Proudhon, Justice: Eighth Study

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Justice in the Revolution and in the Church (in progress)::

  • Popular Philosophy: Program [draft]
  • First Study: Position of the Problem of Justice
  • Second Study: Persons
  • Third Study: Goods
  • Fourth Study: The State [excerpts]
  • Fifth Study: Education
  • Sixth Study: Labor
  • Seventh Study: Ideas
  • Eighth Study: Conscience and Freedom [excerpts]
  • Ninth Study: Progress and Decadence
  • Tenth Study: Love and Marriage
  • Eleventh Study: Love and Marriage (continued)
  • Twelfth Study: Moral Sanction

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Nature and function of liberty.


Let us finish first with the ambiguity which, on this question of the free will, trips up the philosophers.

If one thinks about it a little, it is easy to see that the word of liberty, like the terms substance, cause, heart, God, force, movement, reason, Justice, etc., serves to indicate a conception of the understanding, formed, like all the others, on the occasion of certain facts of experience, but which, concealing itself, as a substratum or subject, from experience, escapes direct observation itself.

This comes down to saying, following the observations which we made on the formation of concepts (Seventh Study), that it is a particular point of view under which common direction is accustomed to considering human actions, and that it names liberty, in opposition to another point of view, necessity. And one is asked whether this classification is exact, founded in fact and in right, or if freedom would not be instead a subdivision of necessity, in which case the generic distinction which gives it birth having to be erased, the entire ethics is to be remade.

To thus bring back the demonstration of freedom to a simple classification of the facts, from a metaphysical question to make a question of pure observation, would be already to greatly simplify the problem, and to ensure to the solution all the certainty of which a human thought is capable.

But it is another advantage which this method gets us, an advantage of a decisive bearing.

It is a principle of logic, a law of the understanding, that any metaphysical conception, spontaneously formed by the mind on the occasion of phenomena, implies a contradictory appearance, what is called an antinomy. That has been shown, since the Greeks, for time, space, the substance, the movement. I have proven it myself, in another order of ideas, for property, community, competition, government, credit, etc. Modern philosophy, far from making of this intellectual phenomenon a principle of doubt, has used it to raise its most famous systems. And, except the execution, which does not appear to me up to now to have been happy, philosophy was perfectly within its right. Do we doubt, can we doubt the legitimacy of all these categories, because at the analysis they have an appearance of constant contradiction? Justice itself, becoming, by the development of its concept, identical to the happiness, seems to go against its definition, which requires that it be free: do we doubt, therefore, that Justice, and the philosophy of Rochefoucauld, has a single sincere partisan?

It will be the same for freedom. That it is rejected, if it does not do anything, tends to nothing, does not mean anything, is nothing, is well done[?]; but to push it back under the pretext of the antinomy which its concept raises is as unreasonable as to declare property a utopia because it implies in its concept the right to use and misuse, the government a utopia because it supposes assent of all or anarchy, Justice a dream because it promises happiness to the just. What do I say? Necessity itself is contradictory, since, as Spinoza demonstrates, nothing exists outside of infinite necessity, and that nevertheless, to explain the movement of the universe and the perfectibility of souls, we needed, with Leibniz, to divide this necessity infinitely, i.e. to create a freedom equal to it. Do we doubt, therefore, the necessity of certain things? Would all be free, by chance?

In short, the antinomy which generally strikes any concept is so small a reason to challenge this concept, that one could almost say that it is what gives it authenticity. We will thus not be surprised that it is in this respect with liberty as with the rest, and that we should begin precisely, in order to recognize it, by asking of what its antinomy consists.

Either liberty is nothing, or it has its object, its goal, its own function, its employment determined in the universal system: all conditions which imply a manifest antinomy. What is then this function of liberty? We are not frightened of a word: for what is it used? In other words, is there, in the order of nature and the society, given phenomena of a specific nature such that we can say with assurance: This is freedom, and that is not; as we say: This is life, and that is not life; this is reason, and that is not reason; is this Justice, and that is not Justice? And how can this functional, useful, serviceable liberty, for it is necessary to call things by their names, nevertheless be called free?

Here is all that we have to seek, the proof of liberty by the reality of its function.

