Between Good and Evil

Liberalism's Faustian Wager

Between Good and Evil
Mephistopheles flying over Wittenberg, lithograph by Eugène Delacroix

"Man's essence is essentially his own deed", says Schelling in his Investigation into the Essence of Human Freedom. All well and good, the modern citizen nods approvingly: this sensibility of choice fits well with 21st century liberalism and existentialism: we construct ourselves through the choices we make.

However, further on in his essay, Schelling seems to commit a blasphemy to the modern mind. Noting that evil appears to emerge from an obsession with self-aggrandisement and domination, Schelling states, 'conversely...true good can only be effected by divine magic, namely...True freedom is in accord with a holy necessity...For God is the clear knowledge or the spiritual light itself within us'.

To the modern mind, Schelling's conceptualisation of the good is blasphemic because it goes beyond neutral conceptions of choice and advocates for us to choose good, choose God. Not only does Schelling's insistence offend in itself, since who believes in God today, but it also offends at a more fundamental level, because it advocates a normative case for choosing the good, and yet we might bridle at such an exhortation; how can a choice one is exhorted to make be a free one; who is Schelling to tell us what the right choice is!

We might respond in this way to Schelling's thoughts because modern liberal conceptions of freedom are Faustian in that they present the right to choose between good and evil as a neutral one: yes, choices have consequences, but in liberalism it is the individual who must be free to make those choices. In liberalism, formal freedom is the freedom to chose good or evil.

In contrast, Schelling is saying that the exercise of true freedom comes in aligning with the good. This is a true act of freedom since it requires the assertion of this choice. One must assert the good. However, this is not just a false choice, because, crucially, it takes effort. As Schelling puts it, 'When the divine principle of morality as such breaks through in serious disposition, then virtue appears as enthusiasm; as heroism (in the battle against evil), as the lovely, free courage of a man to act as God instructs him...'

Ultimately, I feel Schelling's exhortation towards choosing the good makes sense whether one is religious or not. We can all appreciate that feeling of being caught between making the easy choice or the right choice. To use religious language in a secular context; we all may feel the temptation towards sin when we know it takes extra effort to do what is right. This is what Schelling is reminding us of here in our Liberal, secular age. That it takes effort and will to make the right choice, yet in exercising that will we make the choice towards power to; towards self control, towards self mastery, rather than power over; since for Schelling the will to assert power over the world or over others is the fount of evil.