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Time and Timelessness: Responses to Martin Hägglund's This Life


Of all the major religions, Buddhism enjoys the greatest respect and popularity among those who seek a model for a “spiritual life.” Even the prominent atheist Sam Harris turns to the meditational exercises of Buddhism in his bestselling book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. This popularity is understandable, since Buddhist meditation practices can be employed to great effect for secular ends. In particular, there has been success in adapting various forms of meditation techniques for cognitive therapy as well as for practical forms of compassion training. If you learn Buddhist meditation techniques for such therapeutic purposes – or simply for the sake of having more strength and energy – then you are adapting the techniques for a secular project. You engage in meditational practices as a means for the end of deepening your ability to care for others and improving the quality of your life.

The religious aim of Buddhism, however, is to help sentient beings to achieve “liberation” from all forms of “suffering,” which requires being “released” from life itself. In Buddhist metaphysics, everything that is subject to birth, aging and death is held to be fundamentally “unsatisfactory” (a matter of dukkha), whereas true satisfaction requires being released into “the sorrowless and stainless bliss” of final nirvana, which is an “unconditioned” form of existence beyond all forms of conditioned existence (In the Buddha’s Words, 223).

Such an idea of eternal bliss recurs across religious traditions, but in many strands of Buddhism there is a remarkable honesty regarding the implications of eternal bliss. Rather than promising that your life will continue, or that you will see your loved ones again, final nirvana entails the ultimate “cessation” of all life activities. The aim is not to lead a free life, with the pain and suffering that such a life entails, but to be released from the need to lead a life at all, in favour of the timeless bliss of nirvana. What ultimately matters is not to do anything and not to be anyone; what ultimately matters is to be liberated from life, so that one can rest in peace.

The Buddhist conclusion may seem extreme when stated in this way, but in fact it makes explicit what is implicit in all ideas of eternal bliss. Far from making our lives meaningful, any form of eternal liberation would make it impossible to lead any form of life, since our actions would have no purpose. This problem can be traced even within religious traditions that espouse faith in eternal life. An article in U.S. Catholic asks: “Heaven: Will it be Boring?” (1975). The article answers no, for in heaven souls are called “not to eternal rest but to eternal activity – eternal social concern.” Yet this answer only underlines the problem, since there is nothing to be concerned about in heaven. Concern presupposes that something can go wrong or can be lost; otherwise we would not care. An eternal activity – just as much as an eternal rest – is of concern to no one, since it cannot be stopped and does not have to be maintained by anyone. The problem is not that an eternal activity would be “boring” but that it would not be intelligible as my activity. Any activity of mine (including a boring activity) requires that I sustain it. In an eternal activity, there cannot be a person who is bored—or involved in any other way—since an eternal activity does not depend on being sustained by anyone.

Eternal bliss is therefore not only unattainable but also undesirable, since it would eliminate the care and passion that animates our lives. What we do and what we love can matter to us only because we understand ourselves as mortal. This self-understanding does not have to be explicit but is implicit in all our practical commitments and priorities. The question of what we ought to do with our lives – a question that is at issue in everything we do – presupposes that we understand our time to be finite. For the question of how we should lead our lives to be intelligible, we have to believe that we will die. If we believed that our lives would last forever, we could never take our lives to be at stake. We would never be seized by the need to do anything with our time. We would not even be able to understand what it means to do something sooner rather than later in our lives, since we would have no sense of a finite lifetime that gives urgency to any project or any activity.

Hence, mortality is the condition of agency and freedom. To be free is not to be sovereign or liberated from all constraints. Rather, we are free because we are able to ask ourselves what we ought to do with our time. All forms of freedom – the freedom to act, the freedom to speak, the freedom to love – are intelligible as freedom only insofar as we are free to engage the question of what we should do with our time. If it were given what we should do, what we should say, and whom we should love – in short: if it were given what we should do with our time – we would not be free.

The ability to ask this question – the question of what we ought to do with our time – is the basic condition for what I call spiritual freedom. To lead a free, spiritual life (rather than a life determined merely by natural instincts), I must be responsible for what I do. This is not to say that I am free from natural and social constraints. I did not choose to be born with the limitations and abilities I happen to have. Moreover, I had no control over who took care of me; what they did to me and for me. My family—and the larger historical context into which I was born – shaped me before I could do anything about it. Likewise, social norms continue to inform who I can take myself to be and what I can do with my life. Without social norms – norms I did not invent and that shape the world in which I find myself – I can have no understanding of who to be or what to do. Nevertheless, I am responsible for upholding, challenging, or transforming these norms. I am not merely causally determined by nature or norms but act in light of norms that I can challenge and transform. This is what it means to lead a spiritual life. Even at the price of my biological survival, my material well-being, or my social standing, I can give my life for a principle to which I hold myself or for a cause in which I believe.

