Tuesday


In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Friday


The University of Toronto more than a hundred years ago in 1910.

The University of Toronto more than a hundred years ago in 1910.

When I attempt to look back on my personal history in a spirit of dispassionate scientific inquiry, I find that I readily abandon entire regions of my past in my perhaps unseemly hurry to develop the next idea that I have, and which I am excited to see where it leads me. Moreover, contemplating one’s personal history can be a painful and discomfiting experience, so that, in addition to the headlong rush into the future, there is the desire to dissociate oneself from past mistakes, even when these past mistakes were provisional positions, known at the time to be provisional, but which were nevertheless necessary steps in order to begin (as well as to continue) the journey of self-discovery, which is at the same time a journey of discovering the world and of one’s place in the world.

In my limited attempts to grasp my personal history as an essential constituent of my present identity, among all the abandoned positions of my past I find that I understood two important truths about myself early in life (i.e., in my teenage years), even if I did not formulate them explicitly, but only acted intuitively upon things that I immediately understood in my heart-of-hearts. One of these things is that I have never been, am not now, and never will be either of the left or of the right. The other thing is, despite having been told many times that I should have pursued higher education, and despite the fact that most individuals who have the interests that I have are in academia, that I am not cut out for academia, whether temperamentally, psychologically, or socially — notwithstanding the fact that, of necessity, I have had to engage in alienated labor in order to support myself, whereas if I had pursued in a career in academia, I might have earned a living by dint of my intellectual efforts.

The autodidact is a man with few if any friends (I could tell you a few stories about this, but I will desist at present). The non-partisan, much less the anti-partisan, is a man with even fewer friends. Adults (unlike childhood friends) tend to segregate along sectional lines, as in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization we once segregated ourselves even more rigorously along sectarian lines. If you do not declare yourself, you will find yourself outside every ideologically defined circle of friends. And I am not claiming to be in the middle; I am not claiming to strike a compromise between left and right; I am not claiming that I have transcended left and right; I am not claiming that I am a moderate. I claim only that I belong to no doctrinaire ideology.

It has been my experience that, even if you explicitly and carefully preface your remarks with a disavowal of any political party or established ideological position, if you give voice to a view that one side takes to be representative of the other side, they will immediately take your disavowal of ideology to be a mere ruse, and perhaps a tactic in order to gain a hearing for an unacknowledged ideology. The partisans will say, with a knowing smugness, that anyone who claims not to be partisan is really a partisan on the other side — and both sides, left and right alike, will say this. One then finds oneself in overlapping fields of fire. This experience has only served to strengthen my non-political view of the world; I have not reacted against my isolation by seeking to fall into the arms of one side or the other.

This non-political perspective — which I am well aware would be characterized as ideological by others — that eschews any party membership or doctrinaire ideology, now coincides with my sense of great retrospective relief that I did not attempt an academic career path. I have watched with horrified fascination as academia has eviscerated itself in recent years. I have thanked my lucky stars, but most of all I have thanked my younger self for having understood that academia was not for me and for not having taken this path. If I had taken this path, I would be myself subject to the politicization of the academy that in some schools means compulsory political education, increasingly rigid policing of language, and an institution more and more making itself over into the antithesis of the ideal pursuit of knowledge and truth.

But the university is a central institution of western civilization; it is the intellectual infrastructure of western civilization. I can affirm this even as an autodidact who has never matriculated in the university system. I have come to understand, especially in recent years, how it is the western way to grasp the world by way of an analytical frame of mind. The most alien, the most foreign, the most inscrutable otherness can be objectively and dispassionately approached by the methods of scientific inquiry that originated in western civilization. This character of western thought is far older than the scientific revolution, and almost certainly has its origins in the distinctive contribution of the ancient Greeks. As soon as medieval European civilization began to stabilize, the institution of the university emerged as a distinctive form of social organization that continues to this day. Since I value western civilization and its scientific tradition, I must also value the universities that have been the custodians of this tradition. It could even be said that the autodidact is parasitic upon the universities that he spurns: I read the books of academics; I benefit from the scientific research carried on at universities; my life and my thought would not have been possible except for the work that goes on in universities.

It is often said of the Abrahamic religions that they all pray to the same God. So too all who devote their lives to the pursuit of truth pay their respects to the same ancestors: academicians and their institutions look back to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, just as do I. We have the same intellectual ancestors, read the same books, and look to the same ideals, even if we approach those ideals differently. In the same way that I am a part of Christian civilization without being a Christian, in an expansive sense I am a part of the intellectual tradition of western civilization represented by its universities, even though I am not of the university system.

