Can Nietzsche support a decent political philosophy?

Nietzsche’s anti-moralism is a key theme in his philosophy and civilizational criticism. He regarded traditional European morality as “herd morality”, the deplorable consequence of Christian values of subordination and ressentiment. It is hard enough to find in Beyond Good and Evil or Genealogy of Morals a basis for criticizing even the most grotesque examples of interpersonal brutality and violence, and Nietzsche is contemptuous of the values of kindness and compassion. And it is virtually impossible to find an explicit consideration of the question, are there moral limitations on the behavior of states? To put the point simply: does Nietzsche have the philosophical stuff to condemn the Holocaust or the Holodomor?

How would Nietzsche respond if he were time-transported to the MSNBC studio and interviewed by Rachel Maddow? The session might begin along these lines: “Mr. Nietzsche, welcome to the program. I’d like to ask you the most pressing question today: The armed forces of the Russian Federation are torturing, raping, and murdering civilians in Ukraine today in an effort to defeat Ukraine in its war of aggression. Can you condemn these acts as war crimes and atrocities against the innocent, given your statements about “morality” and the “will to power” in your celebrated work, Beyond Good and Evil?”

It would of course be very interesting to have this conversation with Nietzsche. But today all we have are his texts and letters, and they are unpromising in this context. Given his pervasive anti-moralism, any contemporary reader of Nietzsche is forced to ask: can Nietzsche have a political philosophy?

Two discussions of this question have been noteworthy in the past decade or so. Tamsin Shaw’s 2007 monograph Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism provides an extended argument about why it is philosophically difficult for Nietzsche to offer a political philosophy. And the essays in Barry Stocker and Manuel Knoll’s edited volume Nietzsche as Political Philosopher are insightful as well.

The painful pill presented by Nietzsche’s writings to anyone who loves liberal democracy is that Nietzsche’s attack on humanistic morality suggests ugly possibilities: the acceptance of totalitarianism and dictatorship, the unfettered use of state power to oppress the citizens of the state, and moral indifference to aggressive war by a powerful state against a weak state. If citizens do not have morally defensible rights against each other and the state; if there are not morally compelling reasons for believing in and entrenching the equality of all citizens; and if there are no morally compelling principles regulating the use of the instruments of war by a state against another state or people — then there is no basis for criticizing the Gulag, genocide, and brutal aggressive war. So we seem to step directly from Nietzsche to Putinism.

Rolf Zimmermann’s essay “The ‘Will to Power'”, included in the Stocker and Knoll volume, addresses this issue directly, with a conclusion that may surprise the reader. Zimmermann argues that Nietzsche’s framework is compatible with both a liberal state and an authoritarian state. It all depends on what we want (that is, what set of primary values about ourselves and our interactions with others we have adopted, as a nation).

Political implications, on the collective level, can be discussed with regard to two conceptions that may be explicated in the sense of a liberal and an authoritarian ideal type. At the same time, we must face the problem as to whether Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarianism could be consistently integrated into a constitutional democracy of whatever kind. (Zimmerman in Stocker and Knoll 39)

Zimmermann offers a very interesting Nietzschean interpretation of the atrocious regimes of the twentieth century. His basic view is that Nietzsche insists on historicizing “civilizational” systems of values (and takes satisfaction in finding disagreeable features of their genealogies). So Zimmermann’s view is not that the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler or Stalin were inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy or his moral nihilism, but rather they are comprehensible as the emergence of new moral-value frameworks following the demise of traditional Christian morality.

My own perspective, however, is quite different. I propose, first of all, to read the radical movements of the 20th century, especially Bolshevism and National Socialism (NS), in terms of their own new moralities that gained force in actual history in order to build socio-political formations. In doing so, these movements verified in a systematically relevant way Nietzsche’s paradigm of moral philosophy that is defined by insight into the appearance of divergent moralities in history conflicting with each other – divergent “wills to power”. This very insight of Nietzsche can be vindicated quite independently of critical objections to his moral-political philosophy in detail. In systematic terms, therefore, it is much more relevant to interpret developments of actual history within a conceptual frame set forth by Nietzsche in an arguable general sense, instead of searching for “influences” of Nietzsche on actual history dozens of years after his lifetime. (Zimmermann in Stocker and Knoll 48-49)

Zimmermann makes a very interesting point here: that the horrific regimes of the twentieth century can be interpreted within a Nietzschean “civilizational” framework, but not as an expression of Nietzschean values or anti-values.

Now, given the comparative descriptions of egalitarian universalism, Nazi-morality and Bolshevist-morality, we come to see the moral history of the 20th century clearly in Nietzschean terms, namely as a history of divergent moralities in conflict with each other, a history of divergent “wills to power” realizing themselves in socio-political forms without precedence, and thereby showing the value-forming capacity of man in disastrous results. (Zimmermann in Stocker and Knoll 55)

Most critically, Zimmermann believes it is consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas to defend a liberal-egalitarian-constitutional theory of the state, along the lines described by JS Mill in On Liberty. But, crucially, “we would have to speak of egalitarian universalism equally as a historical phenomenon, in short as ‘historical universalism’, specifically related to the history of human rights since the 18th century” (55). Or in other words: real human beings and groups would have to struggle to secure and establish these values as the foundation of their polities.

This conclusion brings us to the central argument offered by Tamsin Shaw. Shaw believes that Nietzsche is profoundly doubtful of the ability of a nation to coalesce around a liberal-democratic consensus. Shaw too has a contribution in the Stocker and Knoll volume, comparing Nietzsche and Weber. But her central ideas on a possible political morality in Nietzsche’s thought are conveyed in Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism.

Shaw puts the weight of her argument on two points that she believes Nietzsche would accept: that a modern state requires a fairly high degree of “moral” consensus among its citizens about the actions and requirements of the state, and that modern society is largely incapable of arriving at such a consensus. Instead, the coercive power of the state is used to create a moral and normative consensus, through indoctrination, propaganda, education, and public festivals. This amounts to two core premises:

One concerns the nature of modern states and in particular the fact that their ability to rule a society requires convergence, in that society, on some shared normative beliefs. The other concerns the inability of secular societies to generate the required convergence through noncoercive means. (kl 131)

When religious institutions and beliefs had a powerful grip on the people of a nation, the values inculcated by those institutions provided an independent source of consensus which put some constraints on the nature and actions of the state. But with the collapse of religious identities (the death of God), there was no longer a point of convergence that could provide a basis for consensus. This leaves an open field for the coercive state to establish its own ideological institutions — whether those of Hitler, Stalin, or Orbán. And, according to Shaw, this makes the normative foundations of a liberal democracy all but impossible:

So legitimacy in this sense requires that political institutions conform to the accepted norms of those over whom they rule, and that acceptance of these norms be uncoerced, at least by the political institutions that they purport to legitimate. But although this weak notion seems helpfully unambitious in demanding conformity to the professed normative beliefs of a population, rather than to the right norms, it presupposes precisely the kind of uncoerced convergence that Nietzsche thinks secularism is making increasingly unlikely. (kl 209)

She refers to this as “political skepticism”, and she believes it is ineliminable from Nietzsche’s thought.

Nietzsche’s political skepticism, then, consists in the view that we simply cannot reconcile our need for normative authority with our need for political authority. Given [Nietzsche’s] own historical situation, as we shall see, he was vividly aware of the fragility of any apparent compromise between these demands. He does, in the later writings, occasionally seem inclined to give up on one or the other. But the real challenge that his skepticism presents to modern politics is somehow to find a way of not giving up on either. (kl 284)

This point is philosophically interesting. But more importantly, it is highly relevant to the politics of liberal democracies today. Anti-liberal, hate-based populists are gaining the narrative upper-hand, and there appears to be a steep decline in support for the traditional civic values of liberal democracy: rule of law, constitutional protections of rights, equality of all citizens. Further, this decline seems to coincide with rising support for authoritarian parties and candidates. There are numerous mechanisms that help to explain the rise of authoritarian and racist political values — the solid hold that right-wing cable networks have on the “base”, the targeted messaging of messages of hatred and distrust by social media platforms, and the increasing boldness of fascist-sounding elected officials. But maintaining strong and nearly universal support for the values of a liberal democracy is increasingly challenging.