At the heart of my freedom, then, is the ability to ask myself what I should do with my time. Even when I am utterly absorbed in what I do, what I say, and what I love, the question of what I ought to do must be alive in me. Being involved in my activities, I must run the risk of being bored or dissatisfied with what I do – otherwise my engagement would be a matter of compulsive necessity. Being devoted to what I love, I must run the risk of losing it or giving it up – otherwise there would be nothing at stake in maintaining and actively relating to what I love. Most fundamentally, I must live in relation to my irrevocable death – otherwise I would believe that my time is infinite and there would be nothing at stake in dedicating my life to anything.

Any form of spiritual life must therefore be animated by the anxiety of being mortal, even in the most profound fulfillment of our aspirations. Our anxiety before death is not reducible to a psychological condition that can or should be overcome. Rather, anxiety is a condition of intelligibility for leading a free life and being passionately committed. As long as our lives matter to us, we must be animated by the anxiety that our time is finite, since otherwise there would be no urgency in doing anything and being anyone.

Even if your project is to lead your life without psychological anxiety before death – for example, by devoting yourself to Buddhist meditation – that project is intelligible only because you are anxious not to waste your life on being anxious before death. Only in light of the apprehension that we will die – that our lifetime is indefinite but finite – can we ask ourselves what we ought to do with our lives and put ourselves at stake in our activities. This is why all religious visions of eternity ultimately are visions of unfreedom. In the consummation of eternity, there would be no question of what we should do with our lives. We would be absorbed in bliss forever and thereby deprived of any possible agency. Rather than having a free relation to what we do and what we love, we would be compelled by necessity to enjoy it.

In contrast, we should recognize that we must be vulnerable – we must be marked by the suffering of pain, the mourning of loss, the anxiety before death – in order to lead our lives and care about one another. We can thereby acknowledge that our life together is our ultimate purpose. What we are missing is not eternal bliss but social and institutional forms that would enable us to lead flourishing lives. This is why the critique of religion must be accompanied by a critique of the existing forms of our life together. If we merely criticized religious notions of salvation without seeking to overcome the social injustice to which religions respond, the critique would be empty and patronizing. The task is to transform our social conditions in such a way that we can let go of the promise of salvation and recognize that everything depends on what we do with our finite time together. The heart of spiritual life is not the empty tranquility of eternal peace, but the mutual recognition of our fragility and our freedom.

Martin Hägglund is Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale. His book This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free was published last year by Profile Books.

Twitter: @martinhaegglund

A prominent theme of Martin Hägglund’s This Life is the relation between spirit and life, which is also a central theme of three philosophers Hägglund finds especially compelling: Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, all of whom endorse conceptions of spirit that make it metaphysically continuous with natural life. For these thinkers, as for Hägglund himself, this topic also concerns the nature of freedom – that is, of spiritual freedom, the kind of freedom appropriate to human beings. For those who espouse the metaphysical continuity of spirit and nature, one constraint on a satisfactory account of freedom is that there must be something in nature that approximates the freedom of spiritual beings. Before addressing Hägglund’s account of this isomorphism, it is important to get clearer on precisely what he takes spiritual freedom to be. With the aim of thinking with rather than against Hägglund, I will argue that there are tensions, or at least ambiguities, in how he conceives of spiritual freedom.

Describing Hägglund’s account of spiritual freedom as beset by internal tensions is not the worst thing one could say about it. Human freedom is a complex phenomenon. Of the three philosophers mentioned above, Hegel is the most sensitive to the complexity of human freedom, and in this respect, as in many others, Hägglund is deeply influenced by him. Hegel deals with this issue by distinguishing various types of freedom and showing that they are jointly realizable. The main claim of his social philosophy is that the institutions of Western modernity have made the realization of freedom in all its guises not merely possible but actual. Another philosophical possibility, of course, is that the various dimensions of human freedom are so complex that realizing them together is impossible. This would amount to a more tragic view of human existence than Hegel settles for, and Hägglund is firmly on Hegel’s side of this issue: human existence is finite but not for that reason tragic. It is not, in other words, the case that some of the fundamental aspirations of spiritual beings can be realized only by sacrificing others.

