Does Seneca have a system of philosophy?

Seneca’s epistles to Lucilius in Letters from a Stoic represent a huge contribution to Stoic philosophy, filled with examples and aphorisms that illuminate both common life situations and a consistent “Stoic” attitude towards them. Can we say more than this? Is Seneca fundamentally an aphorist, or is he a philosopher with deep and extended theories and ideas? Is it fortune cookies or a tractatus, a mantra or a rich, textured, and open-ended philosophical program?

I’m tempted to think that it’s closer to the former rather than the latter of these pairs of dichotomies. There are flashes of insight on many aspects of ordinary life throughout the epistles, but they all reflect a fairly simple and consistent set of maxims: live simply, gain clarity about the values you truly espouse, don’t expect life to be kind, face adversity with equanimity and courage. These are simple ideas, perhaps not requiring the kinds of long and difficult debate and analysis familiar from philosophers like Plato, Hume, or Rousseau.

Consider a few topics that Seneca addresses — all topics that almost every human being must confront one day. Does Seneca offer “philosophy” with respect to these difficult existential moments?

Illness and hardship:

3. You ask me whether every good is desirable. You say: “If it is a good to be brave under torture, to go to the stake with a stout heart, to endure illness with resignation, it follows that these things are desirable. But I do not see that any of them is worth praying for. At any rate I have as yet known of no man who has paid a vow by reason of having been cut to pieces by the rod, or twisted out of shape by the gout, or made taller by the rack.” 4. My dear Lucilius, you must distinguish between these cases; you will then comprehend that there is something in them that is to be desired. I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honour, and courage. Of course I prefer that war should not occur; but if war does occur, I shall desire that I may nobly endure the wounds, the starvation, and all that the exigency of war brings. Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships. (book 67)

On planning:

There is an old adage about gladiators,—that they plan their fight in the ring; as they intently watch, something in the adversary’s glance, some movement of his hand, even some slight bending of his body, gives a warning. 2. We can formulate general rules and commit them to writing, as to what is usually done, or ought to be done; such advice may be given, not only to our absent friends, but also to succeeding generations. In regard, however, to that second question,—when or how your plan is to be carried out,—no one will advise at long range; we must take counsel in the presence of the actual situation. 3. You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity. (book 22)

Personal loss:

1. You desire to know whether Epicurus is right when, in one of his letters, he rebukes those who hold that the wise man is self-sufficient and for that reason does not stand in need of friendships. This is the objection raised by Epicurus against Stilbo and those who believe that the Supreme Good is a soul which is insensible to feeling. 2. We are bound to meet with a double meaning if we try to express the Greek term “lack of feeling” summarily, in a single word, rendering it by the Latin word impatientia. For it may be understood in the meaning the opposite to that which we wish it to have. What we mean to express is, a soul which rejects any sensation of evil; but people will interpret the idea as that of a soul which can endure no evil. Consider, therefore, whether it is not better to say “a soul that cannot be harmed,” or “a soul entirely beyond the realm of suffering.” 3. There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea,—that the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself. 4. And mark how self-sufficient he is; for on occasion he can be content with a part of himself. If he lose a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them. 5. In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say “can,” I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity. (book 9)

The loss of friends by death:

4. Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us. No man reverts with pleasure to any subject which he will not be able to reflect upon without pain. So too it cannot but be that the names of those whom we have loved and lost come back to us with a sort of sting; but there is a pleasure even in this sting. 5. For, as my friend Attalus used to say: “The remembrance of lost friends is pleasant in the same way that certain fruits have an agreeably acid taste, or as in extremely old wines it is their very bitterness that pleases us. Indeed, after a certain lapse of time, every thought that gave pain is quenched, and the pleasure comes to us unalloyed.” 6. If we take the word of Attalus for it, “to think of friends who are alive and well is like enjoying a meal of cakes and honey; the recollection of friends who have passed away gives a pleasure that is not without a touch of bitterness. Yet who will deny that even these things, which are bitter and contain an element of sourness, do serve to arouse the stomach?” 7. For my part, I do not agree with him. To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. (book 58)

Rational suicide:

Few have lasted through extreme old age to death without impairment, and many have lain inert, making no use of themselves. How much more cruel, then, do you suppose it really is to have lost a portion of your life, than to have lost your right to end that life? 35. Do not hear me with reluctance, as if my statement applied directly to you, but weigh what I have to say. It is this, that I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact for myself, and intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering. 36. I shall not avoid illness by seeking death, as long as the illness is curable and does not impede my soul. I shall not lay violent hands upon myself just because I am in pain; for death under such circumstances is defeat. But if I find out that the pain must always be endured, I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living. He who dies just because he is in pain is a weakling, a coward; but he who lives merely to brave out this pain, is a fool. (book 58)

What are the threads raised by these short passages? Here are several: the priority of virtue over other desirable things; the propriety in preferring health over disease and affluence over penury, while recognizing that these goods are inconsequential in relation to virtue; the self-sufficiency of the soul; the rationality of endurance and equanimity; the lack of terror we should feel for death; the need for reflection about one’s reasons for living. And we might say that Seneca’s views on these questions add up to a philosophy of ethics, a philosophy of a life lived well, a contribution to phronesis (link). At the same time, it is striking that Seneca illustrates his philosophy through examples and discussion of hard cases, rather than a systematic exposition with labelled headings, principles, antinomies, unresolved issues, and sustained arguments. It more closely resembles the method of the sailing master who teaches his pupil about sailing by taking him or her on many trips, exposing the student to the hazards of the sea and the wind, than the method of a writer of handbooks on handling radioactive materials or washing machine repairs.

Katja Vogt has contributed an excellent article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Seneca that addresses the question of Seneca’s philosophical contributions squarely; link. She offers some sympathy for the idea that it is hard to identify an explicit philosophical theory in Seneca; but she suggests that this reflects a misunderstanding and misreading of Seneca.

Readers who approach Seneca as students of ancient philosophy—having acquired a certain idea of what philosophy is by studying Plato, Aristotle, or Chrysippus—often feel at a loss. To them, Seneca’s writings can appear lengthy and merely admonitory. Partly, this reaction may reflect prejudices of our training. The remnants of a Hegelian (and Nietzschean, and Heideggerean) narrative for philosophy are deeply ingrained in influential works of scholarship. On this account, the history of ancient philosophy is a history of decline, the Roman thinkers are mediocre imitators of their Greek predecessors, and so on (Long 2006; see Griffin 2018 for a collection of Griffin’s work on politics and philosophy in Rome). Such prejudices are hard to shake off; for many centuries watered-down versions of them have shaped the way students learnt Latin and Greek. In recent years, however, many scholars have come to adopt a different view. They find in Seneca a subtle author who speaks very directly to modern concerns of shaping ourselves and our lives.

Seneca does not write as a philosopher who creates or expounds a philosophical theory from the ground up. Rather, he writes within the track of an existing system that he is largely in agreement with. A reconstruction of Seneca’s philosophy, if it aimed at some kind of completeness, would have to be many-layered. At several points, it would have to include accounts of earlier Stoic philosophy, and discuss which aspects of these earlier theories become more or less prominent in Seneca’s thought. At times Seneca’s own contribution consists in developing further a Stoic theory and adding detail to it. At other times, Seneca dismisses certain technicalities and emphasizes the therapeutic, practical side of philosophy.

Seneca thinks of himself as the adherent of a philosophical system—Stoicism—and speaks in the first person plural (‘we’) in order to refer to the Stoics. Rather than call Seneca an orthodox Stoic, however, we might want to say that he writes within the Stoic system. Seneca emphasizes his independence as a thinker. He holds Stoic views, but he does not see himself as anyone’s disciple or chronicler.

Thus Vogt is unambiguous: Seneca is a fully-fledged philosopher; but he approaches the task of philosophy differently from the systematic theorizing found in other ancient philosophers. Nonetheless, she finds a developed philosophy in Seneca’s writings.

Vogt proposes that Seneca’s approach is more akin to therapy than to analytical theory-building: Seneca’s letters appear to be designed to help the reader recognize his own situation, his own virtues, the temptations of ordinary life that get in the way of good choices, and the navigation of impulse and self-direction that leads to “stoic” living in the face of challenges and misfortune. Vogt writes, “We need precisely what Seneca offers: someone who takes us through the various situations in life in which we tend to lose sight of our own insights, and fall victim to the allurements of money and fame, or to the violence of emotions evoked by the adversities of life.” And rather than providing didactic proofs of Stoic ethical principles, Vogt suggests that Seneca prefers that his friends and readers should “live and practice” those principles to make them their own: “it is important to think through the implications of the Stoic thesis in a variety of practical contexts, so as then to be able to live by it, for example, when one is or is not elected to office, has more or less money than others, and so on. One needs to think one’s way through these issues repeatedly—and ultimately, thinking about them in the right way must become a way of life.” And her implication is that Seneca advocates this “practical” stance towards ethics, not simply because it creates good habits, but because it ultimately validates and vindicates the rules or principles that are adopted.

Vogt spends a good deal of effort on the question of the classic Stoic doctrine of the “monism of the soul” and their dissolution of the emotions. Is the soul a unity or are there contending parts of the soul? Is there a non-rational component of the soul (e.g. the emotions) that opposes reason? Vogt tries to show that Seneca defends the idea that there is nothing in the soul but reason. But here is an interesting realization: when Seneca’s thought turns to this kind of highly abstract topic, it is substantially less compelling and interesting. The question of the unity of the soul seems like a scholastic question, leading to dogmatic philosophy. It is tempting to say that Aristotle’s view of psychology and the self is more immediate and “phenomenologically” accurate than the Stoic view: that the emotions are real, that they incline us to do things that reason would oppose, and that “self-control” is a real psychological state, requiring the person to recognize and manage his or her emotional impulses. So this element of Stoic philosophy perhaps fails the test of “offering genuine insight into the circumstances of human life”.

