Yeah, we’re going there. In one of our mailbag episodes, Chris Hayes joked about doing an hour-long meditation on mortality. Surprisingly, more than a few of you spoke up in favor of the idea, and one of our #WITHpod listeners suggested checking out a book called “This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom” by philosopher Martin Hägglund.
In his book, Hägglund takes on some of the most fundamental questions we face if, in fact, this one life is all we have. Say there’s no afterlife — what does it then mean to mourn, to love, and to be a human on this planet? What do we owe each other and what do we owe ourselves? So this week, we look at one of the biggest and scariest and, depending how you look at it, most beautiful questions yet: what if this is it?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: In practice, you're always responsive to that question. Am I wasting my time? What am I doing? We shouldn't see that hovering anxiety as something that's like, "Oh I wish I could just bliss out." That's part of what it means to be a free being, that you're actually fundamentally like... So with the risk of failing, like, "s--t, I wasted five years of my life." That's a constituent of freedom. You have to run that risk.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Well this one I guess we can call a special request, popular demand, episode of the podcast. And the reason it's by popular demand and by popular demand, I mean like maybe a few dozen of you who emailed us and responded. I forget when it was. I think it was at the year end mailbag where I talked a little bit about my, I think somewhere between normal and slightly compulsive obsession with my own mortality, and joked about like, "That would be a fun podcast." Like, "Haha, that would not be a fun podcast." And a lot of you are like, "No, that would be a fun podcast."
And it was in the midst of that, I think, that someone on Twitter just replied and said, "Oh, you should read this book." And the book is called “This Life” and it's a book by a philosopher at Yale named Martin Hägglund and the book is a meditation on what the meaning of life is, and what the meaning of life is particularly in a secular tradition in which there is no afterlife, in which this existence is the only one we have.
If you're freaking out right now as I say this and think, "This is too heavy and I don't want to listen," I would urge you to keep going. And the reason I would urge you to keep going is that I picked up the book with the same thought of like, "Do I want to read a whole book about this, about a meditation on my one life being my only life and the fact there will be nothing after it, and all the people I love, I won't be around for and they will have to mourn my death and I will return to permanent non-existence for the rest of eternity." Which even as I say that now, I get a little panicky, but I actually found the book really moving and actually soothing. It gave me some kind of inner peace to contemplate Martin Hägglund arguments, partly because the arguments really are about how beautiful and precious and singular it is to have this life, to be alive as a human on the planet.
And I know that I have now ascended out of the daily news cycle into the most ethereal realm of human cogitation, which is meditations on the meaning of life and we haven't really done this before on the podcast, but I thought it would be a really fascinating departure. I liked the book so much we reached out to Martin and he agreed to be on the podcast, and we have an hour-long discussion about the thesis of his book.
Now there are two aspects to the book. There's a kind of meditation on the meaning of life, and then an argument about what the implications of what we are committed to doing as humans ethically on this earth, in our one life. And the form of the argument is almost like a parody of lefty thinking that Tucker Carlson or someone would put in their show, which is basically, "If there is no afterlife then we must have socialism." That is the logical structure of the argument. If no afterlife, then socialism.
So he develops this over the course of the book and I think develops it in a fairly persuasive way. Although it's certainly not definitive as no treatment of this topic ever is definitive, but he's a really distinct voice. You'll hear the way he thinks, his enthusiasm for the topic, the intensity with which he engages the most profound questions. It all kind of returned me to what I found so thrilling about philosophy when I first started studying it as an undergrad and what I think all of us who walk through the world as human subjects thinking occasionally in between scrolling through our phone and rushing home to make dinner, think about these questions. We're all confronted with them. And he's a really unique voice in this conversation.
I found that this book, and I hope this conversation for you, really changed my perspective. It really has created a framework in my head that even if I don't subscribe to it, I don't think like he is the final word, I find it really useful to think about and I've been telling friends about it and I hope that you will find it useful as well. I should note, he is a philosopher. I was a philosophy major as an undergrad. There is a fair amount of references to different thinkers in the philosophical cannon. I think we talk about Hegel, we talk about Marx, we talk about William James.
It's not necessary that you know the body of work of these individuals, the philosophical tradition. To the extent they're relevant, I usually explain what idea of theirs is relevant, so you don't at all feel, I hope, on the outside of a conversation when we do bring up various philosophers, it's not necessary to know them. It's not necessary to have any philosophical training whatsoever, any philosophical knowledge to follow the conversation. All that's necessary, I think, to find this conversation illuminating is just basic openness and curiosity to the most fundamental questions we as humans face. And so good luck with your commute while you listen to this.
So we'll just have a nice breezy hour long conversation about the meaning of life.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: And death, which looms over all of it as your book talks about.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Did you grew up with a religious tradition?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: I grew up in sort of Protestant Christianity. Both of my parents are from Northern Sweden, which is rural communities where that sort of community was very important. And I grew up in that. I mean, I was never existentially a believer, but I do think it gave me an appreciation for the social and the communal aspects of religious practice, to which I try to do justice in the book.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I think you mentioned this, but your parents were believers.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, yes. In fact, I mean I've had this conversation with them and one of the things my book is trying to do is provide resources like, "Well, what do you mean by belief in God? Is it secular in my sense or is it religious in my sense? So let’s approach it in a different way. What's actually important?
Chris Hayes: I mean one of the more controversial claims of the book, which we'll get into is that the people who... You're almost saying in the book that people who believe in God don't actually believe in God.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, yes, yes.