For it is obvious that, if liberty is not a functional reality, in which case it would be much more serious for it to present an antinomic character; if, as a function, it is not distinguished from activity, and from intelligence, and from the will to conform us to the general laws and Justice; if any act of man which does not proceed from one or other of these faculties or from their coincidence must be attributed to irrationality and madness, that is, in last analysis, to the inevitability of nature, it is, I say, obvious that freedom, antinomic or not, is reduced to zero; instead of seeking the demonstration of it, we would only have to explain this aspect of the understanding.


After the embarrassment caused by the antinomic character of liberty, the second difficulty to overcome results from the double concept of God and the universe: God conceived as substance, cause and intelligence infinite, from which all arises, by which all is put in order, whose action is irresistible, from the foreknowledge of which nothing escapes; the universe, conceived as completely organized, classified [serié], interdependent in all its parts and all its evolutions, complete, perfect as a creation, as God, as a creator, is himself perfect.

Here all the philosophers are in agreement, theists, pantheists and atheists, materialists or idealists. Whether they distinguish the two terms, God and the universe, or whether they resolve them into only one, nature, they begin from the absolute.

Is there then, within the infinite substance, under the all-powerful action of God and the regard of his providence, in that system of nature of which all the parts are linked, a place for liberty?

To that question, I have already intuited(?) that the monadology provides the possibility of an affirmative response. But the monadology was for Leibniz merely a hypothesis: it is a question of making it a fact.

All the difficulty consists in knowing if the things in which power appears can and must be considered, not as simple vehicles of the infinite power, but as possessing by themselves the force with which they are endowed, in a word, as causes.

No, responds Spinoza; the power which appears in things does not belong to them. Causality, force, life, action, truly exist only in God, from whom they radiate in all directions to infinity, and by that radiation produce and animate all creatures. As for the things themselves, they have neither causality nor power; they are only the rays of the universal cause or substance, which is God.

This system necessarily unites Descartes, Malebranche, Fichte, and all those who affirm, at the beginning of science, God or the Absolute.

But if the absolute is inevitably essential as a metaphysical condition of knowledge, it is itself outside of knowledge, and we have not the right to affirm anything more of it than that which knowledge demands, namely, that every phenomenon supposes, in a measure equal to itself, nothing more and nothing less, a substance, a cause, a a duration, a space, a mode, etc.

From what right then does Spinoza conclude that the absolute which serves as substratum to the horse is the same absolute as the one which serves as the substratum to the oak; that the cause which makes one vegetate is identically, substantially, dynamically the same as that which animates the other; in other words, that the absolute, the in itself of things, is necessarily single for all things, and that the opposite is not true, namely, that each thing possesses its absolute, its substance in itself, its own energy, its modality within it, although this substratum, that energy, that modality, an encounter its analog, or even its fellow, in other beings?

From what right, I ask, does Spinoza, from the particular and individualistic conception of the absolute suggested by the apperception of such and such a thing, conclude in favor of the pantheistic affirmation of the absolute? I do not deny that this is intellectually possible, since he expresses it, since we all can form the thought, and since it serves religion as a principle. I deny only, in the question, the admissibility of that concept, which rests on a gratuitous generalization; I deny that the unity of creation must be conceived as Spinoza conceived it; I maintain that this unity, if it exists, can only be the effect of a competition, concert or conflict (it matters little what one calls it) and must be considered as a resultant; I reject as a consequence the conception of Spinoza, making the totality of created nature the expression of a single and infinite substantial force, as equally surpassing the limits of experience and the laws of metaphysics.

Every apperception of the sensibility suggests to the understanding the idea of an absolute–substance, force, life, etc.–forming the substratum, the in itself, of the object manifested: this is acknowledged.

But that absolute that we conceive in each things, we have not the right to say that it is individually synthetically the same for all things; it would be, I repeat, to conclude beyond observation and to reason about the nature of the absolute as absolute, which science forbids us and which metaphysics itself rejects.In order for us to have the right to conceive and affirm a collective absolute, it is necessary for new facts, additional observations, to authorize us there: it is thus that we have concluded, from the analysis of the economic facts and the agitation of opinion, the distinction between individual and social reason. The absolute has grown, for us, from observation; it has never preceded it. Moreover, it has appeared to us constantly as a resultant, never, if one will allow me the word, as principiant.