Another issue that Vogt finds to be both deep and crucial in Seneca’s philosophy is the distinction between the valuable and the good (mentioned in the first quotation above). In the category of the valuable she holds that Seneca includes health and wealth — these she characterizes as “preferred indifferents”; but only virtue is good. Further, according to Vogt, the attainment of “valuable” states such as good health, comfortable living circumstances, and accumulated wealth is completely irrelevant to happiness; only the pursuit of virtue contributes to happiness. Vogt doesn’t make this point, but it seems clear that this position stands in striking contradiction to the philosophy of Epicurus, for whom good health, friendships, decent conditions of life, and leisure are all components of a happy life. Here is Epicurus on prudence, the art of wise choices among desirable things (The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia):

Prudence is the principle of all these things and is the greatest good. That is why prudence is a more valuable thing than philosophy. For prudence is the source of all the other virtues, teaching that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honourably, and justly, and impossible to live prudently, honourably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues are natural adjuncts of the pleasant life and the pleasant life is inseparable from them. (31)

Running throughout Seneca’s epistles — and throughout Vogt’s treatment of his philosophy — is the theme of the importance of “case studies” and practical application of moral ideas, the application of philosophical ideas to complex situations. The implication is that it is the examination of cases rather than the discovery of convoluted principles that constitutes wisdom or insight, dissection of complexity rather than discovery of new moral laws. Seneca appears to believe that the hard work of philosophy is in the task of sorting out the details of particular life situations, and how to behave. Vogt writes, “As students of virtue, we will benefit from thinking our way through a variety of situations that one might encounter in life, contemplating how the different features of these situations matter to appropriate action, and so developing a sharpened sense of the particular value of the various things that do have value or disvalue for a human being.”

Parenthetically, there is an interesting convergence in Seneca’s philosophical style of exposition and some of John Dewey’s ideas about learning that were discussed in an earlier post (link). According to Vogt, Seneca wants to draw the reader along in the process of philosophical thinking — not to merely absorb a set of doctrines:

Seneca thinks that in order to benefit from philosophy, one cannot passively adopt insights. One must appropriate them as an active reader, thinking through the issues for oneself, so as then to genuinely assent to them (Letter 84.5–10; Wildberger 2006).

So what about the question posed above: does Seneca have a system of philosophy? I’m inclined to give a mixed answer. Seneca does in fact have a developed view of phronesis — a conception of what is involved in living a good human life. The opening paragraph above captures this conception reasonably well: live simply, gain clarity about the values you truly espouse, value virtue over other goods, don’t expect life to be kind, face adversity with equanimity and courage, do not fear death. This is indeed a philosophy of living. But it is a simple view of the human condition that doesn’t require elaborate philosophical theories and arguments. 

Second, I’m persuaded by Vogt’s splendid analysis that Seneca also shared a theory of metaphysics and theology with earlier Stoics, and this theory has many of the features of abstraction and logical analysis that we associate with philosophical theories. But those theories, to this reader anyway, do not seem especially important or consequential, and they have only a minor relationship to the theory of living well that Seneca advocates.

Avineri on Marx as social democrat

Shlomo Avineri is one of the interpreters of Marx’s thought for whom I have had a great deal of respect since the publication of Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx in 1968. (I also greatly admire his book on Hegel’s political philosophy, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State.) Avineri has recently published Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, and this book constitutes a very useful contribution to the question of Marx’s relevance to our current situation in the twenty-first century. (Here is an earlier post that attempts to assess Marx’s continuing relevance; link.)

The recent book is presented as a fairly brief intellectual biography — an account of the influences and preoccupations through which Marx’s intellectual framework took shape. (A side theme is the role that Marx’s family history of Jewish identity may have played in his own development.) In many ways the current book covers much of the same ground as the earlier Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx — the background in Hegel’s political philosophy, the conception of human beings as homo faber, the idea of the proletariat as the universal class, the “dialectic” of capitalist development, the limits of revolution, even the skeptical view Marx took of the Paris Commune. In effect, one might look at the current book as an updated and streamlined edition of the earlier book. But the current book has a liveliness and readability that distinguishes it. And crucially, the current book is quite explicit in its most striking claim: that Marx is a much more measured and nuanced theorist of socialism and proletarian emancipation than he is usually thought to be. Marx is fundamentally a social democrat and gradualist. Consistent with the intellectual and political interest of twenty-first century readers who want to find a source of new and non-dogmatic ideas on the basis of which to rethink the failures of our contemporary world, Avineri presents Marx as just such a thinker.

In a nutshell, Avineri argues in Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution that Marx is not the rigid and uncompromising “revolutionary” activist that he has often been understood to be — both by supporters and critics. “What is usually called ‘Marxism’ is what Engels decided to include in the corpus and the way he interpreted it” (kl 81). Rather, according to Avineri, Marx’s key idea, and the key motivating impetus of critique of modern capitalist society, is the idea of emancipation. And Avineri argues that this is, most fundamentally, an affirmation of radical Enlightenment values that were deeply thwarted in the nineteenth century. Here Avineri makes a complicated and crucial point. Marx’s social location as the son of Jewish parents — and therefore himself a Jew — was not a defining fact for the young Karl Marx (according to Avineri); Marx rarely referred to his Jewish identity. But what was defining was the double earthquake in nineteenth-century Europe, first of the political emancipation of the Jews in the Rhineland following its absorption by France in post-revolutionary France, and then the reversal of this emancipation in 1814-15 when the Rhineland returned to Prussian political control according to the terms of the Congress of Vienna. Revolutionary France was the first European country to emancipate its Jewish citizens, granting them equal political and civic rights. So the Jews of the Rhineland experienced a short two-decade period of emancipation and equal citizenship, followed by a return to juridical and social discrimination. 

After some deliberations, the Prussian authorities in the Rhineland revoked Jewish emancipation and imposed on the Jews in the newly annexed territories the status of Jews in Prussia proper. The major principle, following the precepts of what it meant to be a Christian state, implied that Jews could not be in a situation of authority over Christians: they could not serve as lawyers, judges, civil servants, teachers in schools or universities. In other words, the Rhenish Jews were de-emancipated, thrown back to where they—or their parents—had been a generation ago. (5)

Marx was born in 1818; so this social and political trauma was fresh in the experience of his parents, including the forced conversion to Christianity reluctantly accepted by his father. And Avineri believes that this experience created a unique kind of alienation for a generation of well-educated Jewish intellectuals from this region — including Marx.

In the years between 1815 and 1848 one can discern a deep feeling of alienation and consequent political radicalization among members of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland and the emergence among them—much more than among the more quietistic Jewish communities in Prussia proper—of radical politics; some did convert under that pressure, but this did not make them more supportive of the system imposed on them; others, while distancing themselves from orthodox Judaism, did try to maintain their Jewish identity in one way or another. (7)

The most striking element of Avineri’s interpretation of Marx’s evolving position is what he takes to be Marx’s preference for a gradual and non-violent transition to a kind of social democracy.

In a significant but somehow neglected passage in Das Kapital, Marx argues that in England there is a distinct possibility for the working class to reach power peacefully, not only because of the extension of the suffrage, but also due to various aspects of factory and social legislation, adding that “for this reason … I have given so large a space in this volume to history, details, and the results of English factory legislation.” (140)

The grounds of this view can be found in Marx’s rejection of Jacobinism and the Terror in the French Revolution.

In a surprising critique of the Jacobins, Marx argues that the Reign of Terror was itself a testimony of the failure of Jacobin politics because of their wrongheaded fascination with classical Rome, encapsulated in Saint-Just’s call to “Let revolutionary men be Romans” or his nostalgic complaint that, since the Romans, “the world is a void, and only their memory fills it and prophesizes liberty.” This to Marx is not only empty romanticism but would also be responsible for the Jacobins’ shift toward terrorism: the Roman republican tradition focused exclusively on political arrangements in the state, whereas modern societies have to grapple with the tension between civil, bourgeois society and the political realm—an issue totally unknown in Roman history. … any attempt to use force when conditions are not ripe for internal change are doomed to the tragedy—and cruelty—of the Jacobin terror. (61)

The closing sentence of this passage can be read as a firm rejection of the impulses that led to the cruelties and intransigence in pursuit of “revolution” of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

Also important in Avineri’s view of Marx’s development as an advocate for revolution is the new direction Marx took following the failures of the revolutions of 1848. In place of the bold and sweeping view of the future for proletarian revolution outlined in the Communist Manifesto, Marx articulates a more nuanced and historically contextualized conception of “class” in his writings of the 1850s. In The Class Struggles in France, for example, Avineri finds this change of perspective:

The detailed study from 1850 suggests a very different picture of a complex, multilayered society, where many conflicting interests crisscross each other, bringing about shifting coalitions among multiple groups and subgroups and thus impeding the emergence of a clear-cut, polarized class warfare. (109)

And in the 18th Brumaire Avineri finds that Marx accords much greater complexity to the relationship between economic interests and political power:

He admits that the relationship between economic interests and political power is much more complex and not as simplistic or linear as he himself had maintained in the Manifesto.

