Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mark Lilla On Alexander Kojeve And Leo Strauss

Okay, who's heard of Alexander Kojeve?

Not me until just yesterday when I read a chapter about him by Mark Lilla in his book, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals In Politics. (After getting past a a not completely satisfying first chapter on Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, I've been liking this book more with every page I read.)

So I just finished the chapter on Kojeve, who was Russian by birth at the end of the 19th century, left after the October Revolution, studied philosophy in Germany and eventually made his way to Paris where he lived two main lives:

first, apparently, as one the most important French political theorists of the twentieth century;

and, then, secondly, as an essentially post world war political advisor to French governments and who, apparently, was instrumental in formulating French international policy through those years.

The most scintillating part of this chapter, and of the whole book so far, is Lilla's account of the exchange between Kojeve and his intellectual soul mate, though they disagreed fundamentally, Leo Strauss. Also, this chapter seems the most relevant, so far, to what I'm struggle to understand is Liila's unifying theme, something like, as his sub title indicates, "intellectuals in politics."

The exchange emanated from Kojeve's review of Strauss's book On Tyranny, in which he translates, and comments on, an Xenophon dialogue--Hiero.

For Strauss, it is not cardinal that tyrannies occur, tyranny being simultaneous with political life. Rather, for him, it is cardinal that philosophers and intellectuals fail to see them for what they are, that philosophy must always be aware of the dangers of tyranny as threatening to political decency and philosophical life. Philosophy needs to understand politics sufficiently to protect its own autonomy without thinking it can shape actual life. There will always be tension between philosophy and politics; that tension can be managed but never obviated.

So philosophers must always be concerned about dangers to their autonomy. For philosophers, neither withdrawing into their own private gardens nor serving political authority are possible without risking the end of philosophy.

Kojeve, a communist his whole intellectual life, objects to this formulation. Tyranny can actually advance the work of history, preparing the way for a better future. Strauss is replicating the false idyll of philosophy as disinterested reflection seeking the eternally true, beautiful and good. In truth, argues Kojeve, there are no such eternal ideas; ideas, rather, emerge out of historical struggle. Philosophy must take part in that struggle to help eventuate future truths latent in the present. Seen this way, philosophers and tyrants need each other to finish the work of history. The former elucidate these truths for the latter. The latter are bold enough to actualize them.

Strauss's answer is to question why, for an instance, Stalin's tyranny (which Kojeve had in mind) is any less horrible than the ancient tyrannies, and is to question Kojeve's faith in the truth of his own Hegelian view of history as moving inexorably progressively forward. (Lilla notes that even as a communist, Kojeve thought Hegel had identified what leads to the end of history and that Marxism is one Hegelian project that must be seen to do its work within the confines of Hegel's thought.)

Here Strauss asserts his competing view of philosophy: it is the awareness of the fundamental and abiding questions and problems and the always imperfect quest for enlightenment given them. Kojeve, therefore, positing end of history (Fukuyama mentions Kojeve) is unphilosophical, committed to ending philosophy's quest for enlightenment in his vision of the end of human strife and striving. For Strauss, when striving and strife end, humanity ends--this being a version of Nietzsche's last man standing last when all human excellence is leveled and human striving is forgone in the name of equality and peace.

Kojeve saw in Hegel and then Napoleon the idea and then the actuality of the end of history, equality manifest in the due recognition by all of all bringing welcome surcease to all strife. So Kojeve argues back that what the end of history brings is infinitely preferable to present day, 1950, "automata" being " satisfied by sports, art, eroticism, with the sick ones getting locked up and the tyrant being the administrator, "a cog in the 'machine' fashioned by automata for automata."

