The truth shall set us free

Modern culture has left us ever more isolated and lonely but promises absolute liberty to pursue our desires. But to feel truly free we must rediscover a spirit of collective truth. Only then can liberty be a meaningful concept.

Isabelle Huppert, Madame Bovary 1991. Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo
Isabelle Huppert, Madame Bovary 1991. Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

What do you really want? This question calls for a level of disclosure with which few are comfortable, because it opens a field of possibilities one might fear to face. To ask oneself ‘what do I really want?’ is to ask ‘What would I do if all the limitations to my liberties were suddenly removed?’. In the series Lucifer, hosted by Netflix, the eponymous character — the devil roaming free on earth — gains control over his victims by reading into their souls to discover their most secret desires. This excursion into the realm of possibilities seems exhilarating until it becomes scary. We have the impression that facing our desires is like looking at an unforgiving mirror, and that our desires reveal something about our deep true self.

Most of the self-help books you would find on the shelves — especially the ones targeting a female audience — put forward the idea that following one’s desires is the way to happiness and that the liberty to follow any desire to reach your deep true self is the supreme good. In 2022, Amanda Trenfield wrote a memoir about how she left her husband and children after 12 years of marriage when she met her soulmate. And as the title of the book is When a soulmate says no, Trenfield unapologetically explains that this experience was worth the grief and pain it caused because she had been genuinely following her desires all along. Trenfield writes that her private consulting practice (as a life coach) allows her to express her two passions: ‘guiding women to embrace their true self, and businesses to embrace the uniqueness of their employees.’ Fashionable as it seems, there is nothing obvious about the idea that the freedom to be true to yourself is a sine qua non to your liberty.

Our desires are not our own, we don’t have a deep true self, and it is not the freedom to follow our desires that makes us free, but the commitment to truth that grants us authentic liberty.

The French Revolution coined liberty as the key to individual happiness. Since the seventeenth century, libertines defended the freedom of thought and belief aside from Christian dogma. A century later, libertinism was deployed in defence of moral relativism: following VoltaireRousseau and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, mankind is inherently good, social norms are oppressive, and nothing bad can come from the pursuit of desire. If each individual is granted the liberty to do as he pleases, the community as a whole will be better. The humanist principles of 1789, however, ended in the bloodbath of the Terror in 1792. At the same time, Sade explored the consequences of absolute political freedom in erotic and pornographic dialogues such as La Philosophie dans le boudoirreaching the conclusion that the only logical end point of a revolution is permanent anarchy, since no power could ever claim to be legitimate following the end of open hostilities. In the early Napoleonic era and during the restoration of the monarchy, a Romantic generation of politicians and novelists influenced by Kant and Goethe, among them Chateaubriand, Benjamin Constant and Victor Hugo, took as their chief purpose the discovery of the self through the pursuit of desire. After the failure of the 1848 revolution and the collapse of the Second French Republic, these ideas were held in suspicion by writers who stood against the Romantic narrative. When Gustave Flaubert published Madame Bovary in 1857, eight different political regimes had come and gone since the last years of the absolute monarchy. Needless to say, Flaubert had little to no patience with the Republican ideal of universal and mutually beneficial liberty, and even less for the notion of liberty as a key to happiness.

Madame Bovary was put on trial because of the licentiousness of the heroine, and because of the scenes describing her adultery and her demise. The procurator, Ernest Pinard, accused the book of offending public and religious morality as it did not present any explicit condemnation of the heroine’s deeds and made no attempt to stage her conversion. In response, Flaubert’s lawyer, Sénart, argued that the novel was, in fact, a warning against libertinism and misguided education, as Emma Bovary’s downfall discloses with no ambiguity the dreadful consequences of poorly ordained freedom. Emma can be seen as the typical novel heroine, led by desire while stuck in a boring reality. When Emma first appears in the novel as the daughter of a Normandy farmer, what she really wants is a respectable, gentrified husband. She marries Charles Bovary, a doctor, but soon enough wants a Parisian luxury lifestyle, then lovers, then a life of adventures. Flaubert’s skill is that he discloses the mechanics of desire. Emma did not wake up one day wanting a husband, a luxurious lifestyle, multiple affairs or a life of adventure. The reader sees her borrowing these desires from the romances, the novels and the newspapers she reads. And that is great news for us, because we are all like Emma: each one of us is ready to borrow and imitate desires, then to weave them into the way we live our life.

We want to be unique, we want to be original and unforgettable because we are conscious of our inevitable death; and we seek singularity by duplicating what we perceive as being unique or original. René Girard, a French comparative literature specialist turned anthropologist, studied the origins of desire, and coined the phrase ‘mimetic desire’. For Girard, Romanticism nurtures the idea that the individual is moved by singular, unique desires. Girard distinguishes the Romantic mindset from a Romanesque mindset, where one acknowledges that one’s desires are imitative. In Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, Girard notes that imitative desire is at the core of modern fiction, from Cervantes to Proust, and in Le Bouc émissaire, he extends these reflections to anthropology. Something or someone can be completely insignificant to me until someone shows it to be desirable by owning it or by wanting it. According to Girard, what I want is not so much the object, as to be identical to the owner of the object. We usually think of desire in a linear way: A wants B. In Girard’s theory, desire is triangular: it is the basic rom-com plot where A falls in love with B because high-status C has expressed interest in B. For Girard, A does not want B, A wants to be like C. A wants to live in C’s world.

