Thursday, August 30, 2007

Kierkegaard’s aesthetic fits quite closely with Hegel’s arguments against the Romantics

An und für sich “This is more a comment than a question…” August 24th, 2007
Kierkegaard and Hegel by Adam Can the Kierkegaardian triad of
Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious
be mapped out onto the triad of
Skepticism, Stoicism, and Christianity
in the “Unhappy Consciousness” section of Phenomenology of Spirit?
Posted by Adam Filed in Kierkegaard, Hegel
One Response to “Kierkegaard and Hegel” cynic librarian Says: August 25th, 2007 at 12:04 am Ada, See Alastair Hannay’s definitive work on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard (The Arguments of the Philosophers). Routledge; New Ed edition (December 1991) ISBN-10: 0415063655ISBN-13: 978-0415063654
Hannay does “map” Kierkegaard’s work onto the unhappy consciousness. He doesn’t associate the Three Stages with Hegel’s, though. Skepticism would not be an instance of the Aesthetic per se and there are elements of Stoicism that would fit K’s Religiousness A (which forms part of the Religious stage).
For Kierkegaard, skepticism is much more honest than Hegel gave it credit for, and he sees the skeptical as a first manifestation of existential choice. That is, the Greek skeptics realized that doubt was not a suspension of will but an assertion of will. This goes against Descartes’, Hegel’s and the Romantic’s understanding of doubt. There are several books on the closeness of K’s irony and Greek and Humean skepsis.
In terms of the aesthetic, K’s understanding fits quite closely with Hegel’s arguments against the Romantics. It forms the major part of his Doctoral thesis on Irony, though K’s later irony walks a thin tightrope on that issue since he wants to salvage as much of the aesthetic as he can for the later stages. That is, there are elements of the aesthetic that are taken up in the ethical, as well as the religious stages.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The early Deleuze vs. Deleuze and Guattari

August 27, 2007 Thoughts of Immanence Posted by larvalsubjects under Althusser , Immanence , Assemblages , Individuation , Constellation , Deleuze , Marx , Critique
When I set out to write Difference and Givenness I had three primary questions before me:
1) What is specific to the thought of Gilles Deleuze (as opposed to the thought of Deleuze and Guattari)?
2) What is transcendental empiricism (in contrast to empiricism, transcendental idealism, and absolute idealism)? and
3) In what way is Deleuze’s thought a critical philosophy (rather than a dogmatic metaphysics)?
The first question might appear strange; however, in my experience the secondary literature tends to treat the thought of Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari as identical and interchangeable. Yet whenever Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari speak of multiplicities, they are quick to emphasize that the addition of dimensions leads the multiplicity to change in nature. Consequently, when Deleuze and Guattari encounter one another it is necessary that this new multiplicity differ in kind from their independent thought. Yet this change in kind or nature can only be determined by becoming clear as to what Deleuze is up to in his own independent work. This is not, of course, to suggest that Deleuze is somehow opposed to Deleuze and Guattari or the reverse. To suggest such a thing would be to misunderstand the logic of intensive multiplicities. Such an approach would provide a way of properly determining what is new and vital in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought, and of measuring the field of problems that motivated this prodigious body of conceptual creating (concepts never emerging ex nihilo out of the mind of a “genius creator-artist”, but always emerging as a function of a field of extra-personal problems belonging to the field of being and the social).
In the course of my work, one of the conclusions I came to was that the early Deleuze of Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense was, in part, an attempt to develop the ontology proper to structuralism. This, of course, will sound like a strange claim for we are accustomed to thinking of Deleuze as a post-structuralist philosopher hostile to structuralism. Indeed, when Deleuze encounters Guattari, they will develop a significant critique of structuralist thought– as is immediately evident in their concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization and “becoming-animal” where a “theft of a fragment of a code takes place”, i.e., operations that can’t be contained or governed by a “structural totality” –yet in his earlier work Deleuze was very sympathetic to structuralist thought.
This is evident in his essay “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?” (cf. Desert Islands, pgs 170 - 192), written between Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense. There Deleuze discusses the theses common to structuralist giants such as Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser, and provides an account of structural genesis nearly identical to his account of actualization or individuation in chapters four and five of Difference and Repetition.