Let us begin with Hägglund’s initial characterizations of natural and spiritual freedom. Most forms of animal life are said to possess a certain kind of freedom, or self-determination, because they are capable of “self-movement” in the pursuit of ends deriving from their own nature, in this case, biological self-maintenance and reproduction. What distinguishes natural from spiritual freedom is that the former “provides a freedom of self-movement, but only in light of imperatives that are treated as given and ends that cannot be called into question by the agent itself”, while the latter “requires the ability to ask which imperatives to follow in light of our ends, as well as the ability to call into question, challenge, and transform our ends themselves” (175).

If one focuses on these lines alone, it can appear that Hägglund offers a standard Kantian definition of spiritual freedom: to be free is to have the capacity to set ends for oneself, including the values in light of which one sets one’s ends. Missing from this definition is something that Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche build into their conceptions of spiritual freedom, namely, some relation to life that counts as free. For these thinkers, spiritual freedom is inseparable from life activity, or the reproduction of biological life. It is important to note, however, that Hägglund says that spiritual freedom requires the ability to decide how to pursue our ends, as well as the ability to question those ends themselves. In other words, spiritual freedom requires, as one of its conditions, the ability to set and evaluate ends, but it is not exhausted by that ability. I take Hägglund to claim, following Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, that spiritual freedom involves more than merely taking up a certain subjective relation to one’s ends, but that it also requires some worldly realization. Indeed, this must be Hägglund’s view if the importance he accords to democratic socialism – which surely is not merely an external condition of being free but a form of life within which spiritual freedom is positively realized – is to make sense.

Artwork by Nora Grant

For Kierkegaard, on the other hand, spiritual freedom consists entirely in a subjective relation one has to one’s own agency, and this makes him more a follower of Kant than of Hegel. Hägglund provides a long and interesting discussion of Kierkegaard, which raises the question of how the latter’s picture of freedom fits together with the Hegelian strands of Hägglund’s larger vision. These appear to be incompatible with Kierkegaard’s exclusive emphasis on subjectivity, as expressed in the claim that “what renders the world meaningless – or meaningful – is not an objective feature of what there is but proceeds from the degree of your attachment to what you see” (97). For the Hegelian tradition, in contrast, there are substantial objective constraints on being able to find what you do meaningful, and Hägglund clearly wants to endorse this element of Hegel’s legacy. At best, Kierkegaard’s vision of spiritual freedom might be taken by Hägglund to impose certain subjective constraints on spiritual freedom. Hegel himself is moved by a similar thought in his treatment of the subjective elements of Moralität. Presumably Hägglund envisions a similar appropriation of Kierkegaard’s conception of freedom, although it is not entirely clear what he wants to retain from that conception and how it fits in with his larger picture of spiritual freedom. ​ What, then, beyond the mere capacity to set one’s ends, is required for spiritual freedom? One clue to Hägglund’s answer might be his claim that “secular faith is the condition of freedom” (11). This characterization of freedom goes beyond the earlier one because it makes it clear that freedom is not a mere capacity that, as Kant would have it, every rational being possesses simply by virtue of possessing practical reason. If secular faith is the condition of spiritual freedom, then the latter is not something we simply have but something we must win for ourselves (through secular faith). But because secular faith, too, might be taken to consist simply in a subjective orientation towards one’s finitude and towards one’s particularity – echoes, again, of Kierkegaard – this does not yet explain how or why spiritual freedom must be realized in the world to be complete.

One concept that plays an important role in Hägglund’s vision of spiritual freedom appears in his discussion of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: “the struggle is how to make this life your own.” This suggests that spiritual freedom involves appropriation, where this, at least for Hegel, consists in making something your own that was previously “other,” although only on the further condition that what you appropriate also retains for you a part of its initial otherness. The appropriation involved in spiritual freedom cannot be a mere swallowing up of the other; to relate spiritually to one’s other is to see it as at once oneself and not oneself, a relation Hegel describes as “being at home in the other.” The mark of spirituality, then, is the enduring of contradiction, in this case the ambiguity involved in relating to something you take to be both you and not you. Hegel’s most illustrative example of such a relation is love, in which I see my beloved as part of me but without forgetting that we are also separate persons. What, though, does appropriation have to do with realizing spiritual freedom in the world, as opposed to merely internally? If freedom consists in establishing a relation to something that retains some of its quality of being “other,” then my freedom can be fully realized only if it has some existence external to me. Presumably, the spiritual freedom realized in democratic socialism will involve our ongoing activity of participating in, and thereby reproducing, social institutions that we can recognize as “a home.” If we want to bring spiritual freedom in relation to natural freedom, we might recall that for Hegel, even nonhuman animals, through their life activity, are constantly engaged in negating the otherness of the world and making it “their own.” One way they do this is by taking up elements of the surrounding world that first appear in a form they cannot immediately use and working them into a form that can serve their own life purposes. But they also make the world into a home more literally: beavers build dams; bees build hives; birds build nests – all of which is to say that they both negate and preserve the external world in a way that enables them to be at home within it. For Hägglund, I take it, the spiritual analogue of dams, hives, and nests is democratic socialism (230).