For Strauss what Kojeve envisions is horrifying: the prospect of people becoming less human by abandoning their quest for enlightenment and moral improvement being neither a utopian wish nor a dystopian fear. It is rather, for Kojeve, a possibility that history makes probable.

aAs a proof, Strauss adduces Kojeve's studied neutrality during the cold war. For Kojeve, says Strauss, the cold war is history working itself out, whether through tyrannical state socialism or liberal democratic capitalism. Kojeve is indifferent to those suffering under the heel of the tyrant. Suffering only matters to the extent it helps give rise to history reaching its inevitable end. History's "losers" have no interest in virtue of their suffering for Kojeve.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Note On Rousseau's Idea Of The General Will

From commenter orray2:

David Bell narrows too much the nature of Rousseau's "General Will." This is more than certain broad constitutional principles undergirding a society to which all either formally or tacitly consent. The General Will refers to actual day-by-day direct democratically formulated (by the entire Community) policies, where all "will together."

No individual can assert any individual right or objection against the outcome of Community Will, which is "Sovereign." To do so would be do rebel against Freedom itself, since freedom is acting in accordance with what is best for one, and only the General Will can articulate what is best for the community, in which the individual is only a cell.

Hence, the concept of "being forced to be free" if one is in conflict with the General Will. Quite apart from a number of Rousseau's other contributions to social and political thought, both positive and negative--to child-rearing, education, naturalist romanticism, gender relations--this idea of the "Legislator," some super-human founds society and who "knows all the passions of men but feels none," and the Sovereign General Will, that Community legislative process and outcome, outside of and against which which individual freedom is nonsense, is what causes J. L. Talmon correctly to point to Rousseau?

In relation to this essay by Daniel Bell

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Few, Very Few, Questions On Blake and Nietzsche

Me to Roger:

So here are two sets of questions. In Blake we have the vindication of conventionally considered evil--evil for Blake the energy arrayed against the forms of order. Isn't The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell a vision of an encompassing reality that inverts received notions of morality in order to create that encompassing vision, so that, for example, the youth will no longer pine away with desire and the pale virgin will no longer lie dead shrouded in snow? 

But then doesn't that embrace of the energy of evil have to be put together with Blake's morality as evident in his social outrage, itself instanced, for example, by a poem like London? For I have no understanding of anything nihilistic in Blake. I can imagine an understanding of his metaphysics such that that reconciliation--his embrace of evil and his outrage at injustice--can be well understood. Maybe the answer is in "the palace of wisdom?"

Also, Blake's lamb doesn't reemerge in some new vision of innocence, does it?

The second set of questions concerns differentiating Blake from Nietzsche in arguably important ways, even while seeing some obvious confluences, following from the first set of questions. As there seems to be no suggestion of nihilism in Blake, there is a universal association between Nietzsche and nihilism. The nature of that nihilism, if that's an accurate characterization of a fundamental part of Nietzsche's thinking, may be controversial but that controversy presupposes nihilism's important existence in his thought.

I'm unaware of anything in Nietzsche's work analogous to Blake's social outrage, no railing against against the suffering of the meek and the downtrodden including what may be the subject of Blake's most savage indictment--the often mortal exploitation of children. Rather, Nietzsche appears not only indifferent to what fires Blake's ferocious indignation, he envisions his ubermenschen, if necessary, being cruel and heedless in their fulfillment of their lives, and riding herd by autocratic rule over the masses, whose mediocrity Nietzsche despised, as he despised mediocrity itself, which he saw democracy as institutionalizing. So where Blake envisions liberating and uplifting the weak and the downtrodden, Nietzsche condemns them to what his metaphysics decrees to be the necessity of their fate. 

And so isn't the spirit as child at the end of The Three Metamorphoses qualitatively different from what Blake finally envisions in both his earlier and later work, in which, he calls for self sacrifice and forgiveness, very unNietzschean like virtues?

Nietzsche drives, does he not, to a kind of private virtue and liberation, in which truth is relative to whatever the self-creating spirit as child creates out of itself in rolling perpetuity:

 ....The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yes. For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred Yes is needed: the spirit now wills his own will; the world's outcast now conquers his own world...

And, finally, given Nietzsche's  dismissive indifference to social suffering as injustice, in contradistinction to Blake's outrage at it and incorporation of its remedying in his redemptive vision,  isn't Nietzsche's spirit as child rather precious?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

On Nietzsche's The Three Metamorphoses

I just finished reading The Three Metamorphoses. Do we see it as literature or philosophy? For in literature we grant the artist his vision, or, more prosaically, his premise, and then, if it’s a great work, we enter into its imaginative expanses and drink in and respond to the world coming from its artistic power. So an atheist can experience the full power of Paradise Lost or Donne’s devotional poems or even Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, regardless of how alien the themes and ideas of these or other works may be to us.