Perhaps we need a modern-day Nietzsche to de-mystify the rantings of the far-right, and to help western democracies regain their sane and decent commitment to peace, equality, and freedom.

Here are several prior posts that address the threats to maintaining a democratic consensus (linklinklinklink).

Classification of political systems and theories

Graph of political systems (click image for full resolution)

It is possible to analyze much of the history of modern political philosophy — political theory since Hobbes and Locke — in terms of answers to a few primary questions. (This post expands upon a discussion of the “topology” of the space of political theories; link.) The answers to these primary questions can in principle generate a tree-structure of variants of political theories and systems. This is depicted in the graphic above, derived from these primary questions. 

1. Is a system of coercive law required for a peaceful human society?

Hobbes has a decisive answer to this question, based on his analysis of the state of nature. But it is also possible to make a case for a human community based on free cooperation among equals (anarchism).

2. Must a legitimate state provide strict protections of individual rights and liberties? (constitution)

Locke and Jefferson argued for the necessity of establishing protections of central rights and liberties that were essentially protected from legislation by the sovereign state — a constitution.

a. Are there distinct limits to the exercise and purpose of state power? (constitutionality)

b. Do these limits create constraints on the kinds of legislation that can be adopted by a majority of citizens for the whole of society?

The most common view of the content of a governing constitution for a legitimate state is the idea that it should embody the moral facts of liberty and equality for all citizens. But what does liberty involve? And what kinds of equality must be protected? Here are a few possible answers to the latter question.

a. Equality of worth and treatment
b. Civil and legal equality
c. Equality in opportunities to fulfill human capacities and plans

3. Is majority rule morally mandatory in a just state? (democracy) 

Is democracy required in a legitimate state, given the moral realities of human beings in association with each other? Is majority rule morally superior to other possible political decision rules — dictatorship, oligarchy, random assignment of citizens to positions in government, ….?

What moral principles are involved in defending the idea that a majority is entitled to impose its will on a minority with respect to various issues of public policy?

4. Are there moral reasons for concluding that a just state must embody programs to ensure the basic needs of all citizens — health, education, old age, decent housing, adequate nutrition? (public good)

a. Does the moral equality of all citizens create a broad social requirement that all citizens should be in a position to realize their human capacities and freedoms?

b. Do all members of society have obligations of concern for each other?

c. Is a society with extensive welfare provisions more politically stable and cohesive than one without those provisions?

d. Is a society with extensive welfare provisions more economically efficient and progressive than one without those provisions?

5. Do groups, nations, religious communities, classes, or races have independent moral value, over and above the value of the individuals who compose the population? (community)

a. Do citizens owe something to their fellow citizens (beyond not violating their constitutional rights)?
b. Should the state encourage or incentivize involvement in voluntary civil associations?
c. Can / should important collective tasks be left to the authority and competence of community associations?

The graph provided at the top of the post represents a tree diagram of kinds of political theories, depending on the YES/NO answers that a give theory provides to these questions.

If we conclude with Hobbes that a sovereign state is needed in order to secure public order and security in a society of independent and free individuals, then we are committed to the idea of a coercive state and system of law. If we reject that position, then we end with anarchism. (See Robert Paul Wolff’s brilliant In Defense of Anarchism for coherent arguments along these lines.) As a next step, we ask whether there are moral limits on the scope of the state. Does a legitimate state require a constitution guaranteeing the rights, liberties, and equality of citizens? If yes, should the constitutional order be governed by majority rule (within the constraints of the constitutional protections)? if yes, then we get liberal democracy. 

We can next ask the question about the need for state-funded programs to ensure the basic needs of all citizens and protecting against life’s unfortunate contingencies (illness, unemployment, disability, old age). If yes, we get social democracy (or the welfare state). If no, we get the classic laissez-faire constitutional democracy, the minimal state. 

Taking the anti-democratic route through the tree, we get various forms of authoritarianism and illiberal democracy; and depending on the answer to the question of redistribution for public wellbeing, we get fascism, populist authoritarianism, oligarchy, and populism.

The question of the moral importance of community is to some extent separate from this series of distinctions. But it can be related to a number of the outcomes in the diagram — on both the conservative and the progressive side of the spectrum. Philosophers defending anarchism have argued for the ability of a community of equals to find cooperative ways of handling its social life. Republicanism attributes independent value to the whole, over and above the value of the individual citizens. Populism in its various versions highlights the primacy of specific groups (racial, ethnic, national, gender, …). And communism puts the future of society as a whole ahead of the importance of individuals in society. 

One consistent set of political values leads us through this tree to a particular solution: the favored political system should be a constitutional social democracy. If we favor individual freedom, human equality, democracy, and social wellbeing, then what John Rawls refers to as a “property-owning democracy” (link) is the best solution. This system can be spelled out simply:

a. Constitutional guarantees of full and equal rights and liberties as citizens

b. Economic life is carried out in a market economy regulated to ensure fair equality of opportunity.

c. Taxation to ensure inequalities of wealth do not create inequalities of dignity and fulfillment of capacities

d. Public provision (tax-financed) of reasonably high level of basic needs — food, shelter, education, healthcare

This amounts to Rawls’s two principles of justice and his argument for a property-owning democracy (Rawls, Justice as Fairness). The liberty principle ensures the first point and the difference principle ensures the second point. The constraints involved in the idea of a property-owning democracy provide a solution to the apparent tension between liberty and equality.

Vasily Grossman on good and evil

Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate was long delayed in its publication because of Soviet censorship but has come to be recognized as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Grossman was a complex and appealing intellectual. Born in 1905, he was raised in a secular Jewish family in Berdichev, Ukraine. He was educated as a chemical engineer, but his vocation was writing and literature. When Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 Grossman became a war correspondent in the Red Army, and quickly emerged as one of the most active and popular observers of the chaos and murder of the German invasion throughout the war. He was present through much of the battle of Stalingrad, he was the first journalist to observe and write about the Treblinka death camp, and he maintained extensive notebooks recording his experiences and observations throughout the war and genocide. Alexandra Popoff’s biography Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century offers a masterful account of his life and writings. Grossman began Life and Fate in the 1950s and completed it for publication in 1960. However, the manuscript and supporting materials were confiscated (“arrested”) by the KGB and the novel was not published until 1980 (in Switzerland) — sixteen years after Grossman’s death.

The novel is riveting and complex. It represents an important piece of literary creation, a contribution to the history of the Holocaust and the German-Soviet war, and a prolonged critique of Stalinism. What is of special interest on this day in February, 2022 — today, the first day of Russia’s inexcusable and criminal aggressive war against Grossman’s homeland, the Ukraine — is Grossman’s willingness to occasionally put the narrative aside and engage in philosophical-historical reflection. One such moment is in part 2, chapter 15, where Grossman presents a series of striking ideas about the nature of good and evil in history.

The theory is presented in a convoluted way. The old Bolshevik Mikhail Mostovskoy is a prisoner in a German concentration camp, and is brought for interrogation or conversation with Liss, a high Gestapo officer and student of Hegel. Liss has an unusual and surprising thesis to discuss with Mostovskoy: that both the Nazi officer and the loyal Bolshevik are involved in the same business — service to an insane leader and a totalitarian ideology. Liss argues that the ideologies are remarkably similar. And secretly, Mostovskoy has come to see that the Soviet system is not so different from the Nazi system. He muses:

With all the strength of his soul, with all his revolutionary passion, he would have to hate the camps, the Lubyanka, bloodstained Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria! More than that …! He would have to hate Stalin and his dictatorship! More than that! He would have to condemn Lenin …! That was the edge of the abyss. (399)

The discussion of good and evil in this chapter is conveyed through the semi-coherent writings of another prisoner, the holy fool Ikonnikov. It is Ikonnikov whose shabby document on scraps of paper reflects on the history of good and evil. But the main lines of the view are Grossman’s.

