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Man as Freedom: Positive and Negative Liberty – Professor Eugenio Mazzarella

From the 34th Rimini Meeting in Italy, Professor Eugenio Mazzarella brings us this extract from the talk “The Conception of Man: Philosophy and Freedom”. The talk included contributions from Eugenio Mazzarella, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Università degli Studi Federico II of Naples; Salvatore Natoli, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Università degli Studi of Milano-Bicocca and was introduced by Costantino Esposito, Professor of History of Philosophy at Università degli Studi di Bari.

Philosophy means little without a serious attempt to answer the anthropological question about who we are and what we want to be as men. This response can ultimately only come from us, even when it just consists in sharing and recognizing a project for ourselves, that we achieve or aim for.

Being without this personal response in a society that forces us to a social or state conformism, or by a science that purports to tell us what neurophysiological automatisms are inside of us, jeopardizes the identity of man.

You could even say that the concept of man is the concept of freedom, because man is conceived (when he comes to himself) from his freedom. The ways in which he uses his freedom are determined and defined by him. For this reason, Giussani said in 1988, “restore identity to man,” meaning: give him awareness of his freedom.

This commits us to a task (“judgment and creative praxis” said Giussani) to define the true meaning of freedom. When it is true, when it is a real experience of “satisfaction” of life, freedom is never merely negative freedom, pure and simple freedom-from.

Freedom is also always positive freedom, freedom for… ; positive freedom; freedom that is pointing to a project, something or someone for whom it is worth attaching an identity to.

The reference to an integral concept of freedom, positive freedom, is less obvious than it seems. In the culture and politics of the 1900’s, distrust for positive freedom has its own story. A great liberal, Isaiah Berlin, recognized the positive freedom of self-determination and the ideal of self-mastery, but distrusted it as an external constraint and depressing to individual freedoms.

Individual freedoms were, for him, better protected by negative freedom. Giving this judgment, Berlin aimed at the experience of the political enemies of  Popper’s “open society”, the “closed societies”; and the “freedom of individuals” in the “freedom of the people”; basically a freedom-in-chief (as in the “liberty of the ancients”) to the objective structures of individual participation in “public liberty.”

But the misadventures of public positive freedom on the political scene of the 1900’s, as well as those of social conformism, do not absolve us from addressing the question of freedom, which is exactly this: tie it to reality, avoiding on the one hand the risk of running aground on the emptiness of one’s own freedom, and on the other shipwrecking on a negative freedom, both in the personal and the public sphere, which would elude the possibility of the fullness of its exercise.

But what is the identity that we need to equip us, to navigate between the two different but equal potential shipwrecks of freedom?

Everything is decided, in the words of Giussani, from “what we hold most dear,” from what we mark as intimately entwined with our lives. Because what we hold most dear is ultimately what determines and defines our identity, the perimeter of where it lives and moves is our freedom. Indeed, more than a geometry of freedom enclosed by a perimeter established in the ego, the liberty we need is a freedom open to the truth about itself, to the elementary sense of dependency and of original evidence from which freedom moves, thinks by itself and is able to act by itself.

Van Gogh - Starry Night
Van Gogh – Starry Night

This thing is called “religious sense” – the ability, of which every man as man is capable of, “being hit by reality, living the reality according to its truth, because it is able to use reason according to its true nature, a nature open to the whole of reality” (Giussani). That “vibration” of the being is that which we see in the cypress trees rising from the earth, radiating from the stars of the sky and spread on the fields in the paintings of Van Gogh (The Starry Night – above).

The Christian religious experience embodies this vibration, recognizes it as Christ, and it makes people think: “I am you who make me.”

Christians can answer: “What we hold most dear is Christ,” calling by name, Christ, the “other” factor, independent and greater than ourselves, which causes and awakens our human impetus. Of course the claim is large, and does not ask for anything less. But even when you do not cross the threshold of this claim, it is not a small thing, we still know how to stand in a “vibration” of reality that keeps us open to that “other” factor, stressing our human impetus.

About Professor Eugenio Mazzarella

Professor Eugenio Mazzarella
Eugenio Mazzarella is Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Università degli Studi Federico II of Naples. Mazzarella is one of the leading interpreters of Italian thought on Martin Heidegger and has explored the relationship between philosophy and religion. Professor Mazzarella was also a member of the Italian Parliament for the Democratic Party 2008 - 2013.

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