As an autodidact, I could easily abandon the western world, move to any place in the world where I was able to support myself, and immerse myself in another tradition, but western civilization means something to me, and that includes the universities of which I have never been a part, just as much as it includes the political institutions of which I have never been a part. I want to know that these sectors of society are functioning in a manner that is consistent with the ideals and aspirations of western civilization, even if I am not part of these institutions.

There are as many autodidacticisms as there are autodidacts; the undertaking is an essentially individual and indeed solitary one, even an individualistic one, hence also essentially an isolated undertaking. Up until recently, in the isolation of my middle age, I had questioned my avoidance of academia. Now I no longer question this decision of my younger self, but am, rather, grateful that this is something I understood early in my life. But that does not exempt me from an interest in the fate of academia.

All of this is preface to a conflict that is unfolding in Canada that may call the fate of the academy into question. Elements at the The University of Toronto have found themselves in conflict with a professor at the school, Jordan B. Peterson. Prior to this conflict I was not familiar with Peterson’s work, but I have been watching his lectures available on Youtube, and I have become an unabashed admirer of Professor Peterson. He has transcended the disciplinary silos of the contemporary university and brings together an integrated approach to the western intellectual tradition.

Both Professor Peterson and his most vociferous critics are products of the contemporary university. The best that the university system can produce now finds itself in open conflict with the worst that the university system can produce. Moreover, the institutional university — by which I mean those who control the institutions and who make its policy decisions — has chosen to side with the worst rather than with the best. Professor Peterson noted in a recent update of his situation that the University of Toronto could have chosen to defend his free speech rights, and could have taken this battle to the Canadian supreme court if necessary, but instead the university chose to back those who would silence him. Thus even if the University of Toronto relents in its attempts to reign in the freedom of expression of its staff, it has already revealed what side it is on.

There are others fighting the good fight from within the institutions that have, in effect, abandoned them and have turned against them. For example, Heterodox Academy seeks to raise awareness of the lack of the diversity of viewpoints in contemporary academia. Ranged against those defending the tradition of western scholarship are those who have set themselves up as revolutionaries engaged in the long march through the institutions, and every department that takes a particular pride in training activists rather than scholars, placing indoctrination before education and inquiry.

If freedom of inquiry is driven out of the universities, it will not survive in the rest of western society. When Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD (cf. Emperor Justinian’s Closure of the School of Athens) the western intellectual tradition was already on life support, and Justinian merely pulled the plug. It was almost a thousand years before the scientific spirit revived in western civilization. I would not want to see this happen again. And, make no mistake, it can happen again. Every effort to shout down, intimidate, and marginalize scholarship that is deemed to be dangerous, politically unacceptable, or offensive to some interest group, is a step in this direction.

To employ a contemporary idiom, I have no skin in the game when it comes to universities. It may be, then, that it is presumptuous for me to say anything. Mostly I have kept my silence, because it is not my fight. I am not of academia. I do not enjoy its benefits and opportunities, and I am not subject to its disruptions and disappointments. But I must be explicit in calling out the threat to freedom of inquiry. Mine is but a lone voice in the wilderness. I possess no wealth, fame, or influence that I can exercise on behalf of freedom of inquiry within academia. Nevertheless, I add my powerless voice to those who have already spoken out against the attempt to silence Professor Peterson.

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Saturday


Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

The viability of political entities

There is a well-known story that Benjamin Franklin was asked as he left Independence Hall as the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were in their final day, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s famous response to this was, “A Republic, madam — if you can keep it.” (The source of this anecdote is from notes of Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Convention, first published in The American Historical Review, vol. 11, 1906.)

The qualification implies the difficulty of the task of keeping a republic together, and keeping it republican. If doing so were easy, Franklin would not have bothered to note that qualification. That he did note it, in the spirit of a witticism, reminds me of another witticism from the American Revolution — quite literally an instance of gallows humor: “Gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we shall most assuredly all hang separately.” This, too, was from Benjamin Franklin.

The men who fomented the American Revolution, and who went on to hold the Constitutional Convention, were no starry-eyed dreamers. They were tough-minded in the sense that William James used that phrase. They had no illusions about human nature and human society. Their decision to break with England, and their later decision to write the Constitution, was a calculated risk. They reasoned their way to revolution, and they well knew that all that all that they had done, and all that they had risked, could come to ruin.