So what is the substance of this conception? To begin, the Ikonnikov manuscript rejects the idea that good and evil can be defined in general religious or philosophical terms. Religious doctrines in particular have given rise to great suffering, and Ikonnikov denies that religious figures or texts give humanity a true understanding of good and evil. He also denies that “good” is a universal concept, as perhaps a philosopher might hold:

People struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good. They say: my good coincides with the universal good; my good is essential not only to me but to everyone; in achieving my good, I serve the universal good. (405)

Many books have been written about the nature of good and evil and the struggle between them … There is a deep and undeniable sadness in all this: whenever we see the dawn of an eternal good that will never be overcome by evil — an evil that is itself eternal but will never succeed in overcoming good — whenever we see this dawn, the blood of old people and children is always shed. Not only men, but even God himself is powerless to lessen this evil. (406)

And most pertinent, Ikonnikov (and Grossman) link this critique of “universal theory of the good” to the evils of Soviet actions in the 1930s in Ukraine:

I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country. I saw this struggle during the period of general collectivization and again in 1937. I saw people being annihilated in the name of an idea of good as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia — men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. This idea was something fine and noble — yet it killed some without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands and children from fathers. (406-407)

Here Ikonnikov refers to the Holodomor, the terror and purges, and the Gulag — all created by the deliberate purposes of the Soviet state. It is the utopian ideas of Marxist communism, and the grim realities of the Holodomor, the Stalinist terror, and the Gulag that Grossman is bringing into focus through Ikonnikov. Utopian socialism led to the Holodomor, the NKVD, and the Gulag — all in pursuit of “socialism in one country.” (No wonder the book was “arrested” in 1962; it is surprising that Grossman himself was not shot on the grounds of this passage alone.)

Here, the critique — whether of religion or of Communism or of Nazism — is a thorough rejection of the notion of sacrificing human beings to an idea or a future utopia.

Where do we find “good”, then, if not in universal principles of religion or philosophy or utopian doctrine? Ikonnikov is very clear about this question: good is found in the concrete actions of ordinary human beings. Ikonnikov’s and Grossman’s conception of the good is particular to human beings as they exist in specific times and places; it is not adherence to a set of principles, visions of the future, or prescriptions for the ultimate “good” of society. Good is found in concrete humanity in its particular historical circumstances.

Yes, as well as this terrible Good with a capital ‘G’, there is everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother. (407-408)

And what is “kindness”, the constant refrain of Grossman’s optimism about the future? It is the simple human fact of compassion, the fact that human beings are often able to recognize the reality and the humanity of others around them, and to see that human reality as a concrete impulse to action. It is —

The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good. (408)

This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! This kindness is both senseless and wordless. It is instinctive, blind. (409)

But Mostovskoy the disillusioned Bolshevik is not persuaded by Ikonnikov:

Yes, the man who had written this was unhinged. The ruin of a feeble spirit! The preacher declares that the heavens are empty … He sees life as a war of everything against everything. And then at the end he starts tinkling the same old bells, praising the kindness of old women and hoping to extinguish a world-wide conflagration with an enema syringe. What trash! (410)

So whose view of good and evil is this — the holy fool or Grossman himself? I believe it is Grossman’s view, or at least an important part of his view. The theme of kindness is very deep in Grossman, and it is fundamental to his humanism and his faith in the future. Take this vignette from “The Old Teacher”:

Then six-year-old Katya, the daughter of Weissman, the lieutenant who had been killed, came up to him in her torn dress, shuffling along in galoshes that were falling off her dirty, scratched little feet. Offering him a cold, sour pancake, she said, “Eat, teacher!”

He took the pancake and began to eat it, looking at the little girl’s thin face. As he ate, there was a sudden hush in the yard. Everyone—the old women, the big-breasted young women who could no longer remember their husbands, the one-legged lieutenant Voronenko lying on a mattress under a tree—was looking at the old man and the little girl. Rosenthal dropped his book and did not try to pick it up—he was looking at the little girl’s huge eyes, which were intently, even greedily, watching him as he ate. Once again he felt the urge to understand a wonder that never ceased to amaze him: human kindness. Perhaps the answer was there in the child’s eyes. But her eyes must have been too dark, or maybe what got in the way were his own tears—once again he saw nothing and understood nothing. (The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays)

And later, when the Jews of the village are being forced to the ravine to be slaughtered, the old teacher and the girl Katya are united again:

“How can I comfort her? How can I deceive her?” the old man wondered, gripped by a feeling of infinite sorrow. At this last minute too, there would be no one to support him, no one to say what he had longed all his life to hear— the words he had desired more than all the wisdom of books about the great thoughts and labors of man.

The little girl turned toward him. Her face was calm; it was the pale face of an adult, a face full of tolerant compassion. And in a sudden silence he heard her voice.

“Teacher,” she said, “don’t look that way, it will frighten you.” And, like a mother, she covered his eyes with the palms of her hands. (The Road)

A similar compassion and love for the particular human beings who died there is found in the closing lines of “The Hell of Treblinka”:

Great is the power of true humanity. Humanity does not die until man dies. And when we see a brief but terrifying period of history, a period during which beasts triumph over human beings, the man being killed by the beast retains to his last breath his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and passionate love. And the beast that triumphantly kills the man remains a beast. This immortality of spiritual strength is a somber martyrdom—the triumph of a dying man over a living beast. It was this, during the darkest days of 1942, that brought about the beginning of reason’s victory over bestial madness, the victory of good over evil, of light over darkness, of the forces of progress over the forces of reaction. A terrible dawn over a field of blood and tears, over an ocean of suffering—a dawn breaking amid the cries of dying mothers and infants, amid the death rattles of the aged.

The beasts and the beasts’ philosophy seemed to portend the sunset of Europe, the sunset of the world, but the red was not the red of a sunset, it was the red blood of humanity—a humanity that was dying yet achieving victory through its death. People remained people. They did not accept the morality and laws of Fascism. They fought it in all ways they could; they fought it by dying as human beings. (The Road)

It is Grossman, then, not simply the holy fool Ikonnikov, who finds enduring value chiefly in ordinary human compassion and kindness. This is the thrust of the closing lines of Ikonnikov’s scraps of paper. And this is the heart of Grossman’s concrete, intuitive humanism.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Life and Fate, 410)

Herder’s philosophy of history and humanity

An earlier post attempted to express the idea that “humanity” and human culture are self-creators: there is no fixed and prior system of meanings, values, allegiances, and ways of acting that constitutes humanity. Instead, human beings have, through the history of millennia of culture formation, created frameworks of value, meaning, and social relationships that have structured human communities and individual lives in different epochs. This view can be described as “historicist”, in the sense that it places human nature and human values into contingent historical traces. 

Human beings bring something crucial to this epochs-long process that other living organisms do not (ants, rabbits, lions): a capacity for thinking, experiencing, reflecting, and feeling that leads them to adjust their value systems over time. Through ordinary experience, human relationships of love and hate, poetry and religion, philosophy and story telling, human communities shape their values over time. And sometimes there are revolutions of thought in which profound changes ripple through the value systems and systems of meaning of various human communities.