CHRIS HAYES: They think they believe in God, but actually the way they make meaning out of their lives and the way they conduct themselves shows as a kind of almost revealed preference that they actually think that there's nothing beyond us.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. And this is why I was-
CHRIS HAYES: Which is an extremely controversial claim.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes. It's not unprecedented. And I'll try to explain why I think it's important. So, this is for me also why Hegel's philosophy of religion is very important because what he was interested in was that in the actual practice of, say, religious congregations, what's important in them is that you come together, you recognize one another, dignity, you hold each other accountable, you recognize together what's important and you build social structures. And in that practice, the actual object of devotion is our life together, in all its fragility and interdependence. And Hegel felt like, "Well that's great."
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: But then the religious understanding of that practice tends to be what, "Yeah, but that's just a means towards serving God or earning salvation." And it's that part that we can let go of so as to fully recognize that what really matters are the social practices we build and how we sustain our life together.
CHRIS HAYES: The idea I think that has stuck with me most... as I'm speaking to you today, tonight I'm going to go sit Shiva for a very dear friend's father. I was just at a funeral for him on Sunday. He died fairly suddenly. And my friend has been a friend of mine for 28 years and is part of the closest group of friends I have.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: So this is all very front of mind, but you start with the idea, basically, that heaven, the notion of an afterlife, can't but be unfree.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That a world, a universe, and a form of existence, unbounded by the finitude of time, as heaven would be, means that in some deep sense, you're not free.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: What is... How? Why?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes. Well-
CHRIS HAYES: Did I get that right?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. You got it absolutely right. Because fundamentally to be free in the most, is that there is a question of what you ought to do and that you can be at stake in what you do. And to be able to ask yourself that question, what matters, what is important, what should I prioritize, what are my commitments? For anything to be at stake in that it has to be possible that both in relation to all the specific things, that they can be lost, that they have to be sustained, that they're finite in that sense. But also that I apprehend that I don't have all the time in the world to do everything and that's precisely why I can express in practice that I prioritize you.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Part of what's so moving when someone commits to you for life is precisely that you know that this person doesn't have eternity to lead their lives and they're making you a priority. You can only do that if you understand that you have limited time.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean time is finite. All decisions about how to use your time are fundamentally then zero sum because you can't allocate those seconds somewhere else. Because of that, that imbues the choices with meaning. The choices themselves are an expression of what it means in your mind to be free. And so an existence in heaven in which, by definition, you're not making those choices, is unfree.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes. And you can't even understand yourself really as an agent because if you don't have any sense of urgency, that anything needs to be done, that precedes all the specific decisions you're making. So it's not just that you can't be free, you actually can't lead a life at all because there's nothing that binds that life.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay. So the religious response to this I think would be, and I think probably William James would, who you cited, would probably make this case and others, many, many others, is, well that's just a limitation of the sort of human perception, right? All you're used to is being embedded in the finitude of time. And in the same way that we can't, there are certain parts of the visual spectrum that we can't see that we know are there, we also know that time in its sort of inherent structural sense isn't linear as the way we experience it, as Einstein first showed. That you're just reducing all this to what we happen to perceive in these little clunky things we have and that there's some perceptual level of the existence of heaven that you just can't actually articulate or apply the rules of sort of finitude and choice too.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Right. It's a good question. I appreciate the challenge. So the first thing to say is that this is also in the context of I'm trying to give a different account or why we even dream of an afterlife in the first place. Dream of living on. And it has to do with that we are committed to our lives and we don't want to lose our loved ones and so on. And if that's the reason why you even think about something like eternity, then even if there was such a thing like you mentioned, it wouldn't actually give you what you want because it wouldn't allow your life to continue or your left with a beloved to continue. And that's what I think I was trying to show, even with these religious writers when they're mourning, the problem there is not primarily that they don't believe in eternity, but they realize that like actually in an eternal life, I wouldn't get my beloved back because our life would be over. We would be something that we can't even recognize, and what we want is this life.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. That's exactly right. And that struck me. That as a sort of descriptive, almost anthropological point really hit me, which is that what we want is for this life to continue forever, but the very things that create meaning in this life are dependent on this life's finitude.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, exactly. That's right. That's why I make it a very important conceptual distinction in the book between two things we often conflate, the desire to live on and the desire to be eternal. And we often think that we are sort of on a continuum, but what I want to show is that like, no-
CHRIS HAYES: What we just want is we want another extra 10 years at every point.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, and it's also the egotistical either because it's like when we don't want our beloveds to die or we don't want the earth to go under as is in prospect. It's precisely because we want to sustain a form of life that is fragile and it's the pathos of that that I want to capture in the book. What does it mean that everything that matters matters because we grasp in practice it's a fragile form of life that we have to sustain?
CHRIS HAYES: You sort of make another point, which is that we all get that at some point.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes. In practice we do. We do. Because whatever we devote ourselves to, like the Chris Hayes show, it's-
CHRIS HAYES: I think of it as my own personal heaven.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah. I'm sure you do. I'm glad you're letting others in. But in practice, sustaining that, the creation of doesn't exist independently of you doing the show, people listening, people participating in this practice. And when you're devoted to something like that, you both grasp, you believe that it's important in itself. It's an end in itself. But you also grasp in practice that it's fragile. It will fall apart if you don't sustain it. So that's why we get that to even care about something, we understand in practice that actually it's finite.
