We are drawn to philosophy through the shock of the ordinary.

For me, it began with the stone walls of New England. Living in Maine and driving country roads lined with squat gray walls carefully constructed out of stones that the retreating Laurentide ice sheet scraped from the bedrock 30,000 years ago, I found myself reflecting on their primordial beauty. I wondered, why are the stone walls of Maine preferable to concrete barriers? Is it enough just to say that they’re more beautiful and leave it at that? What specific qualities about the walls do I admire? Why do I value those qualities over others? And, probably most importantly, why do these questions seem to matter so much? Why does it feel like the secret meaning of the world hinges on the aesthetic observations that I make out of my car window?

Imagine my shock to find that D.C. Schindler, associate professor of metaphysics and anthropology at the John Paul II Institute, has written a book that specifically answers my questions. Schindler explains that stone walls are preferable to concrete ones because they’re a celebration of natural form, using stones as stones instead of only finding their utility after breaking down and reassembling their components into concrete. The stone walls are a celebration of the world as it is, and we sense the gratitude for the stones themselves when we see the wall.

Stone versus concrete is a synecdoche for Schindler’s larger project in Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, which is a riveting deep dive into our modern conceptions of power, will, and freedom.

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Schindler vs. Locke

Freedom from Reality is structured like a sonata. The first and longest section focuses intensely on Locke, both his Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Second Treatise on Civil Government. But why Locke? What connects Locke to the beauty of stone walls? As Schindler writes in his introduction, “we have separated what we mean by freedom from a substantial notion of the good, and we have in fact turned it thereby into a substitute for the good.” Locke didn’t invent this separation, but his ideas are emblematic of our modern confusion regarding power and free will. Schindler writes: “The larger claim that we intend to make is that the modern conception of freedom has an inherent, indeed logical, tendency to subvert itself, and we aim to show in our first two chapters that this tendency comes to a certain perfection of expression in the thinking of Locke.”

Reading Locke is fascinating, if only because so much of his reasoning is simply what we consider “common sense” today. Any number of man-on-the-street interviews asking what “power” is would probably resemble Locke’s definition: exerting your will in the world. You want something, so you take it. That’s power. But as Schindler points out (and Locke was actually well aware), “the whole point of the discussion [in Locke’s Essay] is to show the origin of the idea of power, which depends on our experience of the production of action as opposed to the mere transfer of activity that we witness everywhere else in the natural world.” What Schindler means is that Locke intentionally avoids the question of how we decide what we want before we take it. In other words, if freedom is connected to power, and power means doing what we want in the world, then do we have the power to choose what we want in the first place?

Locke writes that “to the question, What determines the will? The true and proper answer is, the mind.” But that’s a bit like saying “What determines where we drive? The GPS.” It occludes more than it actually answers. But what Schindler emphasizes here is “Locke’s removal of these notions from any metaphysical participatory (and so intrinsic) relationship to the good.” Locke basically says that things are good because we want them, and bad because we don’t. Our preferences are sort of isolated within us, never coming into contact with a transcendent moral order to give them deep significance. As Schindler puts it, “reason becomes identified with a process” instead of being a way of revealing reality itself.

When Schindler illustrates the consequences of Locke’s (and by association, the popular contemporary) idea of freedom, he traces a clear line that leads from law to the modern economy. It goes something like this: If, as Locke says, freedom “liberates” us from an objective moral order, then our obligations to one another are similarly free of higher moral considerations. Hence our contemporary legal system, which is meant to regulate relationships between individuals, does not cohere with an already existing transcendent moral order. What results is a strange tug of war between our private or personal world and everyone else’s. Power disconnects from objective reality, and there’s a cascade of abstraction. Things become ideas. Property liquidates into cash. “If freedom is conceived as power,” Schindler writes, “then a basic form of the exercise of freedom in the world is the conversion of the world into money.”

A Guidebook to the Diabolical

The image of the world being abstracted ad infinitum into purer and purer potential, further and further separated from anything resembling a shared and objective reality, is a notion that demands a counterweight. Because the opposite of abstraction is incarnation, the obvious choice to Schindler is Jesus Christ.

Schindler calls the opposition between the abstract and the real the “diabolical” versus “symbolical.” “Symbolical” comes from “symbolon,” meaning “to unite,” “collect,” or “come together.” We’re reminded, of course, of the word “symbol” in all of its Romantic connotations—Coleridge’s “multeity in unity” and Schelling’s “tautegorical”—but Schindler has something more ambitious in mind. What he means by the symbolical is an entire symbolic order that coheres with a transcendent reality that transmits meaning through its entirety.