In reflecting on the history of western philosophy to identify thinkers who have advocated for ideas like these to explain the history of humanity, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) stands out. He stands in contrast to his teacher Kant, but also to the British empiricists and to Platonic philosophy, in his strong philosophical conviction that human beings are fundamentally historical creatures. And in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions Martha Nussbaum suggests that Rousseau offers a similar view in Emile (link). Michael Forster puts this feature of Herder’s philosophy at the center of his philosophy of history (SEP, Herder):

His most intrinsically important achievement arguably rather lies in his development of the thesis already mentioned earlier—contradicting such Enlightenment philosopher-historians as Hume and Voltaire—that there exist radical mental differences between different historical periods (and cultures), that people’s concepts, beliefs, values, sensations, and so on differ in deep ways from one period (or culture) to another. This thesis is already prominent in On the Change of Taste (1766) and it lasts throughout Herder’s career. It had an enormous influence on successors such as the Schlegel brothers, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dilthey. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

Herder makes the empirical exploration of the realm of mental diversity that this thesis posits the very core of the discipline of history. For, as has often been noted, he takes relatively little interest in the so-called “great” political and military deeds and events of history, focusing instead on the “innerness” of history’s participants. This choice is quite deliberate and self-conscious. Because of it, psychology and interpretation inevitably take center-stage as methods in the discipline of historiography for Herder. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

One way of interpreting this philosophy of history is as a developmental conception of civilization: human history is a sequence of civilizational systems that give way to their successors, with the suggestion that there is a direction or teleological structure to this sequence. That is the way that Hegel’s philosophy of history works: great historical epochs (civilizations) represent partial and one-sided ideas of freedom, to be superseded by complementary ideas in future epochs. 

But we can adopt the historicist view of human culture without any commitment whatsoever to directionality, progress, or unified movement. Instead, we can look at the process as contingent, path-dependent, and heterogeneous at any given moment in time.

Here are suggestive excerpts from Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (link). Here is a very clear statement on the transitory nature of human cultural, civilizational monuments:

Thus everything in history is transient: the inscription on her temple is evanescence and decay. We tread on the ashes of our forefathers, and stalk over the entombed ruins of human institutions and kingdoms. Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, flit before us like shadows: like ghosts they rise from their graves, and appear to us in the field of history. (Book XV)

And here is an especially clear passage commenting on the “self-creation” of human beings:

Thus we everywhere find mankind possessing and exercising the right of forming themselves to a kind of humanity, as soon as they have discerned it. If they have erred, or stopped at the half way of a hereditary tradition; they have suffered the consequences of their error, and done penance for the fault they committed. The deity has in nowise bound their hands, farther than by what they were, by time, place, and their intrinsic powers. When they were guilty of faults, he extricated them not by miracles, but suffered these faults to produce their effects, that man might the better learn to know them. (Book XV, Chapter 1)

This line of thought about human beings, civilization, and history is historicist in a particular sense: human beings create themselves through actions and the process of living, using their consciousness as a way of attempting to understand and guide their actions. Human beings take shape through their histories. From this process emerge culture, norms, and ways of living.

Georg Iggers provides a helpful account of the meaning of “historicism” in his 1995 article, “Historicism: The History and Meaning of the Term” (link). And in his telling, only one of the several meanings this term has had in the past two centuries is relevant to my intended use in application to Herder. The meaning that I have in mind is synonymous with the idea of the “self-creation” of human cultures: no Ur-text of human values at the beginning, no necessary path of development, no uniform and homogeneous “world culture” at any point. Instead, there is only humanity, in the persons of specific communities and populations; and the systems of values their poets, philosophers, preachers, and fanatics have proliferated during a period of time. There is diffusion, dispersion, cross-fertilization, innovation, and back-tracking, as living human beings and their poets struggle forward in cooperation and competition in changing circumstances of nature, society, and technology. Sometimes communities emerge with what we would describe as deplorable values; and sometimes there are long stretches of time in which value systems prevail that support benevolence, fairness, and concern for others.

As Iggers points out, one of the criticisms of historicism was its supposed “relativism” — the idea that it implies that all moral and religious belief derives from a community’s social and natural circumstances, and that no moral or religious scheme is superior to any other. In a sense this conclusion follows from the view that there is no objective, rational, and extra-historical standard for comparing and judging competing moral systems in concrete human communities. But we can also take the view of “self-creation” very seriously, and can maintain that the struggle to live across time in typical human circumstances has resulted, for us, in a system of values that we can both endorse and continue to criticize and correct. We prefer to be beings who have compassion for each other and who treat other human beings fairly; therefore a moral system that favors benevolence, compassion, and justice is superior to one that favors cruelty, indifference, and exploitation. We are now the kinds of creatures who have defined ourselves partially in terms of those values; and we can judge ourselves, our ancestors, and our fellow human beings accordingly. There is no external “epistemic” basis for these values; rather, they are values we and our predecessors have created for ourselves; we have become (partially) the embodiment of those values. And when Klingons, Nazis, or NKVD officers fundamentally violate those values, we must oppose them if we can.

Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy.

Socrates the hoplite

An earlier post considered the Melian massacre and the Athenian conduct of war during the Peloponnesian War (link). Since we know that Socrates served as an armored infantry soldier during that war (a hoplite), it is reasonable to ask whether Socrates would have carried out atrocious orders involving the execution of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, and other acts of retaliation and punishment against the enemies of Athens.

In particular, would Socrates the hoplite have obeyed the order to slaughter the innocent? Ancient historian Mark Anderson offers a detailed analysis of the known context of Athenian warfare and Socrates’ military history, and concludes that Socrates did not express moral opposition to these acts of war (link). Anderson argues at length that Socrates was a hoplite during exactly these kinds of campaigns of retaliation, and that he never expressed any moral objection to them. Against the arguments of Gregory Vlastos and other scholars of Athenian philosophy, Anderson argues that the historical record of Socrates’ military service is fairly clear, and it is evident that his participation was voluntary, courageous, extended, and supportive. Anderson argues on the basis of these facts that Socrates did not offer moral objections to this dimension of Athenian military strategy.

Consider first the argument by Gregory Vlastos that Socrates offered a “moral revolution” on these topics. Vlastos is one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated scholars of ancient philosophy, and his book Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher is a much-respected study of Socrates. 

Much of the book is relevant to the question considered earlier of the changing nature of morals and values over time (link). Vlastos appears to accept the view advocated several times here that humanity creates its moral framework through long human experience. Here is what Vlastos writes about the morality of a time and place:

By the morality of a society I understand those norms of right and wrong, rules of conduct or excellences of character, publicly acknowledged within it, whose function it is to foster human wellbeing. The sense of justice centers in the concern that those norms be applied impartially. (179)

Here is a clear expression of the idea that values are created over time rather than discovered as timeless truths.

Protagoras in that speech propounds a comprehensive theory of the origins of culture which views all cultural institutions, including morality, as inventions through which men win the struggle for existence against wild beasts. (187)

Further, Vlastos believes that Socrates was one of those thinkers who succeeded in challenging and changing the moral culture of his time. According to Vlastos, Socrates rejected retaliation on very strong philosophical grounds. And this would involve the rejection of the strategy of exterminating the populations of cities in rebellion against Athens.

Vlastos’ central aim is to show that Socrates rejected the Athenian moral idea of retaliation against those who have wronged you (lex talionis). This traditional Athenian view of the moral acceptability of retaliation comes to bear in concrete detail when, as reported by Thycydides, the Athenian Assembly of citizens is asked to consider the extermination of Mytilene for rebellion (exactly the fate that befell Melos several years later):

… that rebellious Mytilene, now subdued, should be exterminated, all its adult males executed without trial, and all its women and children sold into slavery. In the speech for the proposal Cleon invokes justice on its behalf and, as we might expect, it is the justice of the talio. (184)

Vlastos works hard to distinguish between punishment and revenge: punishment is morally justified, whereas revenge is motivated by abiding hate. “The distinction of punishment from revenge must be regarded as one of the most momentous of the conceptual discoveries ever made by humanity in the course of its slow, tortuous, precarious, emergence from barbaric tribalism” (187).

Crucially, Vlastos believes that Socrates alone among his contemporaries recognizes the moral repugnancy of revenge. “So far as we know, the first Greek to grasp in full generality this simple and absolutely fundamental moral truth is Socrates” (190).