CHRIS HAYES: But let's say you don't believe in an afterlife, right? You believe that life is finite. When we die, we die. It's gone. We're gone. That happens to be my belief. Although it's a belief I wish I didn't have. I'd be much happier having another belief. But you know, I got what I got.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Well, part of what the book wants to show you is that you don't have to regret-
CHRIS HAYES: No, in fact, I found a degree of spiritual comfort in sitting with this idea. Because this question of — and again we're like now at the deepest part of human existence — what's the meaning of our lives? What does it mean? Why is it meaningful? Which also is a question of why is it meaningful if a person dies or doesn't die? Why is it meaningful if we stop a drought or not? I mean it enlarges from the sort of single subjective, narcissistic question about my life to what we owe other humans and why it matters for us to stop a famine.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: Your basic argument is the fragility itself is constituent of the meaning.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. That doesn't mean that's the only thing that makes it meaningful, but it's just that the fragility is an intrinsic part of it. And part of the reason I mobilized that argument is that there's a very, even among people who don't believe, who don't have religious beliefs, there's a very widespread tendency to think that like, "Well, okay, we're stuck with this finite life, but it's sort of a lack... It's in itself means that we will never have the highest good because that would be to have something eternal." And part of what I want to show is that actually like, "No, the highest good is our life together." And-
CHRIS HAYES: This is a good as it gets and as important as it gets.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. And it's not that of course pain and death and suffering are good in themselves, but if you remove the risk of that, if you remove the risk of death, you remove life. If you remove the pain, you would remove joy. These things go together and we need to start from really... It would be more true to the conflicts we are already living to see that like, "Well we know this and stuff on a mental level, but we don't have the vocabulary to really make it explicit."
CHRIS HAYES: So I had a moment having sort of been somewhat immersed in the book where I was sitting with my... I've had a few moments where I was playing with my 20-month-old. And this insight really hit me as I was playing with her. She's my third kid, so I'm very aware of the developmental trajectory. I know how fleeting it is, these little moments of language discovery, they're so brief.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And there's a moment where they're exploring linguistically and in the grand scheme of our collective lives, it's like five or six weeks. I had this moment of almost sort of a spiritual insight that like, "This is it." Both my experience of this profound joy in this moment of being with her and also knowing that it's going by quickly combined are like what is the happiest I could be?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: That's very sad.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: It's very sad. But it's also very like... Imagine, only a mortal being could be responsive-
CHRIS HAYES: That's correct.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: To the preciousness of something like that. So, without the sense of precarity, you couldn't be responsive to something being precious, something being unique.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. That's what you're saying is that mortality is a gift, it's the constitutive gift.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. But that doesn't mean that... It can also shatter you. You know, I want to do justice to that.
CHRIS HAYES: Of course.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: It's a condition for things being meaningful, but it's also a condition for things being overwhelming and unbearable. But instead of thinking that we should just be released from that, we should acknowledge that vulnerability and learn to cultivate in our life together better ways of taking care of one another.
CHRIS HAYES: And this is what you call secular faith?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: So what is the difference? What's the sphere of the secular as opposed to the spiritual to you?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Very, very importantly. So, the distinction between the secular and the religious, because spiritual for me is actually secular, but very important to say that I'm using the word secular in the most capacious sense that you can imagine. You know? So the Latin word for second means the historical, the temporal, the worldly. So that sounds like everything is secular in a certain sense because it depends on us. It's something we sustain, whether it's the institution we maintain, the show we're making, the community we're building, the love relationships we have. All of these things are practice of secular faith, because the object of faith depends on the practice. It doesn't exist without the practice. And that's true of religious practices too.
But what I'm calling religious faith is the idea that there is an ultimate object of faith that doesn't depend on the practice, that exists independently, eternally. And that would be the highest good. Whether you call that God, or eternity, nirvana. And that's the idea.
CHRIS HAYES: And that's detached and above in both value and meaning from the mundane thing like I make my show every day.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: And secular faith has this movement that both it commits and grasps the fragility and that's part of what animates it.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, what you're saying there is that what we do on this world matters.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, absolutely. That is absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, I think that there are, I mean at the most extreme ends of certain religious traditions, right? Which have like complete self-abnegation. You know, monasteries and things, that people really think that, not just that like there's a higher being and a higher purpose in this world, but actually that this world is kind of like fallen and something to be kind of removed from. There are certain religious traditions where the extreme practitioners believe that, but most of us walk around all day trying to love the people we love and be loved by them and sustain our projects.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: And the idea of secular faith, it's just that that's not second best. Doing those things. That anything that can matter will have that form of a practical activity that we have to sustain together and that can fall apart.
CHRIS HAYES: But is there a practice above that? I mean, are you just saying that secular faith is just the things we all do and that you're just giving it a label or is there something... The thing about faith, right? The thing about religious faith and the thing that you mentioned before about what Hegel's insight is on this, and it's true, William James as well. The disciplined routinization of practice actually is part of it. Is there something, is there a secular adjunct to that?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. And well, the first thing to say is that even those aspects of religious faith I think, are better understood in secular terms. What's really religious is the idea that the ultimate goal is to reach a state that releases you from those practices.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. You're not going to go to church in heaven.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. That's a very good point, and that's the idea we should let go of, so as to recognize that the highest good is our life together, and not something above and beyond it. I think there are resources to unearth that insight within the religious traditions and religious thinkers too, and that's part of what I'm trying to do.
CHRIS HAYES: You talk about the idea of secular faith, but you also talk about a concept called spiritual freedom, and I want to get into that after this break.
So you talk about spiritual freedom.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, yes.