And still that American project could come to ruin. It is a work in progress, and though it now has some history behind it, as long as it continues in existence it shares in the uncertainty of all human things.

Recently in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I wrote:

“If human freedom were something ideal and absolute, it would not be subject to revision as a consequence of technological change, or any change in contingent circumstances. But while we often think of freedom as an ideal, it is rather grounded in pragmatic realities of action. If a lever or an inclined plane make it possible for you to do something that it was impossible to do without them, then these machines have expanded the scope of human agency; more choices are available as a result, and the degrees of human freedom are multiplied.”

The same can be said of the social technologies of government: if you can do something with them that you cannot do without them, you have expanded the scope of human freedom. The hard-headed attitude of the founders of the republic understood that freedom is grounded in the pragmatic realities of action. It was because of this that the American project has enjoyed the success that it has realized to date. And the freedoms that it facilitates are always subject to revision as the machinery of government evolves. Again, this freedom is not an ideal, but a practical reality.

It is not enough merely to keep the republic, as though preserved under glass. The trajectory of its evolution must be managed, so that it continues to facilitate freedom under the changing conditions to which it is subject. Freedom is subject to contingencies as the fate of the republic is subject to contingencies, and it too can come to ruin just as the republic could yet come to ruin. The challenge remains the same challenge Franklin threw back at his questioner: “If you can keep it.”

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Happy 4th of July!

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Freedom and Ressentiment

1 September 2013

Sunday


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sometimes when I am asked my favorite book I reply that it is Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which is the most systematic of his books on ethics and which gives his most detailed exposition of ressentiment. I reread the third essay in the book today — “What is the meaning of ascetic ideals?” — keeping in mind while I did what I wrote about freedom day before yesterday in Theory and Practice of Freedom.

To give a flavor of Nietzsche’s argument I want to cite a couple of passages from the book that I take to be particularly crucial. Firstly, here is the passage in which Nietzsche introduces the idea of ressentiment becoming creative and creating its own values:

“The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self ’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.”

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, EDITED BY KEITH ANSELL-PEARSON, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, TRANSLATED BY CAROL DIETHE, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 2007, p. 20

Near the end of the book, Nietzsche reiterates one of his central themes, that man would rather will nothing than not will:

“It is absolutely impossible for us to conceal what was actually expressed by that whole willing that derives its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hatred of the human, and even more of the animalistic, even more of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from appearance, transience, growth, death, wishing, longing itself — all that means, let us dare to grasp it, a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental prerequisites of life, but it is and remains a will! …And, to conclude by saying what I said at the beginning: man still prefers to will nothingness, than not will…”

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, EDITED BY KEITH ANSELL-PEARSON, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, TRANSLATED BY CAROL DIETHE, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 2007, p. 120

One of the themes that occurs throughout Nietzsche’s works is the critique of nihilism — Nietzsche finds nihilism in much that others fail to recognize as such, while Nietzsche himself has been accused of nihilism because of his iconoclasm. The immediately preceding passage strikes me as one of Nietzsche’s most powerful formulations of unexpected and unrecognized nihilism: willing nothing.

I think Nietzsche primarily had institutional religion in mind, especially those institutionalized religions that put a priestly caste in power (whether directly or indirectly), but there are plenty of examples of thoroughly secular forms of ressentiment developing to the point of creating its own values, and I think one of the principal forms of secular ressentiment takes the form of the denial or the repudiation or the rejection of freedom. The denial of freedom is a particularly pure form of the nihilistic will saying “No!” to life, since life, in the living of it, is all about freedom — we realize our freedom in the dizziness that is dread, and make our choices in fear and trembling. Many people quite literally become physically ill when faced with a momentous choice — so great a role does the idea of freedom play in our thoughts, that our thoughts are manifested physically.

The denial of freedom takes many forms. For example, it often takes the form of determinism, and determinism itself can take many forms. On my other blog I wrote about determinism from the point of view of the denial of freedom as a philosophical problem — something I wanted to do to counter the prevalent attitude that asks why so many people believe in their own freewill. This approach seems to me incredibly perverse, and the more reasonable question is to ask why so many people believe they do not have freewill. Now, Nietzsche himself was a determinist, so he likely would not be sympathetic to what I’m saying here, but that does not stop us from applying Nietzsche’s own ideas to himself (something Max Scheler also did in his book on Ressentiment).

