Whose Life?

We’re on winter break until January 6. In the meantime, please enjoy our contributor’s take on one of 2019’s most acclaimed books. This article was originally published on September 18, 2019.
This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by the philosopher Martin Hägglund, who teaches at Yale, is a book anyone committed to public-facing scholarship ought to take note of. This is all the ...

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by the philosopher Martin Hägglund, who teaches at Yale, is a book anyone committed to public-facing scholarship ought to take note of. This is all the more so because of the book’s heft. It is a work of philosophy that engages long-standing debates on time, selfhood, and freedom. It is also a treatise on secular humanism, a worldview in which any meaning in life rests solely on our shoulders as mortal creatures, not in some supernatural or transcendental agent or plan. There is nothing lite here, nothing watered down. Hägglund is a gifted writer and he approaches his work, and the world we inhabit, with a clear, morally driven call. Indeed, above all, This Life is a cry from the heart.

Yet, as voiced, the cry is also strikingly monotonous, even oddly out of tune with the very world it hopes to realize, and with the other voices it surely would seek to enlist. What to make of such an engaging book that, at the same time, is so disengaged? For This Life places such an emphasis on the here-and-now that its professor never gets around to acknowledging the particular ground from which he speaks—or even who might be interested in listening.

In This Life, Hägglund seeks nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the horizon we set ourselves and the social arrangements through which we seek to flourish. Two outstanding obstacles, according to Hägglund, frustrate the realization of this transformation. The first is religious faith. The second is capitalism. It is only by overcoming each that we can recognize the true importance, potential, and precarity of “this life.”

This life is all we have, Hägglund argues throughout the book. We only fool ourselves, or worse, by setting our sights on somewhere or sometime else: Heaven or Nirvana or the Elysian Fields. Life is finite and fragile. We are all going to die. But far from this finitude being a worry and problem, we should, instead, understand it as a precious potential. “Only in light of the apprehension that we will die …,” he writes, “can we ask ourselves what we ought to do with our lives and put ourselves at stake in our activities.” Only in knowing we will die can we actually care about anyone or anything.

So how ought we to live? For Hägglund, any good answer to this question must rely on the cultivation and enactment of “a secular faith.” Secular faith is crucial because it places intention and responsibility in the hands and hearts of humans. It focuses everything on the here and now. “To have secular faith is to be dedicated to persons or projects that are worldly and temporal.” And subject to loss. The risk of loss is also a recognition that what we want cannot exist independently of the wanting. Love, happiness, dignity, just legal systems, comforting funerals, recycling schemes, international agreements to combat climate change: not one of these things can “exist independently of those who believe in its importance and who keep it alive through their fidelity.”

One could imagine a secular faith built around any number of organizing principles. But Hägglund makes the case for democratic socialism.

And then: What is to be done? Our faith must be secular, but this does not in itself determine the shape of the world we want to inhabit. One could imagine a secular faith built around any number of organizing principles. But Hägglund makes the case for democratic socialism. In doing so, he also makes the case against the viability of capitalism in any form. This Life is not a political manifesto—still less, a policy handbook—but it constructs a normative argument for how we should approach our social arrangements and self-realization.

Secular faith, for Hägglund, must be inspired by the realization of what he calls “spiritual freedom,” or the ability to ask “the question of what we ought to do with our time.” The world we should seek to build and inhabit is one in which Martin, as a self, can pose this question and answer: write philosophy, teach, combat economic exploitation, cultivate caring relationships, and protect the habitat of seagulls along Sweden’s coast. For someone else, he suggests, it might involve hiking or architecture.

These might not seem like things we “ought” to do in the colloquial sense of the term. (I can say I want to read a novel, but perhaps I really ought to be cleaning my apartment.) For Hägglund, though, “ought” carries a more aspirational connotation of self-realization. Desire and self-cultivation have to be complemented by a recognition that we have a responsibility to the collective good. Hägglund informs us that he would be perfectly happy on occasion to stop teaching philosophy to his students at Yale in order to mop the classroom floor.

The pursuit of philosophy takes place in what Hägglund calls, after Karl Marx, “the realm of freedom.” Conversely, mopping the floor takes place (at least for him) in “the realm of necessity.” The goal of Hägglund’s project is to maximize the realm of freedom and minimize the realm of necessity. The value of democratic socialism as the system through which this is achieved is that everyone is “provided for in accordance with his or her needs just by virtue of being part of society.”

In essence, what democratic socialism can give us is time. Hägglund argues that spiritual freedom is impossible within the political economy of capitalism, since wealth is defined in terms of profit, and profit is dependent upon the alienation of labor—a theft of time. The parts of the book devoted to discussion of democratic socialism and capitalism consistently emphasize this point, as well as the argument that capitalism can never be adequately reformed because of its fundamental commitment to the value of profit. “To be wealthy is to be able to engage the question of what to do on Monday morning, rather than being forced to go to work to survive.” This, according to him, is a question that democratic socialism would allow us to pose. It is a “revaluation of value,” as he often puts it.