Avineri also gives a good deal of attention to Marx’s rejection of historical determinism and the idea that there is only one path of historical development. He emphasizes Marx’s view, consistent from early to late, that social change must be understood in its particular social context, and that there is great contingency in historical change. Avineri seems to believe that this sensitivity to historical context is one result of Harx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophical methods: rather than looking for a philosophical theory that explains history, it is necessary to look to historical circumstances to explain change. Avineri provides a very interesting discussion (178) of several drafts of Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich (link) in which Marx denies that his theories have definitive implications for the course of Russian social and political development. (For further discussion of the Zasulich correspondence see an earlier post here.)

Avineri also argues for a reassessment of Marx’s view of the Paris Commune in 1871 (a theme he develops in the 1968 book as well). He describes the published version of The Civil War in France as an official report from the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), and a document that is tailored to the radical working class orientation of IWA; whereas Avineri documents that the drafts that Marx prepared prior to publication of the piece are much more measured, nuanced, and critical. In particular, Avineri argues that Marx viewed the Commune’s rebellion as both ill-conceived and primarily “petty-bourgeois” rather than proletarian:

Yet there is a fundamental difference between the drafts and the final published essay. In the drafts Marx tries to identify the social structure of the Commune and its political aims, and concludes that it was basically a lower-middle-class affair, with scant proletarian input. …

Marx’s drafts clearly and unequivocally identify the rising of the Commune with its petty-bourgeois leadership, and note in great detail the immediate circumstances of the insurrection. During the growing tension between the provisional government in Versailles and the Commune, which controlled Paris, Versailles proclaimed a provisional moratorium on all outstanding bills of payments and rents. The aim of this moratorium was obvious—to get the support of the lower middle class, mainly in Paris, for Versailles, and for a time it worked. The moratorium was to expire on 13th March 1871, and representatives of Paris middle-class associations tried to press for its extension, but the provisional government in Versailles under Thiers refused. Marx recounts that between 13th and 18th March more than 150,000 demands for payment of bills and rents were reactivated, and then on 18th March the insurrection of the Commune broke out. Marx goes on to note that the demand for a further, or definite, extension of the moratorium—obviously an interest of lower-middle-class groups—continued to figure as a major plank of the Commune. The drafts also contain further analysis of the social structure of the Commune leadership, pointing to its petty-middle-class composition. (155)

Avineri finds these same doubts about the Commune expressed by Marx in a letter to Leo Fränckel, a central committee member of the IWA and leader of the Commune, during the final days of the suppression of the uprising (155). Avineri’s view is unequivocal:

Marx never retreated from his view that the Commune was not a socialist uprising and that, by implication, it had set back the chances of the working-class movement in Europe. Ten years later, in a letter of 22nd February 1881 to the Dutch socialist Ferdinand Domela-Nieuwenhuis, Marx reiterated his view that a socialist government can come into power only if conditions enable it to take all possible measures necessary for transforming society radically, and then, referring to the Commune, added: 

“But apart from the fact that it was merely the rising of a city under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no way socialist, nor could it be. With a modicum of common sense, however, it could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people—the only thing that could have been reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to put an end with terror to the pretensions of the Versailles people, etc.” (161)

This demystification of Marx’s view of the Commune is important because of the iconic role that the Commune played in the drama and rhetoric of Communist rhetoric throughout much of the following century. The heroic proletarian nature of the Commune and Marx’s important role in its origins are both defining myths of the Communist narrative; but Avineri demonstrates that they are fundamentally incorrect.

So what was Marx’s view of “proletarian revolution” in the final decades of his life? In Avineri’s view, it was a fairly moderate view that urged the party of the proletariat to find non-violent, non-terrorist avenues to political power. Avineri offers a great deal of evidence to support this interpretation. For example, he highlights Marx’s speech to the IWA in Amsterdam in 1872, when the IWA was deeply divided between the anarchists (Bakunin) and socialists (Marx):

The speech is a powerful insistence on the need to gain political power but also expresses a highly pluralist approach to the question of how gaining political power would come about—through violent revolution or through peaceful means, shocking the anarchists by maintaining that in some significant cases orderly electoral politics might be the handmaid of socialism. “The workers must one day conquer political supremacy in order to establish the new organization of labor. … But we do not maintain that the attainment of this end requires identical means. We know that one has to take into consideration the institutions, mores [Sitten] and traditions of the different countries, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America, and if I would be familiar with your institutions, also Holland, where labor may attain its goal by peaceful means.” (163)

Here we find Marx the social democrat — an advocate for proletarian revolution who recommends seizure of power through a gradual process of legal and peaceful means. And it is important to underline, as Avineri does, that this is not the counsel of despair following the failures of 1848 and 1871, but rather a fundamental view of Marx’s, that social change is not a putsch. “A movement based on terror, intimidation, and blackmail will ultimately produce a society based on these methods as well” (165). Here is Marx’s rebuttal to Bakunin’s philosophy in Statism and Anarchy and his derisory term, barracks communism:

What a wonderful example of barracks communism! Everything is here—common pots and dormitories, control commissioners and control offices, the regulation of education, production, consumption—in one word, control of all social activity; and at the same time, there appears Our Committee, anonymous and unknown, as supreme authority. Surely, this is most pure anti-authoritarianism! (165)

Avineri supports this reading of Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune with several relatively little-known statements by Marx in 1867 following enactment of the Second Reform Act in Britain that reinforce this preference for a peaceful transition to socialism:

It is possible that the struggle between the workers and the capitalists will be less terrible and less bloody than the struggle between the feudal lords and the bourgeoisie in England and France. Let us hope so. (167)

and:

In England, for example, the way is open for the working class to develop their political power. In a place where they can achieve their goal more quickly and more securely through peaceful propaganda, insurrection would be a folly. (167)

Avineri is a remarkably learned reader of Marx, and a lucid interpreter. The distance is great between his interpretation of Marx as a principled advocate of a peaceful transition to power by the proletarian majority and Marxist orthodoxy since Engels. And yet Avineri’s case is deeply informed by a close reading of a broad swath of Marx’s writings throughout Marx’s career. It is moreover consistent with Marx’s famous statement — “If that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist!”. Rather, Marx displays a sociological imagination that reflected a nuanced, historically minded theorist, constantly aware of the contingencies and contextual differences of historical settings. Further, Avineri makes a powerful case for believing that Marx regarded a strategy of violent seizure of power as deeply self-defeating. Unlike Communist orthodoxy since Lenin, Marx did not believe that successful social and political transformation could be achieved by fiat, force, and ruthless party discipline; in a word, he rejected the premises of Soviet-style communism. And given the crimes that have been committed in the name of revolution in the past century and a half, that is a good thing.

(Bruce Robbins’ review of the book in The Nation (link) is well worth reading.)

A brief Senecian reflection on the humble kidney stone

A kidney stone is an affliction. It is a source of pain, it makes sleep impossible, it is a misery that makes thought about anything else impossible. And its treatment is … dramatic. It is just the kind of life situation we humans are subject to. But we might shrug it off when it’s all over — it was just an illness, an incident in life’s long and fascinating series of disasters and joys.

It is worth thinking about the situation of the kidney stone a little more deeply. A kidney stone is often also a manifestation of lifelong habits, ways of daily living. Drinking too much coffee, drinking too little water every day — the slow invisible accumulation of calcium deep within the body, until it has the mass needed to block the flow of the body’s fluids and cause insistent pain. This is a disease (sometimes anyway) that stems from habit; it is not mere fate or inexplicable affliction. Live right and you won’t have a kidney stone — or at least you’ll be less likely to do so. 

And yet, for many of us — even knowing the connection between these simple habits and the possibility of pain and suffering in the future — we fail to adjust our habits. We continue, perhaps reasoning that each day’s 24 ounces of water rather than 64 will, by itself, cause no appreciable harm. It is a bodily tragedy of the commons. We are not very rational when it comes to calibrating everyday risks and longterm suffering. And the microscopic condensate deep in the kidney grows over time. I suppose the 8 mm. stone that suddenly causes blockage and pain and needs treatment took several years of silent accretion to become a risk; but it was forming throughout all that time.

I don’t know enough about the history of ancient medicine to be sure, but I doubt there was any effective way of addressing a kidney stone in the time of Seneca. Extended suffering and relatively quick necrosis of the kidney were the path forward; and the consolation of philosophy offered by Seneca is familiar. It is the counsel of courage and endurance: 

Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships. (Letters from a Stoic, book 67)

There are two bits of philosophy that the fact of kidney stones in a human being suggests. First is the Seneca observation, that malady and misfortune are inevitable in life, and one must be prepared to face them with a degree of equanimity. “Fate will not spare you.” But the other bit is also important, and in my mind is more associated with the ideas about rationality over time offered in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. The happy person is the person who has orchestrated his or her life activities, from day to day, in ways that contribute to longterm wellbeing. Happiness means making choices on a daily basis that are guided by virtue and one’s fundamental values and goals. Translating this idea into the current context, a rational person will think carefully about his or her daily habits and the contributions they make to wellbeing or illness in the future. Drink more water, and no more akrasia!

Buffy the existentialist vampire slayer

Here is a hard question. Can the creators of television shows and other kinds of pop culture be understood sometimes to pose fundamental and important questions about human life and morality? We probably all believe that great novelists are able to confront and explore hard human moral predicaments and life contradictions — often in ways that are more penetrating than the most astute philosophical writings on these subjects. Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary, James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, Alice Walker in The Color Purple — all of these writers have complex moral imaginations and they confront and question some of the profound issues of real human lives. Can the same be said of the creators of television series? Is there an existential or moral side to Hill Street Blues or Grey’s Anatomy? And what about Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

I suppose the conventional answer is that there is a sharp and uncrossable line between great literature and popular television culture — the former can be profound and insightful, whereas the latter is unavoidably shallow and empty, from a philosophical or moral point of view. Shakespeare was great in ways in which Steven Bochco could never attain. And yet this seems not to be so clearly the case as one might imagine. Many viewers of The Wire, for example, have felt that the series has some very important sociological insights about race and urban life in America today, and David Simon is credited for a genuine artistic achievement in the five seasons of the show (link). 

