Book Reviews, Charles, Life Advice, Social Behavior
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Freedom (Sebastian Junger)

This slim book, a companion of sorts to Sebastian Junger’s earlier book Tribe, is about philosophy derived from life. Junger has made a career out of undergoing risks and hardships, then distilling his experience to insight based in reality. It doesn’t really work here, though; Freedom is too unfocused. It’s quite interesting in spots, but rambles and jumps around, even more than Junger’s earlier offerings. If you’re going to get anything substantial out of this book, you’ll have to do the heavy lifting yourself.

Junger never makes any real attempt to define freedom, which is probably smart, given the path of abstraction on which that would take the book. He wants the reader to view freedom as an emergent property, something that reveals itself through his combination of anecdote and history. Certainly, there is very little new to say about the definition of freedom that has not been said. Let’s take the question of freedom from a different angle, though. What should be the goal of humans having freedom, however we choose to define it? The flourishing of our kind, naturally. If something named “freedom” leads to the opposite, what is the point? Nothing. If we first realize this, Junger’s book helps us advance our thought.

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The author examines the effect when life strips away many of the encrustations and obfuscations of our modern ideological and technological civilization. His frame is himself, along with a handful of other men, walking four hundred miles along railroad tracks in central Pennsylvania. They haven’t abandoned civilization—they stop in small towns and buy food, for example. But by modern standards, they are not under the thumb of anyone. “[M]ost nights we were the only people in the world who knew where we were. There are many definitions of freedom but surely that is one of them.” This rambling journey is not meant as a test of manhood—all these men had already proven that in combat—but as a very partial and very temporary retreat from civilization, to rediscover what that implies for a man.

By the way, I found the description of travelling on railroad rights-of-way of technical interest to me for practical reasons—because I’m an apocalyptic paranoid, I already know that railroads have a purpose unrelated to trains, of which Junger took advantage. Thus, a few years past, I used to work some days a hundred miles from home. I carried a detailed railroad map (which are surprisingly difficult to find), figuring that the rails would be a much easier and safer way to return home on foot, in some kind of societal catastrophe, than using the roads. Junger confirms this; not only are railroads easy to traverse (most have walkable maintenance roads running along them, though walking on the ties themselves he says is difficult), they are usually completely free of people, in part because it’s illegal to walk on or along them. So if you ever find yourself needing to move around in the apocalypse, there you go, you’ve gotten a hot tip.

Also interesting, I think, is that Freedom is profoundly subversive of today’s verities; the coded seditious nature of this book probably accounts for the mixed and confused reception it has received among the cognoscenti. Most of all, this is a book about and for men. If you are a purple-haired “feminist” or ludicrous “gender non-binary,” your head will explode if you read this book, because Junger implicitly rejects that men and women are or can be the same, or change their essential selves. In fact, although the writing style is entirely different, Freedom has more than a little in common with Bronze Age Mindset, even though I am sure Junger would resist that parallel. It has, or should have, the same audience—Junger is in his fifties, but it’s not men his age to whom this book really should appeal, or matter. After all, most men in their fifties today who might buy this book are locked into the professional-managerial elite, with rising waistlines and falling testosterone, and absent some societal catastrophe, they will never get out of that trap. Rather, young men should read this book, because they are all sold a siren song that promises freedom, but they still have options. They are told, just get a college degree, check the right boxes, ensure you curb and bridle your masculinity, obtain a BS job in the professional-managerial elite, and then you too can lead a life of unlimited license, consumerism, and atomization. Never mind you will have no meaning in your life and die alone. If a young person reads this book, he might get off this destructive track, and he will at least know there is another way to look at life.

The core of man’s freedom for Junger is, as the first part of the book is titled, the ability to “Run.” You are not free if you cannot leave where you are and go somewhere else. As he relates, this was how much of Pennsylvania was settled—by men and their families moving west, up the rivers and past the rapids, risking gruesome deaths at the hands of Indians. Junger follows their path, without the same dangers, to be sure. When you run, though, you do not obtain the atomized, abstract freedom so cherished by the modern world. “The inside joke about freedom is that you’re always trading obedience to one thing for obedience to another.” Outside of the comforts of civilization, reality must be obeyed, as well as one’s obligations to the group, and almost everyone has a group. No matter how far you run, unless you leave society altogether, you owe something to others, and this is not tyranny, but in fact the nature of freedom.