For philosophy, we respond with our reason as informed by our experience and don’t willingly suspend disbelief. One critic noted the difference between philosophy being “as is” and art being “as if.” This split goes to an interesting general question about Nietzsche: whether to consider him mainly as a philosopher or an artist or both with our vantage points possibly shifting accordingly.

I’d also remind all (and myself principally) that Nietzsche is a behemoth of a thinker and an intellectual presence, not at all encapsulable,  and that different parts of his work can support different overarching views of him. That being so, I’ll restrict my comments to the specific text before me and will make a stab at some textual analysis, looking at the poem as literature.

From the perspective of literature, the poem is all of what Zarathutra “spake” to his “brethren” in bringing them along so that they can absorb the lessons of the spiritual growth from, metaphorically, camel to lion to child. The poem is a dramatic re-enactment of the movement through the three transformations, allowing his “brethren” to transform themselves as Zarathustra speaks to them.

The images of the camel, the lion and the child are metaphors for likening the growth of the human spirit from being “load-bearing” and duty-bound to ultimately being light and alive, as a child, fully open to all possibilities of self creation, which is to say, in Nietzsche's terms, a “forgetfulness,” “a new beginning,” “a self rolling wheel.” In that spiritual passage, the spirit, like the camel, to get beyond its heavily laden, duty-bound self, must debase and mock itself and must immerse itself in isolation, annihilating negation and spiritual self deprivation—“suffer hunger of the soul,” “feed on the acorns and grass of knowledge.”
The interrogative mode dominates the first part of the poem, which essentially is a series of seemingly alternative questions pressed into service of possibly answering the more underlying questions: “What is heavy?” and “What is the heaviest thing?” And, it seems, the spirit asker is one completely married to his tasks and his beliefs: “...the strong load-bearing spirit in which reverence dwelleth...”  

The spirit asker, it may be argued, is one different from the many, who wishes to fulfill, if not perfect, himself in his assumption of duty: “What is the heaviest thing...that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.” Therefore, the argument will continue, the three stage spiritual growth is not a template for all to follow; it is, rather, a path along only which the spiritually gifted can follow. For in that willingness to rejoice in the redoubling of weighty burden a certain psychology is given: that of the ability to see one’s self; the ability to question one’s self, lower one’s self and expose one’s self, risking loss of the self-assurances one has and the pride those assurances may breed:
“...To humiliate oneself in order to mortify one’s pride? To exhibit one’s folly in order to mock at one’s wisdom? To desert our cause when it celebrateth its triumph? To ascend high mountains to tempt the tempter?”

This singular “load-bearing spirit in which reverence dwelleth” has it within itself, therefore, to forgo the world at the very heights of what the world may glory in—“celebrateth its triumph.”

The image of “tempting the tempter” seems the inversion of Satan and Christ in Milton's Paradise Regained standing on the tip of a spire with Satan tempting Christ to forgo heavenliness for worldliness, which Christ rejects, leaving Satan to fall away. Here the spirit ascends to heights and, I’d argue, beckons, “tempts,” the "last Lord,” ”Thou-Shalt,” the great dragon,” to struggle with  spirit in the great dragon's attempt to blanket it in divine readymade meanings and thereby keep spirit servile. That very ascension and bold beckoning is juxtaposed with, and complemented by, the immediately following and humbling feeding on “the acorns and the grass of knowledge”  and suffering the “hunger of soul.” 
The suffering is for the “sake of truth.” And the demands of truth compel forsaking society and those comforting who want to attend on, and mollify, spirit’s soul sickness. The demands, too, compel taking unto one’s self the indifference of others: “...make friends of the deaf, who never hear thy requests?” And truth demands immersing one’s self in "foul water of truth" and claiming for one’s self—“and not disclaim”— extremes of discomforting ugliness, “cold frogs and hot toads,” demands embracing what hates us (for what hates us shakes  the very ground of our self understanding, posing a radical threat to that self understanding) and demands taking on, befriending--“give one’s hand” to--the frightening unknown, “the phantom when it is going to frighten us.”

