Thursday


revolutionary years with dates

Like 1968 and 1989, 2013 is looking a little like the original “Springtime of Nations” in 1848, when popular rebellions against entrenched power spontaneously emerged in widely divergent societies. While the energies released in these revolutionary movements proved to be too scattered to form the basis of a new political order that could replace the established political order — and far short of the ideal Novus ordo seclorum imagined by Virgil — the high political drama of such events leaves an impression that should not be denied or trivialized.

It is the historical exception that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Bolshevik Revolution resulted in far-reaching political changes that shaped the future of the planet entire. The first of these, the American Revolution that we celebrate today, far from being a mere ephemeral moment like the protests of today, established a political institution that was to dominate the planet, requiring less than two centuries to grow into the sole superpower in the world. Few Revolutions can boast of such an issue, but whether we want to celebrate the prescience of the Founding Fathers in pursing the expedient of regime change through political revolution and armed struggle, or whether we see this as the opening of Pandora’s Box is another matter.

How are we to understand revolution? The best summary that I have found of the nature of revolution itself is a paragraph from Sartre’s essay, “Materialism and Revolution.” This essay dates from before Sartre became a Marxist and a Maoist apologist. Mark Poster discussed the origins of this essay in the context of the post-war French communist movement and Sartre’s troubled relations with prominent French communists:

With the unrestrained polemics against Sartre from the Communists multiplying day by day, Sartre felt called upon to defend himself and his ideas. His response came in a lecture in 1945 called “Existentialism is a Humanism,” and in an article in Les Temps Modernes of 1946 entitled “Materialism and Revolution.” In these ripostes Sartre advertised his own existentialism as a true humanism, the only suitable philosophy for a liberating politics, over against the Marxism of the French Communist Party, which was a dehumanizing materialism. He proposed naively that the CP substitute existentialism for its own diamat. It was at this point in the controversy between Marxism and existentialism that the two camps were most sharply opposed and that the Communist criticisms of Being and Nothingness were most poignant. It was also at this point that Sartre was attacked by the Trotskyists because his lecture attacked Naville. Sartre’s response to the Communists was based, in general, on a defense of his concept of radical freedom as a needed ingredient in revolutionary theory: “…the basic idea of existentialism is that even in the most crushing situations, the most difficult circumstances, man is free. Man is never powerless except when he is persuaded that he is and the responsibility of man is immense because he becomes what he decides to be.”

Mark Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1975, pp. 125-126

It is a salutary exercise to remind ourselves that the later Sartre was but a shadow of his former, younger self, when he defended freedom and had not yet capitulated to Marxism — a capitulation that itself might be characterized as a failure of freedom, since Sartre capitulated to the apparent historical inevitability of Marxism, and the belief in inevitability is a form of fatalism and an abandonment of freedom (mauvaise foi, no less). In any case, here’s what Sartre wrote about revolution when he still thought that human freedom was central to revolutionary action:

“…a revolutionary philosophy ought to set aside the materialistic myth and endeavor to show: (1) That man is unjustifiable, that his existence is contingent, in that neither he nor any Providence has produced it; (2) That, as a result of this, any collective order established by men can be transcended toward other orders; (3) That the system of values current in a society reflects the structure of that society and tends to preserve it; (4) That it can thus always be transcended toward other systems which are not yet clearly perceived since the society of which they are the expression does not yet exist — but which are adumbrated are in, in a word, invented by the very effort of the members of the society to transcend it.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Literary and Philosophical Essays, “Materialism and Revolution,” New York: Collier Books, 1955, p. 235

There is a lot going on in this passage. Its vision of a society that continually transcends itself through revolution is an explicit negation of Comte de Maistre’s finitistic political theory, which shows both Sartre and de Maistre in their true political colors: Sartre as a revolutionary, and de Maistre as a reactionary.

This passage also formulates a social and collective expression of what in Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I called Sartre’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Individuals, or, more briefly, Sartre’s Principle. I contrasted Sartre’s principle as an individualistic principle to Gibbon’s principle — namely, that no assembly of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own — which is a collective or political principle. But now I see that I could have dispensed with Gibbon and formulated the principle both in its individualistic and collectivistic forms with reference only to Sartre.

In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I argued that the individual principle, Sartre’s Principle, was ultimately the foundation of the freedom of societies and social wholes; in other worlds, social freedom supervenes upon individual freedom.