This brings me to Buffy. At first glance the series looks like pure adolescent fodder, with a dollop of horror show stirred into the mix. The show is the creation of Joss Whedon, who has earned a great deal of praise for his creativity and also some harsh criticism for his style and behavior with the cast in production.

The concept of the show is fairly simple. Buffy is a high school sophomore in California, a new arrival after her expulsion from another school for unexplained absences. As it turns out, her absences and other forms of weird behavior all stem from the fact that she is a “slayer” — the unique young woman of her generation who is specifically ready to confront and slay the vampires and other demons that most of the normal world fails to see. The series rolls out a handful of high school kids as main characters, as well as a growing roster of horrible and long-lived demons and vampires just seeking a way to overturn the dominion of humans on earth. The high school side of the story is roughly as engaging (or unengaging) as Community, another television series about young people who are students at a community college — pure sitcom. But the secret world of demons and vampires that makes up the dramatic thrust of the plot of Buffy is complex and involving. And this fictional world is involving because of the issues of evil, freedom, personal identity, responsibility, and “soul” that it raises. (Here is an appreciation of the show in Vox by a pair of talented television critics; link.)

Two characters in particular carry a great deal of the moral and existential weight of the series — Angel and Spike. Both are vampires who have managed to regain their souls, while retaining their memories of their horrible actions as soulless vampires over a thousand years. Each of them has committed terrible acts against humans, without conscience. Having regained their “souls”, they are able to reflect on these acts in the past, and to reflect on their personal responsibility or culpability for these past actions.

These are philosophical issues; if only there were a philosophical tradition within which they might be discussed. It turns out that there is such a discourse. The Whedon Studies Association was formed a few years ago by a number of individuals with a serious interest in Whedon’s corpus, and it has attracted a number of very interesting discussions and commentaries on Buffy. One contribution that I find especially valuable is an article written by Dean Kowalski, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, titled “Visions of the Soul: Looking Back on Buffy and Angel” (link). Kowalski approaches the topic in a rigorous philosophical way: What is the soul? What different interpretations of “soul” have been offered in explication of Whedon’s fictional universe? How do these theories help to shed light on the moral situation of the various characters in the drama? Kowalski considers an ontological theory of the soul — “the soul is a thing that a person possesses; when he or she is infected by a demon he loses his soul and becomes a vampire”. And he considers an existential theory — “the soul is a metaphor for our capacity for moral choice”. A vampire regains his soul when he or she chooses to act in a deliberate and free way. A vampire is a soulless monster; but he or she or it can become good by exercising a capacity for choosing to act in a morally good way; she can regain her soul. Kowalski quotes Scott McLaren, an early contributor to the Whedon Studies Association:

Scott McLaren acknowledges that “soul-talk” on Buffy and Angel can be interpreted metaphorically. He writes, “The soul can also be defined existentially: Angel resists temptation not simply because he ‘has’ a soul… but rather because, existentially, he makes a deliberate moral choice” (McLaren 13). McLaren further claims that “soul-talk” is also “an existential metaphor for a particular moral orientation” (13). Thus, the soul as metaphor can apply to any one ethically significant choice or a concerted effort to continue making similar choices. Due to the emphasis upon altering one’s own existence via the choices one makes, let us call this the existentialist interpretation of the soul. 134

Like a good literary critic, Kowalski and the other authors he discusses make substantial use of the details of the dialogue and plot to provide evidence for their claims; and like a good philosopher, Kowalski engages in careful conceptual analysis and analytical probing to attempt to gain clarity about difficult moral questions. It is therefore a little difficult to identify Kowalski’s own genre. His article is a careful philosophical essay on freedom, identity, and the concept of the soul; and it is also a detailed analysis of the thought-world involved in a seven-season drama about supernatural creatures who do massive evil. This may be confusing; but it is also very stimulating and challenging, in exactly the way that a philosophy essay ought to be. It is good philosophy on a non-orthodox topic.

So what about Buffy? Does the series over its seven seasons have “literary or philosophical” value? Here is a very interesting quote about Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker (quoted in the Vox article linked above):

[1999] was a year when I was not yet a professional TV critic, just a woman, standing in front of a television show, begging everyone to love it. Every week, I watched The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I was an avid fan of both, convinced that [Sopranos creator] David Chase and [Buffy creator] Joss Whedon were turning television into something radical and groundbreaking, the former by deconstructing the mob genre (as well as capitalism and psychotherapy), the latter by forging a mythic, feminist-inflected meld of horror, comedy, and teen drama.

What this implies to me is that there is no clear line between those genres that provide real insights and those that do not — Madame Bovary on one side of the line, The Young and the Restless on the other. Rather, talented creators take up their tools in many locations and in many genres, and it is possible to find substantive, important discussions of large human questions across a very broad range of cultural products. And along the way, it is possible that some of the toughest moral questions that we face may find some degree of clarification as a result of the dramatic and creative work done by people like David Simon and Joss Whedon.

One reason I find the hidden world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of interest is the unexpected convergence it seems to create with the allegory I wrote in the blog a few months ago (link) — without any knowledge of Buffy. In that entry I imagined a thousand-year-old man attempting to uncover and come to terms with the sometimes awful things he had done in earlier centuries — which sounds a lot like the situation of Angel in the series. And my reason for writing the allegory was to consider whether there is a serious insight we can learn from this imaginary story that helps us make sense of the evils of the twentieth century — certainly one of the toughest moral questions we can pose for ourselves. But in a way, it seems as though Joss Whedon has something equally ambitious in mind as well for his teen-oriented horror show.

Technology and culture in antiquity

image: survey instruments, 1728

The history of technology was sometimes approached as a self-contained field of study. A more fruitful approach in the past thirty years has involved a broader perspective, placing technology change within a broader context of social change and cultural values. A good example is Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change, where he places historical analysis of the plough and the stirrup within the social and political arrangements of late antiquity, and the emergence of new systems of military organization in the medieval period. A key insight has emerged that complicates the picture further: cultural and social arrangements influence the direction of change of technologies in use, but further, those cultural and social facts and practices are themselves affected by the emergence and adoption of new technologies. So technology and technology change are interwoven with social and cultural history, all the way down. (Here is an earlier post on the relationship between technology and culture; link.)

Serafina Cuomo’s Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity (2007) provides this kind of orientation to the nature and role of technology in antiquity. Her central goal is to place the several ideas of “technology” that can be found in Greek and Roman letters and artifacts into a semiotic place: what did the Greeks think about machines? How did they define and evaluate “technicians”? What is the relation between an ability to build and use artifacts and the possession of theoretical and mathematical knowledge? In what ways was techne a morally laden concept? Cuomo’s general view is a radical one: we cannot treat the history of ancient technology without first and fundamentally addressing these questions of meaning and value.

She also pinpoints an important idea about the nature of an artifact or machine and the attitudes and representations that the users and observers brought to it. The definition of the technology itself is culturally specific, and we should not imagine that there is a universal “meaning” associated with a catapult or a medical treatment. The history of military technology, for example, cannot be correctly understood without investigating the “Greek way of war” and the valuations that Greek elites and philosophers brought to their understanding of the practices of war. 

Cuomo is especially critical of the idea that the history of technology is about the progress of a set of tools or machines, proceeding from invention through refinement to final form. On that line of interpretation, machines become more productive and useful through innovation; technological change is progressive; and the aim of the history of technology is to identify moments of invention and pathways of diffusion. Against these views — which she fundamentally rejects — she offers what she describes as the “scatter” theory of technology. (She sometimes uses the idea of a Creole technology to describe a cluster of innovations that occurred in a single locale but did not lead to broader diffusion. This idea is evidently borrowed from David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900.) Here is her description of the “scatter” model of technological change:

The term ‘scatter’ model refers both to the fact that there was a variety of ‘older’ and ‘newer’ catapults, or more generally siege engines, being employed at the same time, and to the fact that these technologies were geographically scattered. I imagine a situation where we have a number of points or clusters of technology with varying accompanying circumstances — so with, for instance, a greater concentration of financial resources, some with a smaller number of available experts, some with easy access to some materials, some not in a position to take their own decisions when it came to war policy. A linear model would seek a way to connect the dots, as it were, which can only be done … by making a number of problematic assumptions, whereas a scatter model may choose to accept the fact that the evidence is scattered and insufficient, and leave the dots unconnected. (56)

And she draws an interesting analogy with Darwin’s observations of variation of finch species across the Galapagos islands: 

Darwin’s avian populations developed in very different ways — adapting to the individual environment of their island or part of island. Similarly for catapults: no matter how catapults got to a certain place … changes were introduced at the local level, or not, in different ways and depending on different circumstances, so that at any given time we find catapults that seem to belong to different phases of development cohabiting. (56)

What is a little disappointing about this book is the lack of attention it provides to the details of the various technologies that are mentioned. It is a very “meta” book — it is about “thinking about technology” rather than about the technologies themselves. Chapter 4 concerns itself with “boundary disputes in the Roman Empire”. Land surveying is plainly key to this topic, and one would like to know in detail how geometry (a field of mathematics that was well understood in the ancient world) was applied to the gnarly realities of delineating plots of land. What tools were available for measuring distances and elevations? Cuomo makes it clear that “surveying” took place in the Roman world (103); but how was it done? Some of the tools depicted in the 18th-century diagram above are based on simple Euclidean principles, and it is natural to ask whether some of these instruments were available to Roman engineers and surveyors. Cuomo does not tell us. Rather than addressing these technical questions, Cuomo focuses instead on the question of dispute resolution. Her summary is distinctly uninformative:

In sum, the knowledge of the land-surveyors when it came to dealing with disputes, was characterized epistemically as a reading of signs, supported by mathematical knowledge, and in terms of practice as a complex negotiation between old and new, pre-Roman and Roman, natural and artificial, general rule and individual case. (113) 

For a historian who argues that we cannot separate “history of technology” from history more generally, she gives remarkably little attention to the technologies themselves. She is more interested in how people of the time, both elite and non-elite, conceived of “machines” and “artifacts”, and the practical skills of the technical experts, than she is in the nuts and bolts of how the machines worked. The most detailed discussion offered in the book centers on several varieties of catapult; but even here, the technical details about how these variants worked are not provided. Lynn White’s writings about medieval technology in Medieval Technology and Social Change get this balance much better, in my view. For example, White permits the reader to form a fairly clear understanding of the ecological, material, and social circumstances within which the heavy plough was adopted. 