To be sure, Deleuze’s structuralism is a dynamic or a genetic structuralism, but it is nonetheless an attempt to provide that ontology proper to structuralist thought. It might be assumed that Deleuze is here simply applying the principles of individuation he had developed in Difference and Repetition to the structuralists so as to “get these thinkers from behind and create a monsterous offspring”. However, this ignores the fact that Deleuze refers to Ideas or multiplicities as structures in Difference and Repetition, and refers to Saussure, Althusser, and Todorov as prime examples of virtual multiplicities (DR, 186, 203 - 206. Deleuze also makes constant positive references to Lacan throughout Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense). Structuralism and structuralist thinkers enjoy a similarly central role in The Logic of Sense as well.
The point here is not to defend Deleuze’s early structuralism. Deleuze and Guattari develop powerful critiques of structuralist thought in their work together; however, these critiques cannot simply be treated as “abstract negations” that simply reject structuralism tout court. A good deal is preserved in new form. Rather, the point is to think a form of relation causality, immanent causality, where causes are not outside their effects and effects are not outside their causes: a properly systemic or structural causality that would be neither mechanical causality, nor an expressivism where every actualization or individuation is simply a reflection or expression of an unchanging internal essence.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Gadamer’s interpretation of the later Plato for his hermeneutical writings

Brice R. Wachterhauser, in his book, Beyond Being: Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontololgy, argues that Gadamer’s hermeneutical studies must be read in dialogue with his work on Plato in order to properly understand a number of Gadamer’s significant hermeneutical insights, as well as to avoid common misreadings of Gadamer. In other words, Wachterhauser’s claim is that crucial Gadamerian hermeneutical claims presuppose his interpretation of Plato, particularly the later Plato and a Plato whom Aristotle would find more palatable. As Wachterhauser explains,
unlike some commentators who think the Parmenides represents a definitive rejection of the Ideas, Gadamer thinks it reveals a common, mistaken interpretation of the Ideas, an interpretation that Plato himself may have inadvertently contributed to, but one which he never intended when he introduced the theme of the Ideas. According to Gadamer, the Parmenides teaches us that we should not think about Ideas as discrete transcendental realities. Instead we should think of the Ideas as internally related to each other and the things they inform. Thus they cannot be defined without various kinds of logically complex relationships to each other and to the things which instantiate them. And instead of thinking of them as occupying a transcendental realm of their own-a kind of repository of discrete ideal types-we should think of them as immanent to the things they inform, without being identical to them” (p. 5).
In sum, according to Gadamer, Plato’s later dialogues show a greater depth in his thinking concerning the nature of methexis (participation), and consequently, they are not to be taken as Plato’s self-critical razing of his previous work.
Among the most important findings in Plato’s later dialogues are insights concerning what later thinkers call “transcendentals” (being, unity, truth, beauty etc.). On Gadamer’s read, Plato, in his later dialogues, was attempting to work out the problems of his comprehensive ontological vision via deeper a understanding of the transcendentals in order to correct a false understanding of the Ideas, viz., the interpretation that the “Ideas represent a second, transcendent reality wholly detached from the realm of ordinary things and logically distinct from each other” (p. 5).
Wachterhauser then attempts to support his thesis regarding the importance of Gadamer’s interpretation of the later Plato for his hermeneutical writings by discussing one of the central concerns of Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method, viz., identity and difference as it relates to interpretation. With regard to identity, we have the claim that a text or a work of art exhibits unity or oneness and thus has only one meaning (or one finite set of meanings). Yet, it seems impossible to deny that many valid interpretations exist for the very same text or work of art. Likewise, in order to gain access to the identity of the text or work, we cannot bypass the interpretative process. But admitting these claims seems to land us in an uncomfortable position, as the “diversity of interpretations threatens to dissolve the identity of the work” (p. 6). And after all, if we lose the identity of the work, then how are we to discern a legitimate interpretation from an illegitimate one? According to Wachterhauser, Gadamer provides a way out of this hermeneutical despair.