The nearly unique value placed upon individual liberty in the American revolution is significant here: this was a revolution that was successful because it recognized the supervenience of social liberty upon individual liberty. The French and Bolshevik revolutions gave way to terrors and atrocities because their vision was of a Rousseauian majoritarianism in which the individual was to be “forced to be free.” That didn’t turn out to well.

Many of those protesting and marching and rebelling today also believe in the possibility of society transcending itself to another order, even if they cannot precisely imagine what that order will be; these efforts are likely to be successful only in so far as they respect individual liberty as the foundation of social liberty. To the extent that this grounding of liberty in the individual is denied — indeed, in so far as it is denied in the US today by fashionable anti-individualists — these efforts will fail to bear fruit.

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Happy 4th of July!

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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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Thursday


In my recent post on neo-agriculturalism I mentioned the back-to-the-land movement that was especially prevalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Often the back-to-the-land movement was undertaken (when it was in fact undertaken) as a family affair. In its more radical and ideologically-motivated forms, however, the back-to-the-land movement involved the founding of communes.

Communes are a venerable American tradition. In the nineteenth century there were several American experiments with communes — proving the durability of the “back-to-the-land” movement — the most famous of which was the Brook Farm. Brook Farm became famous not least because Nathaniel Hawthorne lived there for a time and based his novel The Blithedale Romance on his experiences there.

A number of utopian currents fed into the nineteenth century vogue for communes, so they were probably doomed from the start. Take a little socialism, mix in Fourierism and some New England transcendentalism, liberally season with naïveté and youthful ideals, and you get a nineteenth century American commune. Since most of these short-lived institutions were founded by intellectuals with more experience of books and writing than of farming and animal husbandry, the stories that come out of these noble social experiments often sounds like a frighteningly close anticipation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, where one or a few members of the community (like the workhorse in Orwell’s fictional account) take on the actual burden of engaging in the unpleasant but necessary labor that makes life possible, while the rest shut themselves in their cottages to read and write.

One thing that can be said for the nineteenth century communes is that these visionaries and idealists actually tried to put their visions and ideals into practice. They not only talked the talk, they also tried to walk the walk — at least for a time. Which brings me to my theme: while there are a few experiments in communal living today, relative to the size of the global population these experiments are quite rare.

For those on the political left who favor cooperativism over individualism (the tension between which two I recently discussed in Addendum on Marxist Eschatology), and for those who have strongly advocated for communal living and cooperativist ideals — whether on the basis of a social philosophy or a particular understanding of economics — the establishment of a commune provides the possibility of a concrete experiment in communal living. And almost all of these have been failures. I find this to be highly significant, and the absence both of voluntary communism and discussion of the failure of communes to be also very significant.

For quite some time I have been meaning to write about the absence of voluntary communism and voluntary communes, which is, sociological speaking, very interesting. Yes, I know there are a few communes that are functioning, and there are long-term experiments in communal living such as the Kibbutz movement in Israel, but these amount to little when compared to what might have been… or what might yet be. If one really believes that a communal way of life is a good thing, or that the economics of communal living are superior to the economics of anarchic, unplanned and individualist capitalism, then one is free to make common cause with others of similar beliefs and to create a little utopia of one’s own — or rather of the community doing so together, in a spirit of mutual cooperation and shared sacrifice — even in the midst of capitalism.

In the twentieth century — so different from the experience of the nineteenth century — it became the tradition not to voluntarily establish communes, but to attempt to create communal living arrangements by threat of force and military coercion. This was the fundamental idea of what I have called The Stalin Doctrine, which Stalin himself formulated as: “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise. If now there is not a communist government in Paris, the cause of this is Russia has no army that can reach Paris in 1945.” This is the paradigm of non-voluntary communism.

These twentieth century “experiments” — which we might call “socialism under duress” — were enormous, catastrophic failures. We must not allow the short-sightedness of contemporary institutions or the nostalgia of memory to attempt to paper over the complete and utter failure of large-scale collectivism. The nation-states that attempted to put collectivism into practice, whether by a complete attempt at communism or a more gradual process of the nationalization of industry and expanding the social welfare state, are still suffering from the effects of this, and will continue to suffer for many decades, if not centuries.

What then of small-scale collectivism? Why should not those who are alive today, who believe strongly in collectivist ideals and who campaign and protest for these ideals, when there are precious few large-scale social experiments under way, get together and try socialism on a voluntary basis, without barbed wire and without armed guards in watchtowers forcing the residents of a presumptively communal society to remain against their will? Why not demonstrate to the world entire that collectivism is not dependent upon The Stalin Doctrine and that a social system need not have an army at its command in order to succeed?