CHRIS HAYES: What is spiritual freedom?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Most fundamentally, unlike other animals, we're not just doing things. We can ask ourselves what is worth doing. We can ask the question what we ought to do and what is worth doing, what is valuable, and we are built to ask that question of-
CHRIS HAYES: What should I do with my time?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, what should I do with my time? What is worth prioritizing? That's something that characterizes us as the kind of beings that we are, but it's also a capacity that we can develop more or less effectively, historically and socially, and I'm interested in that.
CHRIS HAYES: Say more about that.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Well-
CHRIS HAYES You're saying that the fact that we can pose that question ourselves means that we can give different answers to it and act accordingly.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, both that and also that as we have historically come to grasp more fully that we are free beings who are answerable for our practices and justify what we're doing, that's also owning more and more of our spiritual freedom, that whatever you do, you're taking a stance on that question in practice, what is worth doing.
CHRIS HAYES: The fundamental thing here, right, is that if we accept finitude as not only the reality but the highest reality there is. There's not something above it, that finitude produces meaning is the constituent element for meaning to be made.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Because it requires choices about what we do with our time that in your view, what you call spiritual freedom, is a reflectiveness in us as both individuals in a society about what we're doing.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes. But it doesn't just arise, importantly, when you take a step back and reflect. It's just like, in practice, you're also responsive to that question. Am I wasting my time? What am I doing? We shouldn't see that hovering anxiety as something that's like, "Oh, I wish I could just bliss out." That's part of what it means to be a free being, that you're actually fundamentally, at the risk of failing, like, "s--t, I wasted five years of my life." That's constituent freedom. You have to run that risk. Otherwise, nothing can be at stake.
CHRIS HAYES: So in the first 20 minutes here, we've redefined ... So mourning and dread about the end of existence is constituent freedom. The anxiety that you're spending your time wrong is constituent freedom. All of the things that hang over us as mortal beings that make us crazy or neurotic or fearful or anxious or depressed ... All of the stuff that, again, in the religious tradition, it's like this very beautiful and elevated playing for existence that doesn't have these things. That's the whole point is to be liberated from it, Jesus dies on the cross.
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MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: He sacrifices himself up in the tradition that I come from so that we will be saved from all that.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, although I have a different-
CHRIS HAYES: And you're saying, what you're saying is all of this stuff and mortality, that's it, baby. That's what you've got and that's elevated and that's actually sublime in its own kind of way, because it creates the conditions of flourishing and freedom that we have as mortals.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely, absolutely. This is true of other living beings too. Part of what animates them is that they have to keep themselves alive. It's just that we can take that to a higher level, where we can engage those questions of why we're doing it and what we're doing it for.
CHRIS HAYES: Although the other thing is, when we talk about animals and us, the next foot is, we live our lives as animals a lot. That is, I think, one of the things that I think either mindfulness traditions, which I think sit in between the religious and secular in some ways-
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: ... and outright religious traditions ... Part of them are forcing mechanisms to get us to not be so stimulus response, not to just go through life the way that an animal does, in which the animal is seeking whatever food and nourishment, and we're seeking food, nourishment, and the other things that will fill the hole in our hearts or whatever. Whatever neuroses we have.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah. Great question. Let me just back up for one moment there, because it's very important that when I'm talking about us, I'm talking about spiritual freedom, that's not being an animal. It's just a distinctive way of being an animal, and we're a unique kind of animal. The big difference is that ... Say I'm a lion, I'm on the savanna. I can experience all sorts of threats, experience things like, oh, that's ... I should hunt the antelope, I should avoid this. I can break my leg, that's a tragedy. But what's not an issue for me is what it means to be a lion. I don't wake up one day and, like, "Dude, why am I doing all these lion things? This is bulls--t. I should do something different with my life." That's why the lion is not spiritual freedomized.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: We're spiritually free because in addition to all the specific problems in our environment, we are also engaged continually in the question, who do I ought to be, what do I ought to do, what is worth doing? That actually suffuses everything, so I don't think we ever are just animals in that sense. I think that spiritual question of who we are and what we should do is at work in everything.
CHRIS HAYES: But it's also very sublimated, often.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: In terms of the front of mind concerns.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely, absolutely. That's also why we are also unique, we are animals, it's in our nature to be socially formed. So the degree to which we can own this question depends on how we are formed by our society, and there's certainly a lot of it that makes us fall away from our capacity to engage these questions.
CHRIS HAYES: What is your personal relationship to the way that you think about your own death with response to this philosophical belief? Does it make it easier for you to imagine that?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: The first thing I should say, for me, there should be no boundary between the personal and the philosophical, as it were. I take it that everything I write philosophically, I want to be completely answerable for in my personal life.
CHRIS HAYES: That's why I asked you.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It's not that it, I think, diminishes my pain at the loss of people I love or diminishes my anxiety. But it allows me to see, have a different perspective on it, and grasp what is true about it and what is important about it and what ... and thereby, I also have a better capacity to distinguish between what are neurotic, obsessive ways of thinking about it, and what are genuine ways of owning that anxiety and that pain. Everything we care about, we care about how it lives on.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Why do we care about what? That's the question, right?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Why do we care about it, that it lives on?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: It's very important, because that testifies, I think, to the way we're essentially social beings, that what matters to us ... It's easy for us to describe ourselves as, we are just these egoistic atoms who go around. But I don't think that's true. I think that everything that makes our lives meaningful already points beyond our lives, even our lifetime. So many of our projects only make sense because they can be significant beyond our death and so on, so I think that's already built in. So that's why it's also natural to be concerned about or have that-
CHRIS HAYES: Right, that we're pulling the future backwards into the present at all times, right?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, yes.