Probably the most common form that the denial of freedom takes is a rationalization of a failure to take advantage of one’s freedoms. This is a much more subtle denial of freedom than determinism, and in fact assumes the reality of free will. If the palpable reality of freedom, and the potential upsets to the ordinary business of life that it presents, were not all-too-real, there would be no need to formulate elaborate rationales for not taking advantage of one’s freedom and opting for a life of conformity and servile acquiescence to authority.

Understanding that freedom is honored more in the breach than the observance was a well-trodden path in twentieth century thought. Although Freud had deterministic sympathies, his theories of reason as the mere rationalization of what the unconscious was going to do anyway incorporates both determinist and free willist assumptions. The denial of freedom is a central theme in Sartre’s work (the spirit of seriousness and the idea of bad faith are both important forms of the denial of freedom), and through Freud and Sartre the influence on twentieth century thought and literature was profound. I have previously cited the role of Gooper Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a paradigm of inauthenticity (in Existential Due Diligence).

All one need do is look around at the world we’ve made, with all its laws and statutes, its codes and regulations, its institutions and rules, its traditions and customs — it would be entirely possible to pass an entire lifetime in this context without realizing, much less exercising, one’s freedom. And these are only passive discouragements. When it comes to active discouragements to freedom, every nay-sayer, every pessimist, every wagging finger, every shaming tactic, every snide and cynical comment is an attempt to dissuade us from enjoying our freedom and entering into the same self-chosen misery of all those who have systematically extirpated all traces of freedom from their own lives.

Everyone who has given up freedom in their own life understandably resents seeing the exercise of freedom in the lives of others, and when this resentment turns creative it gives birth to every imaginable form of slander of freedom and of praise of servility — whether to a cause or to a movement or to an individual or to an institution — not to mention endless rationalizations of why the refusal of freedom isn’t really a refusal of freedom. Don’t believe it. Don’t believe any of it. Don’t buy into it. There is nothing in this world that is worth surrendering your freedom for — not matter how highly it is praised or how enthusiastically it is celebrated — this praise and this celebration of unfreedom is nothing but the creative response of ressentiment directed against freedom.

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Friday


...leaving Gotland...

…leaving Gotland…

It has been observed that, in Western countries at least, the idea of freedom is honored more in the breech than the observance. Individuals who make full use of their freedom are likely to be thought eccentric, and most social institutions both impose and expect a degree of conformity that makes a mockery of the idea of freedom. In other words, there is a bifurcation between the theory and the practice of freedom, in which freedom is celebrated as a wonderful thing in theory but is frowned upon in practice.

Every compromise to our freedom, no matter how slight, every expectation that we will go along to get along, every time we tolerate implicit coercion that channels lives in particular directions, all of the traditions and customs that we “honor” in the misguided spirit of filial piety, impinge upon our freedom, and it is this incremental encroachment of our freedom, the ever-so-gradual paring away of live options and possibilities, that develops into a world-view that prizes conformity over independence and authority over autonomy.

There is an important sense in which travel is the practice of the theory that is freedom. A fundamental part of freedom is freedom of movement, which is why, when we punish individuals, we incarcerate them and restrict their freedom of movement. To be deprived of one’s freedom of movement is to be deprived of one’s liberty. To make the most of one’s freedom of movement is to put into practice the idea of freedom, to live freedom and not merely to honor or respect it.

Some are deprived of their liberty by force, others by fraud, but the vast majority are deprived of their liberty by barriers that exist only because we allow them to exist. It is not quite accurate to say that most individuals live in a prison of their own making; it is worse: most live in a prison built by others, and accept it for what it is without questioning the walls, the boundaries, the perimeters, the accepted parameters of life.

There are degrees of freedom, as I observed a few days ago. One can cultivate additional degrees of freedom, but one can also leave freedom uncultivated, and in so doing implicitly and incrementally relinquish freedoms until the world narrows into something that cannot be called freedom in any sense of the term that is not a betrayal of its meaning.

