Ellul on the Illusion of Inner Freedom

This entry is part 20 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing in chapter 3, Ellul dwells a bit more on the meaning of means, which is “that they are totalitarian. Our civilization is entirely one of means, and means affect every domain. They respect nothing.”

There are two angles from which to consider the totalitarianism of means.

First, means destroy everything that might hinder their advance. Morality? It falls before technique (if it works, how can it be immoral?). Humanism falls, because technique will not be limited to the interest of human beings. (Paging AI, again.) “Gratuitiousness” — anything for its own sake, such as art — is flatly rejected; everything must serve. (What’s the point of art with no market value? Is it even art?)

Instead of accepting human values, means will construct their own. What Ellul calls the “new myths” — such as state, nation, race, labor, parties — are mere props for means. Humans accept these illusions because they hide the “appalling desiccation of the world” created by means.

Second, means relentlessly extend their dominion over all aspects of human existence. Humans, Ellul says, are just as much objects of technique as material goods. We are hacking our lives, not just living them; psychological problems, spiritual problems, “self-knowledge” — these are all grist for the mill of means. One “solution” leads to another to another. We never stop working on ourselves because we are actually being worked upon. Ellul writes:

“Because human beings have become objects and the spiritual is classed among spiritual means, existence no longer has any possible meaning. Existentialism, the philosophy of our time, is correct to remind us that our existence is such, but it is incorrect in saying that human beings are free to restore meaning to their lives. The irreversible triumph of means eliminates any freedom for human beings to follow this path.”

We have all been captured in a trap laid by means, whose triumph is total. “It is useless to act smart and claim inner freedom,” Ellul writes. “When a freedom is not a part of my life, it is false.”

Ellul claims that this predicament is especially hard on Christians because, while it has always been impossible to live out one’s faith fully as Christian, that was always because of inner weakness. Now, it is made even more impossible (if you’ll pardon the expression) because of the external world.

This external world, controlled by means, constrains modern humans not only physically, but mentally. It is totalitarian precisely because it changes the ways in which humans value themselves and others. Historically, Ellul believes that all ancient “civilizations have exercised certain constraints, but they left to each person a wide field of freedom and invididuality. The Roman slave or the medieval serf was more free, more individual, more socially human (I do not see materially content) than is the modern worker or Soviet functionary.”

I think that Ellul is suggesting here that, even in a world of limited social mobility and physical constraint, people were allowed the freedom to think for themselves. In the modern world (and Ellul does not deny the benefits of modern medical and scientific advances), societies claim to be free from constraints, but actually they try to “seize human beings in their totality and confine them within a detailed framework, in which all their gestures and secret thoughts will be controlled by the social system.”

Under the system of means, our human “inner freedom” is an illusion. The modern social system makes it twice-over “impossible” to live out one’s Christian faith, by layering this external framework on top of our inner weaknesses. As David Gill notes in a footnote on page 50, Ellul is arguing dialectically here, that it is impossible to live as a Christian but also, because we are called to resist and act against both internal and external forces, possible. We must ensure the continued “social expression” of Christianity by fighting “to the death” (in a specifically spiritual sense) against the primacy of means.

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