Please don’t try to tell me that it can’t work. We know that one of the few Western institutions that functioned during the Middle Ages was that of cenobitic monasticism, which were isolated and nearly closed communities that not only survived, but ultimately thrived in the lawless conditions of medieval Europe. In fact, medieval monastic communities were so successful that they eventually became multi-national corporations that held enormous properties and governed some of the largest industries of the late middle ages. This was why Henry VIII dissolved them and expropriated their properties (and the revenues from these properties) for the crown.

Please don’t try to tell me that communal and cooperativist living must be global or the system simply won’t work, because the same cenobitic monastic communities just mentioned were almost always isolated islands of communal living. And, again, please don’t try to tell met that the initial capital for such an experiment is lacking, because there are quite a few wealthy individuals with collectivist sentiments who could easily sponsor a few hundred acres and a few dozen buildings as the seed for a contemporary voluntary commune.

What is lacking today is not the means or the opportunity to engage in voluntary collectivist living, but the will. The fact of the matter is that individualism has become what Fukuyama has called, “a systematic idea of political and social justice” much more so than the idea of liberal democracy, and this is because individualism is the practical implementation of what Fukuyama has called “The Drive for Dignity.” People today rarely if ever advocate individualism as a political philosophy — it sounds selfish when expressed explicitly — but they don’t need to advocate for individualism when then live its doctrines 24/7.

Whether in the heyday of non-voluntary communism during the twentieth century, or those who protest today for collectivist ideals, communism is always seems to be something for other people. Just as the Kim dynasty has lived in personal luxury while the people of North Korea starve, or Presidente Gonzalo lived in an upscale Lima apartment while directing the Maoist insurgency in Peru, or the Nomenklatura enjoyed the privileges of the elite under the Soviet Union, or the Princelings (children of communist party leaders) in China use their connections to become wealthy, those with presumably the greatest stake in collectivist living never want to live collectively themselves.

It is important to point out that when we speak of voluntary or non-voluntary communism we talking about a social arrangement that can be chosen or rejected. In the sense in which Marx discussed communism, and the sense in which I have recently written about communism in Marxist Eschatology and Addendum on Marxist Eschatology, communism is an historical force that is larger than the individual, and not something that can be chosen or rejected.

Thus we are talking about two fundamentally different things here:

1. communism as a political idea, which as such behaves according to the presuppositions of political society, being chosen by individuals or imposed by force, and…

2. communism as an historical idea, which as such is a category of historical understanding whereby we interpret and understand the large-scale movements and patterns of human society

The distinction is a subtle one, because a political idea often emerges from an historical idea implicit within a given political milieu, while an historical idea will often be used to analyze political ideas. But the difference, while subtle, is important, because the two kinds of ideas are opposed as contraries: with a political idea, essence precedes existence, while with an historical idea, existence precedes essence.

We should expect to find that the other possible futures that I have discussed alongside communism — extraterrestrialization, pastoralization, singularization, and now also neo-agriculturalism — will be expressed as both political ideas and historical ideas. And, in fact, when we pause to think it over, we do find that there are those thinking of political terms who want to foster the creation of a society that embodies these historical movements, while there are others thinking in historical terms of these possibilities as ideas already present at history and only discovered upon analysis.

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Saturday


Yesterday in Marxist Eschatology I wrote:

Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas.

While on my other blog in Marx and Fukuyama I wrote:

With Marx, we can identify a “bend in the road” of history at which point Marx might be proved right or wrong. For some people — wrongly to my mind — this point was identified as the end of the Cold War. To my mind, it is the full industrialization of the world’s economy. Thus Marx’s thesis has the virtue of falsification.

This calls for a little clarification, since if interpreted uncharitably it might be found contradictory for Marxism to be a perennial idea and to be falsifiable, since what distinguishes a perennial idea is that it is not falsifiable — at least, not in a robust sense of falsification.

