Tag Archives: philosophy

American Dream, American Reality

15 Jul

What to do with the American Dream? On the Fourth of July I busted out the red, white, and blue attire, not out of irony, nor to follow a herd of over-the-top ‘Murica bravado that seems to think wearing certain clothing is a sign of patriotic superiority. No, it was an honest statement of belief: for everything this country gets wrong, it’s an exceptional place to be.

As I’ve written before, I’m both deeply committed to the Dream and an unapologetic critic of what it tries to do. My loyalty is conservative in nature: I’m unable to come up with any more plausible ordering principle for a society short of a fanciful revolution, and we all know how that worked out for those who tried it in the 20th century. It has withstood the demise of most competing ideologies, and it helps unite a giant, disparate nation. It taps into some fundamental aspect of the human psyche, and even when the revolts are abortive, its spirit can be found from Havel to Bolívar, from Tiananmen to Tahrir.

In a Mexican park back in 2010, I released myself from any obligation to a sense of political destiny. Ever since, I’ve oscillated between rallying cries for the Dream and building a bunker to guard myself against its impending doom. I wonder if and when its real weaknesses will come out into the open and doom the project, and what will happen in the aftermath. The question of our times is whether this abstract dream is enough to keep a nation united and strong. It’s supple enough to deal with changes over time, but runs a risk of vagueness and hypocrisy, should the Dream ever sour. It’s both human destiny and a sure disaster, a center broad enough that can unite the spectrum behind a governing vision or send it all into chaos as it narrows political reality into a stultifying elite class.

These questions became real during my final two years at Georgetown, a surefire incubator of the American elite. It’s not quite Harvard Law, and there are plenty of Hoyas who take roads less traveled, but let there be no doubt: most of its graduates end up on top of the heap, either in politics or business or in institutions that shape culture, from academia to the media. The trouble is that so few people who come out of these places recognize their status, or stop their relentless pursuit of dreams to meditate on what it means to be an elite. Sure, there are efforts to tell people to “check your privilege,” but these are often too wrapped up in a left-wing agenda to say much to most of the people involved. Many who are have worked (or been spoon-fed) their way up never really recognize how far they’ve come; others, born into the upper middle class comfort of those who rose up in a previous generation, don’t see it for what it is. It just seems natural, and with a dominant culture that emphasizes a comfortable suburban home as the peak of Americana, they don’t realize how out of step their experience is with the national mainstream.

This isn’t to say most of these people take their comfort for granted. Thanks to an uncertain economic climate, they’re understandably fixated on keeping what they’ve got. The upper middle class will defend its status with every weapon at its disposal. (Witness the looming war over enforcement of the Fair Housing Act in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision.) In fact, they’ll win these wars because they mostly don’t see themselves as an entitled upper class, born to rule; they just see themselves as normal people defending what they’ve earned. And who could blame them? When liberal ideals collide with realities family life, the ideals usually wind up dead.

The superstructure of American politics reflects an underlying post-World War II cultural unity, where a consistent majority conforms to a few cultural touchstones that define what it means to be an American Dreamer. The U.S.’s two-party system, built on this consensus, all but guarantees governance by a meritocratic party of the center. For all the foaming mouths, and some noble exceptions aside, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties have much more in common with each other than they do with the bases for whom they claim to go to war. On the whole the arc trends leftward, given the cultural power of the media to shift the debate, but the Republican Party’s donor class is all on board, and we have it to thank for the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain. The unity is clearly political, but even more significantly, it’s cultural. Any vocal opposition comes from libertines and libertarians who may be a bit radical for the center as a whole, but speak the same language and tend to be the vanguard for what may come. As guardians of rights and freedoms, they speak to that Dreamy consensus behind it all.

These powerful Dreams emote freely, play off simple passions and make the most basic ones the foundation of a culture. In a way, this is impressively universal: who doesn’t want to be free? But if the only thing we stand for is some vague cry to freedom with few details beyond, it runs the risk of playing to the lowest common denominator, and of course the cheap buck. Confronted with big questions about why we’re here, we shrug our shoulders and mumble a few platitudes about freedom, the arc of history, and gut instincts for what is right and what is wrong.

The result is a mass culture that reflects the vague morality. I certainly don’t pine for some past age of unquestioned moral absolutes, but most people don’t realize how much agency they now need to carve out a coherent narrative for themselves. Many abdicate on this responsibility, and it’s more than a little amusing how basically everyone, no matter their politics, winds up complaining about the ills of popular culture while sucking it all up anyway. It’s a natural outgrowth of the political, social, and economic world we inhabit, and with such a monolithic underlying morality, it’s a chore to pick good and bad things out of it without blowing up the whole enterprise.

And so people throw up ad hoc, incoherent barriers for themselves and their children, from sex to tolerance of violence to where we do our shopping to the groups of people we commune with. For many this is not a reflective process; one just puts up personal barriers based on family tradition and a few life lessons. Others (here I include my own childhood) play around the fringes, consciously sheltered from mass culture to varying degrees. Those who have a solid counterculture (usually of a religious nature) to fall back on can stay there, but most people, lacking such anchors, will drift back into the center of the stream at varying paces, and with varying qualms. We’re all sellouts, but considering an alternative would be far too radical, far too disruptive of this comfort in which we’ve ensconced ourselves.