If freedom is a participation in the good, then all of these symbols, all of these constitutive elements, are concrete realizations of freedom . . . Freedom becomes essentially symbolical: the forming of relationships—the bonds of friendship, marriage, and family, the building of a home, the sharing of the life of the community, with the reciprocity of benefits and responsibilities it entails—becomes a multiplication of freedom, or perhaps a better image: its fructification . . . realities which join persons to the whole, to other people, and properly to themselves. Because of the “double intentionality” of symbols, its reciprocity of manifestation and meaning . . . each realization of freedom, as symbolical, is both a genuine completion in itself, which gathers together what has preceded, and a greater capacity for what is more. Freedom thus has depth and extension; it is not an instantaneous flash that volatizes the moment it becomes real, but instead crystallizes and gives abiding witness to a unity of past, present, and future, a genuine integration of actuality and possibility.

Schindler makes a beautiful case for the symbolical, but Freedom from Reality should really be read more as a guidebook to the diabolical.

The diabolical works by leaching energy from reality but pointing to itself as the final authority. It is primarily negative—a verneinender Geist, as Goethe wrote in Faust, that defines itself through its opposition. It “mimics, rather than mediates” reality, obsessing over appearance while simultaneously functionalizing reality. It presents itself as somehow better than the real, and it partitions people inside of their own subjectivity. And it acts as a “translation of eternity into its possibilistic, horizontally contained, image: it is not a self-transcendence, but a constant repetition of the self into a future without meaningful limit, or in other words without the limit of meaning.”

Taken on its own and without context, that description might sound ironically abstract. But throughout the book, Schindler’s dense paragraphs of philosophical commentary are tethered to the reality of our shared world. Here we find ourselves back at the stone walls of New England. In a series of vignettes near the end of his book, Schindler applies his ideas of the diabolical vs. the symbolical to concrete issues: freedom of the press, privacy, the right to vote, and so on. In a section about technology, he echoes Heidegger and Romano Guardini in making the distinction between ancient technē, which conveys a kind of “gratitude” by acting as a celebration of the world, and modern technology, which opposes itself against the world by trying to overpower, change, and ultimately destroy it. Guardini uses the comparison of a sailboat harnessing the natural power of the wind to a motorboat tooling along, oblivious to the wind and currents. Relating this back to Locke’s definition of power, Schindler writes

To use a thing because of what it is is precisely to acknowledge the relative priority of actuality, and to derive potency or capacity from that reality. To go behind or under a thing’s natural form, as it were, to extract a usefulness from it in spite of what it naturally is, is to subordinate its actuality to potency.

So why do I prefer stone walls? Because I acknowledge the symbolic unity of reality and value actuality over potency. And Schindler’s rendering of this symbolic logic is masterful.

Lingering Questions

But as many wonderful things as anyone concerned with the contemporary confusion of the moral order can say about this book, the book itself isn’t complete. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that Schindler’s work isn’t done. There are two huge questions that hover over the text. The first is how we got here. Schindler briefly mentions Locke as having been deeply affected (or infected, perhaps) by the positivism of his Enlightenment milieu and uses his ideas as representative of a certain kind of Modernity in general. But the very important historical question of why the rupture with symbolic thinking actually occurred is left unasked and unanswered. Perhaps if we better understand the path that led us here we will be more likely to escape or transcend the problem.

And at the other chronological extreme lies the question of what sort of cultural and political institutions would be compatible with a world fully engaged with the symbolic order as Schindler describes it. What would an alternative to diabolic freedom look like here and now? Does it already exist? We’re made to understand that Locke is confused, and that Aristotle and Thomas are more correct, but what does that mean for us practically, stranded as we are on the other side of history?

Despite the questions that remain, the book is a success precisely because it escapes the gravitational pull of dry rhetoric and actually embodies what it describes. Freedom from Reality belongs in a certain upper echelon of contemporary philosophical works, sitting on a bookshelf somewhere between After Virtue and Modernity in Crisis. But it would be a mistake to categorize this as simply a philosophical reflection on the crises of meaning in the contemporary world. It isn’t a disinterested Lockean reflection. Instead, in helping us to remember our place within the larger symbolic order of reality, the book makes itself a symbol of that same order. It contains the very wisdom that it expresses.

In a world filled with so much concrete, it’s a stone wall.