CHRIS HAYES: In the way that we think about our goals and projects and we think about our grandchildren. We think about the ... whatever we're going to do, the institutions we might build, the relationships.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely, absolutely. If you remove that, I think it would just completely alter the value structure you have.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. That's the fear. That's the fear of religious thinkers, the Dostoevsky line which is often translated as, "If God is dead, all is permitted," is the idea that without some eternal that you're reaching toward, you end up in essentially a kind of ethical nihilistic black hole.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. That's one of the things I'm explicitly trying to turn around.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, you're arguing against that.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, I'm trying to turn around that in the book, I take that very seriously. It's sort of the other way around. The reason why not everything, why things can actually be impermissible or unacceptable is precisely because there are irreversible consequences to what we do, and that they can't be redeemed in that religious sense. Just as how I treat you ethically can only matter because I grasp that you're fragile and finite, and at the very core, the fragile soul that is Chris Hayes is something that can be damaged. That's why I owe you respect. That's why I can take that there's a dignity here that has to be paid its responses. All of those things, I think, are actually animated by a sense of finitude rather than a sense of ...
CHRIS HAYES: So, one of the turns that happens here is that when you talk about spiritual freedom, you talk about Marx.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: This is a fascinating part of the book. By the way, the entirety of the argument is literally a Fox News nightmare, because it's basically ... It's essentially an if-then argument, where 'P' is atheism and 'Q' is socialism.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Basically, if there is no god, then we're essentially collectively committed to socialism, is essentially the form of the argument, right?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah. To fully come into our own as spiritually free would be to have that form, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. So what is Marx doing in a discussion of spiritual freedom?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah. Well, several things. I think that if we define spiritual freedom as this, our ability to own the question of what to do with our time, what is worth doing, I see that question as animating Marx's entire thought and his critique of capitalism. He thinks that capitalism, on the one hand, made it possible for us to see that question in a new way, but it doesn't allow us to individually and collectively really own that question and devote our lives to what we take to be intrinsically valuable and meaningful.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. The response I kept having when you were talking about, well, we can decide what we want to do with our time ... It's like, well, we can't really decide what we want to do with our time. We have these essential obligations that are put on us by the structure of society, by the way our economy functions, which is like ... you've got to go to work to make money and put food on the table and all that stuff.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Those are, at some level, I guess ... How do you see that in the context of this idea of spiritual freedom and choice?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Very importantly, when I say that we can ask ourselves the question, this does not mean that we can ... Freedom here is not like, I can do whatever without any constraints at all. Freedom here is being able to identify with what I do and recognize myself as obligated to doing it. So freedom or free time is not necessarily sitting back and doing nothing. It's doing something that you are committed to as an end in itself, and that binds you to others, that is dependent also on material and social conditions. So again, we do this twist, that it's not a restriction on freedom that you're dependent on others and it's not fully free. That's what allows it to be something.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. But there's also a deep sense of unfreedom, both in Marx's critique and the lived reality of people's lives.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: We think, well, I have to hold this job which I hate, and every day I go by and I spend eight hours there feeling like my soul is withering and my life is ... I'm not describing myself, just for the record.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, some days. But that is the condition. And let's just be clear, not just under capitalism. Under many forms of instantiated socialism-
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: Under pre-capitalist modes of production ... Of course, Marx recognizes-
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: The real freest part in human history which people don't realize, but it's amazing, is before the agricultural revolution.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Maybe.
CHRIS HAYES: Here's why, because what we now know about those people ... Right, so there's several hundred thousand years in which before civilization, the agricultural revolution happens, in which we're roaming around. All the evidence suggests that that was actually a much more efficient way to get food. People had longer lifespans. They didn't have to do a lot of work every day. Hunting and gathering is actually way better than subsistence farming. That was the maximum ... On some levels, that mode of production and living, which eventually went away for a bunch of complicated reasons, was actually the freest.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah. So, an interesting perspective, because I just want to be clear here that even though it's important to see that there were other ways of producing and sustaining ourselves, it's still the case that capitalism is a form of progress that hasn't completed itself, because one of the things that it reveals and that you don't have in that society is that you're still defined by your social roles in a certain way. You're a hunter, you're a gatherer.
CHRIS HAYES: That's true, yes.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Which is a restriction on owning this question of what you're committed to, what you ought to do-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: ... and it's that promise of-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, you can't move to the city to be a DJ if you're a hunter or gatherer, so there are certain forms of freedom of expression that are cut off from you in that society.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: And that hasn't even come into view as a question.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, right.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Because it's only-
CHRIS HAYES: So that limit ... You think that capitalism creates the horizons for this incredible vista of spiritual freedom, of things we could do.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes. But for reasons I explain in the book-
CHRIS HAYES: And takes it back away from us.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: If it can't fulfill it, then it contradicts those ideals themselves. Even though there's a very deep critique in my book of the very form of wage labor and so on, it's also like, once you think about what that means historically, because it means that we have a separation for the first time between ... First of all, you recognize as owning your lifetime, and that there's a distinction between the social role you're fulfilling and what you can do in your free time.
CHRIS HAYES: Even the notion of a wage, embedded in the hourly wage, is literally a value that's placed on time.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Exactly. This is a very detailed argument in the book, that recognition of our time as valuable is also then contradicted under capitalism because what we value is that as a way of making a profit, rather than us freeing up more time to lead our lives. That's an important aspect of the book. What that should lead to is that, for example, when technological developments allow us to free up more time to do the things that are meaningful and valuable, that doesn't generate any value under capitalism, because it doesn't produce any profit or any commodities and so on.