Another way Hägglund characterizes spiritual freedom is related to appropriation without being precisely identical, namely, “recognizing yourself in what you do” (129). Freedom in this sense is realized in activity that gives expression to one’s practical identity, an idea one finds in Kant and, more forcefully, in Hegel. This vision of freedom is not incompatible with other conceptions of freedom discussed by Hägglund, but it emphasizes something different from the conception of freedom as setting your own ends. Here the emphasis lies not on how you come to adopt the ends you act on but on whether what you do expresses “who you are,” where, as both Kant and Hegel hold, “who you are” may not be something you choose or explicitly adopt. The final component of spiritual freedom I want to discuss concerns an ambiguity in Marx’s discussion of freedom in post-capitalist society with respect to whether spiritual freedom is most fully realized within the sphere of life activity or externally to it. According to one (Hegelian) strand of Marx’s thought, life remains a constitutive element of free spiritual activity, such that the latter consists in a variety of ways in which subjects relate freely to life, including to their own nature as living beings. In the domain of the social, spirituality is at work wherever humans engage in activity that reconciles their natural neediness with their aspiration to be free. On this view, the form of social life appropriate to our nature is one in which every life activity is a site of freedom and every expression of freedom addresses our needs as living beings. This ideal animates Marx’s early thought, for which unalienated labour, the hallmark of “true human emancipation,” satisfies both our material needs and our aspiration to be self-determining, and, as a well-known passage in Capital attests, it is also present in his later work. As depicted in this passage, spiritual freedom is realized when cooperative activity responding to material needs is both transparent and self-organized. This vision of freedom gives full due to human finitude, taking into account our material neediness and dependence on others in satisfying those needs. In the very same passage, however, Marx claims that “true” freedom arises only once the needs of life have been taken care of, implying that activity directed at satisfying those needs can be free only in a limited sense. What motivates Marx to say this is the thought that material production is “determined by need and external purposiveness,” where, by the latter, he means activity that has only instrumental value for the person undertaking it. This, however, confuses two concepts that need to be held apart, namely, activity that satisfies the needs of life, and activity that is undertaken only for an end outside itself. It is wrong to think of activity that serves the ends of life as necessarily less meaningful, less “for-its-own-sake” than activity divorced from our nature as living beings. There is an unfortunate residue here of the Kantian view that needs imposed on us by nature are necessarily a source of unfreedom. Even if there are human activities done only for their own sake and unrelated to natural need, why consider them higher expressions of freedom than what can be had in our everyday activities of labour and family life, as long as these are organized and affirmed as meaningful by us? In other words, what makes alienated labour unfree is its purely instrumental significance for the labourer, not the fact that it serves the ends of life. Mostly Hägglund appears to agree with this, identifying Marx’s “realm of necessity” with labour that is “merely a means” (214), although at times he fails to distance himself clearly enough from Marx’s confusion. ​ ***

I have distinguished six ways of thinking about spiritual freedom that are not obviously compatible: 1) the capacity to set ends and to revise them in light of values we freely espouse; 2) a purely subjective attitude – attachment – to who one is and what one does that renders my activity meaningful; 3) appropriation: establishing a practical relation to something “other” that rids the other of its otherness without, however, completely eliminating it; 4) recognizing yourself in what you do; 5) reproducing life in a way that is transparent, self-directed, and valued as an end in itself; and 6) activity not determined by the needs nature imposes on us and done purely for its own sake. These distinctions raise several questions: Are all of them conceptions of spiritual freedom for Hägglund? Is it plausible that all six conceptions can be realized in a single form of life? Which are most intimately related to the main concept of This Life, secular faith? Hägglund’s answer to the second question might be, following Hegel, that these various conceptions – extending from Hegel to Kierkegaard to Marx – are all dimensions of spiritual freedom and that “true” freedom involves realizing them jointly. If so, that is a further illustration of the non-tragic character of Hägglund’s vision of a finite but spiritually free human existence. Frederick Neuhouser is Professor of Philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of a number of books, including Foundations of Hegel's Social Theory: Actualizing Freedom, and is currently working on a project about the idea of social pathology in 18th, 19th, and 20th century social philosophy.