There is no one answer, so it seems, in these questions as potential answers to the underlying question of what is heaviest. They all signify an act of consciousness of a specifically powerful and courageous spirit ready to risk all in negating the readymade and the worldly and in setting the stage for the next step along the overarching path to spiritual enlightenment.

In asking the questions, in being willing to sacrifice an easier, because already well, well settled,  way of being in the world, the spirit takes on to itself the weight of unburdening itself of the ostensibly apriori , in a paradox of unloading the known and thereby taking on, being weighed down with, the heaviest load of the unknown.  And so the spirit as result of its questioning and willingness quickens into “its wilderness.” The reference to “its” marks the “wilderness”-- itself a "bewildering vastness, perilousness or unchecked profusion”-- as internal, a wildly unknowing state of mind.
Comes then by the agency of the initial questioning “the second metamorphosis,” which is to say, the second transformation in the form and nature of a thing so it’s completely different. But in noting that, we must not pass over too quickly, as sometimes we do, that the first metamorphosis has occurred by virtue of, and as comprised by, the load-bearing spirit wanting to take unto, and onto, itself the most it can.  It wants to so that it “could rejoice in my strength,” that being, I think, the unquenchable thirst in some for the spiritual most the world offers.

We must step back to consider and understand what was it in spirit that metamorphosed into what Nietzsche sets out as the first metamorphosis. What it was was the reverent, renouncing, duty-laden "beast of burden”prior to its initial metamorphosis occasioned by its relentless questioning of what is heavy and what is heaviest.
Consistent with the very idea of metamorphosis, the questions now diminish in their unrelenting frequency. And now, too, the narration becomes more detached from the subjectivity of the first metamorphosis as interrogative consciousness now changes into the great contentious action of will's struggle in fulfillment of where the questioning has led spirit.

Now, like a lion, the load-bearing spirit has become master of its solitary and wilderness domain, free in its unvanquishable power as manifest in its absolute assertion of will. In a nutshell, “Thou-Shalt, with its resonance of divine imposition and commandment, becomes this lion-spirit’s naked and singular “I will.” And so the metamorphosed spirit likened to a lion defeats the readymade of the divine, itself inverted imagistically  as the great dragon.

The movement through the first two metamorphoses may be cast as willessness to willingness to willfulness.
Here in further inversion of the worldliness of the power and kingdoms and riches Satan offers Christ to tempt him to forsake Christ’s Father, the spirit as a vanquishing lion rejects, and asserts its solitary self against, "’Thou-shalt,’" which "lieth in its path, sparkling with gold-a scale-covered beast; and on very scale glittereth golden ‘Thou shalt’!”

The gold imagery is felicitous in what it suggests. Gold’s value is an arbitrary human construction. So are the value and weight of readymade meanings, ranging up to the seeming apriori, an arbitrary human construction. As well, the comfort and succour readymade meanings provide have the glittering attractiveness of gold in their easing the way for the conduct of life according to their laid out strictures. Therefore, “The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales...All the values of things glitter on me. All values have already been created, and all values I represent.”
Now the interrogation revives. But it is not the questioning of the metamorphosed load-bearing spirit, whose self-examining questioning is done; it is, rather, the overarching rhetorical questioning –he knows the answers he will give—of Zarathustra, setting the ground for the final metamorphosis and dealing the final blows to the great dragon at the very heights of its own assertive power:

“My brethren, wherefore is there need of the lion in the spirit. Why sufficeth not the beast of burden, which renounceth and is reverent?” 