Same as it ever was? Perhaps; it’s only right that we have to negotiate many of these things for ourselves, learning as we go. It can be an edifying, educational process. But economic and social trends seem to suggest that the wealthy and well-educated are much better at this than those who are not, and this only leads to increasing divides and discomfort over the proposed paternalistic solutions. There’s also something particular about this modern age, with blurred lines between public and private life and the intrusion of technology into most every facet, that makes healthy separation from the dominant culture that much more difficult.

This reality eats at many talented and thoughtful people, forced to negotiate the schizophrenic relationship between mainstream culture and our ambitions. We want to do great things, but to do so, one has to play on the mainstream playing field—a realm that immediately imposes conformity and chokes off the most daring dreams. Abandon that center and you’re a fringe figure who can only speak for one little area, a provincial afterthought who will generate little more than a cult following. And for all your efforts to convince yourself that you’re not running away, that you’re cultivating something worth keeping here in your own little corner of the world, the center may still come knocking and swallow you up.

It’s an old critique of democracy, one that resonates from Aristotle to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, and it holds up because it works. Democracy requires room for minority rights and clean avenues from the bottom to the top, or else it will calcify into a tyrannical majority, perhaps even totalitarian in its reach. Bread and circuses may amuse the masses for a while, but there’s no escaping the hunger at the heart of human nature that will push people to hunt for something more. Unless we medicate it away with enough drugs, I suppose.

And so we are left with an achingly slow fin de siècle. The continued suburban sort broke down the illusion of a solid white middle class that was the core of the postwar consensus, and an increasingly diverse nation has growing numbers who, quite understandably, find fault in that old ideal. For now, at least, we lack the existential threats that inspired past spurts of national pride; sure, al-Qaeda and its ilk make for a decent foil, but they’re no Nazis or Soviets, and we can go about our business most days without worrying too much about them. American wars, when not fought by drone, are now fought by a professional class of (largely low-to-middle-income) kids who do our unfathomable dirty work and let us sleep at night without a second thought. Atomism triumphs, with everyone retreating to their own little like-minded communities and getting their news only from those who agree. Kiss goodbye any overarching ideals, any inspired movements beyond whatever is fashionable for the pro-liberty vanguard. We are all ants within the leviathan.

It’s a paradox: even as the mass culture swallows all, people find it harder and harder to bridge their gaps. The early field for the presidency in 2016 is a sign of this exhaustion. The frontrunners, two scions of political dynasties, are relics of an old era. Even if they succeed in the short run—if Hillary Clinton gives new meat to a liberal agenda that has lost its fight outside of the courts, or Jeb Bush re-unites the two wings of his party that strain against one another in the image of Ronald Reagan—they are the end of the road. We’re so out of ideas that the most “fresh” voices on either side include an old guard socialist and a real estate mogul who has cast aside the dog whistle for the bullhorn. It’s hard not to argue that they’re the politicians we deserve.

And yet we’ve been here before. “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change,” writes Octavio Paz. The American meritocracy, for all its imperfections, on the whole fosters steady, healthy cycles of turnover in the ruling class. So long as it continues to function at a reasonable level and people believe it works, there’s no reason to expect a sudden crash.

Maybe I’ll shrug and join the machine, follow this nation toward its destiny, whatever that is. Maybe I’ll deem it all doomed and look to carve out my own, distinct version of the Benedict Option where I can live in peace with those who matter as everything crumbles around me. Most likely I’ll settle for the nuanced view and muddle through, at times working with the Dream, at times pulling back. It’s all a cycle, after all, and no one knows what the endgame will look like. We may not know where we’re going, but we can have some idea how to go about that journey, and we know why we must. Those two little facts make all the difference.

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On the Intellectual World

25 Jan

I embarked on my second semester of graduate school this past week. My degree program, urban planning, is a fairly practical one, and the general tenor of most (though not all) classes is entirely different from the high intellectualism I explored as an undergraduate at Georgetown.

I have a complicated relationship with that intellectual world. I was probably as excited as anyone in my Intro to Planning course over opportunities to debate phenomenology and critical theory and Marxism and whatnot, and as a person who comes at all of this from a fairly different philosophical background from most of my classmates, I rather enjoy the occasional opportunity to push the envelope. (They mostly come at things from somewhere on the political left; I come from here, wherever that is.) I’m the sort of person who will, upon seeing someone like Hannah Arendt on my syllabus, stay up two hours later than I intended so as to read her.

Despite my obvious nerdiness, I’ve never self-identified as a nerdy person, and am rather proud of this. This is in part due to my interests outside of intellectual pursuits—as a kid, I much preferred sports to video games, and never got into the faddish card games that came along—but I think there was something deeper at work. It was one of the great benefits of being formed by a high school where it was perfectly normal for kids to pursue academic greatness and still be well-liked, and by a family where reading fat, heavy books was a routine activity. I might have taken it to an extreme, but I was allowed to do that without anyone criticizing that, and am eternally thankful. It’s just one of the things I do sometimes as I play around with this world around me.