When I get a taste of freedom by way of exercising my freedom of movement, it is a heady and intoxicating experience, and I want more. I think many freedoms are like this: shimmering just out of reach most of the time, but when possessed, embraced, indulged, and exhausted just the taste of it leaves us wanting more. The appetites of the body are readily satisfied, and, once satiated, leave us unperturbed for a time. The appetites of the mind — for freedom, for meaning, for value — are much more difficult to satisfy, but once we see our way clear to grasping them, we do not tire of them, and our appetite for them only expands with time.

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Gotland 12

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Saturday


Vaxholm 1

In my recent work on the expansion of civilization it has become increasingly obvious to me that transportation technology plays a central role in civilization, and that it will continue to do so in of the foreseeable future. While human agency involves an ideal freedom to make of itself what it chooses (unless one is a determinist), and this is the ideal sense of freedom that Sartre often emphasized in his writings (and also the ideal sense of freedom I tried to outline in a recent online conversation), ideal freedom is constrained in fact by the capacities of the human body. In terms of transportation, this means that your desire to travel wherever you like is limited to where your legs can carry you — and before hominids adopted bipedalism, it was limited to where your arms could take you in the treetops.

In response to the human, all-too-human constraints imposed on our movement (and therefore upon our freedom) we have created technologies that have served the function of making our actual freedom of movement more closely approximate our ideal freedom of movement. In respect to transportation technology, in the whole of history it would be difficult to name a more momentous breakthrough than that of the canoe. It was with a combination of walking and canoeing that hominids settled the entire Earth. Later, we integrated the whole of the Earth through technologies that made travel more rapid and more comfortable — the sailing ship, the bicycle, the train, the automobile, the airplane, and the spaceship. All of these technologies have advanced civilization while allowing actual human freedom to more closely approximate ideal freedom, and this relationship between freedom and the expansion of civilization is rarely appreciated.

Vaxholm 3

Even today, in the 21st century, the degrees of freedom one enjoys is predicated upon the transportation technologies to which one has access. If you are limited to walking, you can see a lot, but you can see much more in the same period of time if you have a bicycle, and much more yet if you have access to a car. But any of these technologies will still mean that you halt at the water’s edge, and given that the majority of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, your freedom is significantly constrained by being limited to travel on land.

And so it is in the Stockholm archipelago, which consists of thousands of islands. Not to be able to travel on the water here is a palpable and immediate limitation of freedom. Looking out over the Stockholm archipelago one sees not only countless little islands, but also a swarm of small boats connecting these islands together. Wanting to experience this for ourselves, my sister and I rented a boat in Vaxholm and added another degree of freedom to our travel in Sweden by taking to the water of the Stockholm archipelago and passing almost effortlessly between the many islands within easy reach of Vaxholm — even stopping at an island restaurant to have lunch among the pine trees with no sign of any car in sight.

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Vaxholm 2

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Wednesday


The idea of the individual has been central to Western Civilization; we can discern its earliest manifestations in ancient Greece, when potters signed their work and bragged that they were better than other potters; we can see its further development in the Italy of the renaissance, when men of virtú like Machiavelli and Lorenzo the Magnificent forcefully asserted themselves as rightful masters of their time; we can see the new forms that it has taken after the Industrial Revolution, where the office towers of New York, like the medieval towers of San Gimignano, assert the ascendancy and priority of the individual.

Whether you love it or hate it, you have to acknowledge that the US is where individualism has reached its most unconditional realization. Some people glory in American individualism, and some despise it. If a member of the commentariat or the punditocracy wants to put a positive spin on individualism, they will call it “rugged individualism,” whereas if they want to put a negative spin on individualism, they will call it “rampant individualism.” There are plenty of examples of both of these attitudes, and I invite the reader to stay alert for these linguistic clues in future reading.

Jean-Paul Sartre said of the skyscrapers of New York City, “Seen flat on the ground from the point of view of length and width, New York is the most conformist city in the world… But if you look up, everything changes. Seen in its height, New York is the triumph of individualism… There are individuals in America, just as there are skyscrapers. There are Ford and Rockefeller, Hemingway and Roosevelt. They are models and examples.”

When earlier today I posted a longish piece on Tumblr about Appearance and Reality in Demographics, I continued to think about the recent poll results that I mentioned there, WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, as well as an earlier poll from the Pew Forum, U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, that I mentioned some years ago (in 2008) in More on Republican Disarray. In particular, I thought about how wrong prognosticators, forecasters, and social commentators have been about the development of religion in the US. There is an obvious reason for this. The US is not only a disproportionately religious nation-state (as revealed in numerous polls), it is also, as I noted above, a disproportionately individualistic nation-state, and the confluence of these ideological trends, the religious and the individualistic, means that US culture is marked by religious individualism and individual religion.