Junger’s historical and factual lessons are often obscure and therefore particularly interesting, at least to me. He contrasts the defeat in the early sixteenth century of the Pueblo Indians, settled town dwellers, with the inability of Europeans to defeat the Apache, nomadic warriors, for hundreds of years. He points out that, especially in heat, human beings can cover long distances on foot better than any animal. This is a physical area in which women perform at up to eighty percent of men’s performance, as opposed to the normal fifty percent or so, making societal nomadism possible, by not requiring sexual differentiation during travel, unlike fighting and childcare, which are biologically dictated to be performed by men and women respectively. This ability to literally run has made many people and groups free—American settlers; American slaves; nomads throughout history.

But let’s ask, does running lead to human flourishing? Temporary running, followed by settling, is different than a permanent life of movement, and temporary running certainly can lead to freedom from oppression. Those permanently on the move, nomads and hunter-gatherers, may be happier than those settled, but their lives are riskier. Or are they? It’s not clear, really. Many, like James C. Scott in Against the Grain, would argue that hunter-gatherers are happier, and healthier. And a risky life can be a flourishing life, too—as we have seen during the Wuhan Plague, excessive reduction of risk is extremely destructive of human societies. In practice, those given a choice often choose running. As Junger discusses at greater length in Tribe, history shows many examples of members of settled society fleeing to join nomads, including quite a few American settlers joining Indian tribes by choice. You won’t get civilization that way, nor glory, but you may get much more satisfied people. Regardless, certainly, our civilization today has neither glory nor satisfaction, which suggests that what freedom we have is not to our benefit.

The other two parts of the book are titled “Fight” and “Think.” I’m honestly not sure why. Really, both parts are about fighting, as is much of the first part. That may not be surprising—Junger made his name writing books about fighting, either nature (The Perfect Storm) or man (War; and his documentaries about our endless war in Afghanistan). His point seems to be, though it’s implicit, that fighting is inherent in freedom. Not just against direct threats, which exist in all human times and places, but more broadly, in order to live as one chooses in one’s own society, within the strictures that society necessarily imposes. He goes on at considerable length about the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, which, by sheer coincidence, also occupies an important place in a different book I was simultaneously reading, Carl Schmitt’s The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. Junger’s point seems to be that freedom isn’t free, though as with all potentially controversial thoughts in this book, he never makes it explicit.

Thus, the theme of Europeans fighting Indians permeates this book, with no detail spared and not hiding the extreme brutality of Indian warfare, on both sides, and the constant warfare among the Indians themselves (the Iroquois and their allies had, shortly before the white man arrived, exterminated most of the other Indian tribes in this area). On the frontier, everyone had to be prepared to fight. In all human societies and times before modern times, refusing to fight meant slavery. What is more, choosing to fight against great odds often led to success, either quickly, if the attackers found the cost of conquering not to their liking, or over time, as the initially-bearable cost mounted for the attackers—and here Junger returns to the mobility that is inherent in freedom as a tool of war, used by those in Afghanistan and Iraq defending their lands against invading Americans; “Western troops struggle to corner and defeat even lightly armed insurgents.”

But again, it’s not entirely clear what Junger’s point is. He doesn’t seem to be making any comment on the divisions in America today, although in one of the more evocative metaphors he uses, he muses about a massive freight train barreling through the night, what “would it take to stop something like that instantaneously? I imagined some kind of massive wall, but the answer was more obvious: another train going just as fast in the opposite direction. America could seem like that as well, a country moving so fast and with so much weight that only a head-on collision with itself could make it stop.”