Make no mistake: I do think it is crucially important. It’s an essential foundational block without which culture, society, and civilization itself have no true basis. These questions are essential because they are the ones that lead humans to reach toward great heights, dream great dreams, perhaps even quest for utopia. It’s impossible to do so without some idea of where one is going, or at least a vague idea of how to get there. Debating these things with other well-versed people is one of the fires of life, and anyone with any hope of molding the surrounding world must understand what is at stake. This is why I venture in: there is no alternative. I need answers, or, perhaps better said, I need the right questions.

Too many people interested in that intellectual world, however, can get far too wrapped up in it. When I’ve done that, I rarely look back on those periods of time with fondness unless the philosophical inquiry was done in partnership with other people. Along with the very first philosophers came their very first critics, with the likes of Aristophanes and Diogenes pointing out the all-too-real shortcomings of their way of life.

To find out why, we might as well circle back to Hannah Arendt, who made a distinction between active and contemplative life. Both are clearly essential, and Arendt must no doubt have spent many long hours in the contemplative realm to emerge with the insights she found. She likewise accords due respect to private life—another sphere I value greatly—and the need to take care of business at home. Any complete conception of life must include a defense of the mundane, daily things we do, including some simple and even some of the world’s less refined delights. They are part of the human condition as well. But beyond this lies an active, public life, and this is the only realm where humans can find greatness. All of that contemplative thought is useless if it’s never shared with anyone; the private life alone becomes tautological, life for life’s sake and nothing more.

The active life is not always an easy one for those whose first instincts trend inward. I choose my words carefully so as to avoid coming off as a miserably self-absorbed intellectual, and I don’t always pull it off. My abortive novel-writing attempts have, on a certain level, been attempts to take all the philosophy and political theory and filter them down into readily understandable terms, spoken through characters who are nothing like an ancient Greek philosopher, but manage to convey a few of their thoughts in a coherent way. Sooner or later, it had to come out. That call into the arena can’t be written off, despite the many philosophical and religious traditions that try to bracket it, and put it aside.

There are risks, of course: hubris, pride, and a failure to slide back into the reflective cycle. But if the foundation truly is in place, then—and only then—is the well-ordered mind ready to venture out, channel it all in the right direction, and take the lead; with humility, certainly, but also enough confidence to know that, somewhere, things do hold together and make sense, and it’s all being channeled in the proper direction.

Utopia II: Farewell, 2014

31 Dec

Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

—Luisa, Y tu mama también

My 2014 is coming to an end at a villa overlooking the sea in the Virgin Islands. It’s not utopia, but it is a spectacular place, and I am blessed to be here once again.

It’s hard to pretend to know how one becomes fascinated with utopia, and the earliest childhood memories probably lurk behind it somewhere. But if I had to name a place where my own imagined ideal worlds were born, it was probably here, where I first came when I was nine. This led to something of an infatuation with tropical islands, and I can trace the whole arc of my invention of new worlds directly back to that trip.

Few things inspire quite the way travel does, with something new around every corner. This endless opening creates new possibilities, and digging into the details frees the imagination to embellish reality with our own little flourishes. The Virgin Islands were my first real trip into the unknown, and while I’d hardly call them the most exotic or inspiring places I’ve been—my host here cites the local “intellectual wasteland” as the reason he wouldn’t settle here, and I’m inclined to agree—it’s still a bit more than your run-of-the-mill beach vacation. The stories born from that trip, both childish and grandiose at once, slowly became my way of making sense of my world, with everything contemplated there, all great questions with their own place. In time, they made their way out of my mind and into the written word, with countless pages filled.

This time around, I’m not exactly questing for new inspiration. Whatever it was I set out to achieve when I first started writing in fall 2008, I’ve done it. That doesn’t mean I don’t still revisit and build on the past stuff, but it’s all right there before me now. 2014 was a decent year, and a good foundation for whatever may come next. The pace isn’t always ideal, but things are moving.

Where to? Hard to say, though that may be a good thing. Better to avoid the ideal image and instead chip away, somewhere within a framework that makes sense. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I have some idea of how to get there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about the means, and not at all about the ends—benchmarks are essential to keep things moving, and proper management of the utopian instinct isn’t quite content with simply doing one’s best, no matter the results. That hunger and desire can’t go away. One must seize the moments, stay in control—even when taking control means letting things go a bit. From a thoughtless afternoon in a hammock to an extra rum and coke, there are times when even the most relentless managers must lose themselves in the surf. One can aspire to both ends without contradiction.

I haven’t always managed that balance, and I’m as certain as anyone that we cannot build Jerusalem on earth. But to stand in the face of that impossibility and still carve out something good—what more can I ask for? As I enter my second quarter-century, many of the more fanciful dreams born of that first trip have washed back out to sea. But that doesn’t mean they still cannot be inspiration, and that things cannot all come together in, somewhere between dreams and reality in the flux I live through every day.

And so we move on to the next year. Here’s to continued progress, as the waves allow, and the wisdom to know when to barrel into them, and when to ride the tides. Somewhere in here, there are answers. The search goes on, but I’ll be home at the end of the night, as I always am.