Marketing specialists know what strings to pull to make us good consumers. We want to own things that makes us feel unique, but not so unique that it would single us out in society and turn us into scapegoats. We want to own things that would make us feel and look like we belong to a community. I am not casting any stones here. As a teenager, I was a goth. Many thought I was original, but I knew I was not. I wanted to be a character from an Edgar Poe short story, an Anne Rice novel, a Tim Burton film; and dressing like I had just locked myself out of a ruined Gothic castle was simultaneously a way to filter out people who did not have the same artistic interests, and to send a signal to those who could see my style as a quotation, so that they would know we were part of the same tribe.

Most of the urban fashions tap into this idea that following a trend helps you discover and perform your deep true self. But it only results in creating endless copies of one same model, because what we really want is to be part of a community that acknowledges one set of norms as its standard. There is a reason why all the Romantic heroes look the same, and all the goths look the same, and all the punks look the same, and so on and so forth. These tribal codes are not about freedom in fashion, they are a matter of survival, as they show one belongs to a group that can offer shelter and protection, be it in the modern form of online validation.

This does not only apply to clothing cues, but to entire self-narratives. Think, for instance, of the trend to go on a ‘soul-searching trip to Bali’ after the publication and film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2006). It is now a feature of modern Bovarysm that in case of crisis, one has to go to a remote, exotic country to ‘rediscover oneself’ in the same way thousands of others have done before. Under the guise of originality, a new shared narrative appeared and became a new norm in less than 10 years.

These networks of imitation are particularly explicit on social media, where there are so many influencers — but where no one would ever say he or she is ‘influenced’. We don’t talk about being ‘influenced’, but about being ‘empowered’, as influencers provide their tribe with a shared set of norms regarding clothes, food or speech, that help them distinguish themselves. ‘Empowered’ is a passive adjective and we must be honest about the consequence it implies: the power is never on the side of the empowered. Suppose I am empowered into thinking that my real self does not match my body. In order to shape my body in accordance with my real self, I would go on a diet, or get a new wardrobe, or undergo irreversible medical treatment, so that my outer shape finally matches my deep true self. But life happens. Five or 10 or 50 years later, new encounters, new experiences will shape me differently, and I will soon outgrow what I thought was my deep true self. ‘It’s just a phase’ is quite an annoying grown-up sentence to hear; but there are many things in life that are just a phase, a temporary state as one moves towards something else.

The freedom to fulfil our desires at all costs will, at best, allow us to match an image of ourselves that is about to change, to be updated, or even outdated. If we only see liberty as a way to push further the limits of what we can do, we face two possibilities. Either boredom, because our desires are infinite, or monstrosity, because we would need to go further and further to stimulate our exhausted desires.

We change and truth does not. We live in a time where truth is subjective, but look at the public outrage when the media or a politician says something that is not true. We know that without truth, we expose ourselves to cognitive dissonance; yet we collaborate in a condition of subjective truth which leads to isolation, loneliness, even madness. There are not many steps from ‘I am free to see the world as my own representation’ to ‘there is nothing real at all’. This explains most of the mental health crisis that teenagers and young adults are facing: extremely online young people want to be free and unique in any set of norms, but need the constant validation and approval of onlookers to confirm ‘their’ truth.

And you know what sentence expresses this validation? ‘You do you’ — which is very sad because when someone says ‘You do you’, what we really want to hear is: ‘I love you no matter what. Even if you are about to do something I consider absolutely stupid, I will not kick you out of my house, I will not block you on social media, I will not shame you publicly, because I want you to exist in my world too. I want us to exist in the same world.’ That is what we yearn for: sharing the same understanding and knowledge of the world, partaking in the same understanding of reality. After Emma’s death, her husband discovers the letters of her lovers and realises that they had been living in separate realities all along.

Truth shall make us free because when we acknowledge that our desires are borrowed, we can dissociate ourselves from our impulses by saying: I only want this because this person or that event made it look desirable. It also enables us to be grateful for the amount of good things we borrow, instead of pretending to be original. Once we acknowledge that truth is extrinsic and objective, we can collaborate towards understanding it, no matter how divergent our starting points can be. And the truth shall set us free because when our freedom is constrained, limited, even destroyed, we would still have the inner liberty to say: ‘This is wrong. This is a lie I do not wish to be part of.’

Resisting falsehood is a matter of public safety. In The Origins of TotalitarianismHannah Arendt states: ‘Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.’ Nowadays, subjectivity and feelings are deemed more important than facts. Yet it is precisely through accepting the same facts that we can get a grasp on reality. For Arendt, the only way we can stay free from shapeshifting totalitarian thought is to keep ‘the distinction between fact and fiction’ and ‘the distinction between true and false’. Once these are blurred, no matter how free we think we are, we are still entangled in a web of lies and delusions.

Liberty is not a value. Values fluctuate on the stock market of ideas and we have seen recently that safety could literally kill liberty when these two values are opposed. And it goes the other way around, too.

We cannot use liberty as an empty word. Abraham Lincoln said: ‘We all declare for Liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.’ And in Four Essays on Liberty, Isaiah Berlin noted that 200 different meanings of the word have been recorded by historians of ideas. ‘Liberty’ can only be a relevant and meaningful concept if we root it in a shared understanding of reality. The only way to save liberty is to define it as part of the culture we hold on to. A culture is not just a matter of heritage and traditions. It is the set of norms people are willing to share. But in order to share these norms, we must first agree that truth is not subjective. We will never discover our magical inner self by following each and every desire we borrow; but provided we work together towards knowing and sharing the truth, we will enjoy priceless, unconditional liberty.


Marie Daouda