One of the most interesting and persuasive arguments Martin Hägglund makes in his wonderful new book This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free is that democratic socialism (not reformed liberalism, and not social democracy) is the only political form that recognizes spiritual freedom as an unconditional secular value. Democratic socialism enables human beings to recognise and appreciate their own vulnerability and finitude by creating forms of social organization that liberate them from the contradictory reassurances of religion, and that put “socially available free time” at the centre of a new set of freedom-enhancing democratic practices and commitments. Democratic socialism is, for Hägglund, “a political transformation of the economy”, a transformation that requires “a revaluation of what value is”, and that enables us to recognise “socially available free time as an end in itself” (294). The vision he defends emerges from an immanent critique of liberalism, a critique that does not oppose one abstract ideal to another, but that takes seriously liberalism’s commitment to the freedom of individuals and goes on to illustrate how the very institutions that for liberals are supposed to realise that freedom end up suppressing and undermining it (225).

Socialism shares with liberalism a commitment to the individual as the fundamental unit of moral concern. It also shares with liberalism the aspiration to specify the conditions under which we can be effectively free, as well as the emphasis on the mutual dependence of human beings in the social realisation of effective freedom. Yet liberalism entrenches these commitments in market-based institutions that prioritise a type of wealth creation based on the exchange of labour power and the extraction of surplus value. Democratic socialism, on the other hand, is built around three core principles: firstly, that we measure our wealth, both individual and collective, in terms of socially available labour time and create democratic institutions adequate to express that value (302); secondly that “the means of production are collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit” (304), and thirdly, that it is based on institutions that realise the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” (307).

I agree with everything Hägglund says about the desirability of democratic socialism. In what follows, I will focus on two questions that, as will become clearer, are interconnected: 1) his strategy of justification and 2) the problem of agency. I will develop these issues by probing the relation between liberalism and democratic socialism in relation to the three core principles he advocates. It is important to start with the first because, as I see it, Hägglund’s understanding of the relationship between liberalism and democratic socialism is at the heart of his subsequent analysis of the core socialist principles, and constitutes what I see as the main gap in his book: the absence of a more nuanced account of democratic agents in charge of democratic socialist transformation.

Hägglund plausibly suggests that socialism and liberalism overlap in their commitment to an idea of individuals as ends in themselves, and to spiritual freedom as an unconditional value (225). But I wonder what exactly liberalism means here. In so far as it means a set of views (sometimes in tension with each other) of how social and political institutions ought to be arranged and which includes (but is not limited to) recognising the authority of the state and the value of commercial society, I think he is too quick to credit liberalism with the invention of the secular idea of the ultimate worth of individuals (226). That idea seems to me to be a product of the Enlightenment, and more specifically of the discovery of the “autonomy of reason” sometime around the late 17th and 18th centuries, an effort which was in turn the result of a number of not exclusively liberal, often not even proto-liberal, and sometimes, possibly, anti-liberal debates trying to articulate a new understanding of the human being free from the burdens of religion and tradition.

We can, of course, endlessly debate when the Enlightenment started, how widely shared the thesis of the autonomy of reason was, and what contribution to the emergence of these ideas was made by the Copernican revolution, or by narratives of travelling the New World, or by the legacy of the analysis of Christianity during Humanism and the Renaissance. Or we can turn our focus to the transformations of feudal societies, the emergence of the modern state, or the legacy of the wars of religion, to mention but some of the historian’s favourite narratives. But it seems clear that the idea of spiritual freedom is grounded in an Enlightenment critique of authority, and to assimilate that account to a “liberal” critique runs the risk of rendering us blind to how liberals often utilized Enlightenment conceptions of morality to advance profoundly immoral ends in other parts of the world. It also runs the risk of obscuring currents of the Enlightenment that inspired radical republican or democratic critiques of liberalism and of concealing the emancipatory impact that Enlightenment ideas had in other non-liberal parts of the world – as many recent critics highlight when discussing the relation between freedom and modernity in Hegel’s theory.