Utopia

15 Dec

To the west of Mexico City, in the mountains of Michoacán, lies a small city that once aspired to utopia. Its champion was a man named Vasco de Quiroga, a sixteenth-century bishop who was among the heroes of the miserable tale of colonial America. Tata Vasco, as he is affectionately known among the indigenous Purepecha who still populate the region, did all he could to save the natives from the predations of imperial Spain. The contemporary city of Pátzcuaro, of course, is no utopia; it’s in one of the less stable states of a tumultuous nation, gripped by the poverty that afflicts so much of Mexico. Yet even so, something from that past lingers in the proud indigenous communities that still make the handcrafts Tata Vasco divided among the villages, and in the timeless cobblestone streets that carry in the wind off the nearby lake.

There is good reason to be leery of utopia. The last century has been defined by the horrors perpetrated by people who thought they were creating utopias, and anyone with any sense of the tragic side of human life knows what a delusion those dreams of earthly paradise may seem. How easy it is to dismiss utopian thought as naïve, or even reckless, as the true believers barrel ahead with their agenda without a thought about what they’re doing to the world. How often do we hear vague appeals to ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ without any concept of what these words actually mean? They are the canards of sorry souls who try to invent broader meaning for their lives, placing themselves in some grand sweep of history; a desperate attempt to make life relevant in a world where we cannot share transcendent meaning and are left to invent things for ourselves.

The skeptic’s stance is a scathing one, vicious in its demolition of that utopian instinct. And yet, just as much as the tragic impulse, the drive to utopia is part and parcel of the human condition. It can take curious or even sorry channels, but no amount of cynicism can bludgeon it to death. Retreat from utopia is just as much of a utopia itself, an impossible ideal inseparable from nihilism and all its attendant contradictions.

Dreams are not reality, and should never be mistaken for it. But they are an integral part of the cycle, ever reminders that our rational thoughts, when carried to all their logical conclusions, cannot even begin to answer all of our questions. They inspire awe, and even fear. As they should. To die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep what dreams of death may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

***

Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the maze of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

***

My own relationship with utopia is a tortured one, filled with both wild dreams and relentless reasoning. I’ve also been skeptical of it, often even downright hostile, and justifiably so. Yet I can’t quench the thirst. I’ve written my own utopias in search of one, populated entire worlds that I could disappear into forever, if I so chose. Much of this has been a lonely search, though not always so; at times I’ve dragged unwitting victims along, as in my own journey to Pátzcuaro, and at times I’ve managed to convene a little salon with no limits on what it might ask. The conclusion is always the same.

Utopia is something that these paltry, inadequate words will never quite capture. The Socratic critique rings true: the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And the more aware we are of utopia before us, the more hollow it all seems when we can’t quite find it. No one can, for too long. Small wonder so many believers in utopia are also prone to disappointment and even rage, when it all falls short. The glimpse is ever a dangerous one.

One must push things, to find that glimpse; live a bit, and tread on untested ground. But the search needs grounding. All journeys have a beginning, and all have an end. We have stories that write themselves; things we can bend, yes, but never break. We are what we come from, and in these bounds, we must find whatever it is we search for. Utopia is right here before us, if only we open up our eyes. Perhaps that defeats the point of utopia, but if that’s the case, it’s no great loss.

(Utopia II)

Farewell Duluth I: The Answer to Everything

27 Jul

One day in late February 2012, Prof. Patrick Deneen of the Georgetown Government Department (now at Notre Dame) modestly told us students that he was going to give us the “answer to everything.” He proceeded to draw three circles on the chalkboard and explain human nature in the clearest manner I’ve ever seen. It’s an oversimplification, of course, as all such representations must be, but it’s an excellent starting point, and now forms the basis of my worldview, such as it is. What follows is my take on the three circles. I’ve also embellished his drawing with some of my obvious artistic genius.

deneen circles

The three circles represent three rough spheres of human possibility. The center sphere is basic human action; above it we find gods who transcend human appetites and obsessions and lead lives of bliss, and below it we find the beasts, who fixate on instinctive and immediate fulfillment of those appetites.

One very large camp of people, most of them on the political left, draws a line through the center circle and focuses only on the top. They see humanity as fundamentally good, but simply constrained by unfortunate social or historical structures, and believe we can better ourselves by liberating ourselves from them. (This being the left, they often don’t believe in explicit “gods,” but the idea is much the same: humans are the masters of their own fate, subservient to no one, and can be the authors of their own salvation.) The general sense is that everyone has great potential, and it can be unlocked with the right combination of incentives and supports.

Most fundamentally, though, it aims to liberate people so that they’re free from the existing order and can just be their own awesome selves, deciding what’s right and wrong for themselves. If we turn people loose and have a safety net ready when they stumble, things should turn out alright. Humanity can be improved in this way, and the world can become a better place; depending on how far you want to go, we might even be able to perfect it. Marxism took this way of thinking to its furthest possible extreme, but the word progressivism, often used to describe the left-of-center agenda, captures the sense here. Humans are capable of progress and are going somewhere, wherever that might be, slowly making the world a better place. Other relevant philosophers here include Rousseau, the French positivists, John Stuart Mill, and Hegel.