So how does Vlastos understand Socrates’ moral reasoning when it comes to retaliation? He focuses on Socrates’ arguments in the Crito. There Vlastos singles out two moral conclusions:

II. “Therefore, we should never return an injustice.”

IV. “Therefore, we should never return evil for evil [to anyone].” (194)

So, Vlastos concludes, for Socrates, retaliation in the case of personal actions is always unjust and wrong. And this would imply, if appropriate equivalence could be maintained, that retaliation against Mytilene as was proposed to the Assembly, or against Melos, as was carried out, was wholly unjust and immoral. But there is a catch: Vlastos is not entirely convinced that what is wrong for the individual Athenian is also wrong for the state. As a philosopher and a man, Socrates cannot support the resolution to retaliate against Mytilene; indeed, he cannot be a party to the deliberation (195). But it is not clear that Socrates takes the additional step: if the state decides to retaliate against Mytilene or Melos, it lacks the authority to do so. Socrates does not invoke a duty of civil disobedience upon himself as a citizen; he does not assert that as a citizen he can challenge the state’s right to take actions it has duly deliberated.

So there we have Vlastos’s argument for Socrates’ moral philosophy when it comes to doing good, acting justly, and exacting retaliation. Can we conclude, then, that Socrates the hoplite would have rejected Cleon’s authority, duly authorized by the Citizen’s Assembly, to execute the male citizens of Mytilene or Melos?

Mark Anderson thinks not. In fact, he finds Vlastos’ treatment of Socrates’ moral ideas about massacre to be fundamentally flawed. It is unpersuasive because it is entirely based on the philosophical texts without serious attention to historical details documenting what is known about the military career that Socrates experienced as a hoplite. Socrates’ military experience was entirely voluntary — Anderson suggests that he must have had to struggle to be selected as a hoplite, given his age and poverty — and extensive, taking years of his life. Further, Anderson claims that Vlastos makes major and consequential errors about the nature of Socrates’ military life (274). And Anderson rejects Vlastos’ contention that Socrates had achieved a major moral revolution through his statement in Crito that one must never do injustice (275). In particular, he rejects the idea advanced by Vlastos in an earlier essay that “not doing injustice” has the implication of rejecting traditional Athenian “military culture” by Socrates (Gregory Vlastos, 1974, “Socrates on Political Obedience and Disobedience,” The Yale review 63:4).

[Vlastos] argues that Socrates would have refused to participate, for two reasons: first, the proposed punishment was unprecedented in its ferocity, nearly genocidal, and barbaric (Vlastos 1974, 33); second, it was indiscriminate inasmuch as it condemned the innocent democrats along with the renegade oligarchs. Vlastos concludes that Socrates, had he been commanded to do so, would have declined even to relay the orders to those charged with carrying out the executions (Vlastos 1974, 33-34).

But Anderson argues two important points: first, that Socrates did in fact participate as a hoplite in campaigns in which exactly these sorts of mass killings occurred; and second, that Socrates never expressed moral objection or dissent to these actions, whether in the Platonic dialogues or in other historical sources about Socrates.

Hardly a passive observer, Socrates actively supported Athens’ imperial war effort. As we shall see, he willingly fought with some of the men and on some of the very campaigns that the standard accounts assure us he would have condemned. Moreover, the extent of his military activity is much wider than anyone has recognized. The relevant evidence demonstrates that Socrates fought in many more battles than the three that are commonly acknowledged. On the Potidaean campaign alone he may have seen action at Therme, Pydna, Beroea, and Strepsa. Before returning to Athens he probably served at Spartolus and ‘other places’ (Thucydides ii 70.4). On the Amphipolitan expedition he served possibly at Mende, definitely (for a time, though perhaps for a very brief time only) at Scione, then at Torone, Gale, Singus, Mecyherna, Thyssus, Cleonae, Acroathos, Olophyxus, Stageira, Bormiscus, Galepsos, and Trailus. (277)

There is a record of Socrates on this [Potidaea] campaign. We know that during the long siege he stood out among the soldiers as something of an eccentric (Symp. 21ge-220e). We hear nothing, however, of his standing out as a moral revolutionary suggestively questioning his comrades about the justice of Pericles’ military aggression. That Socrates, so far as we know, raised no objections to serving on this campaign suggests that neither militarism nor imperialism violated his conception of the noble and good life. (279-280)

Socrates served in Cleon’s army, and he supported Cleon. But here is Cleon’s record of massacre:

Cleon was ruthless; he was brutal to rebellious cities; but Athens needed him. The empire in the north was crumbling; much of Thrace was in open rebellion. The Athenians were livid (iv 122.5, 123.3). The punishment from which they had spared the citizens of Mytilene they imposed upon the defeated Scionians, at Cleon’s insistence. They retaliated against Torone almost as severely. Thucydides did not record the sufferings of the many other cities that fell to Cleon’s army, but we may be sure that they too felt the bronze edge of the lex talionis. (281)

When Brickhouse and Smith 1994, 153-154 declare that Socrates never actively supported Athens’ ‘evil’ acts, they do so expressly in connection with the Athenians’ treatment of Scione. But Socrates may very well have been with the contingent that stormed Scione in the summer of 423. Or he may have sailed with Cleon the following summer. Either way, he served at Scione and he arrived there in full knowledge of the campaign’s objectives; he knew that the men were to be executed and the women and children enslaved. Thus the assertion that Socrates never participated in Athens’ ‘evil actions’ cannot be correct. If he were under a legal obligation to serve on these campaigns, then Brickhouse and Smith have gone wrong again. If, as I believe, he served willingly and eagerly, their error is compounded. (282)

In other words, it is Anderson’s contention that Socrates was an active participant in Cleon’s campaigns of retaliation against cities in rebellion, involving the massacre of the men and the enslavement of the women and children. And further, there is no record of moral objections raised by Socrates to these actions — viewed at close hand as a combatant — in any of the Socratic corpus. This implies, to Anderson anyway, that Socrates did not have a moral objection to these military and imperial tactics.

This is a densely argued and damning portrait of Socrates as soldier-citizen-philosopher. Anderson makes a compelling case that Socrates did not rebel against the prevailing Athenian military culture, he did not reject massacre and enslavement as instruments of retaliation in war, and he did not act on the basis of a moral theory of just war — Athenian or any other. “Nowhere in the dialogues does Socrates give any indication that he had moral objections to hoplite warfare. To the contrary, in the Protagoras he says it is ‘noble’ and ‘good’ to go to war” (287). “Socrates fought such battles and was such a man. He did not fight at Marathon himself, of course; but he stood proudly in the long line of hoplites that stretched back to those who did. He identified with these men and accepted that their way–the way of the hoplite–led most nearly to the good life” (288).

To our question above, then, it seems as though there is a reasonably clear answer: in his life choices and in his words, Socrates the hoplite did indeed support the campaigns of slaughter that we would today regard as atrocities.

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.

Making sense of atrocities

Reading Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 has made me aware of something outside his storyline: the normal, routine, and unremarked willingness of medieval peasant-soldiers, leaders, bands, and armies to slaughter one another, to kill the disarmed, to enslave prisoners, and to do all these things with apparently no compunction. Vikings, Franks, Bulgars, Huns, and Romans massacred and burned. Here is just one example, from the wars of Charlemagne:

Saxony was hard to conquer precisely because it was disunited, and it was the theatre of considerable violence, not least for the 4,500 Saxon prisoners massacred in 782 after a Frankish defeat. The conquest was by 780 associated with a conscious process of Christianization; this was one of the few conversion processes openly brought about by force in our period. (378)

Or, when we get around to the high and mighty, we find kings, generals, and emperors who maim and kill their rivals, including often enough members of their own families. Blinding one’s rival or one’s brother-in-law, maiming the face or body, these were familiar ways of dealing permanently with a rival. The crimes represented in Greek tragedy were not imaginary.

What are we to make of this fairly simple historical fact about the behavior of our human ancestors a mere 1500 years ago?

Does it imply that “human nature” is inherently cruel and indifferent to the suffering of other human beings, and that compassion is a cultural discovery or innovation?

Does it imply that restraints on violence depend upon social structures and cultural creations — laws, norms, and institutions setting boundaries on violence?