Gadamer is neither a relativist or subjectivist who would say that interpreters may legitimately impute any meaning to the work, nor is he oblivious to the reality of genuinely legitimate but diverse interpretations. Instead, Gadamer always has his eye on clarifying the unique type of identity that characterizes the objects of interpretation. In this vein, he writes, ‘we ask what this identity is that presents itself so differently in the changing course of ages and circumstances. It does not disintegrate into the changing aspects of itself so that it would lose all identity, but it is there in them all. They all belong to it’ (TM, 121). His intent is to describe this identity in a plausible way that leaves room for multiple interpretations, without falling into the morass of relativism or the iron cage of dogmatism. This issue is at the very heart of Truth and Method. Key to his hermeneutics is the thesis that works like texts always present themselves differently in different historical circumstances, but they do so in such a way that they neither lose their identity nor safeguard it by unduly restricting its possible meaning (p. 6).

Arguments within an immanent framework can’t claim to “disprove” transcendence

N Pepperell Says: August 26, 2007 at 5:28 am Immanance is a strange sort of claim - and the forms of argument adequate to this claim are unusual, and to some degree even uncommon. The analysis somehow has to loop back on itself, such that even the possibility of immanence is immanently unfolded. When immanence is posited as some sort of underived first principle, this is a form of argument that breaches an immanent frame. By the same token, arguments within an immanent framework can’t claim to “disprove” transcendence (the argumentative move that seems to draw down Milbank’s ire) - instead, immanent arguments do something more like rendering the hypothesis of transcendence unnecessary, in relation to what they are trying to explain.
Many sociological arguments are prima facie not adequate to their own stances about immanence, social conditioning, etc. In some cases, this will just be because sociologists or anthropologists take the “hard yards” work on these sorts of questions to have been settled elsewhere, such that they can presuppose these treatments, and move forward from there. In some cases, sociologists and anthropologists may actually not “get” the question you’re asking - in which case Milbank’s critique begins to close in.

Language comes to function in place of the Kantian categories and intuition in figures such as Wittgenstein, Lyotard, Derrida, Levi-Strauss, etc.

larvalsubjects Says: August 24, 2007 at 4:45 pm
I’m still unsure as to where I come down on all of these issues. My own thought is heavily indebted to thinkers that fall under the so-called linguistic turn or what might be referred to as “transcendental linguisticism” (i.e., language comes to function in place of the Kantian categories and intuition in figures such as Wittgenstein, Lyotard, Derrida, Levi-Strauss, etc.), and I find it difficult to think outside of the linguistic turn or not to be haunted by the arguments of the linguistic turn.
The point is clearly not one of rejecting language, but of calling into question its hegemonic status among postmodern, post-structuralist, and Anglo-American ordinary language philosophers with regard to all other conditions. Language is clearly important but there’s a significant question as to whether language is the primary condition to which all other things must be subordinated. Deleuze and Guattari, in What is Philosophy?, for instance, show how philosophy, science, and art always unfold in a “subtractive” relation to language, carving out something else from within language (where language here might be thought as Wittgenstein-Lyotard’s “language games”), that can no longer be reduced to language. Lacan, I think, is different from the postmoderns and makes an uncomfortable bedfellow with thinkers of the linguistic turn. The Symbolic is, of course, very important for Lacan– especially in his work during the fifties –but it’s important to recall that for Lacan there are three orders: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real. From the sixties on, Lacan begins to focus on the primacy of the real. In addition to the real as the impossible and trauma, Lacan also thinks of mathematics as the real. Under this view, Lacan argues, like Badiou, that maths fall outside of language or the symbolic.
I found the Guattari passage interesting mostly because of how closely it resembles a number of arguments advanced by Badiou with regard to the linguistic turn. Badiou’s portrayal of Deleuze and Guattari (especially Guattari) has not been very flattering, and has tended to be characterized by rhetorical low blows rather than genuine arguments (especially with Zizek), and yet here we find Guattari denouncing the very things Badiou is militating against and defending large-scale forms of engagement. In recent years we’ve had a series of perplexing texts written by Badiousians on Deleuze: Badiou’s The Clamor of Being, Zizek’s Organs Without Bodies, and Hallward’s Out of this World. Each of these books, while possessing their own virtues, have also been significant misreadings and distoritions of Deleuze’s thought. One wonders why those in the Badiou camp have felt the need to target Deleuze specifically, when arguably Deleuze’s thought provides such powerful tools for the Marxist attempting to think through the phenomena of late capital. The more I’ve worked on Badiou– initially I was extremely enthusiastic about his work, experiencing it as a breath of fresh air where thought had once again become possible and allowing us to finally depart from the pious discourses of neo-phenomenology and deconstruction –the more my enthusiasm has cooled as his ontology and onto-logy (Logiques des mondes) is, to my thinking, tremendously underdetermined, providing us with little in the way of tools for analyzing contemporary situations. There seems to be something of a symptom at work here in these critiques of Deleuze, like the disavowel of a ghostly question that insists in the thought of these thinkers without being directly articulated...
