda and instructs children so that the rising generation will suffer no ethical confusion as to what is good and right honors the courage of an individual whose actions confirm their own prejudices. Likewise, the redefinition of marriage to include homosexual alliances is celebrated as a securing of rights against bigoted and hateful irrationality. Defenders of ancient custom find themselves cast in the role of oppressors, disdained as carriers of foul spiritual smells, easily lumped in with neo-nazis and the likes of Westboro Baptist church. (So funny, how modern liberals are blind to their own fascism.)

Meanwhile, traditionalists gesture towards a natural law that strike most as arcane and dubious or point in vain ineptitude towards sacred texts many reject and others interpret differently. They are typically unable to articulate how the new innovation is actually a refusal of the giftedness of being, for the giftedness includes natural harmonies and beautiful differences that are given prior to elective affinity. The modern self is ineluctably a post-Christian mode of understanding. In the wake of creatio ex nihilo, it can “think” nothingness to some degree. One has to note the location of the “nothing points.” Now it is the self that creates itself from nothing—so the idea that freedom might have a teleological directive that excludes certain choices as inimical to the fruition of being is treated as an impious imposition, for the self has assumed the place of deity.

Here, I detect a repeating pattern. The isolated self that would triumph over nature is also the terrified individual doomed by a callous nature that perpetuates a mechanism of generation at the expense of the uniquely unrepeatable. The desire for voluntarist freedom is subtly linked to the grasp at eternal life. This is perhaps the temptation of Adam and Eve. I like to imagine it was not a simple stupidity, a mere pride to arrogate to themselves equality with God. That has always seemed to me an unrealistic myth. More likely, the Satan implied a well-meaning, but weak God. There are plenty of theologians of that ilk among us. God wishes you to be well, but He is unable to guarantee your safety. Do you not know that knowledge is power? Ingest this, grow in power, and you will discover eternal life within you. Indeed, the God secretly wishes you to defy His petty prohibition. He is testing you, to see if you will grow up beyond childish fears. Take this, and fear not. Autonomous freedom casts out fear.

One would actually have to follow certain developments in late medieval theology and philosophy to discover the genealogy of your modern nihilist who hides from the despair of meaningless existence by watching Game of Thrones, texting, instagramming, whatever the au courant flavor of social media happens to be. This industrious avoidance is often combined with the voracious seeking of wealth in order to consume the many products offered by modern capitalism. Freedom of choice can easily slide into banality, to an enslaved distraction, desperate to evade the hastily covered over abyss.

(Go to “Wasteland”)

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22 Responses to Searching for Our Human Face: The Nihilism of the Voluntarist Will

  1. njacacia says:

    I was with you on the passio essendi and feel it applies to those born with one sex and assigned at birth to another because it is physically easier to make them look so. In the past, many babies were born looking sexually ambiguous in the physical sense. For example, they might have had undescended testicles and no penis, so the decision was made to perform surgery to make it look like they were female. So, they grew up, feeling something was wrong, and that they were male, etc, etc. There are other “causes” of all sorts of things you judge to be wrong. Pride go-eth before the fall.

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  2. whitefrozen says:

    There are more concepts of the will than either a very crude voluntarism, detached from all reason, etc – which isn’t really held by anyone – and a stoic/plotinus concept of efficacy in terms of accomplishing an end.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    Brian, please tell me next up is a meditation on The Concept of Anxiety. That’s immediately where my mind went upon reading this post. SK’s fear or anxiety is the very real pathos inherent in confronting, or maybe I should say in living Desmond’s “passio essendi.” It’s just not so easy and peaceful a task, keeping our “primal porosity unclogged,” as Desmond says. I would think this would be connotatively evident in the “passio”, but Desmond seems to use the word in a very benign way (correct me if I’m wrong, you know his writing much better than I do). Passion is to suffer in the sense of experience, undergo, etc, but obviously also to suffer in the sense of violation and shock. The passions — whatever they really are — feel like powerful forces that seize us from without and take control. This is exactly how Kierkegaard (and for that matter Homer) describes fear. At stake here is Adam and Eve’s primal fear that led to the Fall. There is, in Kierkegaard’s language, a vertiginous aspect of human being, especially when we are face to face with the givenness of that being. It is well to point out voluntarism’s refusal to confront that precipitous condition, but we are still left with the precipice!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Brian, please tell me next up is a meditation on The Concept of Anxiety.”