Structurally, Zarathustra’s questions follow from the great dragon’s boldest assertions of its own order of things to the spirit as lion concluding with “Verily, there shall be no ‘I will’ any more.”  
Who is addressed by Zarathustra in his “My brethern”? Is it the townsfolk of “the town which is called The Pied Cow”? As originally set out, I’m thinking not. The very name of the town, “Pied Cow,” suggesting motley and diversely incongruous cow- like lumpishness, does not inspire the idea that the three metamorphoses are universally available. I’m inclined to think Zarathustra in “My brethren” addresses those alike in spirit, those willing and able to overcome and ascend.

In his questioning, Zarathustra meets the great dragon on its strongest ground. As noted, standing, it thinks securely, on that ground, the great dragon asks: what need do we have of the negation of all the order I give, of all that has meaning and value; what need is there of the spirit as lion; why isn't simply the reverent, renouncing beast of burden sufficient?
And the answer is given, flowing from what load-bearing spirit now transformed into spirit as lion has wrought first from its own self examination and then from its confrontation with the world as given, or as seeming apriori meaning: “to create new values.” In relation to that, spirit as lion has reached its limit. It can create freedom, the conditions necessary and sufficient for that creation to take place, by its assertion of will (“I will”) against the readymade.

But now more spiritually is needed.  Zarathustra rehearses the stages of the journey to the point where things stand. In fact, says Zarathustra, the heaviest load for the beast of burden is the assumption of the right to new values, and that is the work of spirit as lion, “the work of a beast of prey.” The beast has moved from its love of “Thou-shalt,” spirit at its “holiest,” then, as forced by the force of its own interrogative self examination, to spirit as lion finding “... the illusion and arbitrariness even in the holiest things,” and capturing freedom from devotion to the divine readymade it once loved.
Zarathustra comes to his final rhetorical question, to which he knows the answer, and for which his “brethren” are now prepared: “...what can the child do...why hath the preying lion still to become a child?”

The answer is that spirit as warrior- lion must be left behind in being transformed anew into, as originally noted, a “forgetfulness,” an “Innocence,” a self-creating beginning making fresh meanings for itself in a new holiness, in a new unburdened affirmation, “a holy Yea unto life,” a self contained will, a pure spirit of will, making a world of itself in being outcast from the readymade, a perpetual rolling movement to meaning stemming from itself—the final fulfilment of the desire “to rejoice in my strength,” the comparative and paradoxical strength of spirit as child.
“Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.

Aye for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: IT’S OWN will, willeth now the spirit; HIS OWN WORLD winneth the world’s outcast.”

Now, finally, the originally beloved "Thou-shalt," spirit at its "holiest," has been, in Nietzsche's terms, transvalued into the child like innocence of "a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea"--which is to say, the transvaluation of holiness.

However powerful as literature, looked at philosophically, these themes as they resolve themselves at poem's end, I’d argue, collapse in on themselves into sheer incoherence.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Magnificent Words By de Tocqueville

Amazing words by de Tocqueville in his exchange with his protege Gobineau, a nineteenth century theorist of race as destiny, hence racism, and of American inevitable decline due to its liberalism, its openness to immigration and its insistence on residing electoral power in the people as for Gobineau this led inexorably to a diluting of an initially promising more or less pure American-derived-from-European racial stock. What is compelling to me about de Tocqueville's response is his critical balancing of the ridiculously optimistic fetishization of rationalism and scientism of the Enlightenment with the equally unsustainable and pessimistic predestination theories of a Gobineau and other counter Enlightenment thinkers:

....You have chosen to support precisely that point of view which I have always considered most dangerous to our age...The last century had an exaggerated and somewhat puerile confidence in man's power to control his destiny, both his own life and that of society. This was the characteristic error of that period (the Enlightenment), but in the final analysis it was a noble error. While responsible for many follies, yet it produced many great achievements beside which posterity will find our age punt indeed...After believing that we could transform ourselves, we now believe that even the slightest reform is impossible. After excessive pride, we have fallen into an equally excessive humility. Once we thought ourselves capable of everything; now we believe ourselves capable of nothing. It pleases us now to believe that from now on struggle and efforts are futile, that our blood, our bodies, and our nervous systems will always prevail over our will and capacity. This is the peculiar argument of our time...No matter how you rearrange your argument, it will support this tendency: it will drive your contemporaries, who are already weak, to an even greater weakness....