larvalsubjects Says: August 24, 2007 at 5:28 pm
To my knowledge, Deleuze and Guattari never mention “language games” in what is philosophy. They do, however, show how each of these activities does something very specific with language that is no longer continuous with ordinary or dominant language. I was treating “ordinary language” and “language games” as being synonyms, which is probably a bad move on my part.
larvalsubjects Says: August 25, 2007 at 2:33 am
Badiou addresses this shift in philosophy in his book Manifesto for Philosophy. He doesn’t, as far as I can tell, draw a distinction between philosophies following from the linguistic turn (Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Lyotard, etc), and pious discourses pertaining to the sacred. In many instances, those who have followed the linguistic turn end up in this place (for instance, Derrida’s late work). In any event, Badiou takes it (rightly, I think), that philosophy has abdicated itself when it follows this path or ends up in a pious crypto-theology suitable to the needs of priests, despots, and demagogues– immanence, which is philosophy’s vocation since Thales’ declaration that the world is sufficient to itself, requiring no mythological explanation or transcendent beyond, always rejecting any sort of obfuscatory and hypnotic sacred, “beyond”, “Real” (a highly non-Lacanian usage of the term, I would say) or pious “humble task” in the sense you’re using the term.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Whitehead deplores the way that Kant shifts the focus of philosophy from ontological questions to epistemological ones

Interstitial Life: Novelty and Double Causality in Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze
Steven Shaviro The Pinocchio Theory
Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze both place creativity, novelty, innovation, and the New at the center of metaphysical speculation. These concepts (or at least these words) are so familiar to us today – familiar, perhaps, to the point of nausea – that it is difficult to grasp how radical a rupture they mark in the history of Western thought. In fact, the valorization of change and novelty, which we so take for granted today, is itself a novelty of relatively recent origin. Philosophy from Plato to Heidegger is largely oriented towards anamnesis (reminiscence) and aletheia (unforgetting), towards origins and foundations, towards the past rather than the future.
Whitehead breaks with this tradition, when he designates the "production of novelty" as an "ultimate notion," or "ultimate metaphysical principle" (1929/1978, 21). This means that the New is one of those fundamental concepts that "are incapable of analysis in terms of factors more far-reaching than themselves" (1938/1968, 1). Deleuze similarly insists that the New is a value in itself: "the new, with its power of beginning and beginning again, remains forever new." There is "a difference. . . both formal and in kind" between the genuinely new, and that which is customary and established (1994, 136).
Deleuze and Guattari therefore say that "the object of philosophy is to create concepts that are always new" (1994, 5). Philosophical concepts are not for all time; they are not given in advance, and they "are not waiting for us ready-made, like heavenly bodies." Instead, they must always be "invented, fabricated, or rather created" afresh; "philosophers must distrust. . . those concepts they did not create themselves" (5- 6).
For both Whitehead and Deleuze, novelty is the highest criterion for thought; even truth depends upon novelty and creativity, rather than the reverse. As for creativity itself, it appears "that Whitehead actually coined the term – our term, still the preferred currency of exchange among literature, science, and the arts. . .a term that quickly became so popular, so omnipresent, that its invention within living memory, and by Alfred North Whitehead of all people, quickly became occluded" (Meyer 2005, 2-3).