If then the absolute of Spinoza bothers least in the world my reason, if it is outside the facts, if it is in contradiction with the facts, I can challenge that concept, divide it, dissect it; that is what Leibniz does.

Leibniz, dispersing the infinite substance in monads, putting in the place of the infinite cause the infinity of causes, has banished forever from the universe and the sciences the causative absolute, the natura naturans of Spinoza; at the same time, he has founded the cosmos, natura naturata, visible form of the absolute, as Spinoza said, on the reciprocal action of the infinitesimal beings that he had just created, the monads.

But that great philosopher, whose soul was no less religious than that of Spinoza, and who, because of his faith, could no more [than he] conceive otherwise the system of worlds, could not consider without terror the consequences of his hypothesis. It was to avert, as much as it was in him, the disaster which threatened theology, that he invented his great monad, suzerain of a monadic world harmonically preestablished, and the best possible.

We, who no longer have the same scruples, and whom nothing prevents from applying to the moral world a theory which definitely grasps the physical sciences, can at our ease make this application, and deduce the consequences.


It follows then from the leibnizean monadology:

a) That power exists in each being; that it is proper to that being, inherent in its nature, that it forms part of its substratum or subject, which is individual, existing for itself and independent of all others;

b) That the power of each being, which it manifests by action or by inertia, spontaneity for itself, is, in relation to the other beings which suffer the attack, necessity or fatalism;

c) That by virtue of that spontaneity, the being, presenting itself a priori in its independence, not only resists the actions of other beings, but denies them, that is, tends to subdue them, absorb them, destroy them;

d) That, thus, the order in creation no longer depends on a divine influx, a divine action, a soul of the world or universal spirit, putting together unitarily the matter that it creates, but on the similar and contrary qualities of atoms, which are attracted, assembled, repulsed, balanced, and ordered as a consequence of their qualities;

e) Consequently, that on the side of God, the Absolute of absolutes, all difficulties ceasing, liberty is possible.

There remains the difficulty drawn from the universal organism, within which one wonders if there can be liberty.

Yet, it results from observation, illuminated by the principle of Leibniz, and we are going to prove:

f) That spontaneity, at the lowest degrees in the organized beings, to a higher degree in plants and animals, attains, under the name of liberty, its fullness in man, who alone tends to free himself from all fatalism, whether objective or subjective, and who liberates himself in fact;

g) That thus liberty is in emergence, that is on the attack; necessity is on defense, that is in retreat;

h) That on the whole one can say that the universe is established on chaos, and human society on antagonism;

i) That as a consequence the state of the first, in perpetual transition, can be considered neither as better, nor as worse;

j) But that, if, in that universe, all action ends up encountering an equal reaction and if forces balance, it is not the same between in and humanity, which triumphs constantly over the fatality of things and the fatality of its own organism, and alone is constituted sovereign;

k) That this simple liberty, freed of all conditionality, is attested to by history and by Justice, that one can define, first, the evolution of liberty, and, second, the pact that liberty makes with itself for the conquest of the world and the subordination of nature.

These propositions, which all follow from the metaphysical hypothesis of the monads, a perfectly licit hypothesis and one much better justified than that of unique absolute, provide to liberty, even before man makes it apparent by his actions, the conditions of a positive existence, highly intelligible, capable, finally, wherever man may appear, of being noted by its phenomena.

This idea of universal order is just the opposite of the optimism of Leibniz, that the world has hissed since Candide, and which nevertheless arrests, in politics and philosophy, the progress of liberty. Let us speak a word of it.




Function of liberty. — Objections : Conclusion.


XXXVII. — What now is the function of liberty? In order to find it, we have only to return to the principle and follow the deduction.

Liberty is the power which results from the synthesis or collectivity of human faculties.

These faculties divide themselves generally into three groups: physical, intellectual, affective or moral; a classification which exhausts all of the forces of nature, manifested as matter, life, or mind.