Is there such a thing as a “civilizational” turning away from violence against the innocent? Did human institutions (military law, international conventions, religion) and invented and disseminated moral values (“it is horrible and shameful to harm or kill the innocent”) change the occurrence of atrocity? (John Keegan quotes views to this effect to explain the fact that studies indicated that only 25% of battlefield soldiers fire their weapons in World War II.)

The Ten Commandments have been the foundation of monotheistic religious ethics for more than three thousand years — including the prohibition against murder. Did monotheistic religions change the behavior of individuals, bands, armies, and states? Were Christian Visigoths or Vandals less cruel in war? Did the armies of Islam commit these same kinds of atrocities, or did the kindness preached by the Prophet prevail? What about ancient Judaism and Jewish communities? For that matter, what about the converts to Judaism in the Khazars — did they massacre their enemies just as wantonly?

Most importantly, does this changing history of cruelty on a mass scale suggest that our human sensibilities themselves have changed in a millennium and a half, so human beings in typical social circumstances are no longer so ready to kill and maim their fellow human beings? Does a religion, a personal value scheme sincerely embraced, or adherence to an ideal of how one should value the human experience and life of anonymous others effectively change a person’s social psychology? Can compassion and pity be learned or culturally reproduced?

But if so, what about My Lai, Lt. Calley, and Ghraib Prison? What about Isis beheadings, burnings, and rapes? What about the vicious brutality of Trump rioters against police on January 6?

Here is a fairly concrete question: what did ancient writers and philosophers have to say about the killing of the innocent? Did Seneca or Lucretius make any pronouncements on the behavior of armies, massacre, or killing of the innocent? Here is Seneca, writing in roughly 50 CE, about the morally corrosive effects of the crowd at the “games” (Letters from a Stoic):

2. To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger. 

But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. 3. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation,—an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain. 4. Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. 5. You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning they cried “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him! Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!” 

Come now; do you not understand even this truth, that a bad example reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. 6. The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue. 7. Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world. (Seneca, letter VII)

The text treats cruelty obliquely. This is not his primary target; rather, Seneca uses the scene of the “exhibition” as an occasion for making a different point — the harmfulness of associating with “the crowd”. But in his framing of the example, he makes it clear that he sees the behavior of the crowd as detestable and awful in its bloodthirstiness and cruelty. And he sees the behavior as contagious: when a virtuous person — even a Socrates or Cato — is exposed to this sight, he will be harmed in his virtue. And why is this cruelty awful? Because, it would seem, it involves the horrible imposition of pain, mutilation, and death on the weak, for the entertainment of the many. It is recognition of the human reality of the pain and desperation of the victims that motivates Seneca, it seems; he is empathetic with these other unfortunate human beings.

The historical evolution of massacre and cruelty raises huge and important questions. The topic converges with an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians, described in Thucydides (link). And the questions are genuinely difficult to answer. Human nature? Moral progress? The favorable role of religion? Institutions designed to limit violence? Perhaps some will even consider the intuition embraced by Dr. King in 1967 — “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But if we want to understand the particular evils of the twentieth century — Holocaust, Holodomor, and Gulag, to name just the most awful — we need to consider the nature and situations of the human beings — versions of ourselves — who have committed acts like these at other times in history.

(Relevant books to consider on this topic include John Keegan’s The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, and Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.)

An existential philosophy of technology

Ours is a technological culture, at least in the quarter of the countries in the world that enjoy a high degree of economic affluence. Cell phones, computers, autonomous vehicles, CT scan machines, communications satellites, nuclear power reactors, artificial DNA, artificial intelligence bots, drone swarms, fiber optic data networks — we live in an environment that depends unavoidably upon complex, scientifically advanced, and mostly reliable artifacts that go well beyond the comprehension of most consumers and citizens. We often do not understand how they work. But more than that, we do not understand how they affect us in our social, personal, and philosophical lives. We are different kinds of persons than those who came before us, it often seems, because of the sea of technological capabilities in which we swim. We think about our lives differently, and we relate to the social world around us differently.

How can we begin investigating the question of how technology affects the conduct of a “good life”? Is there such a thing as an “existential” philosophy of technology — that is, having to do with the meaning of the lives of human beings in the concrete historical and technological circumstances in which we now find ourselves? This suggests that we need to consider a particularly deep question: in what ways does advanced technology facilitate the good human life, and in what ways does it frustrate and block the good human life? Does advanced technology facilitate and encourage the development of full human beings, and lives that are lived well, or does it interfere with these outcomes?

We are immediately drawn to a familiar philosophical question, What is a good life, lived well? This has been a central question for philosophers since Aristotle and Epicurus, Kant and Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus. But let’s try to answer it in a paragraph. Let’s postulate that there are a handful of characteristics that are associated with a genuinely valuable human life. These might include the individual’s realization of a capacity for self-rule, creativity, compassion for others, reflectiveness, and an ability to grow and develop. This suggests that we start from the conception of a full life of freedom and development offered by Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom and the list of capabilities offered by Martha Nussbaum in Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach — capacities for life, health, imagination, emotions, practical reason, affiliation with others, and self-respect. And we might say that a “life lived well” is one in which the person has lived with integrity, justice, and compassion in developing and fulfilling his or her fundamental capacities. Finally, we might say that a society that enables the development of each of these capabilities in all its citizens is a good society.

Now look at the other end of the issue — what are some of the enhancements to human living that are enabled by modern technologies? There are several obvious candidates. One might say that technology facilitates learning and the acquisition of knowledge; technology can facilitate health (by finding cures and preventions of disease; and by enhancing nutrition, shelter, and other necessities of daily life); technology can facilitate human interaction (through the forms of communication and transportation enabled by modern technology); technology can enhance compassion by acquainting us with the vivid life experiences of others. So technology is sometimes life-enhancing and fulfilling of some of our most fundamental needs and capabilities.

How might Dostoevsky, Dos Passos, Baldwin, or Whitman have adjusted their life plans if confronted by our technological culture? We would hope they would not have been overwhelmed in their imagination and passion for discovering the human in the ordinary by an iPhone, a Twitter feed, and a web browser. We would like to suppose that their insights and talents would have survived and flourished, that poetry, philosophy, and literature would still have emerged, and that compassion and commitment would have found its place even in this alternative world.

But the negative side of technology for human wellbeing is also easy to find. We might say that technology encourages excessive materialism; it draws us away from real interactions with other human beings; it promotes a life consisting of a series of entertaining moments rather than meaningful interactions; and it squelches independence, creativity, and moral focus. So the omnipresence of technologies does not ensure that human beings will live well and fully, by the standards of Aristotle, Epicurus, or Montaigne.

In fact, there is a particularly bleak possibility concerning the lives that advanced everyday technology perhaps encourages: our technological culture encourages us to pursue lives that are primarily oriented towards material satisfaction, entertainment, and toys. This sounds a bit like a form of addiction or substance abuse. We might say that the ambient cultural imperatives of acquiring the latest iPhone, the fastest internet streaming connection, or a Tesla are created by the technological culture that we inhabit, and that these motivations are ultimately unworthy of a fully developed human life. Lucretius, Socrates, and Montaigne would scoff.

It is clear that technology has the power to distort our motives, goals and values. But perhaps with equal justice one might say that this is a life world created by capitalism rather than technology — a culture that encourages and elicits personal motivations that are “consumerist” and ultimately empty of real human value, a culture that depersonalizes social ties and trivializes human relationships based on trust, loyalty, love, or compassion. This is indeed the critique offered by theorists of the philosophers of the Frankfurt School — that capitalism depends upon a life world of crass materialism and impoverished social and personal values. And we can say with some exactness how capitalism distorts humanity and culture in its own image: through the machinations of advertising, strategic corporate communications, and the honoring of acquisitiveness and material wealth (link). It is good business to create an environment where people want more and more of the gadgets that technological capitalism can provide.