Monday, June 4, 2012

Enlightenment as Deism

Isn't this interesting from Richard Wolin's The Seduction of Unreason? "Yet in the eighteenth century, 'the rights of man and citizen" evolved from the eminently metaphysical idea of modern natural law." This sounds right though I have never focused on the proposition so concretely: enlightenment thinkers in this vein were effectively deists of a kind.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

On Philip Roth's Indignation

 My perspective on this book changed, naturally enough, after, about 1/4 or so of the way in, I learned that, seemingly, Marcus is dead. Not having paid sufficient attention to the title of the first part, Under Morphine, I didn't, I admit, glom on to the fact that he was in a deep, deep, drug induced, comatose narrative stream of (un)consciousness. 

Before learning of his death, I thought the book was compellingly tracing the coming of age of a relatively innocent Jewish kid of his own peculiarly, and uniquely Rothian time, place and circumstances.  What had me hooked and what I found so compelling--I hadn't read any Roth in a few years--was the wonder of the absolutely concrete vividness of his writing, the dead on revelation of character through first person narrative, convincing dialogue that is at once vernacular and literary, like Bellow's, though more natural, and the description of events and setting--the butchering done by his father and Marcus too, especially,  

I began reading the book differently, as did most I imagine, on learning of his death. After that, rather than reading of Marcus's specific coming of age, I felt I was reading a tragedy; but until the end I was in suspense at what the unwanted tragic denouement would be-- I didn't know how Marcus was going to come to his end, only, sadly and disappointedly, that it was inevitable.

Over the years, what I haven't enjoyed about some of Roth has been his meta- fiction, so to speak, his explosion of the genre's conventions and of those of realism--I'm thinking of his The Counterlife as a specific example.( I mean nothing evaluative in saying so: I simply prefer verisimilitude in art. ) And so before I got on to the fact of a morphine induced narrative, I thought, "Well, here we go again." But so extraordinarily concrete and lucid did I find the writing and so compelling the characters and so sharply focused the many conflicts, that I didn't much mind. 

Coming on to the novel's end something struck me: no matter how vivid and compellingly interesting and concrete and richly conveyed are Marcus's stepping stones along the way to his coming of age, there was nothing in them of extraordinary implication and power except for two things that to my mind jumped off the pages,  each into a literarily powerful world of its own.

One is his mother's description of his father's terrifying obsessiveness driving her to the unprecedented, unprecedented step, an unprecedented step, of course, for her place and time, of retaining a divorce lawyer and starting to proceed to a divorce.

The second is the amazingly affecting speech given by the college president, arousing in me both agreement with some of its sentiments and, and more, a terrifying revulsion at the bullying, lethal military consequence of student hi jinks, where loss of deferment could and did mean being drafted and then not unlikely maiming or death. 

With that in mind, then, and with what finally turns out to be Marcus's fate, all the stepping stones get recast by context into virtually life and death struggles as inexorable and overarching historical forces and events inform the meaning of each incident in Marcus's coming of age. 

For his father is right: the trivial can lead to calamity of the most awfully tragic disproportion. And so his father's dysfunctional obsessive fear, which itself ruins his and his family's life, is justified by the facts of the world. But that same obsession is itself so obviously life denying. And so the seething indignation, which is ultimately Roth's, at the desecration of the life of the young by war, is palpable.  And, too, I didn't find his excoriation of the consequences of war either polemical or even political; rather I found it outrage in the face of the unavoidably tragic. (On this point I can see arguments the other way.) 

So in contrast to some of Roth's playing around with verisimilitude, his meta fictional deconstructive tricks, as I see them anyway and can live without, are replaced by a cause and effect understandable way of someone, Marcus, ostensibly recollecting and narrating from beyond the grave in the way of an amazingly concrete and linear representation of interiority combined with an intensely rendered external reality. The consequence for me is a tremendously affecting  literary experience, the likes of which I have not had in a while.

Finally,  in one, I think, intended way, Marcus's story is the story of every soldier, every kid, killed in war. So those are my comments.