The right also draws a line through the center circle, but focuses on the bottom half, not the top. (Deneen, a self-described conservative whose conservatism bears no resemblance to the contemporary Republican Party, used the term “liberal,” though I think my left/right terminology maps better on to current-day politics.) For the right, humans are fundamentally fallen, and while we may put on shows of benevolence and decency, the self-interest underneath can’t be wished away. Absent strong social mores and an established order, humans will rut around and kill each other and generally live in a miserable state of anarchy. No amount of wishful thinking or fanciful social engineering can get rid of those base instincts that we all have, and the manner in which many on the left react when confronted by conservatism is decent evidence of this. Hence the reliance on tradition, and the insistence on a strong state to keep things in line. (Machiavelli and Hobbes are the go-to philosophers here.)

This way of thinking can take other forms, too. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, for example, saw that those in power were just as likely to be corrupted as anyone else, and sought to limit their ability to exercise power. The Constitution is a fairly conservative document; it makes little effort to guarantee any positive rights that can lead toward the good life. It was written in response to some of the worst of human excesses, and only in some of the amendments do we find a more progressive turn. The emphasis is on recognizing and managing the tragedies in life, which no amount of “progress” can stop.

There is third approach here, less often used but alluring to some: just cut out the middle circle. This is Nietzsche. We have a choice, he argues. We can either be impressive Ubermenschen dedicated to living thrilling and fulfilling lives, taking control of everything and ruling nobly, or we can be feeble, weak people carried along only by resentment and grievance, seeking a pitiful life of bland comfort. It was a good thing for Nietzsche’s already frail health that he didn’t live to see suburban subdevelopments and reality TV. Still, this worldview is attractive for those who slog through Nietzsche: who wouldn’t want to be an Ubermensch? It’s a delightful lifestyle, and it makes for a very crisp, self-serving distinction, as the enlightened ridicule the pitiful masses below. (This is where we’d find the Nazis, who tried to hijack Nietzschean philosophy and turn it into a justification for their atrocities.) That’s a bit of a misreading of Nietzsche, but it also illustrates the weakness of this approach: no matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to stay on top like that, and very easy to fall back into vindictive backbiting. The divisions aren’t that crisp.

This brings us to the last approach, which encompasses all three of those circles. It recognizes that humans have qualities that overlap with those of gods and of beasts, but that, in the end, we’re somewhere in between, wandering between the two and often in an ambiguous middle realm. We’re not inherently good; we’re not inherently bad. We have moments where we reach toward god-like status, and we have moments where we live among the beasts, and in the end we’re left with a confusing mix that isn’t quite as black-or-white as we’d like. The boilerplate left and the right stances both get part of the picture, but neither one quite grasps it all.

This is a very old notion of human nature, and its modern-day caretakers are, for the most part, Catholics, following in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. I’m not Catholic, but Catholicism has always hovered around my life, from deeply faithful grandparents to Catholic universities to travels in Mexico, so it’s probably no surprise I find this worldview most appealing. (Sticking with Nietzsche, we might say I’m living in its shadow, and quite thoroughly.) The very word “catholic” means, roughly, “about the whole” in Greek: it encompasses the totality of life, and tries to cover everything. To use my current favorite word, it’s holistic.

Theology digression: even if this seems obvious, it really isn’t a common worldview in this day in age. One need only look at the reactions of the left and the right to our current pope and his predecessor: one side loves Francis while the other is skeptical of him, and vice versa with Benedict. This is a pretty good sign that people are coming to the popes not as Catholics, but instead as liberals or conservatives who want Catholicism to conform to their preordained political worldviews. This isn’t to say that one can’t disagree with certain aspects of papal teaching, and that popes themselves may not be influenced by different forms of thought, but it reveals the disconnect, and how wholly we’ve adopted the modern political mindset in how we try to analyze things. Faith, for most moderns, has become a crutch in times of need and a source for inspiration that can give people a little nudge down a preordained path. But rarely is it a way of life, and when it is, it seems fundamentally alien. Moral therapeutic deism reigns triumphant.

Still, the three circles begin long before St. Peter. Prof. Deneen is a staunch Catholic, but he wrote one of his first books not on anything Catholic, but on the Odyssey and how it fit this conception, with Odysseus constantly pulled both up toward the gods and down toward the beasts. Philosophically, the man at the root is our old buddy Aristotle, who said that beasts or gods are unique from humans in that they’re capable of living free from community. But since we can’t ever live entirely in one of those realms, we’re neither. This doesn’t mean we have to submit ourselves solely to a communal order, whether it be of the left or the right; it just means we have to live in constant accordance with that fact. Instead of starting our theories by considering humans in vacuums and making presumptions about their nature from there, we need to understand each other socially. You can find a lot of spilled pixels on that topic elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t belabor it here, but in the end it does boil down to living in community and finding our niches within whatever ecosystem we call home, realizing it is neither heaven nor hell. Instead, it is complicated, and complication deserves respect, though once we’re inside it we can certainly leave our own marks. (Equally important is the need to step out of the community from time to time, in order to gain some perspective, before heading back in.)