The third advantage of the heavy plough derived from the first two: without such a plough it was difficult to exploit the dense, rich, alluvial bottom lands which, if properly handled, would give the peasant far better crops than he could get from the light soils of the uplands. It was believed, for example, that the Anglo-Saxons had brought the heavy Germanic plough to Celtic Britain in the fifth century; thanks to it, the forests began to be cleared from the heavy soils, and the square, so-called ‘Celtic’ fields, which had long been cultivated on the uplands with the scratch-plough, were abandoned, and generally remain deserted today…. The saving of peasant labour, then, together with the improvement of field drainage and the opening up of the most fertile soils, all of which were made possible by the heavy plough, combined to expand production and make possible that accumulation of surplus food which is the presupposition of population growth, specialization of function, urbanization, and the growth of leisure. (43-44)

This is perhaps an illustration of the “progress of technology” mindset that Cuomo criticizes; but in the context of medieval social and political life and in the circumstances of the ecologies of north and west Europe, White’s account makes eminent good sense. Likewise, the essays on agriculture and metalworking in John Peter Oleson’s Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World provide a clear understanding of the craft and technique involved in cultivation and land preparation, in the first instance, and refining and shaping of metal objects, in the second. Research in the history of technology requires at least this level of technical detail for it to be genuinely insightful.

Cuomo’s emphasis on discovering the mentality and conceptual geography through which the peoples of ancient Greece and Rome thought about technology, craft, and machines is certainly important and valuable, and her discussion of classical texts and inscriptions is vastly learned. But this does not supplant the need to look carefully at the details of the technologies themselves.

Technology in the ancient world: time

We don’t think of the ancient world as being one that was rich in technological innovation or progress. And yet in a number of areas, there were very significant developments in technology — in ships, mining, fortification, siege engines, road-building, and bridges and aqueducts, for example. And there is the intriguing example of the Antikythera mechanism (link), dating from the first century BCE and lacking a clear technological context, but establishing firmly the availability of advanced metal-working techniques and complex geared mechanisms. (Two fascinating videos are linked on the earlier blogpost on the Antikythera mechanism.) 

John Peter Oleson’s The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World provides an extensive survey of the current state of knowledge about the topic, drawing upon the work of dozens of experts in classical scholarship. Here is the table of contents of the volume, from which the reader can get a very good idea of the topics and technologies considered:

Part I Sources  

1. Ancient Written Sources for Engineering and Technology, Serafina Cuomo  2. Representations of Technical Processes, Roger Ulrich  3. Historiography and Theoretical Approaches, Kevin Greene  

Part II Primary, Extractive Technologies  

4. Mining and Metallurgy, Paul T. Craddock  5. Quarrying and Stoneworking, J. Clayton Fant  6. Sources of Energy and Exploitation of Power, Orjan Wikander  7. Greek and Roman Agriculture, Evi Margaritis and Martin K. Jones  8. Animal Husbandry, Hunting, Fishing, and Fish Production, Geoffrey Kron 

Part III Engineering and Complex Machines  

9. Greek Engineering and Construction, Fredrick A. Cooper  10. Roman Engineering and Construction, Lynne Lancaster  11. Hydraulic Engineering and Water Supply, Andrew I. Wilson  12. Tunnels and Canals, Klaus Grewe  13. Machines in Greek and Roman Technology, Andrew I. Wilson  

Part IV Secondary Processes and Manufacturing  

14. Food Processing and Preparation, Robert I. Curtis  15. Large-Scale Manufacturing, Standardization, and Trade, Andrew I. Wilson  16. Metalworking and Tools, Carol Mattusch  17. Woodworking, Roger B. Ulrich  18. Textile Production, John P. Wild  19. Tanning and Leather, Carol van Driel-Murray  20. Ceramic Production, Mark Jackson and Kevin Greene  21. Glass Production, E. Marianne Stern 

Part V Technologies of Movement and Transport  

22. Land Transport, Part 1: Roads and Bridges, Lorenzo Quilici  23. Land Transport, Part 2: Riding, Harnesses, and Vehicles, Georges Raepsaet  24. Sea Transport, Part 1: Ships and Navigation, Sean McGrail  25. Sea Transport, Part 2: Harbors, David J. Blackman  

Part VI Technologies of Death  

26. Greek Warfare and Fortification, Philip de Souza  27. Roman Warfare and Fortification, Gwyn Davies  

Part VII Technologies of the Mind  

28. Information Technologies: Writing, Book Production, and the Role of Literacy, Willy Clarysse and Katelijn Vandorpe  29. Timekeeping, Robert Hannah  30. Technologies of Calculation, Part 1: Weights and Measures (Charlotte Wikander), Part 2: Coinage (Andrew Meadows), Part 3: Practical Mathematics (Karin Tybjerg) 31. Gadgets and Scientific Instruments, Orjan Wikander  32. Inventors, Invention, and Attitudes toward Innovation, Kevin Greene

Part VIII Ancient Technologies in the Modern World  

33. Expanding Ethnoarchaeology: Historical Evidence  and Model-Building in the Study of Technological Change, Michael B. Schiffer  

Many of the technologies described here are important and interesting, but familiar: ships, mines, fortifications, and other common interactions with the natural world. The most surprising technology innovations are described in Part VII, “Technologies of the Mind”, and here there is more information about “high technology” in the ancient world. Orjan Wikander describes “gadgets and instruments” in chapter 31, which is a topic that sheds more light on advanced technical and scientific innovation — and therefore provides some intellectual background for the design and fabrication of the Antikythera mechanism. What is most eye-opening about the details of the Antikythera mechanism is the intricate design of the gearing system that it embodied and the advanced metal-working techniques that it presupposed for fabrication (cutting precision gear wheels and most puzzling, cutting concentric tubes to convey motion from one gear assembly to an output ring). Wikander makes it clear that the principle of geared machines was familiar in the Hellenistic world (for advanced mathematicians and philosophers, at least). Field and Wright report on a Byzantine sundial calendar geared device dating from about 500 AD, whose gears are very similar to those used in the Antikythera device; link. They take this as evidence of an ongoing engineering tradition in the Greek world of fabrication of geared devices. (Notably, the sundial calendar is substantially less complex than the Antikythera mechanism, implying a loss of technological knowledge over the intervening 500 years.) 

But there is an interesting complication about these high-tech astronomical devices for the history of technology: these devices were advanced and sophisticated, but they appear to have had little practical utility. It appears to be widely agreed, for example, that the Antikythera device had no use as a navigational instrument; instead, it appears to be an entertaining demonstration of astronomical knowledge for an elite audience. A more useful geared instrument, apparently, was the “hodometer”, a wheeled and geared device that could be pulled along a route and used to measure distance. But this is an important guidepost in the study of the history of technology: the innovation and development of the “gadget” itself does not ensure its proliferation and widespread adoption. It needs to find a need within ambient society to which the gadget can be adapted in a useful way.

An interesting challenge of measurement in the ancient world was time. Robert Hannah’s chapter on “Timekeeping” provides a very interesting account of shifts in both the conception of time and the means that were available or developed to measure its passage. It is evident that it is not possible to engage in the science of mechanics without a way of measuring equal intervals of time — key variables like velocity, acceleration, inertia all require an account of distance covered per unit of time. Most fundamentally, it isn’t possible to form the concept of velocity unless one has a fairly definite conception of units of time. “Fast” and “slow” are imaginable; but 4 m/s is not. 

A little bit of reflection will show that there are at least two different problems encompassed under “timekeeping”. First, we may have reasons for wanting to know “what is the time of day at the moment?”, by which we mean, most fundamentally, how long past sunrise (or before sunset) is it currently? And how long until dinner? In this context it is very interesting (and eyebrow-raising) to learn of “unequal hours” involved in Greek timekeeping:

Sundials helped inculcate into society the concept of the seasonal, or unequal, hour. For most purposes in antiquity, such hours were the norm. From Egypt came the notion that each day or night could be divided into 12 hours from sunrise to sunset, and another 12 from sunset to sunrise (Parker 1974: 53; Quirke 2001: 42). Since daytime and nighttime change in length with the seasons, the length of each hour therefore changed also according to the season. Only at the spring and autumn equinoxes were the hours equal through the whole day. (p. 749)

So a person’s pulse (beats per sixtieth of an hour) will be different, depending on whether it is measured in daytime or nighttime. Suppose the individual’s real pulse rate at equinox is 70 beats per sixtieth of an hour and it never changes. When measured on December 22 by counting beats for an hour and dividing by 60, his/her pulse will be 54 bpm; the same measurement on June 22 results in a pulse of 86 bpm. Further, length of day is influenced by latitude as well as season; so the same individual would have a different pulse rate in Miami than in Helsinki, on the same day. Measuring pulse by such a system is useless as a tool for assessing health status. And how about cooking — what is the result of a variable hour for a 4-minute soft-boiled egg? 