CHRIS HAYES: There's the Keynes book that he writes about the future, right, "The Economic Consequences to Our Grandchildren," I think it's called. There's a period of time in which in the 1920s or so, where there's this idea where everyone's going to have so much free time in the future because mechanization and efficiency will mean that all the material needs will be taken care of after three hours of work, and then we'll all knock off and go do stuff. It didn't quite work out that way.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: No, and what I'm trying to show is that's not accidental.
CHRIS HAYES: It can't work that way.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Under capitalism, it can't work out that way, and that's part of my critique of Keynes.
CHRIS HAYES: Why not? Why not?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Well, because it has to do with how we generate wealth in the first place under capitalism. How we measure social wealth is not in terms of how fast we can actually produce things or how much time we can actually have. We measure it in terms of private corporations making profits that we then tax and redistribute as wealth. The more time that is devoted to not producing commodities that are profitable for an individual corporation, all of that time is literally worthless under capitalism.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, it's off the books.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes. But if we had a different measure of social wealth, we would actually be wealthier in an existential sense, where we have more time to lead our lives, and when we actually produce the goods that we need.
CHRIS HAYES: I think about this in a very concrete sense of just vacation time in America. We don't have guaranteed vacation in America. I think it's the only OECD company that has no, zero, legal requirement of vacation. True also of maternity leave, that ... I think particularly as you get to middle age, which I'm, I guess, I don't know. My wife hates it when I say middle age, because I always say it almost as this weird ... It's half tongue in cheek and half like — I'm 40.
But your appreciation of time, particularly time off, gets way, way, way more acute, because it's like ... Particularly because the time pace of a child's life is so fast, and their developments are so fast, and you can feel it rushing ahead of you. Every parent you talk to, they always say, and God bless them, because I say it too, it's like, "Goes so fast, goes so fast, goes so fast." It's like, I know. I know. I know. Okay? I am very aware of how fast it's going, and because it's going so fast, it's like, I just want to spend a lot of time with them. You only get this once, and weekends, vacations, that's what you get.
I get home at 10:00 every night, so I miss my kids every night, five nights a week they're in bed. I get to see them in the morning. I even think about this. I get to see them for an hour. They get up and then they're off to school in an hour. So I get an hour every day, and I'm going to get an hour every day five days a week for ... Right now, some of the heart of their childhood. That's just not recoverable. The system we have does not ... I don't know, what am I saying? We should all have more vacation, I guess, is my profound insight at the end of this whole thing.
Here's what I want to say. Vacation sounds trivial. It sounds like leisure. It sounds like a thing, like ... Oh, you get this much. It's like, that's it. That's the stuff, actually.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah. Several important things in this. I think that this stark opposition we have in our form of life, between work time and vacation time or free time, that itself is an alienated relation to what we do, because free time in my sense can be like, you're working really hard, but for something that you recognize the importance and worth of. But the important thing should be, the way we measure social wealth has to do with producing not for the sake of profit, but for the sake of time for people to devote themselves to what they recognize as truly important. That, I think, is both working for the common good, but also taking care of your children or all these things.
CHRIS HAYES: There's a famous Marx quote about this, right? What does he say about ... "under communism, you can be a fisher by day and a critic at night," and I think I mentioned this once before to Astra Taylor when I had her on the podcast, but it's always stuck with me. He's got this idea that you go about your day and you do these different things that you-
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Very importantly, those are not hobbies. Those are things that are pursued with dedication and commitment. You could be, in one sense, working as much as we're doing now. But it's qualitatively different because you can recognize that I'm doing this, not because otherwise I'm not going to have a wage, I'm going to die, but because I take this to be important for reasons I can specify, which include both the common good and my own life.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. But the argument the capitalist would make is that the profit and wage system produce incentives to structure our behavior in such a way that it actually produces a tremendous amount of surplus and social bounty.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: And that in the absence of that, people wouldn't be doing the things that like made things like say washing machines, which took the time it took to wash clothes from two and a half hours down to 10 minutes of loading the machine. Which was an incredible material gain and also fundamental existential gain.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: For particularly the women who had been tasked with the insane drudgery of washing things. Right? Like that is the argument that the incentive structure that you're critiquing, is the incentive structure that produces the kinds of innovations that actually yield all of these amazing things that save us time that, you know?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, and very important. So here's the thing. One thing we have learned from the capitalist motor production is besides that we're capable of that sort of say technological innovation. But then the point is, what we should learn in turn from that lesson is that at the end of the day, if our technologies have developed, if I'm saying capitalist developing new technology, I'm not developing it for what's the most time saving way for everyone?
No, I'm developing it to make a profit and that will already distort how I developed those technologies and not optimize them in the way they could be.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, but it's that incentive structure that produced the innovation.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Well that's part of what the book is contesting. And this is a long argument in the book, but that's to say that like the originary incentive to create technologies in the first place.
CHRIS HAYES: The washing machine.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Well, for example, but already like primitive technology is much earlier. The only way that makes sense, the only way that's intelligible is because you're committed to having more time to lead your life. What I'm calling socially available free time, you know because we would have never invented any technologies in the first place unless we said like, this is a cost for us, so that's the originary incentive, that is both recognized and distorted under capitalism.