Soft Atheism

By Matthew Engelke

While Hägglund occasionally enters into the realm of the everyday, This Life is, as I noted at the outset, a decidedly philosophical intervention. The occasional glimpses of Sweden, or his life at Yale, are just colorful enlivenments. At the core of each chapter in this book are a set of lengthy philosophical engagements. Over the course of 413 pages he takes up, and takes on, Saint Augustine, Saint Paul, Søren Kierkegaard, Marx, Max Weber, Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel, and many others in the canon. More recent men featured include Charles Taylor, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Piketty, Fredric Jameson, and Moishe Postone.

Hägglund is without doubt a fantastic writer; his prose is enviably clear, and his readings of philosophy, theology, and social thought are marked by a rare level of depth in such a public-facing book (though I can only imagine some specialists will have bones to pick with respect to particular figures). He also conveys an appreciation for every figure with whom he engages, even if he rates some (Hegel, Marx, Postone) higher than others (Paul, Weber, Jameson). There is nothing casual in this project.

Reading the book I often marveled at the clarity of Hägglund’s arguments and the depth of his convictions. I marveled as well at the rigor in his analysis, crafted carefully on the basis of a systematic logic. As a secular humanist vision of how to live—which is to say, of how to die—it is certainly the most distinctive work that I have read in the past 15 years.

Hägglund’s lucidity, though, is as much a weakness as a strength. This Life may be marvelously lucid but it is also often startlingly myopic. It is distinctive but not always for the right reasons.

Hägglund’s rendering of religious faith is particularly problematic. He is dogged in his efforts to show that religious faith is all about a misplaced emphasis on eternity. It is, he writes, “the common denominator” of “all world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity).”

It is impossible to take these understandings of religion and religious faith seriously. It reduces them to what Hägglund needs them to be in constructing his argument for secular faith. “What I call religious faith,” he says. “Spinoza presents a clear version of what I call the religious aspiration to eternity,” we hear. We are told, after a lengthy discussion, that “Adorno’s understanding of our finitude is thus essentially ‘religious’ in my sense of the term.” What I call; in my sense. It is not that Hägglund cannot have his own definitions of “religion.” In the best case, this would underscore his recognition of that term’s contingency and embeddedness within particular discursive traditions and projects. The problem is that he never clearly demonstrates an awareness of such contingencies.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Hägglund gives us an Orientalist’s framing of faith.

Take, for example, Hägglund’s reference to the “world religions.” This certainly begs the question of the extent to which he is concerned with the history of concepts. For this is one with a good deal of baggage—even more than “religion” tout court, which receives no reflexive treatment. As Tomoko Masuzawa (among others) has shown, European scholars invented the concept of world religions over the course of the long 19th century, as the European empires were consolidating their power. This served the colonial project well, and the term “quickly became an effective means of differentiating, variegating, consolidating, and totalizing a large portion of the social, cultural, and political practices observable among the inhabitants of regions elsewhere in the world.”1 Wittingly or unwittingly—I am not sure which is worse—Hägglund gives us an Orientalist’s framing of faith.

Here it is also worth noting that, notwithstanding some smatterings of attention to Buddhism, shading on occasion into related remarks on Stoicism, Hägglund’s (world) “religious faith” never really moves beyond a certain version of Protestant Christianity rooted in German and Scandinavian theology and philosophy. Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam are only mentioned in passing. The “common denominator” approach also seems to factor out any other cases for consideration. The explicit invocation of “world religions” leaves the reader wondering not only what gets left out—Shintoism? Sikhism? Shamanism?—but why.

The critique of religious faith is also confusing. This is because Hägglund doesn’t show that having a religious faith makes it impossible to realize a robust version of his secular faith. Some of the most egregiously religious, self-denying, world-renouncing, and ascetic thinkers with whom Hägglund takes issue—such as Augustine, Martin Luther, and C. S. Lewis—are simultaneously presented as capably secular in their human attachments and expressions of care. All three, for example, receive praise on this score with respect to their articulations of grief and mourning. Where they fall down, for Hägglund, is in seeking to move beyond these attachments and care by sublating them to a passion for the Godhead.

Hägglund also suggests that even when executed with precision, religiously motivated ends cannot help realize his understanding of spiritual freedom. He shows how the writings of these articulate Christians in mourning seek always to eclipse the self, whereas real freedom—that is, spiritual freedom—has to take the self as an end in itself. Hägglund seems to like the self rather a lot; it is the always-virtuous terminus. Because he is offering a textual analysis, though, it is not difficult for him to string together citations in which Augustine and the others denigrate secular attachments. Maintaining the integrity of this picture becomes more difficult when Hägglund does shift, at the book’s last juncture, from philosophy into something like history.

In the conclusion to This Life, Hägglund grounds his project in Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaigns to achieve civil rights and economic justice. It is the only approximation of a time and place we are given other than his own times and places, which seem to revolve around the Swedish coastline and an Ivy League university.

