Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The euro and the tarantula

Thinking about the panic and unimaginable sums involved in the shaky European economy of late, I am reminded of the book An Eye for an Eye by Law professor and Norse saga scholar William Ian Miller. This may not seem an obvious book to shed light on the European Union, but bear with me. The E.U. is the fruit of the labors of statesmen and intellectuals and bureaucrats, Nietzsche's "exceptions," as Joe likes to call them, in trying to bring to realization the tendency Nietzsche named when he said that "Europe wants to become one" (BGE 256). Of all these thinkers, Kojeve stands out as a genuine philosopher. Kojeve's influential interpretation of Hegel held essentially that in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel had correctly described the course and driving motor of history: mutual recognition, which became a possibility only under liberal democracy. Well, strictly speaking, Kojeve seems to have been an agnostic about this; he called himself a Stalinist. It was Fukuyama, of course, who argued that the toss-up Kojeve had seen between the rival (left and right) interpretations of Hegel had been clearly decided by the 1989 collapse of communism. History had ended; our understanding of justice as mutual recognition is complete. All that remained was to concretely establish de facto what Hegel had already described de jure. This Kojeve had devoted his life to doing, essentially laying the foundations for the spreading far and wide of the Code Napoleon. His own thinking on the question was given in his Outline of a Phenomenology of Right.

Kojeve's thought is infamously challenging, and my "sketch" above is a caricature; but my post is not about it anyway. Miller's book is more or less the opposite of this: a fairly unflinching "anti-theory" of justice. "Anti-," he says, because it is specific not general; it is actually very much like a Nietzschean "genealogy." (And indeed, it was by following a link on the Nietzsche Blog run by Brian Leiter that I first found Miller's book, an entry in a compiled list of the best philosophy books and papers of 2000-2009). Miller's book ought to be read and thought seriously about by anyone reflecting upon philosophy in "the City," as Joe likes to say. It is an extended meditation upon the history of lex talionis, the justice of retribution; the specific metaphors it depends upon and the specific practices it entails. The body, Miller points out, remains the focal point of lex talionis and the societies of honour in which it functions. Miller never mentions Fukuyama, Kojeve, or Strauss, but if one wants to grasp what Fukuyama means in The End of History & the Last Man by thymos from the old Greeks, one could do a lot worse than reading Miller.

Indeed, though he hardly advocates a return to the bad old days of behanding or blood feuds, Miller makes a very strong case that we have sublimated our ways of "getting even," specifically by reducing damages to money, to our detriment, partly because we no longer can speak with a good conscience about retribution. Since any notion of justice as "getting even" hinges upon valuation (because any penalty I pay you for a wrong I caused must be reckoned--valued--as "equal" somehow to the wrong), thinking of justice depends crucially on values in general, and Nietzsche was (once again) just calling it like he saw it when he said that the crisis of his day, and ours, was precisely a crisis of valuation. Our contemporary monetarization of justice, in the shape of fines and "damages," is clearly a blunt instrument at best, and a strong case could be made for its being a wholesale evasion. I'm even tempted to say that the (near?) shipwreck of the Euro zone is a direct consequence of the attempt to force a false consensus of values by way of the idols of the marketplace, as though spending a single currency could make E pluribus unum. I'm not a neocon or even a paleocon, but I am struck by the recent observation of George Will, the public intellectual of the American right who I respect the most, that the bridges and monuments on the Euro are fictitious and precisely "utopian," and his diagnosis of what this means. In particular, Will contends,
If money represents, as Emerson said, the prose of life, the euro reflects a determination to make European life prosaic. It is an attempt to erase nationalities and subsume politics in economics in order to escape from European history. The euro pleases dispirited people for whom European history is not Chartres and Shakespeare but the Holocaust and the Somme. The euro expresses cultural despair.
One need not go this far, but clearly the debate over the identity of Europe and its "others," in particular its Arab and Muslim others, turns obsessively if subliminally upon the possibility of saying who "we" are and what we value, which in the end is the same thing.

Nietzsche dreamed, in Zarathustra's discourse to the tarantulas, of the delivery of humankind from revenge. I am still a long way from having thought all this through, but clearly the Christian notion of forgiveness suffered in the West from being brought under the ruling metaphor of the law court, rather than the hospital. I do not want to argue in any simplistic sense that "Europe's woes" are to be attributed to the loss of its religious culture. But I am quite sure that the picture of God the righteous judge could not survive the Code Napoleon. Not for the first time, I am moved to reflect that what the church needs is more Buddhism. But more real Christianity would do, too.


  1. Hey Bryan, you know I continue to think that Kojeve was only half right. The Left-Hegelianism he represented (it culminates in him) has been guilty of splitting Hegel in two. For Hegel, on the one hand there was the State, and on the other Religion. It was a mistake to sunder them. I think this is why I still read Bataille. He had two philosophical obsessions: the left-Hegelianism of Kojeve, and he had Nietzsche.

    And they were at war. But I believe he always dreamed of somehow putting both the Reason of the State and the lost Intimacy of ancient Religion together in a society that could endure. The deep problem is not economics, whether Capitalist or Socialist; the problem is that today 'Values' only have an (or at least only have a generally recognized) economic meaning.

    Just as there can never be only a single 'We', so too there cannot be one set of values. A living society always has antagonisms; the question is - how do we understand them? ...And 'finesse' them.

    This is why that great split in the Indo-Eurpean world between priests and warriors is so interesting. There is, on the one hand, the practical, the things that can be done, handled by the warriors and their great Avatars: the Jurists, the 'Political', and Businessmen. And on the other hand there are always things that can't be 'done' (that is, overcome), such as suffering, death and the unknown. For all this one needs shaman, poet, and priest.