Six years ago, when I left Duluth for Georgetown, I cared only for the top half of the diagram. My admissions essay for the School of Foreign Service was a paean to the power of liberal education to change the world. I don’t think my evolution was a complete surprise—in retrospect, I’m pleased with the subtlety expressed in the more thoughtful writings of my adolescent self—but evolve I did, from a fairly activist man of the left to something a lot more murky. Fixing the world’s problems proved a lot more difficult than waving some liberal magic wand, and my personal experience also suggested I was missing something.

Eventually, I found it. This was great for my understanding of the world, but something of a disaster for someone whose pre-college career interests had involved saving the world, and using the progressive agenda as my vehicle. I went home to Duluth, part out of philosophical belief in the community closest to me, and part because it was the only place I could go to figure out what the hell came next without undue stress. “Duluth needs people like you,” Prof. Deneen told me in our final meeting, and I took those words to heart.

I don’t know if Duluth needs me, but I sure needed Duluth. I’ve slowly gotten myself tied up in community affairs over the past two years, and I’ve found that this whole philosophy really does work in practice. I’ve also started down a career path that nurtures those goals; one that seems to have a healthy balance between practical work and the up-in-the-clouds thinking I enjoy but can take too far. It all worked out. I’ve found healthier channels for some of my instincts, both the ones that told me I could be a god and also the ones that had me wallowing in muck. (Channels, I hastily add; not stoic suppression.) I’m only human, so there will be continued temptation in both directions. But for now, I spend most of my time grounded in the middle circle and reveling in my community, where I belong.

Part Two is here.

One Hundred Years in the Labyrinth

31 Mar

I’m not a big believer in heroes. There are obviously people I admire more than others, and some who have certain exemplary character traits that I can only hope to channel. But for the most part, in a paraphrase of the guy pictured below, people should not be placed in heaven or in hell, but here on earth, where they belong. Here on earth, where they are a jumbled mess of admirable and unfortunate traits, many of which are two sides of the same coin. No one can stand too far above anyone else.

One who does stand a bit higher, though, is Octavio Paz, who was born 100 years ago today.

Image

Image credit:

 http://gestioncultura.cervantes.es/COMUNES/13298_I_octavio%20paz.jpg

Paz led one of the richest lives of the twentieth century. First and foremost he was a poet, but he was also a diplomat, an essayist, and a philosopher. By the end of his career, he was the mandarin of Mexican intellectual life, collecting awards left and right before finally claiming a Nobel Prize in 1990. He became the epitome of a public intellectual, and he took that mantel seriously, refusing to kowtow to anyone or anything. He was no ideologue, yet he had his principles. After the Mexican government massacred student protesters in 1968, he resigned his post as Ambassador to India. At a time when the Mexican academy was almost completely uniform in its Marxist orthodoxy, he came to be a fierce critic of the Soviet Union and of all authoritarian socialism. This made him persona non grata in Mexican intellectual circles, but he challenged it at every turn, and he lived long enough to see most of his theses proven correct.

Paz defied definition. He was fascinated by dualities, contradictions, and dialectics, and held them all together in his head. He wasn’t overtly religious, but he spoke with much respect for Christianity, and for the religious and mythical human impulses. He was obviously no Marxist, but he was willing to say a few kind words about Marx, and thought socialism’s emphasis on justice ought to be rescued from the wreckage of communism’s collapse. At the same time, he denounced the anti-communist military juntas in Latin America. This led some to label him a liberal (in the Mexican and European sense of the word, meaning a capitalist who favored democracy and personal liberty), yet he made thorough critiques of the philosophical underpinnings of liberal society. The Marxist Mexican professor who introduced me to Paz dismissed him as “very conservative,” presumably due to his rejection of both the history and the materialism of Marxist historical materialism. While he certainly wasn’t a conservative in any contemporary understanding of the word, there are some vague aristocratic airs in his approach to the world—a certain delight in taking it as his plaything for further study. Anyone who tried to stick a label on him missed the point.

I could quote from Paz’s magnum opus, The Labyrinth of Solitude, in order to show off some of his brilliance, but it’s a bit too heavy to confront in one simple blog post. Instead, I’m going to pull from a little-known interview that I was assigned to read by that dear old Marxist Mexican while at the Universidad Iberoamericana at Mexico City. This was my introduction to Paz, and while it may not have the coherence of some of his longer works, it is loaded with brilliant little gems, and succinctly pulls together so many of the themes I struck on this blog over the past year. (I’ve added links to those that come most directly to memory.)

The interview was conducted in 1992, as part of a series commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas; the interviewer, a Chilean named Sergio Marras, was primarily interested in Paz’s thoughts on the idea of Latin America. He got that, plus an awful lot more. Take this riff on identities (interview is in italics; my interjections are in normal font; translation mine):

You’ve said that Mexico is different from the rest of Latin America several times in this interview. How would you define mexicanness?

The word “mexicanness” is one that I avoid. It strikes me as dubious. It traps a reality in motion in a prison of concepts and adjectives. Mexico is an invention that, like all inventions, has two sides, or faces: one is the discovery of a hidden reality, not visible at first glance; another is a design, a project. To discover what we are we need to question our past and examine our present but, at the same time, give a sense and a direction to that more or less static reality. The future is an essential part of our present.

In that case, do you believe the famous Latin American identity is possible? What does it consist of?