Now, it is in the essence of every collectivity that its resultant differs in quality from each of the elements of which the group is composed, and surpasses in power their sum: the function of liberty will consist then to carry the subject above all the manifestations, appetences and laws, as much of matter as of life and of mind; to give to him a character we might call super-natural. From this it follows that man, placed under the direction of his own will, could not, if he wanted, remain as nature has presented him; […]


XLVI. — Let us summarize this theory:

1. The principle of necessity is not sufficient to explain the universe: it implies contradiction.

2. The concept of the Absolute absolute, which serves as the ground for the spinozist theory, is inadmissible: it reaches conclusions beyond those that the phenomena admit, and can be considered all the more as a metaphysical given awaiting the confirmation of experience, but which must be abandoned for fear that experience is contrary to it, which is precisely the case.

3. The pantheistic conception of the universe, or of a best possible world serving as the expression (natura naturata) of the Absolute absolute (natura naturans), is equally illegitimate: it comes to conclusions contrary to the observed relations, which, as a whole and especially in their details, show us the systems of things under an entirely different aspect.

These three fundamental negations call for a complementary principle, and open the field to a new theory, of which it is now only a question of discovering the terms.

4. Liberty, or free will, is a conception of the mind, formed in opposition to necessity, to the Absolute absolute, and to the notion of a preestablished harmony or best world, with the aim of making sense of facts not explained by the principle of necessity, assisted by the two others, and to render possible the science of nature and of humanity.

5. Now, like all the conceptions of the mind, like necessity itself, this new principle is countered [frappé: struck, afflicted] by antinomy, which means that alone it is no longer sufficient for the explanation of man and nature: it is necessary, according the law of the mind, which is the very law of creation, that this principle be balanced against its opposite, necessity, with which it forms the first antinomy, the polarity of the universe.

Thus necessity and liberty, antithetically united, are given a priori, by metaphysics and experience, as the essential condition of all existence, all movement, of every end, starting from every body of knowledge and every morality.

6. What then is liberty or free will? The power of collectivity of the individual. By it, man, who is at once matter, life and mind, frees himself from all fatality, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, subordinates things to himself, raises himself, by the sublime and the beautiful, outside the limits of reality and of thought, makes an instrument of the laws of reason as well as those of nature, sets as the aim of his activity the transformation of the world according to his ideal, and devotes himself to his own glory as an end.

7. According to that definition of liberty, one can say, reasoning by analogy, that in every organized or simply collective being, the resultant force is the liberty of the being; in such a way the more that being–crystal, plant or animal–approaches the human type, the greater the liberty in it will be, the greater the scope of its free will. Among men themselves free will shows itself more energetic as the elements which give rise to it are themselves more developed in power: philosophy, science, industry, economy, law. This is why history, reducible to a system by its fatal side, shows itself progressive, idealistic, and superior to theory, on the side of free will, the philosophy of art and of history having in common that the reason of things which serves as their criterion is nevertheless powerless to explain all of their content.

XLVII. — There it is, that revolutionary liberty, cursed for so long, because it was not understood, because its key was sought in words instead of in things; there it is, as a philosophy inspired by it alone should in the end furnish it. In revealing itself to us in its essence, it gives us, along with the reason of our religious and political institutions, the secret of our destiny.

Oh! I understand, Monseigneur, that you do not like liberty, that you have never liked it. Liberty, which you cannot deny without destroying yourself, which you cannot affirm without destroying yourself still, you dread it as the Sphinx dreaded Oedipus: it came, and the riddle of the Church was answered; Christianity is no longer anything other than an episode in the mythology of the human race. Liberty, symbolized by the story of the Temptation, is your Antichrist; liberty, for you, is the Devil.

Come, Satan, come, slandered by priests and kings! Let me embrace you, let me clutch you to my breast! I have known you for a long time, and you know me as well. Your works, oh blessed of my heart, are not always beautiful or good; but you alone give sense to the universe and prevent it from being absurd. What would justice be without you? An instinct. Reason? A routine. Man? A beast. You alone prompt labor and render it fertile; you ennoble wealth, serve as an excuse for authority, put the seal on virtue. Hope still, proscript! I have at your service only a pen, but it is worth millions of ballots. And I wish only to ask when the days sung of by the poet will return:

You crossed gothic ruins;
Our defenders pressed at your heels;
Flowers rained down, and modest virgins
Mingled their songs with the war-hymn.
All stirred, and armed themselves for the defense;
All were proud, above all the poor.
Ah! Give back to me the days of my childhood,
Goddess of Liberty!


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.