One the most famous love stories of modern Western culture is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This is a story not about love, but about what it means to be modern. What does it mean to be modern? Among the many meanings modernity may have, one is that it designates a problem. The problem is how can I be at once an individual and a member of society? The problem comes from the myth of free, autonomous individuals who originally exist in a state of nature in which they are involved in a war of all against all (Hobbes). This is chaos and a lose/lose situation in which everyone in the end dies. The only way out is for these free individuals to freely(!) enter into a social contract. But the moment they sign the contract, they become members of society and must conform to social constraints. Or, as Kant put it, henceforth there is freedom only under the law.
Paradoxically, this means that individuals can only exist when they give up their free individuality and submit to social constraints. But if they do this, and this is the paradox, then they are no longer autonomous individuals, they become products of society, that is, good citizens, family members, etc. Once the contract has been signed, the free individuals lay down not only their weapons, but also their individuality. They tend to disappear as individuals and become typical members of society. This may insure peace, but it has a price. If these free individuals disappear, then who is the social contract (society) for? In order for the contract to be valid and the law not to be mere tyranny, the individuals must be free before the law has been instituted and not only afterwards. But if individuals are free before the law, why do they need the law in the first place?
Obviously, there must two different kinds of freedom. One is the destructive freedom of the war of all against all, and the other is the constructive freedom of submitting to social constraints. One is the freedom of the individual, the other is the freedom of the group. The problem is that these two freedoms at once exclude and require each other. Without free individuals, the social contract is mere tyranny. The social contract needs free individuals for its legitimation. But once legitimated, society cannot tolerate these free individuals and demands that they conform to the law. If we are only free under the law, as Kant said, then we are products of society and our freedom is not our own but doled out to us as food to domestic dogs. But if we are free before establishment of the law and thus able to create the law out of freedom, we cannot accept that the law deprive us of our individuality and subject us to social expectations. This is the modern predicament.
What must individuals do in this paradoxical situation in order to reaffirm their individual and autonomous existence and not lose themselves in social conformity, or what Heidegger called das Man? Modern thought answers this question clearly: Individuals must enter into a “struggle for self-realization.” How do they do this?
For Hegel (Phenomenology of Spirit §187), going back to the war of all against all, the individual can only attain certainty of itself as an individual through freely risking its life in a duel with another. If you want to be a free individual you must demonstrate this by finding an enemy who wants to kill you and then face this threat to your life freely thus establishing yourself as free from natural, that is, external constraints. It is you who decide over life and death, you alone. But of course, you may lose and die in the struggle. But death is only an affirmation of individuality since it is you and you alone who die. The important point is not life or death, but the fact that you and you alone chose this option freely.
Is this a “viable” solution to the problem? To begin with, if this is what it takes to become a free individual, then there are very few individuals in the world and the few that there are are crazy. It is absolute nonsense for everyone to go out looking for an enemy who wants to kill them and then face off in a duel. This negates the social contract and all the benefits of civilization that it was designed to bring.
Is there another solution? The modern world does offer an alternative. Instead of dueling you can fall in love. Desperate passionate love, which places you outside the bounds of society and supposedly grants the ultimate experience of individuality and freedom. This option is explored by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet.
But why does love have the same effect as dueling? Love demands that you disregard all external constraints, family, society, etc. Love demands that you give yourself completely to another, the beloved, and love demands, again, paradoxically, that you remain a fee individual who is separate from the beloved. Contrary to what one would expect, the lovers do not simply dissolve into a mystical unity. Love requires the individual to lose itself in the other, but somehow at the same time, to retain its individuality and freedom, since it is exactly the free choice to give oneself that constitutes love, just as it is the free choice to sign the social contract that constitutes the individual and not the society that appears after the contract has been signed. The lovers must constantly renew this choice and not simply put it behind them and move on to get married, start a family, become good citizens, etc. which amounts to giving up their free individuality and conforming to society.
Why does this lead to the same result as dueling, namely, everyone dies in the end? Let us suppose that Romeo and Juliet marry. They move off into the country. Romeo spends his days tending the sheep and Juliet looks after the children. The passion of their love disappears. Romeo becomes a good citizen, a father who is now called Papa, and Juliet is called Mama, a good wife, etc. This is society again. The supposedly free individuals find themselves forced to conform to what others expect of them. Freedom has conceded to external expectations and constraints. There is nothing left of self-determination and freedom. In other words, the autonomous individual has again disappeared and the entire house of cards that is the modern world collapses.
What is the solution to this problem? Romeo and Juliet must kill themselves, just as duelists do. In killing themselves they affirm at once their freedom and their individuality, but they also affirm that the individual and society cannot be reconciled and must remain ever at odds. This is the paradox of autonomy and the predicament of modernity. In order to give oneself the law, one has to be free before the law, but if one can only be free under the law, then freedom cannot come before the law is established. Auto-nomie is the modern predicament which condemns the individual to a never ending struggle to become an individual while at the same time only being able to do this through the other, through society.
Why must lovers suffer this tragic fate? After all, no one could seriously want such a situation. This is what it means to exist in modern Western culture, and this is why the Asians and Africans and Indians think we moderns are mad. And they are right….