Hägglund’s main focus is on the period leading up to King’s assassination, in April 1968. By that point, King was expanding his rhetoric to encompass ever larger questions of economic inequality, the American war machine, and the fatal flaws of capitalism. King was making clear that civil rights are only part of what is needed to make good the fabric of the social whole. And King was talking about this effort at least in part in terms of a democratic socialism.2

Hägglund embraces King’s political vision and social critique, turning to the work of Hegel in order to shed maximum light on what Hägglund sees as the critique’s full potential. This enlistment is not arbitrary; Hegel isn’t just Hägglund’s lodestar but, Hägglund tells us, one of King’s as well. The importance of Hegel, at least for Hägglund, is that, more than anyone else, he provided the philosophical guidance with which to realize “a modern, secular conception of freedom.”

Yet paragraph by paragraph Hägglund then sets out to show that the realization of this conception of freedom, and King’s profound articulation of it, only makes sense when we understand King’s contributions in a secular register. “The apparently religious rhetoric of King’s political speeches,” Hägglund argues, “is better understood in terms of secular faith.” Fighting for workers’ rights in Memphis, marching in Chicago to protest the conditions of public housing, calling the American administration to account for Vietnam: these are secular matters for Hägglund because they’re not about heaven and eternal life.

Hägglund’s analysis of religious faith and secular faith is so formalized, so clinical, and so perfected, that it renders them almost like discrete circuits through which our energies can or cannot be directed. And such a narrow argument leaves us right where we started: with a spurious binary of secular/religious, one that obscures much more than it reveals and takes no account of anything like the actual, messy world of motivations and inspirations that fuel this life.

Ending This Life by using King to demonstrate a “modern, secular conception of freedom” brings us back to the question of the historicity of concepts. What ideas and arguments should be deployed to show how spiritual freedom must come from a secular faith?

For Hägglund these sources are drawn entirely from an unreconstructed syllabus for Western Civ: the same reading list into which we can slot appearance of “the world religions.” Provincializing Europe never seems to cross his mind.3 Nor something King called out in one of his most important speeches, at Riverside Church: “The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them.”4

While Hägglund emphasizes that “any form of spiritual life must be dependent on a fragile material body,” he fails to note that the fragility of some bodies is tested more regularly than others (as King’s place within a history of violence shows). Because he has so abstracted the self and the subject from the realities of this life, Hägglund has not addressed the very conditions through which any given person can lead “this life.”5

A similar blindness, a similar abstraction, struck me even in the most engrossing reading in This Life, Hägglund’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s account, in Fear and Trembling, of the biblical story of Abraham’s sacrifice. It takes up more than 40 pages. As Hägglund notes, Abraham’s sacrifice is about as extreme a test of faith as one could imagine: shedding the blood of one’s child. “The greatness of Abraham, according to Fear and Trembling, is that he is not paralyzed by ‘the anxiety, the distress, the paradox’ of having to kill Isaac and instead ventures everything on his faith in God.” Of course, Hägglund takes issue with the laudability of such a faith, at one point underscoring how Kierkegaard’s rendering of it is “predicated on the forgetting of Isaac.”

But there is another (human) standpoint missing here, another body: that of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother. I was baffled to get to the end of this secular reading—again, more than 40 pages—and not hear a word about the story’s erasure of women. How is it that Sarah, in the mode of immanent critique that marks This Life, merits no remembrance, no mention by name?


When Secularism Fails Women

By Pamela E. Klassen

As Carol Delaney has shown, the long traditions of theology and philosophy devoted to a reading of this story maintain such a tight focus on the problem of faith that they elide an equally central message: the mythical legitimization of patriarchy and paternity. “Gender may seem irrelevant to those concerned with drawing out the spiritual message of the story,” she writes, but “the religious content cannot be separated out from notions of gender and notions of generativity.”6

“A revolution of our lives is possible,” Hägglund calls out. His book dispenses with heaven just as it dispenses with the alienation of labor: because they both frustrate the realization of spiritual freedom. And that means, again, in its most pithy rendering: “the question of what to do on Monday morning.” Some Monday morning soon, though, I hope Hägglund moves on to consider whether This Life ultimately accounts for all that it needs to, ultimately values all who deserve valuing. Instead it leaves us with a vital question unaddressed: Whose life, exactly?


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcusicon

  1. Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 20.
  2. Hägglund cites an account of King’s off-the-record remarks at a January 1968 meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign: “He talked about the fact that he didn’t believe that capitalism as it was constructed could meet the needs of poor people, and that what we might need to look at was a kind of socialism, but a democratic form of socialism.”
  3. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000).
  4. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside Church, New York, NY, April 4, 1967.
  5. There are numerous instances in which Hägglund seems actively to dismiss the relevance of culture, power, and history. Here he is on Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “The transformative effect of Knausgaard’s writing does not depend on sharing his cultural background or personal circumstances. You are a potential addressee of his work by virtue of being a time-bound, practically committed agent who can be moved to explore and deepen your commitment to the life you are leading.” The culture-free word, delivered to the time-bound agent? By one definition a “classic” or “classic in the making” is indeed a work that resonates beyond the provenance of its production. It translates and it lasts. Yet such a reading, doing away with any sense of emplacement and embodiment, borders on the blithe. Especially when it comes in a project so explicitly devoted to the realization of a new social and political arrangement.
  6. Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth (Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 18.
Featured image: Jean Mignon, Abraham Sacrificing Isaac (1535–55). Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York