I don’t like the word “identity.” I like the currently fashionable phrase even less: “search for an identity.” What we now call identity and what we used to call, more precisely, “character,” “soul,” or the “temperament” of a people, isn’t something one can have, lose, and recover. Nor is it a substance or an essence. Latin America is neither an entity nor an idea. It is a history, a process, a reality in perpetual motion and continual change. Words that I would apply to anyone who is “searching for an identity.” Who are we? Our histories—a living and incomplete history, but one that cannot negate the past. Nor should it try to whitewash that past:

We cannot forget that history has always been tragic. Joyce said that history is a nightmare. No, history is a reality, but it is a reality that has the incoherence and the horror of a nightmare.

Even so…Something from the past always remains. It’s very arrogant to condemn our ancestors: they don’t need simply our judgment, adverse or favorable, but our faith. And faith means sympathy: maybe I would have done the same as you, if I’d been there. There’s a norm we’ve forgotten: respect the adversary and honor the defeated. For a while I’ve rebelled against the official histories.

Speaking of Latin America, but applicable to anything with a less-than-ideal past: I think our history–more precisely, that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–has been an immense failure. But defeat does not degrade; the real degradation is not knowing what to do with the defeats. Turning a failure into art is beautiful. We’ve made a few very admirable things out of our failures: a handful of poems, a half dozen novels and collections of stories. Moreover, we’re not dead: we’re a living culture. This has been a great triumph. Latin America has character; it has a soul. This is our great victory.

Those histories lead to the formation of different cultures, and when it comes to culture, Paz strikes a somewhat more cynical note than his more universalistic colleagues. He still finds some room for hope all the same:

Culture will always divide usThe great civilizations have been made through dialogues between different cultures. I’m a believer in dialogue because I’m a believer in diversity. When unity transforms into uniformity, society petrifies. This is what happened to the communists. To live, democracy needs to accommodate contradictory elements so it can make permanent criticism a part of itself. Dialogue, critiques, the exchange of opinions: that is the political life, and that is culture. It’s easy for talk of dialogue between cultures to fall into clichés and a sappy universalism, but Paz avoids that with constant criticism. He most certainly is not an ideologue, and though he does reflect on revolutions fondly at times (his father was a backer of the Mexican Revolution, which was raging at the time Paz was born), he sees better ways to resolve problems:

He who rides a burro [common people, that is] doesn’t believe in utopias nor in ideologies. He believes in heaven and hell. Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people…I don’t lament the end of the myth of revolution. It lived for three centuries and left us both admirable and abominable things; but it has lost all its power. Now it’s not even a ghost: it’s a relic. What we need to do now is clean the dust off our minds with the feather duster and the broom of critiques, not with hysterical moaning about the end of the utopia…Today we don’t have anywhere to take refuge; we’ve run out of universalist ideologies and we have to reinvent everything. A great loss? More like an enormous possibility.

At the time, Paz was trying to be hopeful for a more cohesive hemisphere; history hasn’t really gone in that direction. But he was aware of that, and could salvage some things here, too. Here’s his take on the existential uncertainty of a world after revolutions, one in which philosophical liberalism has, in large part, triumphed:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

Paz suggests Kant, for his critiques of reason; this makes good sense, though my own bias is toward the Greeks. Still, the Greeks don’t always speak clearly about modernity, and it has to be studied on its own terms. For that, we move to a quote that has appeared on this blog before, and perhaps my favorite in the entire piece:

If we think of that trio upon which the modern world was founded–liberty, equality, fraternity–we see that liberty tends to turn into tyranny over others; thus, it needs to have limits; and that equality is an impossible ideal that cannot come to be without the use of force, which implies despotism. The bridge between these two is fraternity.

if we don’t rediscover fraternity, we’ll come to the real devil: the Last Man.

This is one of those apparent contradictions that Paz embraces. He’s a believer in democracy and modernity, for the most part; he knows they’re flawed, but he can’t see a better alternative. The world would be a better place if everyone lived in modern liberal democracies…and yet, even there, he can’t be happy. The world loses something when bourgeois, democratic norms take control; everyone is content to live out their routine suburban lives, and there is no pursuit of glory, no more human greatness. (The phrase “Last Man” was Nietzsche’s contemptuous take on such people.) Paz, despite his general support for the modern project, can’t quite accept this: hence his continued fascination with revolution, with people in the middle of the arena, even if he doesn’t quite agree with them. He reconciles all of this on an existential plane: yes, material comfort is important, but that isn’t what we live for. We live for something more:

Happiness is not, nor can it be, terrestrial. Nor can it be a permanent state. Humans can be happy but for an instant…But its brevity does not matter: an instant can be a window unto eternity.

If you read Spanish, the wonderful Nexos Magazine has a great series of reflection pieces here.

Dead Greek People IV: A Democratic Empire

25 Oct

The ancient Athenian democracy was a bundle of contradictions. It was a realm of endless political disputes, yet it endured for several hundred years with only minor interruptions. It was premised on citizen participation, but people who weren’t citizens were perhaps more excluded in Athens than the masses in any other city. It gave a lot of power to people of simple pleasures, yet it produced more brilliant (and fairly elitist) philosophers and artists than any other ancient city.