So what is a solution for people who worry about the shallowness and vapidity of this kind of technological materialism? We might say that an antidote to excessive materialism and technology fetishism is a fairly simple maxim that each person can strive to embrace: aim to identify and pursue the things that genuinely matter in life, not the glittering objects of short-term entertainment and satisfaction. Be temperate, reflective, and purposive in one’s life pursuits. Decide what values are of the greatest importance, and make use of technology to further those values, rather than as an end in itself. Let technology be a tool for creativity and commitment, not an end in itself. Be selective and deliberate in one’s use of technology, rather than being the hapless consumer of the latest and shiniest. Create a life that matters.

Ethical principles for assessing new technologies

Technologies and technology systems have deep and pervasive effects on the human beings who live within their reach. How do normative principles and principles of social and political justice apply to technology? Is there such a thing as “the ethics of technology”?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is an overriding fact about technology that needs to be considered in every discussion of the ethics of technology. It is a basic principle of liberal democracy that individual freedom and liberty should be respected. Individuals should have the right to act and create as they choose, subject to something like Mill’s harm principle. The harm principle holds that liberty should be restricted only when the activity in question imposes harm on other individuals. Applied to the topic of technology innovation, we can derive a strong principle of “liberty of innovation and creation” — individuals (and their organizations, such as business firms) should have a presumptive right to create new technologies constrained only by something like the harm principle.

Often we want to go beyond this basic principle of liberty to ask what the good and bad of technology might be. Why is technological innovation a good thing, all things considered? And what considerations should we keep in mind as we consider legitimate regulations or limitations on technology?

Consider three large principles that have emerged in other areas of social and political ethics as a basis for judging the legitimacy and fairness of a given set of social arrangements:

 A. Technologies should contribute to some form of human good, some activity or outcome that is desired by human beings — health, education, enjoyment, pleasure, sociality, friendship, fitness, spirituality, …

B. Technologies ought to be consistent with the fullest development of the human capabilities and freedoms of the individuals whom they affect. [Or stronger: “promote the fullest development …”]

C. Technologies ought to have population effects that are fair, equal, and just.

The first principle attempts to address the question, “What is technology good for? What is the substantive moral good that is served by technology development?” The basic idea is that human beings have wants and needs, and contributing to their ability to fulfill these wants is itself a good thing (if in so doing other greater harms are not created as well). This principle captures what is right about utilitarianism and hedonism — the inherent value of human happiness and satisfaction. This means that entertainment and enjoyment are legitimate goals of technology development.

The second principle links technology to the “highest good” of human wellbeing — the full development of human capabilities and freedoms. As is evident, the principle offered here derives from Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities and functionings, expressed in Development as Freedom. This principle recalls Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures:

Mill always insisted that the ultimate test of his own doctrine was utility, but for him the idea of the greatest happiness of the greatest number included qualitative judgements about different levels or kinds of human happiness. Pushpin was not as good as poetry; only Pushkin was…. Cultivation of one’s own individuality should be the goal of human existence. (J.S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought : 454)

The third principle addresses the question of fairness and equity. Thinking about justice has evolved a great deal in the past fifty years, and one thing that emerges clearly is the intimate connection between injustice and invidious discrimination — even if unintended. Social institutions that arbitrarily assign significantly different opportunities and life outcomes to individuals based on characteristics such as race, gender, income, neighborhood, or religion are unfair and unjust, and need to be reformed. This approach derives as much from current discussions of racial health disparities as it does from philosophical theories along the lines of Rawls and Sen.

On these principles a given technology can be criticized, first, if it has no positive contribution to make for the things that make people happy or satisfied; second, if it has the effect of stunting the development of human capabilities and freedoms; and third, if it has discriminatory effects on quality of life across the population it effects.

One important puzzle facing the ethics of technology is a question about the intended audience of such a discussion. We are compelled to ask, to whom is a philosophical discussion of the normative principles that ought to govern our thinking about technology aimed? Whose choices, actions, and norms are we attempting to influence? There appear to be several possible answers to this question.

Corporate ethics. Entrepreneurs and corporate boards and executives have an ethical responsibility to consider the impact of the technologies that they introduce into the market. If we believe that codes of corporate ethics have any real effect on corporate decision-making, then we need to have a basis in normative philosophy for a relevant set of principles that should guide business decision-making about the creation and implementation of new technologies by businesses. A current example is the use of facial recognition for the purpose of marketing or store security; does a company have a moral obligation to consider the negative social effects it may be promoting by adopting such a technology?

Governments and regulators. Government has an overriding responsibility of preserving and enhancing the public good and minimizing harmful effects of private activities. This is the fundamental justification for government regulation of industry. Since various technologies have the potential of creating harms for some segments of the public, it is legitimate for government to enact regulatory systems to prevent reckless or unreasonable levels of risk. Government also has a responsibility for ensuring a fair and just environment for all citizens, and enacting policies that serve to eliminate inequalities based on discriminatory social institutions. So here too governments have a role in regulating technologies, and a careful study of the normative principles that should govern our thinking about the fairness and justice of technologies is relevant to this process of government decision-making as well.

Public interest advocacy groups. One way in which important social issues can be debated and sometimes resolved is through the advocacy of well-organized advocacy groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, or Greenpeace. Organizations like these are in a position to argue in favor of or against a variety of social changes, and raising concerns about specific kinds of technologies certainly falls within this scope. There are only a small number of grounds for this kind of advocacy: the innovation will harm the public, the innovation will create unacceptable hidden costs, or the innovation raises unacceptable risks of unjust treatment of various groups. In order to make the latter kind of argument, the advocacy group needs to be able to articulate a clear and justified argument for its position about “unjust treatment”.

The public. Citizens themselves have an interest in being able to make normative judgments about new technologies as they arise. “This technology looks as though it will improve life for everyone and should be favored; that technology looks as though it will create invidious and discriminatory sets of winners and losers and should be carefully regulated.” But for citizens to have a basis for making judgments like these, they need to have a normative framework within which to think and reason about the social role of technology. Public discussion of the ethical principles underlying the legitimacy and justice of technology innovations will deepen and refine these normative frameworks.

Considered as proposed here, the topic of “ethics of technology” is part of a broad theory of social and political philosophy more generally. It invokes some of our best reasoning about what constitutes the human good (fulfillment of capabilities and freedoms) and about what constitutes a fair social system (elimination of invidious discrimination in the effects of social institutions on segments of population). Only when we have settled these foundational questions are we able to turn to the more specific issues often discussed under the rubric of the ethics of technology.

Kojève on freedom

An earlier post highlighted Alexandre Kojève’s presentation of Hegel’s rich conception of labor, freedom, and human self-creation. This account is contained in Kojève’s analysis of the Master-Slave section of Hegel’s Phenomenology in Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the “Phenomenology of Spirit”; link.

Here are the key passages from Hegel’s Phenomenology on which Kojève’s account depends, from Terry Pinkard’s translation in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit:

Hegel on the Master-Slave relation

195. However, the feeling of absolute power as such, and in the particularities of service, is only dissolution in itself, and, although the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom, in that fear consciousness is what it is that is for it itself , but it is not being-for-itself. However, through work, this servile consciousness comes round to itself. In the moment corresponding to desire in the master’s consciousness, the aspect of the non-essential relation to the thing seemed to fall to the lot of the servant, as the thing there retained its self-sufficiency. Desire has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object, and, as a result, it has reserved to itself that unmixed feeling for its own self. However, for that reason, this satisfaction is itself only a vanishing, for it lacks the objective aspect, or stable existence. In contrast, work is desire held in check, it is vanishing staved off , or: work cultivates and educates. The negative relation to the object becomes the form of the object; it becomes something that endures because it is just for the laborer himself that the object has self-sufficiency. This negative mediating middle, this formative doing, is at the same time singularity, or the pure being-for-itself of consciousness, which in the work external to it now enters into the element of lasting. Thus, by those means, the working consciousness comes to an intuition of self-sufficient being as its own self.

