||True Freedom According to Margaret Visser
by Sam Ajzenstat
Part-way through Beyond Fate, her contribution to the prestigious
Massey Lectures, Margaret Visser tells the famous story of a French
aristocratic who, when a beleaguered underling pleads "I have
to live" replies "I don't see why" (p103). The message
classic liberals draw from this story is that human nature so
generally makes us put our own needs and ideas of justice above
those of others, that transcendent visions of morality, though real,
can't be counted on to bring about societies of even moderate freedom
and equality. Mutual love can happen but mutual fear is more
widespread and a more reliable basis for social co-operation. People
respect other people's private space only in return for the protection
of their own.
Visser, however, joins a current academic trend to think that mutual
fear doesn't mitigate self-centredness but makes it worse. For her
it is based on a dehumanising lie that we believe in only because
capitalist manipulators brainwash us into thinking that we can only
be free by being disconnected atoms doomed by their natures to
mistrust and compete with each other. This lie is robbing us of our
heritage of free, loving, social solidarity. In Beyond Fate, she
challenges us to reclaim that heritage.
If Visser is right, neither human nature nor the necessities of
circumstance limit our obligation never to deviate from absolute
justice. If she's wrong, she's weakening our support for the political
order, liberal democracy, whose willingness to compromise with
necessity has produced an unprecedented though limited degree of
the goods she herself values. This is a crucial debate. Visser
brings to it an academic specialty in the classics, a concern for
what Christianity has given our civilization, wide reading in modern
social thought and, most conspicuously, a poet's eye for metaphor
that sees deeper meanings in apparently innocuous social practices.
But while good poets mix their metaphors to explore the many-sidedness
of the world, Visser uses hers to box the world into a one-dimensional
exemplification of her own rather paranoid presuppositions. We are
left with a simplistically tendentious account that fails to do
justice to the world around us.
Here's one of the many daisy chains of metaphor that Visser constructs.
Enjoy playing Trivial Pursuit? Better watch out! In this game
individual facts are seen as having nothing to do with each other,
occurring by sheer chance. So for Visser, it is brainwashing us
into seeing the universe as a mere collection of disconnected,
chance events. Next link? In such a universe no action we perform
could have any effect on anything else. Organized social action
would be meaningless. So isn't it obvious that the power elite have
given us Trivial Pursuit as the opiate of the masses? In case you
think I'm satirizing Visser cruelly, here's how she puts it.
"Trivialization, is, I believe, a deliberate social strategy
in which facts are reduced to insignificance .... The game called
Trivial Pursuit, for example, plays with artificially isolated facts
as though they were counters" (p75).
Is it necessary to say that no Trivial Pursuit enthusiast, neo-con
or leftie, has ever suffered this effect? One begins to wonder
whether it isn't Visser who's doing the brainwashing. To what
purpose, though? Let's look at the next link.
According to Visser, the powers that have foisted Trivial Pursuit
on us want us to accept the proposition that capitalism is the only
successful way of organizing a free, prosperous, democratic economy.
It seems to me that the truth or falsity of that proposition is
very likely something free-market and socialist economists will
never stop arguing about. But Visser isn't interested in the
arguments. Again, selectively chosen metaphors carry the day.
"The Stock Exchange is itself a gambling casino (81)."
Well, sure. A slot machine is a case of betting your life on an
uncertain proposition. But so is getting married, starting a business
or any commitment to an incompletely predictable future. All are
different, but all them at least partly depend on what is beyond
our control, whether we call it fate, necessity or chance. They
aren't obviously dehumanizing just on that account. Visser occasionally
seems to admit this. But she can't let it mitigate her extreme
moralism. For her, the belief that fate limits our freedom can be
nothing but a ruse to allow us to wriggle off the moral hook and
be less than our best selves.
To give her account of the present an aura of long-term validity,
Visser brings the same moralism to bear on the great moral traditions
of the west, presenting them either as believing in fate and so
missing genuine freedom or else affirming freedom and so rejecting
fate. By so doing, she diverts us from the much richer and more
ambiguous understanding of the interplay of fate and freedom that
those traditions have given us.