What is the meaning, and what is the import, of our belief in creativity today? How does the New enter into the world? And how does the valuation of the New enter into thought? Deleuze explicitly invokes Nietzsche’s call for a "revaluation of all values," and for the continual "creation of new values" (1994, 136). And Whitehead and Deleuze alike are inspired by Bergson’s insistence that "life. . . is invention, is unceasing creation" (2005, 27). But the real turning-point comes a century before Bergson and Nietzsche, in Kant’s "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. Kant himself does not explicitly value the New, but he makes such a valuation (or revaluation) thinkable for the first time. He does this by shifting the focus of philosophy from questions of essence ("what is it?") to questions of manner ("how is it possible?").1
Kant rejects the quest for an absolute determination of being: this is an unfulfillable, and indeed a meaningless, task. Instead, he seeks to define the necessary conditions – or what today we would call the structural presuppositions – for the existence of whatever is, in all its variety and mutability. That is to say, Kant warns us that we cannot think beyond the conditions, or limits of thought, that he establishes. But he also tells us that, once these conditions are given, the contents of appearance cannot be any further prescribed. The ways in which things appear are limited, but appearances themselves are not.
They cannot be known in advance, but must be encountered in the course of experience. This means that experience is always able to surprise us. Our categories are never definitive or all-inclusive. Kant’s argument against metaphysical dogmatism, which both Whitehead and Deleuze endorse, means that being always remains open. "The whole is neither given nor giveable. . . because it is the Open, and because its nature is to change constantly, or to give rise to something new, in short, to endure" (Deleuze 1986, 9). "Creative advance into novelty" (Whitehead 1929/1978, 222) is always possible, always about to happen.
1 Whitehead disparagingly remarks that, in philosophy since the eighteenth century, "the question, What do we know?, has been transformed into the question, What can we know? This latter question has been dogmatically solved by the presupposition that all knowledge starts from the consciousness of spatio-temporal patterns of such sense percepta" (1938/1968, 74). This is evidently a direct criticism of Kant, and of nearly all post-Kantian philosophy. Whitehead deplores the way that Kant shifts the focus of philosophy from ontological questions to epistemological ones. But his greatest objection is to what he sees as the "dogmatic" way that Kant resolves the question of what we can know, by retaining his predecessors’ restriction of experience to the realm of "presentational immediacy."
I want to suggest, however, that Kant’s epochal shift of focus – from "do" to "can" – should also be read as a widening and enabling move. Since it does not pre-empt the empirical, but meets it half-way, it opens a place for potentiality, and thereby for a Bergsonian open future, one that is not already predetermined by the past. To ask "how is it possible?" is to focus on manner instead of on essence. Kant implicitly does what Leibniz before him and Whitehead after him do explicitly: he invents a mannerism in philosophy, a way of thinking "that is opposed to the essentialism first of Aristotle and then of Descartes" (Deleuze 1993, 53). Both Whitehead and Deleuze may be seen as reviving Leibniz’s mannerist project, in a world where Kantian critique has disallowed what Whitehead calls the "audacious fudge" of Leibniz’s theodicy (1929/1978, 47).
Another Chapter from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro I have finally finished another chapter of the Whitehead book — the one I had been hoping to finish in July. Here it is. (Once again, consumer warning: unrevised state, probably contains errors and lamenesses that will have to be attended to eventually). For a bunch of the other chapters, plus additional published or unpublished work, go here.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Badiou-Zizek’s “solution” shares little resemblance to Marx and even looks like the core of liberal capitalist ideology in certain respects

Larval Subjects . August 19, 2007 Political Theology Posted by larvalsubjects under Politics , Religion Mark Lilla has an interesting article on the history of political theology since the 16th century in The New York Times Magazine.
The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.
Well worth the read. 12 Responses to “Political Theology”
Alex Says: August 20, 2007 at 11:16 am
Frankly, many would argue that the problem is that only when it is political (that is concerned with the public sphere and the community at large) is religion and certainly Western religion, religion at all.
I’ve only skim read the article, and I know it is a magazine piece, but I can’t help but think that any article about political theology that stops with Barth is kind of missing quite a chunk of (Christian) political theology, you know, the bit where all recent and important stuff has been said, attempting to react to the modern situation. Any article on this stuff that doesn’t mention, say, Yoder, Hauerwas and “The Desire of Nations”, seems to be incredibly lacking. To be honest, with this in mind, I don’t know if it is “well worth a read”.