The harder challenge of time measurement is the problem of measuring “duration of time” — how many minutes it takes to walk from the agora to the Acropolis in Athens, how long it takes the arrow to fly from the archer to the target, how long the egg has been boiling. The problem of time-telling can be handled reasonably well by use of a sundial (during daylight hours) and by the position and elevation of the stars by night, but a sundial is not a practical instrument for measuring duration.

What is needed for measuring duration is an absolute measure of “equal interval of time” that can be used to measure duration — ticks of a clock, swings of a pendulum of a certain length, vibration of a cesium atom, movement of a violin string tuned to E, movement of the fork of a tuning fork tuned to A. More exactly, what is needed is a process that occurs in the same period of time every time it is invoked; and a way of counting the number of times the event has occurred during the process to be measured. Each of the processes mentioned here identifies a discrete event that always takes the same amount of time from beginning to end. The difficult challenge is an automatic way of counting events. Mechanical clocks “count” events by advancing a geared mechanism, moving pointers on a dial. 

The water clock (clepsydra) and sand clock both served to measure duration through the idea that the flow of a liquid or viscous substance through a constrained opening takes a regular amount of time. So a bucket with a hole in the bottom was used to measure the period in which legal arguments needed to be made in Athenian proceedings (752).

Here is a novel clock mechanism that could have been used. Suppose we construct a 6.21013-meter pendulum. It has a period of 5.0 seconds. This solves the first part of the problem: an event that always takes the same amount of time. But how to count events in order to measure extended periods of time? Suppose we design a simple device in which a small bucket with volume of 10 cm^3 is fitted to a lever and is triggered by a tap of the pendulum. It empties into a calibrated glass vessel and is refilled automatically in the next several seconds. After the first cycle the calibrated vessel contains 10 cm^3; after 50 cycles the vessel contains 500 cm^3 of water and 250 seconds have elapsed. After 17,280 cycles the calibrated vessel contains 172,800 cm^3 of water (172.8 liters), and 24 hours have elapsed. The calibration of the vessel permits the user to measure the amount of time (number of swings of the pendulum) that have occurred since beginning the process, by measuring the volume of the water. A large vessel (200 liters) will permit measurement of periods extending over a full 24 hour period; a narrow vessel can be calibrated to permit precise measurement of short intervals (5 minutes). The clock will be precise to the range of 5 seconds — perfectly sufficient for boiling 4-minute eggs. And the precision of the timepiece can be increased by shortening the pendulum; a .5 meter pendulum has a period of 1.42 seconds.

In this example the clock was initiated at midnight, and the level of the water indicates that the time is now 10:00 am.)

(Who can direct me to the Agora patent office? All royalties will be directed to the defense fund established on behalf of Professor Socrates.)

Once we have a system for measuring intervals of time, it is possible to define and measure other important physical quantities: velocity, acceleration, the period of a pendulum, the frequency of a vibrating string, a mammal’s pulse. So measurement of mid-range intervals of time is crucial to the development of physics and mechanics as well as other areas of science — as is evident from the Renaissance scientists such as Galileo. Conversely, without such a system of time-interval measurement, many important physical laws cannot be discovered. Ancient Greek and Roman scientists had reasonably effective instruments for measuring distance, and only very limited instruments for measure elapsed time. Time on the scale of a month or a year could be measured by observation of the movements of the moon and the planets; but time on the scale of seconds and minutes could not be measured by these means.

(Wikander is best known for his research on water technologies, including especially water mills. Here is an interesting page outlining changing knowledge over the past several decades on the extent of use of water mills during the classical period (link).)

LaCapra on history, memory, and the Holocaust

Child’s drawing from barracks wall in Auschwitz

Dominick LaCapra’s History and Memory after Auschwitz is an important contribution to the topic of “history’s responsibility in front of the Holocaust”. His aim in this book, and elsewhere in many of his other writings, is to express his “conception of the relations among history, memory, ethics, and politics” (6). 

Here is an especially arresting sentence from the introduction:

I discuss Heinrich Himmler’s famous Posen speech of October 1943, addressed to upper-level SS officers, for it may be taken as the paradigmatic assertion of the sublimity and “glory” of extreme transgression and unheard-of excess in the Nazi treatment of Jews. Often such features are marginalized or downplayed in the emphasis on factors such as the banality of evil, the well-nigh inevitable consequences of totalization (or totalitarianism), the role of bureaucratic routine and cold duty, the inertial force of social pressure, the effects of depersonalizing and fragmented relations to the other, and the significance of a massive technological framework, instrumental rationality, and industrialized mass murder. (3)

LaCapra draws attention here to the striking contrast between these fairly ordinary causal factors often highlighted in discussions of the Holocaust and the “regression to barbarism” represented by much of the treatment of Jews and the insane “sublime elation” of Himmler’s speech.

LaCapra seeks to address the question of “uniqueness or comparability” of the Holocaust:

The more general point … is that the Holocaust was “unique” in a specific, nonnumerical, and noninvidious sense. In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed, and whenever that threshold or limit is crossed, something “unique” happens and the standard opposition between uniqueness and comparability is unsettled, thereby depriving comparatives (especially in terms of magnitude) of a common measure or foundation. (7)

This is a somewhat paradoxical-sounding statement, but it seems to make sense. The “killing fields” of Pol Pot were also unique, different from the Holocaust, horrific, and “an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression”. Each such crossing is “non-comparable”, in the sense that each demands its own sorrow, its own lack of comprehension, and its own determination that “never again” will we permit such violations. There is no common measure; each occurrence is evil in its own unique and horrific way.

LaCapra quotes Saul Friedlander on the topic of the uniqueness of the Nazi extermination of the Jews, including especially Friedlander’s view in Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe that “The Nazi regime attained what is, in my view, some sort of theoretical outer limit: one may envision an even larger number of victims and a technologically more efficient way of killing, but once a regime decides that groups, whatever the criteria may be, should be annihilated there and then and never be allowed to live on Earth, the ultimate has been achieved” (quoted in LaCapra, 26). LaCapra approves of this idea: “The essential consideration is that an outer limit was reached and that, once this limit is reached, something radically transgressive or incommensurable has occurred”. But he also fears that this perspective may “normalize” (banalize) the Holocaust “by prompting a dogmatic assertion of absolutes, a grim competition for first place in victimhood or the type of research into similarities and differences that easily becomes diversionary and pointless” (26).

Here is LaCapra’s considered judgment about how to understand the uniqueness and generalizability of the Holocaust:

I would change metaphors and note the role of a tragic grid that achieved a paramount place in the Holocaust but in other ways is also evident elsewhere in history. It is the grid that locks together perpetrator, collaborator, victim, bystander, and resister, and that also threatens to encompass the secondary witness and historian. A goal of working-through should be the better understanding of this grid and the attempt to overcome it toward a more desirable network of relations. (40-41)

And what about the historian in this tragic grid?

The historian must work out a subject-position in negotiating transference and coming to terms with his or her implication in the tragic grid of participant-positions. The conventional stance for the historian is often closest to that of the innocent bystander or onlooker. But this safe position is particularly questionable in the case of the Holocaust and other extreme or limit-events. (41)

Working through the past in any desirable fashion would thus be a process (not an accomplished state) and involve not definitive closure or full self-possession but a recurrent yet variable attempt to relate accurate, critical memory-work to the requirements of desirable action in the present. (42)

One thing that is especially noteworthy about LaCapra’s approach to the topic of history, memory, and trauma is his use of some basic ideas from psychoanalysis. This is an approach that is somewhat foreign to the ideas that analytic philosophers bring to the philosophy of history, but it seems especially relevant to the question of how to confront the evils of the twentieth century. Here is a very interesting description of how LaCapra treats psychoanalysis as a tool of inquiry in history:

My basic premise in this chapter is that the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (such as transference, resistance, denial, repression, acting-out, and working-through) undercut the binary opposition between the individual and society, and their application to individual or collective phenomena is a matter of informed argument and research…. One should rather call into question the very idea that one is working with a more or less flimsy analogy between the individual and society and argue instead that there is nothing intrinsically “individual” about such concepts as repression and working-through. These concepts refer to processes that always involve modes of interaction, mutual reinforcement, conflict, censorship, orientation toward others, and so forth, and their relative individual or collective status should not be prejudged. (43)

This perspective makes sense in two different ways in the setting the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor — first, as a means of making sense of the thoughts and actions of perpetrators and victims (for example, in the lengthy Posen speech of Himmler’s that LaCapra treats in detail); and second, as a way of addressing the historian’s own blindspots, aversions, and rationalizations in the telling of the story. The second part of the passage following the ellipsis captures very well the situation of “collective memory” and historians’ collective efforts to uncover a narrative of a complex and horrific period.

This is a good place to draw attention to the current crisis in Holocaust historiography in Poland occasioned by the libel suit successfully pursued against Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking for entirely legitimate assertions they made in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland (published in 2018, not yet available in English translation) (link). Their work is based on thorough historical research, and aligns with the moral necessity of facing unhappy truths honestly through historical inquiry. Like Jan Gross two decades before (link), their work honestly confronts the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the murder of Poland’s Jews. The government-backed insistence on “historical research supporting the national dignity of Poland” is entirely inimical towards history, truth, and memory, and is rightly opposed by historians and writers throughout the world.