I touched on this peculiar character of religion in America — i.e., religious individualism — in my post American Civilization, in which I cited the song Highwayman, jointed performed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings (and written by Jimmy Webb). This is an obvious pop culture example of what I am getting at, but the careful reader of classic American fiction will also reveal a religious individualism that frequently issues in pluralism, diversity, and the frankly eclectic. To put it bluntly, people believe whatever they want to believe.

Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, left to right, recorded the Jimmy Webb song The Highwayman and made a commercial success of it.

The attempt to pigeonhole American religious belief and practice always founders on the rock of religious individualism, which cannot be reliably classified in ideological terms. It is not consistently left or right, radical or traditional, liberal or conservative, activist or quietist — or, rather, it is all of these things at different times for different individuals.

Norman Rockwell’s iconic image of freedom of worship is for many a paradigmatic representation of American religiosity, which synthesizes in the single image the conformity and individualism that Sartre saw in American skyscrapers. Each worships according to his own conscience, but it just happens (I guess as a matter of pure chance) that everyone shows up at the white steepled church in the center of a picturesque American small town.

Individual religion takes the form of individual choice, and different individuals choose differently for themselves, and choose differently at different times in their life. This was one of the interesting results of the Pew Forum poll I mentioned above, which found a high level of religious observance in the US (everyone expected that), but when prying deeper found that, “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion.”

This Rockwell image of American religiosity, no less iconic but perhaps a tad more realistic than the image above, shows an inter-generational solidarity of faith that defies the cool disinterest of the hip crowd. This is, again, like the other Rockwell image above, what many people want to believe about American religious life.

While this may not sound too shocking prima facie, it would be difficult to overemphasize how historically unusual this is. One of the conflicts that marked the shift from the medieval world to the modern world in European history was that between the personal principle in law and the territorial principle in law (which latter emerges with the advent of the nation-state). Given the personal principle in law, an individual is judged according to his community. If you were a Christian on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and were accused of a crime in a Muslim country, you would be dealt with according to Christian law, not Muslim law. That how it was supposed to work, and sometimes it did work that way, and for the decentralized societies of medieval Europe the personal principle in law fit the loosely coupled structures of a nearly non-existent state.

A much less flattering portrayal of American religiosity is to be found in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. To reconcile the diverse imagines of Rockwell and Lewis you can imagine Elmer gantry preaching to the assembled small town congregation whose sincere faces, bowed in prayer, are depicted by Rockwell.

The personal principle in law persists today in the institution of diplomatic immunity, but apart from diplomats, those accused of a crime will be tried according to the law of the geographically defined nation-state where the crime occurred, and this legal process will have little or nothing to do with the ethnicity or traditional community of the accused individual. Again, that’s the way it’s supposed to work, though it is not difficult to cite violations of this principle.

College campuses and prisons are common sites for religious proselytizing, since young people going to college and away from home for the first time, and incarcerated persons having passed through the justice system, are particularly apt to convert to a faith not directly involved in their earlier life experience.

The personal principle in law is all about ethnicity and tradition and individual identity being defined by a traditional community, which in turn defined the individual in terms of his or her role in that community. The idea that an individual might change their religion was like suggesting that an individual could put on or take off an identity like a suit of clothes. This would have been utterly incomprehensible to our ancestors; for the US it is now a fait accompli, and the basis for the organization of our society. Just as serial monogamy has come to characterize American courtship and marriage patterns, so too serial faith choices, adopted sequentially throughout the life of the individual as that individual experiences personal crises that precipitate temporary religious identification, characterize American religious patterns.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

Indeed, one of the perennial themes of American life is that of personal re-invention (i.e., the putting on and taking off of identity). In the US, failure is not final. If things aren’t working out for you in Boston, you can move to Philadelphia, as Benjamin Franklin did. In a social context of personal re-invention and geographical fungibility, what counts is not one’s abject subordination to the community into which one happens to be born, but one’s cleverness and persistence in finding a place where one can feel at home. Part of this personal quest is also finding a faith in which one can feel at home, and this is not necessarily the faith of one’s parents or of one’s community.