Junger seems to think that stopping would be bad. He doesn’t say what he thinks of today’s America. Although here he carefully takes no political positions, his own real-life politics skew left (he recently wrote an astoundingly ignorant article on the Spanish Civil War for what remains of Time magazine, an article that appears based mostly on Communist propaganda fed to him by his father, the point of which is that Americans who won’t unhesitatingly and completely comply with all Left demands are very, very bad people). Yet he also recognizes, not being actually dumb at all, that “At the heart of most stable governments is a willingness to share power with people you disagree with—and may even hate.” But as is indisputable, every modern ideological civil war in the West has been caused by the inherent inability of the Left to do precisely this, and we see the exact same pattern nearly completely formed in America today (and it would have been completed had Donald Trump been recognized as the winner of the 2020 election). We have seen the future because we have seen the past. So when Junger says, repeatedly, that every man must earn his freedom, I doubt if he’s thought about what that means for the oppressed majority of Americans today, even as he talks at length about the Easter Rising. With freedom, he says, comes responsibility—including the responsibility to do what is necessary to maintain that freedom, for oneself and one’s children. He doesn’t follow that thought down the logical rabbit hole.

So back to freedom and human flourishing. This is, despite its interest to philosophers, really not a complicated question, and it is even more simple for us, given the stark choice we face. The entire power system of the West today tells us, and thus propagandized, we often tell ourselves, that we are free, because we have unlimited license to be slaves to our unreasoning passions. But that was, for thousands of years, not the definition of freedom, but the definition of slavery, because every man knew such license led to the opposite of flourishing.

Worse, we only have such license, which at least feels good as we load ourselves with chains, only so long as we do not dare to suggest, much less place, any limit on our fellow citizens choosing slavery. The evil Siamese twins of our federal government and the Lords of Tech, both having penetration into our lives completely unprecedented in human history, ensure compliance. At every turn, what we are allowed to do, what we are allowed to say, and increasingly what we are allowed to think, is minutely examined, categorized, and allowed or disallowed. We are caught in a net, and it is being tightened around us, and yet we reflexively call it freedom, even as it strangles us.

We should remind ourselves that real freedom, the freedom that leads to human flourishing, is that brought by William Tell, hero of Swiss independence, to his people. (In fact, I think reading Ernst Jünger’s The Forest Passage, which discusses Tell and freedom, or for that matter my own thoughts on Tell in reviewing the children’s book The Apple and the Arrow, more profitable than reading this book.) Tell was embedded in his society; he was not atomized and separated from civilization as was Junger’s small group of men on the rails. Even more importantly, he took far greater risks. He brought true freedom to his community by resisting Habsburg tyranny. Tell defeated tyranny not only by refusing to bow to a hat, the short version of the story usually actually remembered, but by then starting a rebellion, beginning by assassinating the Habsburg representative. There is a crucial lesson here.

Heroism and freedom are closely linked. In very many human times and places, heroism such as that of Tell is necessary to achieve freedom—the freedom not of license, but ordered freedom, the freedom to choose rightly, to the benefit of oneself and one’s people. Yes, our ruling classes have completely lost this conception of freedom, and Junger only seems vaguely aware of it, though it is implied in the realities he describes. That doesn’t mean we can’t adopt it ourselves, and through heroic action, the specifics of which are difficult to foresee, restore it society-wide.

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  1. CL says

    Good review, as always. But I have some practical comments about this passage:

    “Rather, young men should read this book, because they are all sold a siren song that promises freedom, but they still have options. They are told, just get a college degree, check the right boxes, ensure you curb and bridle your masculinity, obtain a BS job in the professional-managerial elite, and then you too can lead a life of unlimited license, consumerism, and atomization. Never mind you will have no meaning in your life and die alone. If a young person reads this book, he might get off this destructive track, and he will at least know there is another way to look at life.”

    Suppose you’re a bugman. You’ve gotten your credentials and set off on a life of pointless paper-pushing. You know perfectly well that you contribute nothing to society—that you are, in fact, a parasite—and you know that your job would not exist in a just world. You also know that this world is an unjust one, and that the realistic alternative to managerial-elite BS is low-level service work, which is even worse-paying, often more unpleasant, and equally pointless. (Cashiers are mere widgets. They can easily be replaced by machines.) You know that a life of bourgeois virtue, ordinary heroism, and rootedness is preferable to a life of license, consumption, and atomization. So what? What on earth can you *do* about it?