Learning and engagement

John Dewey’s Democracy and Education is over a century old. But it still seems strikingly modern, even avant-garde, when compared to many pedagogical practices currently in place in both secondary and post-secondary schools. Here is one line of thought that is especially insightful: that learning is a constructive and active process for the learner, not a question of passive acquisition of “knowledge”. Learning involves acquiring new ideas, new perspectives, and new questions for oneself. And these processes require an engagement on the part of the learner that is as active and creative as is the learning done by a basketball player with a great coach. A good teacher is one who can motivate and stimulate the student to taking this journey — not one who can supply a full menu of pre-established solutions to the student.

Here is a particularly rich description of Dewey’s conception of learning and the relationship between teacher and student. He formulates his thinking about the learning that children do; but I find the passage entirely applicable to university students as well.

The joy which children themselves experience is the joy of intellectual constructiveness—of creativeness, if the word may be used without misunderstanding. The educational moral I am chiefly concerned to draw is not, however, that teachers would find their own work less of a grind and strain if school conditions favored learning in the sense of discovery and not in that of storing away what others pour into them; nor that it would be possible to give even children and youth the delights of personal intellectual productiveness—true and important as are these things. It is that no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea. The communication may stimulate the other person to realize the question for himself and to think out a like idea, or it may smother his intellectual interest and suppress his dawning effort at thought. But what he directly gets cannot be an idea. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think. When the parent or teacher has provided the conditions which stimulate thinking and has taken a sympathetic attitude toward the activities of the learner by entering into a common or conjoint experience, all has been done which a second party can do to instigate learning. The rest lies with the one directly concerned. If he cannot devise his own solution (not of course in isolation, but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) and find his own way out he will not learn, not even if he can recite some correct answer with one hundred per cent accuracy. We can and do supply ready-made “ideas” by the thousand; we do not usually take much pains to see that the one learning engages in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas—that is, perceived meanings or connections. This does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on; the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better. (chapter 12, kl 2567)

What is this process that Dewey is describing, this process of active “learning” on the part of the student? It is one in which the student is led to “engage in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas”; it is a situation of active grappling with a problem that the student does not yet fully understand; it is a situation in which the student develops new cognitive tools, frameworks, and questions through the active and engaged mental struggle she has willingly undertaken. She has grown intellectually; she has the excitement of realizing that her perspective and understanding of something important has changed and deepened. The language of gestalt psychology is suggestive here — the sudden shift of a set of lines on paper into a representation of a smiling face, the rearrangement of one’s thought processes so a confusing set of words and ideas suddenly make sense. It is something like what Kuhn describes as a paradigm shift, except that it is a continual process of intellectual change.

What does Dewey mean here by saying that an idea cannot be conveyed from one person to another? He does not doubt that words, sentences, and paragraphs can be shared, or that the student cannot incorporate those words into sentences. But his key point is profound: knowledge and understanding require more than understanding the grammar of a sentence; instead, the student needs to have an intellectual framework about the question in play and an active inquiring mental curiosity in terms of which he or she “thinks” the idea for herself. I do not understand entropy if I simply parrot the definition of the word; rather, I need a framework of ideas about gases, random motion, kinetic energy, and statistical mechanics within the context of which I can give “entropy” a conceptual place.

Anyone who teaches philosophy to undergraduates must be especially receptive to this challenge. The task, somehow, is to help the student make the problem her own — to see why it is perplexing, to want to dig into it, to be eager to discover new angles on it, to see how it relates to other complicated issues. So in teaching Kant or Arendt, the goal is not to get the student to memorize the list of the antinomies of reason or the three versions of the categorical imperative, or precisely what is meant by “the banality of evil”. Rather, it is to help the student to discover the problem that Kant or Arendt was grappling with, why it was important, why it is difficult, and maybe how it can be solved in a different way. 

The student needs somehow to put himself or herself into the mindset of a person on a journey of discovery, creating his or her own conceptual structures and questions about the terrain, without falling into the complacency of thinking she is simply a tourist with an excellent guide. And, after all, if there is nothing new to think about Aristotle or Nussbaum, then what is the purpose of studying them in the first place? Why would it matter to a student that she has read the Nichomachean Ethics cover to cover if she hasn’t somehow been stimulated through her own efforts of imagination and discovery to think new and original thoughts?

This insight into the learning process is evident in philosophy, but surely it must be essentially the same kind of challenge in teaching literature, sociological theory, thermodynamics, or even advanced accounting. When I read Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare — or when I hear him lecture on “racial memory” of Vilnius — I am stimulated to new thinking, new ideas of my own, and a striking lack of interest on Greenblatt’s part in being an “authority”. Greenblatt somehow succeeds in creating a Dewey-like learning environment, both in his writing and in his teaching.

The past year of teaching courses in a synchronous hybrid online mode, preparing lectures for asynchronous use and using Zoom meetings for class discussions, has brought this set of challenges to the top of mind for me. What kinds of “prompts”, questions, topics for discussion, and asynchronous exercises can I use to help students in these courses develop the appetite for taking the intellectual journey themselves? And how can the instructor help the student see that this is an activity of imagination and thinking that she herself wants to involve herself in? How can the instructor help the student to shift perspective from “learning the content of a course about Greek ethics from the professor” to “working my way through some fascinating texts in Greek ethics, seeing some new perspectives, and getting occasional stimulating questions from my professor”? The first is the tourist’s perspective, while the second is the explorer’s perspective.

In a way, we might say that the role of the teacher that Dewey describes is like that performed by Socrates: posing questions — perhaps irritating and persistent questions — but provoking those around him to think much harder about “justice”, “piety”, and “good manners”, and not providing a substantive doctrine of his own. Socrates was sometimes criticized for suggesting that no substantive beliefs about morality could be justified, but that was not his pedagogy. Rather, his commitment was to the idea of hard thinking without pat answers. And one would like to imagine that some of his students eventually came to develop rich, imaginative, and non-dogmatic minds that allowed them to probe new questions and create new solutions. (It is interesting to reflect that Plato was one of those students, and Aristotle was a student of Plato. I think historians of philosophy would judge that both Plato and Aristotle were highly original thinkers, but that Plato’s approach was somewhat more dogmatic, while Aristotle’s was more open-minded and experimental.)

Compassion and the moral emotions (Nussbaum)

image: Philoctetes injured on Lemnos

How can the atrocities of the twentieth century lead to the creation of a better version of humanity? One theme to explore involves the moral emotion of compassion, and the idea that this is an emotion that human beings learn through experience and reflection. Crucially, we need to explore whether knowledge of history can help to inform the development of a culture of compassion. Both John Kekes and Susan Neiman provide some useful insights into the key question: how should a current generation engage with the history of the atrocities of the past century? Kekes contributes to this idea through his discussion of moral imagination, and Neiman contributes through her analysis of Rousseau’s theory of the malleability of human nature.

The philosopher who has shed the most light on compassion is Martha Nussbaum. In “Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion” (link) she explores the importance that compassion and pity play in the moral ordering of human social life. (The subject is treated as well in Part II of Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.) As the title suggests, Nussbaum regards compassion (or pity) as a prerequisite moral emotion for much of social life; and she believes that it must be learned. Moreover, literature, drama, and history can be crucial components of that learning.

Tragedy, as ancient Athenian culture saw it, is not for the very young; and it is not just for the young. Mature people always need to expand their experience and to reinforce their grasp on central ethical truths. To the young adolescent who is preparing to take a place in the city, however, tragedy has a special significance. Such a spectator is learning pity in the process. (39)

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum approaches the topic of pity or compassion through the story of Philoctetes, as related by Sophocles. She finds that Sophocles provides a nuanced and reflective demonstration of the emotion, within the context of a complicated social story. The value of literature in exploring moral concepts has been a strength of Nussbaum’s approach to moral philosophy for a long time, and its use here is illuminating.

Nussbaum rejects the Humean view that emotions are the contrary of reason, knowledge, or deliberation; instead, she argues that at least some emotions, like pity and compassion, embrace both representation of the world and affective response to the world. Compassion is a crucial part of inter-personal knowledge: “compassion, in the philosophical tradition, is a central bridge between the individual and the community; it is conceived of as our species’ way of hooking the interests of others to our own personal goods” (28). Further, “compassion is a certain sort of reasoning” (29). And “all compassion is “rational” in the descriptive sense in which that term is frequently used—that is, not merely impulsive, but involving thought or belief” (30-31).

Here is the analysis of pity or compassion that Nussbaum attributes to Aristotle:

Pity, Aristotle argues, is a painful emotion directed at another person’s misfortune or suffering (Rhet. 1385bl3ff.). It requires and rests on three beliefs: (1) the belief that the suffering is serious rather than trivial; (2) the belief that the suffering was not caused primarily by the person’s own culpable actions; and (3) the belief that the pitier’s own possibilities are similar to those of the sufferer. Each of these seems to be necessary for the emotion, and they seem to be jointly sufficient. (31)

Nussbaum does not explicitly draw the connection between compassion and evil here that I believe is crucial — in fact, she does not explicitly discuss “evil” in either of these works — but the tie is straightforward. One fails utterly to understand the Holodomor or the killing pits of Poland or the Cathar Crusade if one fails to imagine the pain, suffering, and loss that each of these historical events involved, for millions of human beings. (Nussbaum refers to this particular form of moral blindness in her treatment of Emile in Upheavals; 322.) And, conversely, if one has a strongly developed capacity for the moral emotion of compassion, it is hard to see how he or she could consent to playing the role of an Eichmann or a Stangl. Here is a relevant comment by Nussbaum in the context of the dehumanization of the victims so often observed in the Holocaust and other instances of genocidal conduct:

This fact explains why so frequently those who wish to withhold pity and to teach others to do so portray the sufferers as altogether dissimilar in kind and in possibility. In The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg shows how pervasively Nazi talk of Jews, in connection with their murder, portrayed them as nonhuman: either as beings of a remote animal kind, such as insects or vermin, or as inanimate objects, “cargo” to be transported. (35)

Nussbaum refers in Upheavals of Thought to other demeaning and dehumanizing mechanisms through which committers of atrocities reconcile their actions — for example, by portraying the victims as unclean and disgusting. “Thus the Germans forged the will to carry out the atrocities”(Upheavals, 348).

