On indebtedness and freedom

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This contribution seeks to arrive at a deeper understanding of the notion of guilt, which requires input from both a speculative and historical perspective. Popular notions of guilt as a product of practices within certain domains (religious and economic) will be challenged by exploring guilt as an underlying condition of social interaction, even of society itself. In this sense, following Heidegger, guilt is considered first and foremost as a “pre-moral” source of morality. This realisation does not necessarily render morality delusional; rather, it opens up broader questions about the very possibility of morality that cannot be ignored whenever it presents society with normative principles. Whereas Nietzsche suggested a re-evaluation of values, I suggest that the possibility of morality reveals itself only after the demoralisation of morality. The question of guilt therefore puts morality into perspective and opens it up to thought, rather than making thought its slave. Thinking is the activity of a free being; it is the activity in which freedom finds its highest expression. It is freedom, the essence and the telos of human beings, which calls for morality. In other words, the seemingly contradictory question of how freedom can be achieved given the fact of guilt can be asked. This question is addressed by considering guilt as the source of morality on the one hand, and freedom as its purpose on the other. 

People associate with one another on the basis of a common interest (even if that interest is self-interest), and they “owe” met allegiance to that principle or object. Put differently: They are indebted to it. (Some Germanic languages, including Afrikaans, have the same word for debt and guilt, e.g. Afrikaans skuld.) Augustine calls such common interest a love that manifests through the use of reason to decide how society will organise itself around the object of love (Sizoo 1947:35). Partaking in the object of love requires certain sacrifices on the part of the self (the payment of debt). The sacrifice is rewarded through the provision of sources of self-understanding but also recognition by others. Standards or orders of recognition are institutionalised and relatively static, but they do change over time because of the fluid dynamics in the interpretation of the relation between subject/object and subject/subject, which allows society to adapt without collapsing in upon itself through a war of all against all (although this does occasionally happen). At this point one must strongly resist the temptation to present guilt as a system or a mechanism that not only describes, but also prescribes certain behaviour. 

To arrive at an understanding of guilt as a necessary but insufficient foundation of morality requires a multi-faceted approach. A historical overview of the meaning of guilt will be the first step. In broad terms: Guilt finds its origin in a cosmological (cyclical) order that comprises a balance of forces. Justice is served by restoring balance through sacrifice, often human (miasma). If blood was spilt, blood needs to spill again. In the next phase, order is seen as being created from chaos by a transcendent God. Here, justice depends on divine judgement and cannot be derived from nature. Judgement is revealed through a covenant, which forms part of teaching (Torah). In the case of Job, God not only reveals himself, but also veils himself. This moment of absence requires of Job a will to keep faith despite receiving no reward for his efforts. This pure will to do good for its own sake, to be indebted even to an absent God, sows the seeds for a new kind of society that can structure itself around the good itself, and for social relations that are not founded on the principle of material gain.

The distortion of the notion of a transcendent order presiding over the living is most clear in the concept of purgatory. Here, the living must compensate for the offences of the dead through the mediation of the church. If this is done satisfactorily, a soul relegated to one part of purgatory can be promoted to a better position. The unintended outcome of this practice, although fundamentally corrupt, was that it introduced a fluid conception of eternity, which, in turn, contributed to the eventual collapse of the medieval hierarchies. Dante’s Comedy already constitutes steps in the direction of the self as standing in an unmediated eternity. Luther heavily criticised the church for extending its administrative capacity to the realm of eternity, and emphasised the essential freedom of a Christian. (In so doing, he reinforced the notion of a direct connection between the individual and the realm of eternity, regardless of social standing.) It is not that one can attain salvation through good works; good works are possible through the acceptance of grace, the contemplation of (translated) scripture, and faith.

The fact that the individual is no longer indebted to others for salvation follows from the conception of the essential freedom of the person around which modernity has formed its institutions. However, the distorted and essentially unhistorical perspective of freedom as unimpeded movement only does no justice to the potential of freedom. I maintain that the only way freedom can be properly understood is through the concept of embedded freedom. This requires a reintroduction of guilt as the source from which all values spring. Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit helps us to consider freedom as both constituted and directed. Freedom is achieved only through its own self-contemplation, not by means of a dogmatic principle of unimpeded movement. One is indebted through always already having received, even a history against which one rebels. The conscience, understood as Gewissen, is able to contemplate values not only statically – according to tradition, individual needs, or plans for the future – but as the very condition for freedom. In this sense, guilt can be understood as directed to its opposite, freedom, and freedom is seen not as unmoved movement, but as always moving within the conditions that hide within its revelation.

Keywords: being-indebted; covenant; freedom; guilt; institutions; natural religion; purgatory; sacrifice; self-movement


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Oor skuld en vryheid

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