The Long View: Freedom & Necessity

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HegelBy Jakob Schlesinger (1792-1855) - Unknown, Public Domain,

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

By Jakob Schlesinger (1792-1855) - Unknown, Public Domain,

A failure of my philosophical education up to this point is that I never quite got to modern philosophy in my graduate studies. I've got Hegel sitting on a shelf 5 feet from where I sit, but I haven't been in any kind of hurry to rectify that.

Freedom & Necessity
Steven Brust and Emma Bull
TOR Fantasy (Tom Doherty Associates), 1997
$6.99 (paper), 589 Pages
ISBN 0-812-56261-5

A Hegelian Allegory

You don't find many 600 page epistolary novels in the science fiction racks. You also don't find many current novels anywhere at all that seek to illustrate the operation of the Hegelian dialectic in life and history. "Freedom and Necessity" is all those things, with the added distinction of being the only book in my experience whose characters' principal recreation is reading Hegel's "Science of Logic." We are not dealing here with existentialist fiction, but with a Hegelian allegory.

"Freedom & Necessity" is apparently a minor publishing phenomenon. Steven Brust ("The Phoenix Guards") and Emma Bull ("War for the Oaks") are both noted fantasy writers. The tale they tell, however, is a fairly straightforward historical melodrama. It is set in England in 1849, and is chiefly concerned with the conflicts among the younger cousins of the intricately interrelated Cobham, Voight and Callendar families. Some of these people want red revolution, some are part of a murderous occult group straight out of "The Golden Bough," and some just want the family inheritance. All of this intrigue is intended to illustrate concretely a set of philosophical propositions that otherwise would be too stupefying for words.

Most of the story treats of the history and adventures of James Cobham, the Byronic eldest son. In fact, the bare bones of the book is that James moves from Non-Being (he is mistakenly thought dead as the story opens) through Becoming (as he learns the dark secrets of his family history) to completed Being (which takes the form of his reunion with the love of his life and their son in, for some reason, Baltimore, Maryland). James's problems are not entirely family-generated. For his whole adult life, he has been a confederate at the street-fighting level of the radical Chartist movement, whose members spooked the establishment of the Industrial Revolution with their demands for universal male suffrage, labor legislation and, at the extreme end, the abolition of the monarchy. In the aftermath of the failed pan-European Revolutions of 1848 (which also included a minor uprising in Ireland), people like James are in more than usual danger of being imprisoned or transported. In addition to threats from the British government, certain agents provocateurs in the pay of Prussia are trying to foment labor unrest in Britain in order to induce the forced repatriation of political fugitives from the recent rebellions. Chief among the fugitives is Friedrich Engels, an important minor character who loses no opportunity to press his acquaintances to read "The Science of Logic."

Despite these early modern trappings, the thesis to which James's life is the antithesis is thoroughly archaic. For several generations, his family has been involved with a dark cult, rather misleadingly known as "the Trotters' Club." Although some of his allies among the younger cousins are opium-using mystics who have a generic idea of what the Trotters' Club might be up to, James himself had always been singularly incurious about why his side of the family is so oddly lacking in adult males. The real conflict in the story, we learn by the end, has always been between James and his father. Under the rules of the cult, one must kill the other. The authors appear to be trying to suggest that Hegel's ideas chime well with the great themes of mythology. That, at any rate, would seem to be the logical inference to be drawn from the fact James ultimately becomes the wounded Fisher King and is transported like a Celtic hero to the uttermost West.

If nothing else, this book is a useful reminder that there was always a great deal more to Hegelianism than dialectical materialism. Despite the fact most of the characters chatter about "class consciousness" like assistant professors, "Freedom & Necessity" is hardly a Marxist tract. James and his allies do go to meet "the workers," but he meets them on midnight rendezvous as if they were leprechauns, shy of the company of ordinary mortals. The workers impart a kind of primordial wisdom that he and Engels puzzle over like messages from Delphi. James is startled when Engels remarks offhandedly that, of course, one can choose one's own class. That was how James the squire's son and Engels the successful industrialist could both really be proletarians. So much for the principle that class is a function of the relationship to the means of production.

"Freedom & Necessity" really is about what its title suggests. The problem of freedom, from a Hegelian perspective, is how we can be free in a world in which the outcome of any choice we might make is predetermined by physics and history. The answer is that, as our knowledge increases with experience, so the measure of our freedom does, too. This happens because real choice is possible only when we know the actual context in which we choose. The discovery of the "actual context" is the "Becoming" of history. It is also the "Becoming" of the story. We go through 500 pages worth of soap-opera revelations about family scandals, political assassination, bastardy and infanticide before we find out the only real issue, the only point on which choice is relevant, is whether James will kill his father or his father will kill James. There are, I suppose, briefer ways to make this point, but in the Hegelian universe prolixity is often the functional equivalent of concreteness.

Is the exercise worth the effort? Most of the book consists of long letters between the principal characters, supplemented by excerpts from their journals and actual news articles from the Times of London in 1849. The authors do succeed in making all the characters sound different, which is no small accomplishment. However, this does not necessarily make them sound interesting, particularly one long-winded opium-using cousin. Quite aside from the viscous effect that often attends a narrative composed of personal letters, this is one of those novels whose action tends to occur in situations where there is lots of mud and not enough light. The snappiest parts to the story are the ones where everyone just talks about Hegel. I can easily see how "Freedom & Necessity" might become an undergraduate favorite. Persons who are simply interested in its philosophical message, on the other hand, might do better just to read "The Science of Logic."

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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