To what extent are our moral sensibilities subject to growth, education, and development? Like Susan Neiman (link), Nussbaum draws a connection to Rousseau and his treatment of the emotion of pity in Emile. She finds that Rousseau’s analysis of this moral emotion captures the fullness of reasoning and affect that she has described; and, crucially, she finds that Rousseau believes that compassion must be learned:

If Emile really does the cognitive work, if his imagination really contains the thoughts of pity, with all their evaluative material, in such a way that they become part of his cognitive makeup and his motivations for action, then he has pity whether he experiences this or that tug in his stomach or not. No such particular bodily feeling is necessary. To determine whether Emile has pity, we look for the evidence of a certain sort of thought and imagination, in what he says, and in what he does. (38)

And in Upheavals she returns to Rousseau:

I think that this, indeed, was Rousseau’s idea, when he said that Émile would learn compassion without hierarchy if his teacher taught him to focus on the common vulnerability of all human beings. “Thus from our weakness,” he concludes, “our fragile happiness is born.” Surrendering omnipotence is essential to compassion, and a broad compassion for one’s fellow citizens is essential to a decent society. (350)

Moreover, Nussbaum believes that the “teachability” of compassion is important: human beings and human cultures can improve their capacity for compassion through reflective experience.

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum believes that immersion in literature can assist with this learning. But I think she would agree with the idea that a close and honest reading of historians like Tim Snyder, Primo Levi, or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn can help with this form of moral development as well.

So several things seem clear. Compassion is crucial for recognizing the evil of the twentieth century; further, we can deepen our capacity for compassion by honestly confronting the atrocities of the period; and — just possibly — our future history will be better than our past because of this honesty. And Rousseau’s comments about compassion in Emile suggest another possibility as well: that we become different people, and our culture becomes a different culture, through this kind of immersive experience.

Organizational evil

image: IG Farben headquarters

A number of posts have confronted the historical realities of atrocities, genocide, and cruelty on a massive scale. The general question tying these discussions together has to do with individual human beings: “How could a normal human being with normal social emotions commit these atrocious acts?” And the individual question can be posed at a variety of levels of activity — the “ordinary men” whom Christopher Browning considers in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland who directly killed thousands of men, women, and children; the mid-level commanders who did not themselves conduct the killings but ordered and organized them; the bureaucrats like Eichmann or Speer who oversaw the massive organizations needed to carry out mass genocide; and the dictators like Hitler and Stalin who deliberately ordered these actions. Concerning each of these men (and occasionally women) we can ask the question, “how could they have done this?”. This is a good question, and one that needs serious and extended study.

But there is another dimension of the evil of genocide: the role that organizations play in carrying out mass acts of atrocity against the innocent. Armies, governments, corporations, religious orders — organizations at many levels of scope were an essential part of the evils of the twentieth century. So it is important to ask the question of evil about organizations as well as about individuals; and the remedies we might consider are not likely to be the same. For example, it might have been effective in attempting to quell murderous ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to attempt to trigger the impulses of compassion, pity, and fellow feeling among the ordinary people whom Michael Mann describes in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing who were readily recruited into killing teams and paramilitary groups that carried out murderous ethnic cleansing of Muslim neighbors; but this strategy is patently impossible with regard to organizations. Organizations do not feel sympathy, pity, or fellow feeling; rather, they carry out the tasks that have been set for them without moral appraisal. Organizations aren’t persons; there is no essential “humanity” in an organization. Organizations are more like machines than they are like individual human beings.

There is a field of research in organizational studies that is dedicated to the examination of “organizational evil,” and much of the content of this field is represented in the very interesting and challenging book edited by Carole Jurkiewicz, The Foundations of Organizational Evil. Jurkiewicz describes the concept of organizational evil in these terms in chapter 1 of the volume:

“Organizational evil” is used here to signify the institutionalization of a set of principles whose purpose is knowingly to harm individuals, with disregard for consequences beyond those that would cause immediate repercussions to the evil-doer. Whereas unethical behavior is episodic and individualistic in nature, evil is systemic and embedded in the culture of the organization. Programs, policies, practices, reward systems, hiring and training, external and internal relations—all are designed with the intention to seek immediate advantage through the deliberate harm of others.

It is noteworthy that contributors to this field are somewhat beguiled by the analogy between individual human beings and “corporate individuals”. This analogy shows up in several forms in the volume, including the application of Kohlberg’s theory of stages of moral development and the application of individual-level theories of psychopathology and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to organizations. Both analogies are put forward in Chapter 1. For example: 

While the original research was focused on the individual level, it can be extrapolated to the organizational level as well being that organizations are defined as legal persons, as addressed later in this chapter. (chapter 1)

This is a surprising lapse, given the reality that organizations are fundamentally different from individuals in their forms of intentionality, purposiveness, and normativity (link). In particular, the Kohlberg theory of stages of moral reasoning seems to have no real relevance to corporate “persons”.

More convincing is the analysis that Jurkiewicz and Grossman give of the influence that organizations wield on the motivations, emotions, and behavior of the individuals who work within them. The “normalization” of killing documented by Christopher Browning is a relevant example: the validation by the organization and its leaders of the atrocious actions of killing the innocent offers participants part of the motivation needed to carry out their horrific tasks. Jurkiewicz and Grossman put the point in these terms:

As employees identify with the organization, a stable social system develops that perpetuates the culture while, at the same time, being defined by it. The stronger the culture, the more deeply employees share the value system, the greater the employee commitment, and the more willing employees are to submit to behavioral controls imposed by the organization. (chapter 1)

They also argue that, once established, a pattern of organizational imperatives to commit atrocities and compliance by subordinates creates a “leader-to-peer bonding” that makes further atrocity easier. They summarize this line of thought in these terms:

Organizational culture exerts powerful influence over individual behavior, because of both the reward structure and humans’ need to belong, but also significantly because the individual looks to those around him or her to determine what is right and what is wrong. (chapter 1)

Significantly, the authors emphasize that these dynamics can support “extreme evil” (killing squads) as well as more mundane forms of unethical organizational behavior (taking advantage of gullible elderly clients). 

In their contribution to the volume Guy Adams and Danny Balfour provide more detail about how organizations contribute to largescale evil-doing (“The Dynamics of Administrative Evil in Organizations”): 

What distinguishes administrative evil from other forms of evil is that its consequences are masked within the ethos of technical rationality. Ordinary people might simply be acting appropriately in their organizational role, just doing what is expected of them while participating in what a critical observer (usually well after the fact) would call evil. (chapter 2)

With diffuse and scattered information, literally no one in the organization might have a complete enough picture to adequately comprehend the destructive activity to try to reverse course. Those who have enough of a picture to perceive that something is wrong might well assume that higher management must be aware of the problem and has chosen to do nothing about it. (chapter 2).

...

While the psychological incentive to deny and cover up are clearly powerful, individuals in the organization have made a fundamental shift at the turning point from engaging in harmful or evil activities unknowingly to doing so knowingly. This has been termed the “evil turn” (Darley, 1996). It is evident that the incentives to cover up are socially powerful, if not indeed overwhelming, because it is widely known that a cover-up is highly unlikely to succeed and often results in the complete disclosure of the harmful or evil activities. (chapter 2)

These points all concern the social psychology, incentives, and motivation that exist for participants within an organization. 

As compliance accounts of human behavior suggest, social structures and organizational roles are far more powerful in shaping our behavior than we typically think. Within a culture of technical rationality, a model of professionalism that drives out ethics and moral reasoning offers all too fertile soil for administrative evil to emerge. (chapter 2)

But these authors do not appear to address the most fundamental question: are there features of organizations themselves that facilitate and encourage evil actions and policies in the world, quite apart from the intentions of the leaders of the organization? Are there organizational tendencies or dynamics that facilitate the capture of an organization by individuals or groups for evil purposes? Do evil-doers create organizations, or do organizations create evil-doers?

These points raise a number of important unanswered questions about organizations and the doing of evil. Do organizations sometimes create novel evils, or are they simply inexact tools for the goals of evil leaders and executives — transmission belts rather than motors? Do organizations amplify the willingness of individuals to engage in atrocious actions, or are they merely one relatively small source of influence on individual behavior? Does “organizational behavior” amount to more than an application of the Milgram results or the Stanford Prison Experiment results about the ways in which individual behavior is influenced by peers and authority figures (link)? Can we be at all precise about the role that organizations played in the carrying out of the Holocaust or the Holodomor? What is the connection between ordinary organizational functioning and the “banality of evil”? Are all organizations vulnerable to evil-doing, on a small scale or a large scale?

(See earlier posts on organizational culture and corruption for relevant material from Edgar Schein, Robert Klitgaard, and David Hess.)