    In a different era, you might have made a good schoolteacher, or even a professor, but the path of education is closed to you, since education is now hopelessly corrupt, with various credentialing mechanisms in place to keep people like you out of the system. You might have considered joining the military, except that modern military culture is a very particular sort of thing for a particular sort of person, and besides, the military is now an arm of the pink police state, anyway. Best to steer clear of that. You might have cultural interests, but these are rarely remunerative, and they can’t be pursued institutionally, since all cultural institutions are full of clowns and the woke. You may or may not have an aptitude for some kind of trade—perhaps you’d make a great baluster-carver—but you’ve never been exposed to any of these things, so how are you supposed to know?

    All this sounds like whining (because it is), but it’s a drum I beat whenever I have the opportunity: Conservatives talk endlessly about the world’s problems (which they correctly diagnose), but it stops there. Even if every American woke up tomorrow and decided that the bureaucratic-industrial complex should be burned to the ground, nothing would change. What would happen to the millions of people newly unemployed? What would they do with their lives? What *could* they do with their lives? Nothing. Absent the massive make-work program which is our economic system, there’s no place for such people in society. This is the sad truth of modernity: Most of us are expendable. Mankind, having solved life’s practical problems, has rendered himself superfluous.

    • Marcus says

      “What on earth can you *do* about it?”

      I suppose each era of industrial or technological progress sooner than later shows us both sides of its auspicious sword.

      What can one do? I also suppose one can pick a path by way of personal predisposition or talent or seeking a profession that will clearly earn a good living and apply oneself to this pursuit utterly and completely. The effort, in itself, being the reward.

      As one reaches the pinnacle of what that job or profession will earn back in terms of self-respect, earning capacity, status, and accomplishment, most advanced intellects would then seek to build a life of the mind and spend the rest of their days using their energy to build an inner world of fulfillment.

      Charles’s website, here, would be a good example and we’re lucky he shares this with us and allows discourse after he posts his thoughts, feelings, and experiences in relation to an author and the book he’s reviewing.

      I think of Pierre Hadot’s book, “The Inner Citadel” and the very famous “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, and clearly Saint Augustine’s “Confessions” as examples which support my personal assertion.

      The 1980s pop-psychology business books — churned out by the millions — were aimed as a broadcast to the talentless, that one should “fall in love with your job, and you’ll never work another day in your life”. This was clearly a saccharine message lobbed at those who would always bumble around in the lower third of the general employment pyramid, whilst looking for some perfect job to indulge their “passion”. Don’t look now, but 30 years later, there are thousands of CVs and LinkedIn profiles where people list their “passion for networking in the finance sector” or “passion for refining the automotive standards of the assembly production environment” or other grotesque vapid cheerleading and grim online posturing.

      Looking for soulful fulfillment in the workplace as some kind of brass ring of conspicuous moral preening is not only embarrassing but outwardly distasteful to those who realize work is a way to hone innate abilities, earn a paycheck, support the responsibilities you have, and leaving you enough time and resources to develop your intellect and cultivate your soul in a place of comfort and solitude.

      • Charles Haywood says

        This is true, and compliments of me are always accepted gladly!

    • Ethan says

      Regarding the military, the National Guard may be an alternative. Even if it’s essentially a part-time job, you learn skills which are useful and likely to build you into a strong man. Whether you decide to take that leap or not may be dependent on which state you’re in, since you answer to your state’s governor. (The President can also deploy you and is effectively your commander and chief.)

      • Charles Haywood says

        Also true, and although you may be so unfortunate as to be deployed by Dementia Joe to enforce tranny supremacy somewhere, you will also get training that will help you do well in our upcoming spicy times.

        • Vxxc says

          “ Junger seems to think that stopping would be bad.”

          No, he knows it will be bad. He’s been there for Bad. It will be bad, like RESTREPO bad at Continental Scale.