Karl Popper was the philosopher who formulated falsifiability as a criterion of scientificity (I’m not certain he was the first, be he has definitely been the most influential in advancing the idea of falsifiability, especially in contradistinction to the logical positivist emphasis on the verifiability criterion), and he discussed Marx at some length. Here’s nice summary from one of Popper’s later works:

“As I pointed out in my Open Society, one may regard Marx’s theory as refuted by events that occurred during the Russian Revolution. According to Marx the revolutionary changes start at the bottom, as it were: means of production change first, then social conditions of production, then political power, and ultimately ideological beliefs, which change last. But in the Russian Revolution the political power changed first, and then the ideology (Dictatorship plus Electrification) began to change the social conditions and the means of production from the top. The reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of revolution to evade this falsification immunized it against further attacks, transforming it into the vulgar-Marxist (or socioanalytic) theory which tells us that the ‘economic motive’ and the class struggle pervade social life.”

Karl Popper, Unended Quest, “Early Studies,” p. 45

I should point out that I agree with Popper’s arguments, and that Marxism construed in the narrow sense that Popper construed it was falsified by the events of the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s “weakest link of capitalism” theory was instrumental in the reinterpretation of Marxism that Popper mentioned. Beyond Lenin, Mao made even more radical changes by shifting the focus from the industrial proletariat to the agricultural peasant. It is a testament to the extent to which the twentieth century was not fully industrialized that it was Maoism rather than Marxism or Leninism that was the form of communism that reached the masses during the last century.

However, I think that there is a species of Marxism that lies between Popper’s narrowly conceived Marxism and the vulgar Marxism reinterpreted in the light of apparent falsification, and this is a Marxism that has been generalized beyond the historically specific conditions of the Russian Revolution, and even beyond the Cold War, which had almost nothing to do with democracy or communism and almost everything to do with national rivalry and the great game of power politics.

I have called a generalized Marxism a species of Marxism, and herein lies to clue to the distinction between Marxism and a perennial idea in the strict sense. Marxism (of one variety or another) is a species that falls under the genera of collectivist political thought. The latter — collectivist political thought — is a perennial idea, and lies beyond falsification. It is neither true nor false, but an ongoing influence, just like its implied contrary, which is individualist political thought. Individualism also lies beyond falsification, and is neither true nor false but remains an ongoing influence in human affairs.

Most forms of capitalism are individualist in orientation, though not all: oligarchical capitalist societies (like medieval Venice) had little to do with individualism. Thus a generalization of capitalism does not always lead to individualism. A generalization of capitalism, depending on its subtle differences in tone of market activity from one society to another, may lead to individualism, but it may also lead to a profoundly hierarchical crony capitalism, or to some other socio-economic formation.

Speaking generally for ideas, and not just communism and capitalism, and indeed not just political and economic ideas but all ideas, the generalization of an historically situated and therefore specific idea usually leads to a perennial idea if the generalization is sufficiently radical. The generalization of capitalism may or may not lead to individualism, but it will eventually lead to some perennial idea which lies beyond falsification, whether that idea is patriarchalism or something else. The generalization of Marxism, I think, leads more directly to a perennial form of collectivist thought, which at its greatest reach of generality is scarcely distinguishable from a vague sentimental connection to others.

The species of Marxism that I have posited — midway between Marxism narrowly conceived and Marxism generalized to the point of a vague feeling of cooperative common cause — is falsifiable, but it is not falsifiable by experiment. It is only falsifiable by history. It shares this property with other theses in the philosophy of history. This is one of the fundamental distinctions between the natural sciences and at least some of the historical sciences: theses in some of the historical sciences are falsifiable, but they are not falsifiable on demand. One can only wait and see if they are eventually falsified. With the passage of time the inductive evidence of an unfalsifiable thesis in the philosophy of history increases, but is never confirmed. Thus the philosophy of history, contrary to most expectations, is the most science-like of the branches of philosophy.

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Axiological Accident

8 January 2010

Friday


Defiance is what makes us individuals. Defiance of the norm, of the smothering, all-embracing universals of community, of quotidian life, makes us stand out as human beings worthy of that title. To become an individual, to become a human being, to live as an individual human being, is the goal that each should have before him at all times. To become what one is is to become an individual.

In my axiology, in so far as I have one, value is only to be found in the individual and the particular. Beauty is in Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and not in some amorphous idea of beauty; truth is in particular truths and not in the Platonic form of the true; virtue is in individual acts of virtue, in virtuous traits of character. And all of these, as well, are accidents (in the Aristotelian sense) — highly personal manifestations of the desire to make something of life, and to use the world to its best end. There is a deviancy in all greatness, and a homogeneity in all mediocrity that styles itself as the good.

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