196. However, what the formative activity means is not only that the serving consciousness as pure being-for-itself becomes, to itself, an exist- ing being within that formative activity. It also has the negative mean- ing of the first moment, that of fear. For in forming the thing, his own negativity, or his being-for-itself, only as a result becomes an object to himself in that he sublates the opposed existing form. However, this objective negative is precisely the alien essence before which he trembled, but now he destroys this alien negative and posits himself as such a negative within the element of continuance. He thereby becomes for himself an existing- being-for-itself . Being-for-itself in the master is to the servant an other, or it is only for him. In fear, being-for-itself is in its own self . In culturally formative activity, being-for-itself becomes for him his own being- for-itself, and he attains the consciousness that he himself is in and for himself. As a result, the form, by being posited as external, becomes to him not something other than himself, for his pure being-for-itself is that very form, which to him therein becomes the truth. Therefore, through this retrieval, he comes to acquire through himself a mind of his own, and he does this precisely in the work in which there had seemed to be only some outsider’s mind. – For this reflection, the two moments of fear and service, as well as the moments of culturally formative activity are both necessary, and both are necessary in a universal way. Without the discipline of service and obedience, fear is mired in formality and does not diffuse itself over the conscious actuality of existence. Without culturally formative activity, fear remains inward and mute, and consciousness will not become for it [consciousness] itself. If consciousness engages in formative activity without that first, absolute fear, then it has a mind of its own which is only vanity, for its form, or its negativity, is not negativity in itself , and his formative activity thus cannot to himself give him the consciousness of himself as consciousness of the essence. If he has not been tried and tested by absolute fear but only by a few anxieties, then the negative essence will have remained an externality to himself, and his substance will not have been infected all the way through by it. While not each and every one of the ways in which his natural consciousness was brought to fulfillment was shaken to the core, he is still attached in himself to determinate being. His having a mind of his own is then only stubbornness, a freedom that remains bogged down within the bounds of servility. To the servile consciousness, pure form can as little become the essence as can the pure form – when it is taken as extending itself beyond the singular individual – be a universal culturally formative activity, an absolute concept. Rather, the form is a skill which, while it has dominance over some things, has dominance over neither the universal power nor the entire objective essence. (Hegel, Phenomenology, 115-116)

Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel

Here are the primary passages that represent the heart of Kojève’s interpretation of this section.

Work, on the other hand, is repressed Desire, an arrested passing phase; or, in other words, it forms-and-educates. Work transforms the World and civilizes, educates, Man, the man who wants to work — or who must work — must repress the instinct that drives him “to consume” “immediately” the “raw” object. And the Slave can work for the Master — that is, for another than himself — only by repressing his own desires. Hence he transcends himself by working — or perhaps better, he educates himself, he “cultivates” and “sublimates” his instincts by repressing them. On the other hand, he does not destroy the thing as it is given. He postpones the destruction of the thing by first transforming it through work; he prepares it for consumption — that is to say, he “forms” it. In his work, he transforms things and transforms himself at the same time: he forms things and the World by transforming himself, by educating himself; and he educates himself, he forms himself, by transforming things and the World, Thus, the negative-or-negating relation to the object becomes a form of this object and gains permanence, precisely because, for the worker, the object has autonomy…. The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. Only after producing an artificial object is man himself really and objectively more than and different from a natural being; and only in this real and objective product does he become truly conscious of his subjective human reality. Kojève 24-25

The Master can never detach himself from the World in which he lives, and if this World perishes, he perishes with it. Only the Slave can transcend the given world (which is subjugated by the Master) and not perish. Only the Slave can transform the World that forms him and fixes him in slavery and create a World that he has formed in which he will be free. And the Slave achieves this only through forced and terrified work carried out in the Master’s service. To be sure, this work by itself does not free him. But in transforming the World by this work, the Slave transforms himself too, and thus creates the new objective conditions that permit him to take up once more the liberating Fight for recognition that he refused in the beginning for fear of death. And thus in the long run, all slavish work realizes not the Master’s will, but the will — at first unconscious — of the Slave, who — finally –succeeds where the Master — necessarily — fails. Therefore, it is indeed originally dependent, serving, and slavish Consciousness that in the end realizes and reveals the ideal of autonomous Self-Consciousness and is thus its “truth.” Kojève 29-30

However, to understand the edifice of universal history and the process of its construction, one must know the materials that were used to construct it. These materials are men. To know what History is, one must therefore know what Man who realizes it is. Most certainly, man is something quite different from a brick. In the first place, if we want to compare universal history to the construction of an edifice, we must point out that men are not only the bricks that are used in the construction; they are also the masons who build it and the architects who conceive the plan for it, a plan, moreover, which is progressively elaborated during the construction itself. Furthermore, even as “brick,” man is essentially different from a material brick: even the human brick changes during the construction, just as the human mason and the human architect do. Nevertheless, there is something in Man, in every man, that makes him suited to participate–passively or actively–in the realization of universal history. At the beginning of this History, which ends finally in absolute Knowledge, there are, so to speak, the necessary and sufficient conditions. And Hegel studies these conditions in the first four chapters of the Phenomenology.

Finally, Man is not only the material, the builder, and the architect of the historical edifice.  He is also the one for whom this edifice is constructed: he lives in it, he sees and understands it, he describes and criticizes it. There is a whole category of men who do not actively participate in the historical construction and who are content to live in the constructed edifice and to talk about it. These men, who live somehow “above the battle,” who are content to talk about things that they do not create by their Action, are Intellectuals who produce intellectuals’ ideologies, which they take for philosophy (and pass off as such). Hegel describes and criticizes these ideologies in Chapter V. (32-33)

The central ideas here are —

  • Work transforms and educates the worker.
  • Work requires the delay of consumption.
  • Work transforms the world and the environment.
  • The self-creation of the human being through work is essential to his or her reality as a human being.
  • By merely directing and commanding work, the master fails to engage in self-creation.
  • The master cannot be truly free.
  • Human beings create history through their creative labor.
  • Human beings create and transform themselves through labor.
  • History is human-centered. History is “subject” as well as “object”.
  • Those who merely think and reflect upon history are sterile and contribute nothing to the course of history.

These comments add up to a substantive theory of the human being in the world — one that emphasizes creativity, transformation, and self-creation. It stands in stark contrast to the liberal utilitarian view of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham of human nature as consumer and rational optimizer of a given set of choices; instead, on Kojève’s (and Hegel’s) view, the human being becomes fully human through creative engagement with the natural world, through labor.

It is interesting to realize that Kojève was a philosopher, but he was not primarily an academic professor. Instead, he was a high-placed civil servant and statesman in the French state, a man whose thinking and actions were intended to create a new path for France. He is credited with being one of the early theorists of the European Union.

Kojève’s account of labor and freedom is, of course, influenced by his own immersion in the writings of the early Marx; so the philosophy of labor, freedom, and self-creation articulated here is neither pure Hegel nor pure Marx. We might say that it is pure Kojève.

Jeff Love’s biography of Kojève is also of interest, emphasizing the Russian roots of Kojève’s thought; The Black Circle: A Life of Alexandre Kojève. Love confirms the importance of the richer theory of human freedom and self-realization that is offered in Kojève’s account, and notes a parallel with themes in nineteenth-century Russian literature.

Kojève’s critique of self-interest merits renewal in a day when consumer capitalism and the reign of self-interest are hardly in question, either implicitly or explicitly, and where the key precincts of critique have been hobbled by their own reliance on elements of the modern conception of the human being as the free historical individual that have not been sufficiently clarified. Kojève’s thought is thus anodyne: far from being “philosophically” mad or the learned jocularity of a jaded, extravagant genius, it expresses a probing inquiry into the nature of human being that returns us to questions that reach down to the roots of the free historical individual. Moreover, it extends a critique of self-interest deeply rooted in Russian thought, and Kojève does so, no doubt with trenchant irony, in the very capital of the modern bourgeoisie decried violently by Dostoevsky in his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.

(Here is an interesting reflection on Kojève as philosopher by Stanley Rosen; link.)

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