Freedom as an Emotion

Philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko on what holds a community together and how the history of Ukraine resembles archeology and botany

4 Березня 2023

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Describing virtue in a republic in The Spirit of Law, Charles Louis Montesquieu speaks about sensation and love. “Virtue in a republic is a most simple thing: it is a love of the republic; it is a sensation, and not a consequence of acquired knowledge: a sensation that may be felt by the meanest as well as by the highest person in the state.”

It is strange to hear this coming from a political philosopher instead of a rational analysis of the foundations of society, from a philosopher who insists on power distribution, on a rationally thought-out geometry of power, and on the idea that branches of government should limit one another. And it is all the more surprising that, according to Montesquieu, love, an emotion, a sensation, becomes underlying in a republic. Tyrannies rest on fear, while republics rest on love.

Political communities rarely depend on individual leaders. They rarely rest on ideas and thoughts. Instead, they rely much more on feelings, emotions, and passions that are sewn deep into the minds of citizens and are hard to formulate and even harder to eradicate.

These emotions undoubtedly originate from some profound ideas. For example, the emotion of Ukrainian society comes from the idea of ​​freedom. These ideas are powerful not because someone formulated them but because they are permeated with feelings. They are hard to put into words but easy to translate into action.

If a community builds on emotion, even destruction or betrayal of its “head”—the elite, the aristocracy, the intellectuals—will not destroy its capacity for self-determination. Intellectuals help a community to find the form for self-expression it lacks; in difficult times, they can be the force that will awaken deep passions and instincts that have hibernated. But intellectuals can never replace or form the community itself.

Stalin understood this with his criminal mind, so for him, “beheading” Ukrainian society in the 1930s and destroying the intellectuals—writers, scholars, and artists—was insufficient. Instead, Stalin needed the Holodomor to remove what supported this “head,” feeding it with blood and oxygen.

The emotions I’m talking about here are not the modern fast emotions of social networks that quickly ignite and extinguish. They are flammable but easy to put out. They have a short memory. These fast emotions resemble abundant rain, but its millions of raindrops will never become a river.

Those other emotions are deeper and more collective; they pass through generations and can even survive complete oblivion.

The history of Ukraine is often archeology, or more precisely, botany, where what was hidden deep underground suddenly comes to the surface.

The problem with many Western democracies today is that they have lost their long emotion. They compensate for this loss of long emotions by showering the short ones that give rise to those “polarizations” and devastating conflicts in the media and social networks that no one will remember a week later. It is a problem of the so-called post-national societies, which are increasingly incapable of producing long emotions and deep collective feelings.

It does not mean that this ability will not return. On the contrary, we are possibly entering a time when a new long emotion will be born. In pagan societies, long emotions sourced their energy from the tribe; in monotheistic, from God; in modern ones, from a nation or another group. In the 21st century, long emotions will increasingly stem from nature, our planet itself, and the idea of ​​life—perhaps another definition of God.

But that will be in the future. Today, we still live in a world of communities. And that is why community for us today is the core that releases a long emotion—an emotion feeding different social strata and uniting regardless of origin and social status. An emotion that persists, even if its exponents are destroyed or silenced.

“Honor God, be just and value your homeland” is how Voltaire defined the principles of his own life. Love for one’s homeland, as it turns out, does not contradict the values of individual emancipation proclaimed by Voltaire and all of the 18th-century Enlightenment. It turns out that individual and collective rights can and should be balanced.

European political philosophy classics, from Aristotle to the same Montesquieu, have long explained when democracies die: they die when freedom becomes an object of consumption rather than the basis for responsibility.

Democracies die when we lose the understanding that our freedom is a chance to do something for others, not against others, and that each of our selves is sustained by “us” as a community—and conversely, that “we” can only exist due to the diversity of constituent selves.

Not only is national identity part of individual rights, or a collective identity part of me as an individual, but the reverse relationship is also essential: individual rights are possible only in a community supporting these rights. An individual is possible only in a community prepared to accept him as an individual. Therefore, patriotism and a sense of community are indispensable not only for self-expression but also for an individual’s life and survival. As a very young girl whom we met during our trip to Okhtyrka said, “Before, it never occurred to me that one could love a country as much as a person. That one could love their city the way they love someone dear.”

This is the love that Montesquieu spoke about—for the community, for your nation, and for those around you. It turns out that The Spirit of Law, one of the key political treatises of the 18th century, is not only a text about institutions, various forms of law, and the principle of power distribution. It is also a treatise on love. It is about something holding the community together and giving it a chance to walk through the fire. It is about something that does not depend on the level of education, status, or the number of languages ​​learned. It is about something that can be preserved in each of us and reborn when the time comes. It is about the fact that without this love, there can be no societies—and no laws.

Volodymyr Yermolenko, philosopher, writer, columnist, President of PEN Ukraine, Editor-in-chief at, Analytics Director at Internews Ukraine, lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, author of Liquid Ideologies, Closer People, Distant People, and The Catcher of the Ocean.

Translated by Stanislav Ostapenko.

The Ukrainians Media is an award-winning independent media company focusing on high-quality, long-form, and visual journalism. Our mission is to foster positive social changes in Ukraine.

This story was created thanks to the support of our readers. Please join The Ukrainians Community on Patreon and help us publish more important and interesting stories.

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