CHRIS HAYES: Right? So the hunter gatherer, right? It's like obviously there's no, there's no profit and there's no wages and yet they still figure out a way to make an arrowhead. And the reason they do is because that's a more efficient way of-
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Doing something that is not just a mirrored means to an end, but something that's intrinsically meaningful. And that's very interesting about, this is another aspect of our spiritual freedom. It's not just that unlike animals, we can ask ourselves what is worth doing?
We can actually free up more time. We can ask ourselves the qualitative the question what is worth doing? But then quantitatively we can increase how much time we have for technologies and so on. And that's the only understandable because we're committed to what I'm calling free time.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. So your argument is that the innovations of technology that happened before capitalism are evidence of the fact that we have this drive to do that almost out of that same place of kind of a quest for spiritual freedom?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, absolutely. But the way that comes into its own historically and socially it depends on all sorts of factors, and there are things we've learned about ourselves and how you should not do things via capitalism. And then like I tried to specify the principles are a form of life that will actually be able to own up to that commitment.
CHRIS HAYES: All right? So if we take seriously the finitude of this life as constituent of the meaning and then we have our spiritual freedom is our ability to reflect on our choices of how to spend that finite time. And we are maximally spiritually free to the extent that we have maximal freedom in making those choices, right?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: And also in suffice as we participate in institutions that we can recognize as devoted to the principles to which we ourselves are committed, not to profit, but to say the common good.
CHRIS HAYES: Because of the common good. Okay. So then what are the principles then for what that society that collectively took this seriously would look like?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Well, first of all, I'm not of course blueprinting this, but I'm trying to specify the principles that would be in place. And the first would be that our positive measure of value would actually not be how much labor time we have to spend, but it would be like how much social, what I'm calling social available free time, we have so that we would be dedicated to both creating institutions that allow people to educate themselves in such a way that they can take responsibility for that question.
And we also build technologies that would like reduce the time for those activities that we all recognize as necessary, but no one wants to do for their own sake. But then the material condition for having such a measure of value is that actually like the means of production are not used for profit because as long as they are, you are not going to produce in view of that common social good.
You're going to produce to generate a profit. And that's why it doesn't mean that there has to be a mega state that owns everything it just means that you can't produce for profit and you're also not working for a wage because that distorts our free relation to the activity. I should be doing things because I see why they need to be done and why they're important to do.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: This is a radical social transformation-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, yes, I mean deeply radical.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Deeply radical, but I think for me the important thing with the book is both to explain what the contradictions are in the form of life that we're living under and where we are committed to going if we're committed to freedom, and then holding open the painful questions that open.
CHRIS HAYES: One critique of academics often on this is that like, well academics are sort of a little bit insulated from the profit sector and they get to think and write all day, so they want everyone to do that.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Well, I see it a bit different, I say precisely because I happen to be fortunate that I get to think about these things. Then part of my responsibility is to reflect on what are the conditions that prevent everyone from having this sort of freedom. I don't see that as an installation at all, but to actually think through these fundamental questions and that's not sufficient. I'm painfully aware, but I think it's necessary to have those resources and to think about what we're going to do going forward.
CHRIS HAYES: What do religious people say to you when they read the book?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: It varies a lot actually. I've gotten a lot of response. I've been really happy that I've got a lot of response to the book, both from sort of professional philosophers and academics, but also from a lot of general readers. And it really varies, I think for some religious people it's hard to... They get very provoked initially. So it can be hard to see the argument but I've been heartened to see how many of them actually like, "Oh, it's so nice to see someone engaging with religion who is arguing against but who's taking it seriously and wants to give an account to the same kind of practices and values and so on."
So that's actually been... And that's part of what I'm saying in the book too, you know, it's an invitation. It's both addressed to secular people to see why you don't have to feel that you have second best because you don't have religious faith. And then through this people like, "Well here's a different way of thinking about what you already think to be valuable and why your life matters," that actually doesn't require this transcendent God to ground it.
CHRIS HAYES: You know? I mean there's this sort of, part of it has to do with the just profound fact about humans, which I sort of, I think we've only recently come to wrestle with, which is that we're born into this world completely helpless in a just definitional sense actually can't do anything on our own.
Like you can't start human life at T zero and get anywhere without other humans. In rare cases like wolves or like monkeys can actually play that role, or dogs. But like someone's got to raise you. And that's not true of other animals in the sense that like other animals are born, they can walk; there's a lot more they can do.
But we are from the second that we emerge fundamentally dependent creatures.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes, this is so important and this is why when I'm talking about a spiritual freedom, it's not supernatural at all. It's intimately bound to do specific way in which we are natural beings. You know? It's in our nature to be socially formed and that part has to do with that unlike other animals that we know of, we don't know what we're supposed to do, or who we're supposed to be.
We have to create tools and all sorts of stuff to even get around. You know? Again, this is another thing that can look like s--t, I wish we were just hardwired like other animals, but that we're not. Is also what allows us to actually develop mentally to be able to own this question of spiritual freedom.
CHRIS HAYES: I'm wondering how this work and working on this and thinking about this has changed your life, your habits, your practices?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, I mean in several ways. So like on the one hand, and this I guess answers to both the individual and the social aspects of the book, on one level, the way in which these questions of commitment and fragility are at stake in my own life, I think I'm attuned to that differently. I'm now able to own those conflicts and issues in a different way.
But then on the social level, I have to say when I was really working hard on the second half of the book and you really thinking with Marx and you get a very clear sense of the contradictions and forms of exploitation and commodification that makes possible every aspect of my life, it's extremely painful to be very cognizant of that and think through what it would have required to transform that.