          If you want to get some insight into BAD, well I can’t watch the movie RESTREPO, and I’m not the only one. Got my own movies, thank you.

          Now that we know BAD or have a reference perhaps- there isn’t a choice. And it isn’t our choice. Its the Ruling Classes Choice- when they put up the Green Zone in DC they told us the whole thing- Syria, Iraq. They always get what they want if not the way they want it, and they won’t stop until they have Syria in the 🇺🇸. Now – they are very, very good at doing this , this isn’t madness. It will work.
          In sum sow chaos and war and pay others to fight and die, they abstain and survive on top.

          Really most of what they do is only incompetence or madness if you can’t accept they mean us harm, even the hate they bear us is only to justify the harm.

          Its hard for most people to harm without hate, so yes and no sarc this all makes sense.

      • Vxxc says

        Wrt ARNG; Yes and Yes to CH skills observation below. Moreover you will be distinctly less a slave (its the guns and the guys see).

        WRT Pink , no, not outside the Pentagon, and not in units. They might make you watch a slide deck, no further. We don’t believe this madness, and if someone did they’d be afraid to give the orders, which would not be obeyed. By Fear I mean…Fear.

        WRT Dem Supremacists enforcement- Volunteers only, and frankly they just do it for money or need TRICARE for Family.

    • Charles Haywood says

      An excellent question, but I have answers!

      1) You gloss over the obvious first-order answer, which is trade. Nearly everyone knows about trades. Baluster-carver is obscure; electrician is not. It’s a perception that a bugman job is socially superior that prevents young people from pursuing trades, not lack of information. At the edges, this is eroding, but not to any great degree yet. (Butnote that there are many young people not addicted to that perception; they are simply never profiled by our media.) And our “educators” long ago destroyed vocational education in high school, for indoctrination reasons (mostly because it was “sexist,” the same reason home economics was vaporized). Certainly such education should be restored, but our hypothetical proto-bugman should look into trades. It would require a little effort, and perhaps the possibility of false starts, occasional humiliation, and a steep learning curve, but the end result is quite likely to be a high-paying job with no debt, flexible work, and higher health.

      Yes, it won’t have social prestige. At least not until the inevitable reset. Maybe it will harm our proto-bugman on the dating market. Or maybe it won’t. Life is what you make of it; he needs to choose himself to get off a track he knows to be destructive. If he’s going to sit there and drift, he’s going to end up ruined, which means he needs to not sit there.

      We can help, with restoring vocational education and so forth. But with “educators” and the government pushing everyone to bugman jobs, it’s going to be hard until we wipe the power of those people out. In the meantime, it’s up to our hero to look, in detail, into trades.

      2) Nonetheless, it is also true that a trade is not for everyone. Perhaps someone is just not good with his hands. Maybe all his talents are purely intellectual; he would make a good professor and not much else (many of my ancestors were of this type). Many trades are functionally small businesses, and that’s not for everyone either. The traditional answer would be to have a trade in a factory, in a larger business—become a metalworker, a tool-and-die maker, what have you. But those jobs have mostly been shipped to China, so what can he do?

      3) Turning to longer-term solutions, it is true that if we burned down the bureaucratic-industrial complex there would be massive unemployment. In the short term. The only real solution is to burn everything and rebuild (preferably in a Foundationalist direction). An aggressive industrial policy should gradually rebuild skilled manufacturing. Married women should be strongly discouraged, in culture and law, from working outside the home. And if we don’t have more children, and soon, none of this will matter anyway. Ultimately, the only solution is a total remaking of society, and that cannot be done incrementally. Burn it all.

      4) I note, however, that mankind is not at all superfluous. We have fewer good jobs, and an utterly imbalanced system, because we destroyed our system for the false promise of globalization and the enrichment of a corrupt and disgusting elite. That can be fixed. And despite that we are told that artificial intelligence will make humans superfluous, this is a total fiction. Artificial intelligence, as I have been saying for some years, is a crock, and I note that Elon Musk this morning basically admitted that self-driving cars are never arriving, which I have also been saying for some years. Humans are where it’s at; we just need to reorganize our society, by going backwards to go forwards.