      Jonathan, I peeked at the next mediation. Alas, the answer is no. But great stuff coming up in the weeks ahead.

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    • brian says:

      Jonathan,

      I think Desmond’s use of “passio essendi” is more in terms of the fundamental giftedness of being. He is certainly aware of existential anxiety, but with this concept he is pointing towards a metaphysical ground that is prior. My guess is he would consign anxiety to the “conatus essendi.”

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      • Jonathan says:

        That’s what I would expect, from what I’ve read of Desmond. I guess what I’m wondering, then, is under what circumstances one might ever know, or live out, passio essendi. Is such experience reserved to mystics? Is it intrinsic in the making and reception of art? Are sacrament and prayer “passio” of this kind? Is passio essendi a mode of living, or is it only a concept, a “metaphysical ground”? Art, worship and mysticism all involve conatus, struggle. They also lead to moments of beatitude or bliss or whatever psychic state we should associate with the lived passio essendi. So how perfectly can these ideas or modes of life be separated from each other? It seems they must either constitute a dialectical relation or else a paradoxical coinherence. We might posit the ontological subordination of conatus essendi, but in terms of how it feels to live, even the greatest saints compel us more forcefully with the picture of their struggle than that of their bliss. But perhaps that is because language, and particularly narrative language, is better at conveying certain aspects of life. People who have spent time around the great saints, often report that human holiness radiates calm. . .

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  4. MorganHunter says:

    I found this reflection quite thought-provoking and in many respects true, but I wonder if it fails to emphasize the difference between classical and Christian notions of the individual. I often find that the anti-individualistic, anti-“rights talk” tone of much contemporary conservative cultural criticism forgets that it was precisely the Christian notion of the infinite worth of the individual soul that led to the concept of inalienable rights (I would recommend Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs very highly on this subject). The problem with the secular distortion of this doctrine is that it tends to see all moral truths as arbitrary impositions from without that stifle individual freedom. But, while I completely agree that on a moral level true freedom is only produced by virtue, on the political level one must say that the state should not attempt to make its subjects virtuous by force, rather than allowing them to err. Remember that, according to Talbott, God respects us enough to win us to Himself in a way that does not go against our desires, rather than coercing us by force.

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    • brian says:

      Morgan,
      I am not really proposing a virtue ethic, though I am also not opposed to thinking along those lines. I eventually make a gesture towards connecting all this to political philosophy, but it’s only that.

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  5. MorganHunter says:

    Just to add a quick question: how would you define the proper sorts of technological development? It’s an issue that is of course very relevant now, and one that I am very interested in. Clearly some sorts of human dominion over nature are healthy–our first parents were commanded to till and keep the garden even before the Fall. I don’t think the Baconian tradition of practical research can be dismissed, especially since its include easing the suffering of our fellow-men. The real danger seems to me to be twofold: that, as pointed out in the Abolition of Man, dominion over nature though technology can easily turn into dominion over our fellow human beings; and the utopian temptation of seeing in technological progress a complete answer to all human needs. (Having encountered a lot of Singularity enthusiasts, I’ve definitely seen my share of the latter!)

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    • brian says:

      Morgan,

      Maritain and Zizioulas are among a number of Christian thinkers who have distinguished between the individual and the person. I revisit this a number of times later in the essay. I am ambivalent about the language of rights, because I think it almost necessarily involves one in a flawed metaphysics. John Paul II attempted to join the language of rights to a personalism that blended phenomenology and Thomism. I’m not convinced it works, but I am not hostile to the effort.

      As far as technology goes, that is certainly a big question that requires a prudential address to particular circumstances. I think one needs to begin by fundamentally rethinking our place in nature and nature’s rootedness in God. Once a proper reverence for the sacred quality of creatures is acknowledged, it is possible to think more lucidly about the use and limits of technology.