So writing the second book, I think, changed my understanding very deeply of the world I live in, in very painful ways, but it also felt important to own up to and make explicit that pain.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, because so much of your freedom is dependent on other people's un-freedom.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean the iPhone that we uphold, that like, oh, this is great. This allows me to like more efficiently make plans and it's like, well someone was in the factory in Shenzhen making this is 14 hours a day.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, just as the welfare state that I grew up in was only possible because for us Europe had been bombed out so we can make a profit of that and our corporations could make profit on that low wages in other parts of the world, that then became our wealth and to see the ways in which like under capitalism and social wealth even when it's distributed in a way it's produced by those relations is a very tough thing to counter on.
But if you can understand anything about the world we live in, one has to take all of that into account and I'm trying to explain those arguments and more, both very rigorously and accessible in a book.
CHRIS HAYES: You just mentioned, the sort of social democratic model of your native Sweden and Scandinavia, which is often invoked in American political debates about possible models of American social democracy, which you're saying are actually built a top of a hill of misery. So-
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, that's often dismissive.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: It's often dismissive, just as I don't dismiss reform, but I don't think we should conflate it. We both have to understand why, and this took me a long time to understand because I grew up in the last heyday of that form of life. But you know, if you're going to advocate not just as a relatively better, but actually as a model, viable model, it has to be globally generalizable.
And we know that if everyone had been welfare states, then we couldn't have generated the wealth that supported our welfare state-
CHRIS HAYES: Right. That's part of the problem.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yeah, that's a very important part of the problem. And that then really brings home, so Hegel has things that's like no one is free until everyone is free. And that's the most revolutionary idea there ever was. And Mark's really explains to us like, well, what that obligates us to. It was the sort of transformation on a global scale. It would require to actually own up to that idea, which many of us would pledge ourselves to do. But what it demands of us in practice is very radical. And that's part of what I'm trying to explain.
CHRIS HAYES: There's always these studies about how Scandinavians are happier, Swedes are happier. You're laughing. But it's true that it's like, I feel like-
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: I'm smiling. Yeah. Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Do you think that's true?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: I think that in relative terms for a long time in Scandinavia we had societies that were less deformed by capitalism, and that were also very secular. So, I think that that is a general level of wellbeing in relative terms, greater than other parts of the world. But it has to see that that has very specific conditions. And if someone was to think responsibly about this on a global level, one has to then have an account of something that would make such wellbeing both be more profound and also more globally distributed.
CHRIS HAYES: I guess the last question here is, the last sort of objection, or the thing that I thought about, is like if I am, because of the forms of material production we have, required to spend a lot of my time doing things I would not choose to do out of obligation, then I think for a lot of people, like the realm of God and the realm of the eternal is like a thing that that demand can't get to.
And the place that I think we see this most profoundly is in the incredible spiritual tradition of American slaves, right? So the ultimate example of a complete lack of material freedom, like literally properly in the eyes of the state and enforced through violence and terrorism, that that spirit tradition was all about basically building a wall around some part of yourself that was connecting to something other than what the earth and its institutions had brought down upon your shoulders.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Isn't that something we shouldn't take away or even think about taking away?
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: This is such an important point and such an important question. It allows me to clarify something that's very important to the book and why the Marx part is also so important to the book because if the critique here of religious ideas of salvation was not accompanied by the demands of transform my social conditions, transform the sorts of injustices to which religions respond, it would be really empty and patronizing.
The important point for me though is precisely to see that if people dream of beyond in that way and raise those sorts of walls, it doesn't have to do with that some intrinsic drive to eternity or heaven. It has to do with the supreme un-be arability of material and social conditions, you know? And those are the ones we should be committed to transforming and I'm not going around saying like, "Oh, we should just go out now and rob people of their lives."
We should transform our life together, but also have an account of why this life could be the highest good. And that's why the reason that people in slavery need faith in God, that's not a reason to promote faith in God. It's also the reason to take it away, but it's a reason to abolish slavery-
CHRIS HAYES: Certainly a reason.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Right, right, right, right. And that's-
CHRIS HAYES: And the profound unfreedom.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Your point is that from the ethical point of view that you're prescribing in the book, the profound unfreedom and evil of slavery is all the more readily apparent and the requirement ethically to abolish it and get rid of it, is all the more apparent.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Absolutely. And I understand why out of that sort of despair, that sense of a wall or that there is something else that this can't touch, I understand and I deeply empathize with where that is coming from, but that is for me, a reason to abolish slavery, not to think that we will always have to believe in God.
CHRIS HAYES: Martin Hägglund is a professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale. The book, which you really should check out, it's as you can tell, profound. We really covered a lot today. It's called “This Life Secular Faith And Spiritual Freedom.” Martin, thank you.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND: Thank you so much. This was amazing.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Martin Hägglund. The name of the book is “This Life Secular Faith And Spiritual Freedom.” He's a professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale. If you like the conversation, the book has a lot. It develops the arguments at much greater length and depth, and I would suggest you pick it up.
Update on our live WITHpod Tour, we have posted a new set of standing room only tickets for the Chicago show, which is on November 12th. It's going to feature me, and Nicole Hannah-Jones, the award-winning journalist magazine writer in the New York Times Magazine and mastermind behind the incredible "1619 project" and Ibram X Kendi, academic and author most recently of "How to be an Anti-racist." We'll be talking about legacy of slavery, structural racism and anti racism in the 21st century. It's going to be a great conversation. It's at House Of Blues, Chicago.
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