The man who best shows the confusion of ancient Athens was probably Pericles. The son of wealthy nobles, Pericles came along in the 400s B.C., and while Athens didn’t have an executive leader, he was repeatedly re-elected to one of the ten spots for generals at the command of the armed forces, and there was no doubt he was calling the shots. He was a great patron of the arts, a brilliant orator, and a skilled commander of his troops. He was the architect of a grand military strategy that put Athens at the head of a union of Greek city-states. Under his watch, Athens built those monuments on the Acropolis that still stand today. He was also a democrat par excellence, defeating many of the more conservative voices in Athens with his brilliant rhetoric. This led to some members of the Athenian intellectual class to charge him with being a populist, as they worried that vesting so much power in the whims of the people would open up a Pandora’s Box.

To be fair to his critics, they had a good point. With Pericles at the helm, Athens was in good shape; he could manage all the popular sentiment, and he had the talent to keep every camp more or less happy. The problem was that people like Pericles don’t come along every day, and after he died, Athens lurched through a pair of coups and a bunch of mediocre leaders. This was especially troublesome considering that Pericles got Athens tied up in a major war against Sparta, a conflict that would decide which city-state was in command of ancient Greece. To understand what’s going on there, we’re going to need some help from someone named Thucydides.

Thucydides was the world’s second great historian. The first one was Herodotus, another Athenian who did a lot of traveling around the known world and recording everything he heard and saw. Thucydides, on the other hand, painted himself as a much more detached observer. He prefaces his History of the Peloponnesian War with an announcement that he’s trying to be as objective as humanly possible. No spin, he claims; just the facts.

The war juxtaposed democratic Athens with the famously warlike Spartans. This isn’t to say the Spartans were barbaric; in fact, they had plenty of erstwhile admirers among the Athenian intellectuals, including the likes of Aristotle. The Spartans were efficient, hardworking, and didn’t let angry mobs mess around and slow up the entire political system. They’d been an Athenian ally in the wars against the Persians, and aside from some occasional detours, the two Greek powers had managed to coexist. But with Pericles’ Athens slowly expanding its influence across the region and developing a legitimate empire, many of the smaller city-states began begging Sparta to stand up to them. In time, the Spartans agreed.

Thucydides wasn’t afraid to lay the blame at the feet of Athens. In fact, after his failures as a military commander (about which he was very honest in the History), he was exiled from the city, which leads one to wonder how genuine his supposed neutrality could have been. But in the end he had enough loyalty to Athens that he never showed any bitterness, and he never openly questioned his city’s imperial project. Nothing underscores this more than his account of Pericles’ famed funeral oration delivered over the bodies of a bunch of dead Athenians. This is the Athenian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a speech designed to say the dead have not died in vain, as they are fighting for a project far greater than any of them, in the preservation and advancement of a nation dedicated to the highest good. (In fact, the parallels are dead-obvious, and Edward Everett, the man who rambled for two hours before Lincoln showed him up with ten simple sentences, explicitly mentioned Pericles.) It was a reminder of the uniqueness of the Athenian project, even as the city mired itself in imperial wars.

One of the most famous moments in the History occurs some time after Pericles’ death from the plague. A couple of Athenian generals go to visit the neutral island of Melos, whose people are ethnically related to the Spartans. The rather grumpy Athenians tell the Melians that they had better submit to Athens, or else they will destroy them. The Melians complain that this is most unjust, and the Athenians sneer at their appeal to justice. The generals then utter the most famous line in international relations, and the founding line for political realism: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Between this line and his refusal to explicitly condemn any moral failings of the Athenians or Spartans, Thucydides is often cast as a hardcore realist, earning praise from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche. Still, I’m going to cut Thucydides some slack here, and say he’s been misinterpreted. To get this, you need a much more subtle reading of the History. Before the Melian incident, things are going swimmingly for the Athenians. They’re holding true to Pericles’ grand strategy, which involved a more-or-less defensive war of attrition that would slowly beat the Spartans into submission. After they lose their moral compass and start beating people up haphazardly, things go to pieces. Immediately after slaughtering all the Melians, the Athenians launch an incredibly stupid campaign in Sicily, a total disaster that completely turns the tide of the war. Like so many other empires, they’d overplayed their hand, fallen too deeply in love with power, and were ruined. In the long run, the Melians were right: morality mattered, and the Spartans came to the defense of their Melian brethren and made Athens pay for their overreach. The strong cannot simply do as they can, and at the very least need to take a longer, more careful consideration of the consequences.

Thucydides’ dispassionate devotion to fact made him a model historian. At the same time, however, no matter how much people try to be neutral, they never quite manage it. The details they choose to include, and the structure they adopt, can reveal an awful lot about their actual opinions. Thucydides’ History reads much like one of the great Greek tragedies, with the hubris of the Athenians leading to the demise of a once-great empire. His account shows both the promise of the Athenian democratic project, and just how tenuous it became after Pericles dropped dead. But even after the Spartans ended Athenian dominance over Greece, the city endured, and we’ll save that story for next time.

Part 5: Alexander the Great’s Conquests and Epicurus

Image of the pontificating Pericles from Wikimedia commons. Bust of Thucydides from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2008/02/more-thucydides-please/