In the context of religious individualism, orthodoxy counts for nothing. Or it counts for everything, but only because each man has his own orthodoxy, and there is no social mechanism in place in industrial-technological civilization to force the acquiescence of any individual to any other individual’s orthodoxy.

Even those who celebrate orthodoxy and who would welcome mechanisms of social control to force acquiescence to orthodoxy, cannot escape, at least while in America, the necessity of defining their own orthodoxy on their own terms. They are, in Rousseau’s terms, forced to be free, which in this context means they are forced to be religious individualists.

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A Note on Human Freedom

10 April 2010

Saturday


The ideas that we have of things often trump the reality of the things in themselves. The idea we have of human freedom or the idea we have of human nature can end up being more powerful than human freedom or human nature are in themselves.

I have several times cited Sartre’s contention that there is no such thing as human nature. In Existence precedes Essence and Human Nature I quoted at length from Sartre’s famous “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture to the effect that “If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.” In his later life, after he became a Marxist, Sartre repudiated his earlier absolutizing of human freedom, but certainly the earlier Sartre is more interesting that the later, compromised Sartre.

I have also had occasion to point out one could say that, for Sartre, human nature is simply identical to this absolute freedom he posits. Now I see that an absolutely free human nature is free to conceive of itself as unfree: human nature is nothing but human freedom, but human freedom is constrained both by material circumstances as well as by an idea of an authentic human nature, and these constraints in turn become de facto human nature. These constraints on human freedom are not necessary constraints; they do not inherently, ontologically limit human freedom. Nevertheless, they do constrain human freedom as a part of what Sartre called man defining himself.

As we all know so well, material circumstances vary considerably among individuals and social classes of individuals, so that what functions as a constraint for one individual or for one social class functions as a facilitation for another individual or another social class.

The idea of human nature that we entertain as a consequence of our place in history and society lacks the vulgar directness of material constraints, but for the same reason is all the more pervasive because abstract and apparently inevitable, as belonging to the realm of ideas rather than to the realm of things in an ever-changing Heraclitean flux. Our individual human nature is free, and because it is free we can impose upon it an idea of human nature. Because we are free, we are free to entertain any idea we like. But because we find ourselves in the midst of an existential context of family, community, society, and political subdivisions of humanity — that is to say, we find ourselves in history — we are likely to find in these pervasive, enveloping milieaux some already existing idea of what a man should be, or what a human being should be.

These twin constraints on human freedom — the material constraints that are imposed upon us and the intellectual constraints that we impose upon ourselves — are nicely summed up in a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, when she recounts her first and only meeting with Simone Weil:

“She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre outfits… I managed to get near her one day. I don’t know how the conversation got started. She said in piercing tones that only one thing mattered these days: the revolution that would feed all the starving people on the earth. I retorted, no less adamantly, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to help them find a meaning in their existence. She glared at me and said, ‘It’s clear you’ve never gone hungry.’ Our relations ended right there. I realized she had classified me as a high-minded little bourgeoise, and I was angry.”

In this exchange Weil represents the hard facts of materially imposed constraints on life — viz. hunger — while de Beauvoir represents the intellectual constraints upon life — viz. meaning. The early Sartre, with his emphasis upon the freedom of consciousness, is given voice by de Beauvoir; the later Sartre, with his emphasis upon the force of circumstances and practical ensembles, is already anticipated by Weil.

To a certain extent, the absolute freedom that the early Sartre expressed was more true in his milieu than it had been for previous generations. In a stable society, the idea of human nature is also stable. But from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, previously existing society and its social conventions were profoundly called into question. The Industrial Revolution changed societies and changed the social roles and life histories of individuals. I noted in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society that ever since the Industrial Revolution those societies that have industrialized have sought some kind of social consensus by which to live in industrialized societies. Two paradigms (or, if you prefer, two models) of industrialized life were tried and found wanting. The advanced industrialized regions of the world are still groping after the formulation of a third paradigm of life in industrialized society.

In times of social change the gap between the individual’s absolute freedom and the idea of human nature that he may impose on himself narrows: freedom has greater range to express itself, and the idea of human nature itself becomes more fluid and open to revision. In times of long term social stability (say, the tens of thousands of years of anatomically modern human existence prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, or the period from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution), human nature becomes an idée fixe and the gap between ideal, absolute human freedom and the idea of human nature becomes greater the longer these conditions obtain. This is one of the sources of acculturation to absence of change that I discussed in my Political Economy of Globalization.

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