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      • MorganHunter says:

        Thanks for responding! I’d be interested to hear what kind of flawed metaphysics you see arising from the concept of rights–it seems to me like a good alternative to, on one hand, an arbitrary deontological quasi-legal view, where moral precepts just kind of hang there in mid-air, or a virtue ethics/eudaimonistic perspective which seems to suffer from a fundamental selfishness–reducing morality to a kind of enlightened self-interest. If makes more sense to me to say “You shoudn’t commit murder because human beings are created in the image of God and therefore have an inherent right to life” (which seems to be close to the explanation Noah is given for the commandment) than to say “You shoudn’t commit murder because the law (either decreed by God or as Kant would have it by abstract reason) forbids it” or “You shouldn’t commit murder because of the damage it will do to your own soul.” Anyway–just wanted to say I always find your comments to be extremely interesting, even if I find it hard to wrap my head around them sometimes!

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        • brian says:

          Morgan,

          It’s hard to talk about this briefly. Unfortunately, this will be rather abstruse and perhaps foggily academic. I basically subscribe to the narrative proposed by Radical Orthodoxy, whereby figures like Duns Scotus initiated a turn away from the analogy of being towards univocal being. Univocal being loses the transcendent, the difference between Being and beings; it produces a vision of nature that is detached from a divine destiny. Communion of being (in a Christian Platonist view) is participatory. The horizontal dimension is ground in the vertical. This is not the case for early modernity. Abstracted from the supernatural, persons are largely construed as voluntaristic power over themselves. Rights arise as a juridical method to limit the potential for violence in such a conception, for as I argue above the line from voluntarism to will-to-power is clear. This is why for liberal, democratic communities, there is no agreed end that could make communal living genuinely coherent. Rather, happiness is whatever each individual thinks it is and social order is whatever coercive power is necessary to limit violence and allow individuals to pursue their individualistic aims.

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          • MorganHunter says:

            I see what you’re saying, but believe that one can acknowledge the reality of transcendent and objective human flourishing without trusting the state to achieve this flourishing for its subjects via violent coercion. After all, and unlike Aristotle, we Christians hold the Church, rather than the polis, to be the form of human community which is oriented toward guidng us to our transcendent ends. I think in discussions like this there’s often confusion between the “social” order and the “political” order: I don’t think that the social order (which after all includes the church) is limited to limiting violence anc protecting individual rights, but I do think those are the only legitimate goals of the narrowly “political” order (defined as that whcih employs coercive power).

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  6. For those interested in an argument for the pre-temporal existence of the soul and how this theory can offer a more satisfying view of human freedom (and for those who want to hear an argument showing CS Lewis believed in pre-existence), I suggest checking out the following:

    https://notesonthefoothills.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/an-argument-for-the-pre-existence-of-the-soul-and-that-cs-lewis-believed-in-this/

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I perhaps should comment that I watch Game of Thrones quite religiously. The great question of my life now is “Will Jon Snow stay dead?” 🙂

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    • brian says:

      Father,

      I have the feeling I would like Game of Thrones, myself. I only have basic cable and have not seen it. I simply used it as an allusion to represent popular culture.

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  8. tgbelt says:

    I’ve been offline busy with my daughter’s wedding. How’d I miss this? Thanks again Brian. I’ll try to chime in when I’m (ehem, clears throat) free.

    Tom

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  9. brian says:

    Morgan,

    I’m not sure you have understood me.
    I was attempting to explain how the language of rights arose in the modern era — why it’s genealogy is implicated in the state and a certain understanding of social order. I am not in any way implying that this is correct or that this is the only way to understand order. Further, my point was precisely that the immanent civil order cannot be trusted to enable a flourishing it does not believe in or even intellectually grasp as a possibility.

    My own views will come out later in this essay, but they certainly make radically comprehensive claims for the ontological difference of ecclesial existence, something that grounds a unique understanding of community.

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