    Perhaps even Philosophy too! As Farabi said, the theoretically true is what no one can do. The 'doable' can be handled by the practical men and their avatars; - but for the rest? If even Theory (Reason) cannot ever radically ground itself then Religion becomes an Anthropological Category (like the 'Social', like 'Economics') that exists as long as Humanity endures.

    ...This may be the hardest lesson that our Enlightenment (now several centuries old) has to learn.

  2. Joe~~

    As you know, I do not think religion is going away anytime soon, nor that it ought to.

    When the Enlightenment came colliding head-on with the practical (in the founding of the American nation), it had to use multiple and conflicting values as the motor of getting anything done at all. The federalist system was one way of building a kind of internal combustion engine whereby the pressure generated by these values-in-conflict could be put to work.

    It is worth noting that one of the important elements in this engine was the establishment clause in the US Constitution, article I. "Separation of church and state," as it is popularly mis-known, is meant (under my model-T model of the enlightenment project which I'm sort of winging here) to control the amount of direct influence of religion in government and the public sphere generally, but (needless to say) not to prevent such influence (which would just cause an uncontrolled explosion). Moreover, it is meant to keep influence from running too much in the other direction, which makes for a bad feedback loop.

    Two differences: 1) the American colonies were uniting of practical necessity (and even then it took them a protracted process than one could argue extended as long as the Civil War). A united Europe on the other hand is a pet project undertaken by very rich and powerful 'exceptions'. one might argue there's some sort of dialectical necessity here, but I can only shrug at that. 2) The Enlightenment in Europe came on the heels of (and in reaction to) the wars of religion; the 'infamous thing' that needed crushing was in its midst. The American Enlightenment never had this anti-religious animus. I am leaving aside the question of the "real attitudes" of the founders towards deism, Christianity, etc; the point it, this never got any purchase in America, precisely in part by virtue of the establishment clause, but mainly because America had the frontier-- a ton of resources, and a built-in "enemy" to defeat in the native Americans. With enemies like that, who needed Christians?

    Europe is now as close as it's ever been to the dream of a "non-believing" land, with religion in little reservations and museums. Has its unbelief helped it? This is arguable. I shudder to think what a nuclear-armed Europe would have done in the days of the crusades. For all its apparent crisis of values, the conversation Europe is having now about immigration (which as everyone knows has Islam for its subtext) is at least an attempt to wrestle with this without (or is it only before?) having recourse to war. This is one reason I think Tariq Ramadan is an important figure; he is engaging the Enlightenment from both within and without at the same time.

    Your quote from Farabi brings to mind a certain paradox. it is much easier to countenance contradiction in real-life practice ("compromise") than in values; easier in values ("incompatible goods" than in reason; easier in reason ("dialectics") than in reality. And yet, what is more real than real life? This shows us just how deep Plato's cave really is. It is shaped like a Klein-bottle. No wonder the philosopher has to go back inside again! "The way up is the way down."

  3. Right, America is a special case, different from Europe. In spite of the conflicting values at the Founding, America had no (or, better said, comparatively little) History at its back, like Antient Royalty, to get in the way. The reconciliation of Dutch, English and Scotch colonists was relatively simple.

    The 'federal system', of course, is at bottom a monument of despair. Its roots are to be found in what Polybius called "Anacyclosis", although Plato and Aristotle had discussed it too. Anacyclosis means that political forms degenerate, over time, into tyranny. The American Government intended to take the best of the 'good' ancient forms (Rule by One, Rule by the Few, Rule by the Many) and build something that would endure.

    And yes, the 'Separation Clause' was meant to be a 'regulator' not a firewall. The influence of Religion would come through custom and the voting of the electorate. This kept any Church from imposing its views but it also allowed room for change. It is this last that is most important.

    The movement towards European Unity is a response to American power and decolonization. So you see I think European Unification is also rooted in practical necessity. But I agree that the Enlightenment's animus towards religion had its roots in the Religious Wars that America did not directly experience. Of course, some of the colonists had originally come to America to get away from all that. The 'Separation Clause' was meant to prevent the recurrence of religious wars here in the 'New World' - not to prevent religion.

    Hegel somewhere makes the same point you did at the end of your largest paragraph: without the frontier the American Revolution would eventually end in Reaction.

    But let's talk again about Hegelianism - if only for a moment. Kojeve teaches that the Mastery of the Exceptions is an impasse; that the First Fight is endlessly re-enacted. Properly (i.e., Hegelo-Kojevean) speaking, it is not History. Kojeve and Nietzsche agree on this. Kojeve deplores it; and Nietzsche? - He plays the prophet of the Eternal Return and 'celebrates' it.

    Nietzsche, in walking away from the ancient project of turning exceptions into philosophers and also turning his back on the modern project of turning exceptions into ordinary people, has radically changed political philosophy. Eternal Return is Itself a consequence of Nietzschean Psychology! The Exceptions re-enact the first fight ...forever.

    The baneful consequences of Anacyclosis can only be held off for so long. One can buy time with the discovery of a 'New World', the invention of a new 'World-View', or even a new technology; but the inevitable always eventually happens.

    A Klein-bottle? Very good! Or Plato's Cave is a Labyrinthian Circle (you recall how Borges so loved and feared these confections?) in which we find our joy and our death and everything else... It was, after all, within the Labyrinth of the ancient City that Philosophy first found Herself.

    And by the gods! - how she laughed!