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

Monday, September 26, 2016


I have never yet reblogged someone else's post, thought I have come close. This time I am coming very close indeed.

My last post but one commended a "politics above politics." That phrase may sound like a sort of in-the-air theoretical program, even though it specifically points to Aron's description of Cavaillès resistance work against the Occupation. I want to point to a particular instance of what I mean by it. It's a true story (though obviously it has been imagined in the text I'm pointing you to), about what the examined life means in practical terms. It has nothing to do with reading Spinoza, though it certainly has to do with "following necessity," with doing what must be done -- and not doing what must not be. It's an instance that may in fact (though experts argue) be responsible for your being around today.

So, go read this. It was published a year ago today, about a decision made 33 years ago today. If you already know the story, it's still a very beautiful and succinct re-telling. If you don't know it, you should.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Uses of indignation

This is a somewhat dashed-off response (which outgrew the comment box, whaddya know) to Kawingbird's comment on my previous post. This answer is somewhat scatter-shot, but I hope it addresses the points raised (if not adequately). Go read that comment for things here to make sense.

K. points out that "indignation," about which I cited Alexander Piatigorsky as saying that it must be avoided by a philosopher ("... he can be indignant only with himself"), is a standard translation of the term nemesis that Aristotle uses in the Nicomachean Ethics.

Now, a truly adequate response would need to address several other things. To begin with, Nemesis is also a goddess, and clearly a puzzling one; in pursuit of her, Zeus adopted the form of a swan and at least according to one myth thus fathered Helen. Nemesis is thus confused/conflated with Leda, just as Helen herself winds up confused with a phantom; and of course the whole tragic sage of the Trojan War follows ("...A shudder in the loins engenders there / the broken wall, the burning roof and tower / and Agamemnon dead..." as Yeats puts it.) Not an auspicious guardian deity for politics! And surely this is relevant, given the role anger plays in the Iliad from the first line on.

But n.b. that Piatigorsky does not rule out indignation per se; he insists that it find its proper object. Indignation seems to involve a sort of affront, how-dare-you. It implies (and this is tied into the etymology of "ought") that something else is owed. Is there then a debt that needs paying that is being forfeited or at least forestalled? Compare the fragment of Anaximander:
Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.
Now I don't want to run too blithely down the road to political ontology or vice-versa; I just want to register here the overlap between the implicit notion of debt in this context and the way the idea of [in]justice is deployed -- the way the ought and the is seem to interact in Anaximander in a way that is hard for moderns to take (i.e., "deriving "ought" from "is"). But this is also what one sees in someone like Cavailles, for whom Spinozism can be a metaphysical account of the world but clearly also indicates what we must do (and, after all, is unfolded in a book called "Ethics").

The problem however is not with the ought, i.e., with the falling short. This is indeed the meaning of "sin" as well. But the question is, to whom is this owed?

In answer to this question, indignation says: Me!! This is surely one admissible reading of the thumos of Achilles, and the corresponding, answering anger of Agamemnon. This "Me!" sounds through the world in a far different way than Hopkins means when he says:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself;
myself it speaks and spells,
Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
In Hopkins, the one note each thing sounds is "myself" in the sense of individuation. It's a message out into the world, rather than a demand for something from the world. Moreover, the context of Hopkins is expressly connected to the Aristotelian context K evokes, for the very next line Hopkins goes on to characterize this individuation: "I say more: the just man justices."

Now the indignant ego is not unconnected to the sense of justice, clearly; it is, after all, closely tied to the question of dignity, and one could ring the changes on this word philosophically for a long while: through all its resonance with decorum, praise, worth, worship, all the way to the theological anthropology implicit in the notion of imago dei. In my initial drafts for this post which I've now lost I had some excurses on the way megalopsychia in Aristotle interacts with dignity. This portion of the Ethics starts out almost seeming to promise that the reader has arrived at the hoped-for conclusion of an account of how to live; but by the end, it has gotten almost silly in its depiction of the bearing of the great-souled man (all the way down to his "slow, measured gait.") Contrast this with Socrates, always barefoot in the agora, or Diogenes in his tub!

Now I believe one can leverage a sense of indignation into philosophical insight, but the sucking force of the ego is extremely strong and dangerous. I am oversimplifying, but the ancient consensus seems to be that philosophers should basically eschew politics because it takes up too much time. I think there's a deeper, much more pertinent, reason behind that.

One further point: K characterizes me as saying one should air grievances, but keep a kind of emotional distance. I'm not merely calling for cooler heads prevailing here. I'm saying that naming the emotions is a crucial step in this process; not sufficient, but necessary. (As K writes, "it's always dangerous to think we've outgrown first steps.") I believe that a tremendous amount of ill follows from the fact that so much of our politics is conducted under the guise of bravado. I'm calling, I suppose, for a stance similar in certain ways to that advocated by Malcolm Bull in his Anti-Nietzsche: "read like a loser." I think that stopping being a victim requires first grasping how afraid one is of victimization.

Finally, Kawingbird writes:
I always find myself at this impasse when trying to think through politics. The general seems terribly relevant, the specific... rather philosophically dull.
As to the general and the specific: Yes. the post is torn in two directions, and it flounders as it tries to synthesize. This is one reason I re-wrote the post several times before I finally clicked 'publish' and I am still unsatisfied.