Here's the story as she tells it. Pre-biblical societies believed
in fate. Lacking any understanding that human beings transcend the
circumstances of mere survival, the Greeks had nothing but fear to
ground their sense of morality, individuality, freedom, and even
community. For Visser if one looks only to the nature of things for
moral guidelines one can find nothing but social conformity. So
their moral precepts must have been defined by the public honour
or public shame of meeting or failing to meet the expectations of
society. Only when Christianity rejected fate, she tells us, did a
true grasp of moral freedom emerge. The result should have been a
new liberatory politics that would free individuals from the
prison-fortress of the self into the open air of mutual trust. But
in the interests of building a global commercial empire of passive,
mutually competing consumers that liberation was not to be allowed.
Visser's metaphors all point her to one conclusion. We are being
driven back to Greek fatalism and the loss of our spiritual heritage.
Nothing she says makes this widely accepted but one-dimensional
stereotype plausible. Yes, the Greeks did believe that our natures
put some things, including a degree of conflict and injustice,
beyond our power to eradicate. Aristotle does say that the best
society we can have is not the one "we would pray for."
But to say that these beliefs must have destroyed the Greeks' sense
of initiative or their understanding of the power of adversarial
political institutions to mitigate these ills or the experience of
a transcendent even if unreachable good beyond those institutions,
is about as convincing as saying that playing Trivial Pursuit must
destroy these things in us. And to see that in Christianity, too,
freedom co-exists in complex, ambiguous ways with fate, we don't
have to go deeper than the famous Congressional Prayer about the
difference between the things we can change and the things we can't
but must accept. Why does Visser find this view so threatening? The
answer brings us back to her polemic against liberal democracy.
The main thing liberal democrats think we can't change is the
conflict between those who believe certain changes are required by
justice and those who believe those changes would violate justice.
That conflict is as fated for liberal democrats as the conflict
between the Antigones and the Kreons was for the Greeks. We may
have better ways than they did of deciding these conflicts, but not
a way that will satisfy everyone's idea of justice. So a degree of
moral relativism combined with enough moral absolutism to make that
relativism frustrating will permanently lurk under the surface of
Instead of helping us cope with that frustration, Visser screws it
to the breaking point by rooting it in a conspiracy rather than the
nature of things. But she seems unaware how much such repudiation
of natural limits undermines the things she cares about. She tells
us, for example, how appalled she was when a speaker suggested
destroying the moon to alleviate tidal damage (p135). She's right.
Such arrogance is appalling. But should we put it down to too much
submission to fate or too much trust in one's own moral transcendence?
Wouldn't this speaker find inspiration in Visser's own frequent
statement-strange for any Christian who believes that God made the
world-that nature has no moral significance (p133) and that human
freedom overrides natural necessity? Some would conclude that the
modern disease lies in the radicalisation of freedom not the
radicalisation of fate and that Visser-not to mention current
liberation theologies-is collaborating with her own worst enemies.
Visser's answer would likely be that "truly" free people
would never blow up the moon. But for one thing is there anything
except sentimentality to make us believe that? For another, we
know-or should know by now-the tyrannical results of the belief
that no one is really and truly free unless their decisions are
what Visser or some other moralist would like them to be.
On the evidence of Beyond Fate these tyrannical results are what
Visser unknowingly promotes in the classroom. Visser is a teacher
of literature who believes that stories reflect nothing but the
author's whimsical control of the plot and so cannot teach us
anything about the real world (p130). So when her students reject
the idea of the Greek dramatists that there might be such a thing
as fate, Visser simply agrees with them. Circumstances never, even
a little, dictate how we must behave, and liberal democracy, a way
of life that frankly admits that it is devoted not to the best
imaginable regime but only to the best one possible under the
circumstances of our ambiguous natures, can have no right to go on
Visser's students have an excuse for believing these things; they
are adolescents. As their teacher, her job was surely not to confirm
them in their immature political absolutism but to help them grow
beyond the belief that they can live up to all their ideals, towards
an uncynical appreciation that we are equally subject to the the
natural and the transcendent and are therefore fated to act in a
compromised world. There could hardly be a better metaphor for the
extent to which our universities have become instruments of
infantilization, than the sponsorship of these lectures by Massey