      • Insightful comments, both CL and Charles.

        The deep philosophical question of our age – one that Charles has been working on answering – is “what do we do when we live in a world that is hopelessly corrupted?”

        The first answer is to hope that the rot doesn’t go as deep as those who are the rot would hope. The second is to develop and cultivate a world-view that isn’t beholden to the rot. The third is to do something about it, and find those places that rot hasn’t set in, hoping to both stave off the rot and avoid it. There are many places like this. Our overlords have good reason to try to hide them – and they succeed. But men can make much of themselves if they are just willing to take a chance and learn something new.

        Charles – I know I’ve been harping on you about Jane Jacobs, but I think she’s critical for your last point – about the superfluity of mankind and unemployment that will follow the destruction of the BS infrastructure. Jane in her three interlocking books “The Economy of Cities,” “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” and “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (mostly the first two – the last is actually about how cities need to physically be built) speaks of a lack of “work” that sets in because of certain economic patterns. In a nutshell, the idea is that cities need to cause their own new work to sprout up out of a pattern of creating exports, earning imports then replacing imports and sprouting new work – meaning real innovations creating new “stuff” and services that connect logically to the old work – which in turns leads to more exports earning more imports and back around again.

        For example, she brings 3M (the tape company), which actually began as a company mining sand for industrial uses that wanted to branch into making sandpaper and so decided to try out creating all sorts of adhesive products. They never did make good sandpaper but they made enormous advances in the field of different types of tape.

        Why the seeming tangent? Because *new work does not simply spring up in some well of creativity and “entrepreneurship.”* It is highly dependent on local economies functioning properly, and our free trade, globalist overlords have done much to ensure that our cities are effectively stagnated such that no real new work is being created. They look at GDP “growth” instead of actual creation of new, productive work. Moreover our suburban experiment of the 50s on gutted the physical surroundings critical for city growth and development (here’s where “Death and Life” comes in)

        We may be in such a state that our cities don’t have the internal resources to actually spring up new work at the breakneck pace at which they grow in the best of times and that are necessary for creating the new jobs to re-employ the masses.

        The issue of underemployment and high prices is a real one, and there’s no reason to assume it will go away without some deep underlying change in the way we do things.

        • Charles Haywood says

          Interesting. I will work some of this into my larger Foundationalist piece . . . .

  2. Henriksson says

    Once again, a pleasure to read. I know Sebastian Junger from his fantastic documentary Restrepo and not from his books, so I am pleased to see he hasn’t succumbed completely to leftist insanity. I will definitely purchase the book to read it myself.

    I only discovered your blog a few months back, and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. I go to a very leftist EU uni and it has not been easy to toe the new orthodoxy since the BLM riots last year. Reading your book reviews have helped me get through the pandemic and at least given me some hope that a better way is possible. Thank you.

    • Charles Haywood says

      Glad to have you, and I glad to be of service!

    • Charles Haywood says

      This is true, and why the time for rational discussion, long rejected by the Left while the Right pursued it, is over.

      • vxxc says

        Ah the hiring spikes up on certain job boards, If they could do this say other men, why not me?

        The same job Caius Octavian hired for…

        This was so predictable.

  3. max says

    “Junger never makes any real attempt to define freedom,”

    R. J. Rushdoony:
    The Changed Meaning of Liberty

    “The very term liberty lost its medieval connotation of a privilege and became the right to bring into being what had not existed before”

    Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations.

    Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law word. Similarly, the privileges of the family exempted it from various controls. Each area of life had its privileges. We still use the word privilege in this older sense when we speak of “privileged communication.” A privileged communication, as for example between a priest or pastor and a parishioner making a confession or seeking counsel, or between a doctor and a patient, or a lawyer and a client, is free from the controls or knowledge of the state or of other men and agencies. This freedom and immunity is, moreover, a religious fact. Thus, the older definition of liberty as a privilege and as a religious immunity rested firmly and clearly on a Christian culture. As long as the education and culture of the Western World was clearly Christian, liberty or freedom remained a Christian privilege.

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