Nihilism in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

On the one hand, Jonathan Franzen does a masterful job of showing how unchecked freedom leads of necessity to nihilism. The ability to choose this or that cannot of itself answer to the more fundamental question, “Why bother choosing in the first place? What makes one item more valuable than the other? And, for that matter, what makes one life more estimable than another?” Patty Bergland lives out the problem of nihilism, a problem pathologized and misdiagnosed as depression. The endgame of the discourse of freedom is despair.

On the other hand, Franzen fails to disambiguate the various conceptions of freedom that occupy public discourse and that emerge from very different traditions. For example, freedom as

  • positive liberty
  • negative liberty
  • autonomy
  • sophresyne (self-control, self-mastery, temperance)
  • private property and financial independence
  • satisfaction of desires
  • self-actualization
  • non-coercion and non-determination
  • etc.

To the extent that Franzen does more (not less) to confuse us, he does us no service. I suppose the job of philosophy is to clean up the mess the day after the fete.