Adam Says: August 22, 2007 at 10:25 pm
In fairness to the author, the article is apparently a condensation of a book-length argument.
That said, as it stands, it is unconvincing to me. For the most part, it lacks much concreteness, but when he goes into the discussion of classical liberal theology and then the theology of the Weimar period, his argument becomes very confused and indeed inaccurate. It does not seem at all plausible that Martin Buber and Karl Barth are somehow “complicit” with the rise of Nazism — and in fact, a more realistic reading of the situation is that the Weimar period represents the most profound failure of liberalism in its history.
And typically for liberal denouncers of “totalitarianism” or “political theology” or whatever label is to be applied to the deprecated non-liberal system, he completely ignores the economic factors at work between the wars. The rise of “political theologies” can only seem to be the biggest political problem of our time if we completely depoliticize the (global) economy. Neoliberal restructuring and imposed austerity measures have caused far greater destruction worldwide than the rather pathetic efforts of political Islam — apocalyptic visions don’t just strike at random, they become appealing during times of desperation and hopelessness.
Of course, he dismisses the effort to situate political theology in anything resembling real-world conditions as a naive liberal reaction to what we intrinsically can’t understand — despite the fact that he apparently understands it well enough to write a whole damn book about it.
larvalsubjects Says: August 22, 2007 at 10:51 pm
I can’t speak to his account of the theology of the Weimar period, nor in posting the article am I endorsing all of it. I don’t disagree with your points about economic factors, but you seem to pitch the issue as an either/or. While I don’t believe that political theologies are the “biggest political problem of our time”, I think they can certainly exacerbate a number of other problems and make bad situations even worse. I note that your remarks about apocalyptic visions repeat my analysis of the origins of apocalyptic fantasy posted here back in December. At any rate, suppose that we reworded your third paragraph a bit, introducing a different, less personally charged issue.
And typically for liberal denouncers of “fascism” or “racist ideologies” or whatever label is to be applied to the deprecated non-liberal system, he completely ignores the economic factors at work between the wars. The rise of “racist ideologies” can only seem to be the biggest political problem of our time if we completely depoliticize the (global) economy. Neoliberal restructuring and imposed austerity measures have caused far greater destruction worldwide than the rather pathetic efforts of the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis —visions of race wars don’t just strike at random, they become appealing during times of desperation and hopelessness.
Would you endorse this reworded analysis of the economic roots of racism and continue to hold that the real problem is purely economic in nature? Or would you hold that it is clear that racism is a problem that both has roots in economic problems and exacerbates social problems, such that we can’t simply treat one as the [illusory] appearance and the other as the [true] reality, and such that it’s not simply a question of dealing with the one problem [economics] and ignoring the other [racism]? Or some other alternative altogether. In a number of respects, the issue resembles Marx’s claims about abstraction. Yes, the commodity is an abstraction that masks or clothes social relations, making social relations appear as if they were instead relations among things. Yet for Marx this doesn’t entail that abstractions are unreal and without force, such that we can simply peel away the veil and get at the “real truth”.
These points aside, I thoroughly agree with your points about liberalism and the manner in which it completely pushes aside economics and treats issues as simply being a matter of the ideas, political theories, or ideologies various people endorse.
Adam Says: August 22, 2007 at 11:10 pm
I don’t see any particular problem with your rewording, though I’d drop the scare quotes from the terms referring to racism. I also don’t see how by accusing liberals of ignoring the economy, I’m advocating ignoring other problems — the problem is, precisely, ignoring things!
I must say that this article is at least more interestingly wrong than most of what passes for discussion of religion in the popular press.
Adam Says: August 23, 2007 at 3:09 pm
Here’s a quote from Zizek that is closer to the approach I’m advocating:
“Of course, one should fully acknowledge the tremendous liberating impact of the postmodern politicization of domains which were hitherto considered apolitical (feminism, gay and lesbian politics, ecology, ethnic and other so-called minority issues): the fact that these issues not only became perceived as inherently political but also gave birth to new forms of political subjectivization thoroughly reshaped our entire political and cultural landscape. So the point is not to play down this tremendous advance in favour of the return to some new version of so-called economic essentialism: the point is, rather, that the depoliticization of the economy generates the populist New Right with its Moral Majority ideology, which today is the main obstacle to the realization of the very (feminist, ecological…) demands on which postmodern forms of political subjectivization focus. In short, I am pleading for a ‘return to the primacy of the economy’ not to the detriment of the issues raised by postmodern forms of politicization, but precisely in order to create the conditions for the more effective realization of feminist, ecological, and so on, demands.” (Ticklish Subject, 356)
larvalsubjects Says: August 23, 2007 at 3:15 pm
One of the things I find interesting about Zizek is that he has increasingly made these sorts of gestures yet never concretely discusses anything to do with economy. At times I’ve even occasionally wondered whether he’s read any Marx beyond the first chapter of Capital (his analysis in Sublime Object). From the standpoint of a Marxist form of analysis, remarks like the one you cite here are astonishing as he’s abstractly negating these other political forms without giving any account of how this sort of politics arises under contemporary capital. The equivalent would be Marx abstractly denouncing the bourgeois (which he does not) without giving any account of how this class emerged, why a particular political form based on rights emerged with it, etc.
Adam Says: August 23, 2007 at 3:50 pm
I don’t see how he’s negating the other forms of politics.
larvalsubjects Says: August 23, 2007 at 5:32 pm
Rereading the passage more carefully, you’re right, he’s not. His remarks here are far more generous to what he refers to as “postmodern politics” than he often is.
I wonder– and I’m not taking a position –whether the claim that the depoliticization of economy generates the “New Right” or “Moral Majority” ideology isn’t a sweeping generalization. Aren’t these ideologies just the ideologies of the capitalist class pure and simple? And doesn’t that ideology function to clothe economic relations, regardless of whether we’re talking about late 19th and early 20th century political struggles and present-day struggles? It sounds like he’s implicitly making a causal claim: “Because these postmodern forms of politics depoliticized economy they are responsible for the rise of the New Right. If we didn’t engage in these forms of politics but instead politicized economy, the new right wouldn’t exist.” Yet it seems that the “new right” in the sense Zizek is using it existed even in those historical contexts (in the States at least) where economy was politicized (during the great labor movements, and when the Soviet Union was still seen as a real threat). Evidence of this would be found in the way that the reactionary politics of that day was intimately bound up with certain forms of religiosity, nationalism, liberal individualism (”individuals make their destiny and are responsible for their place”, etc), and so on.
Of course, I am not making the claim that economy shouldn’t be a site of the political, just questioning what Zizek often seems to be implicitly saying when he makes these claims. Sadly, socialist movements and the history of Marxism have a pretty abominable record when it comes to feminist issues, race issues, gender issues, etc… The proletariat historically being equivalent to working men over the age of 35 and suspicion and outright hostility often being directed at feminist groups as potential competitors against the “proletariat”. In other words, the apparent universality of the proletariat has tended to function as a veiled particularity describable along the lines of Zizek’s analyses of the universal and the particular in Sublime Object and elsewhere (following Laclau). Part of the worry then is that this position invites a return to that sort of exclusion and perhaps follows the logic of “yes, yes we acknowledge these struggles are important too, but set them aside for the moment to engage in this struggle so that these things might be addressed later (his reference to “creating conditions for more effective modes of engagement with these issues implying deferral and futurity).” I don’t know.
It does seem like there’s something of a break in Zizek’s work, where he shifts from a stance of critique to a stance of praxis. You’ll recall the analysis of master-signifiers following Laclau in Sublime Object where he argues that different ideologies function according to how they fill in the empty master-signifier with a particular content. Thus with a signifier like “freedom” it becomes a site of contestation among competing ideologies, where one ideology fills it with the signifier rights, another, the Marxist, economics, another, the ecologist, with environment, another, gender issues, and so on. During that period he was arguing that the aim should be an ethics of the real that holds the master-signifier and objet a at a distance from one another. Marx is included in this, or is at least among his examples.
When we get to Ticklish Subject and beyond, we suddenly see Zizek doing precisely the thing he prescribed against in his earlier work, turning economy into the content that fills out the empty signifier. In the forward to the revised edition of For They Know Not What They Do (arguably his best and most rigorous book, in my view), he speaks about how he labored for a long time to rid himself of the last vestiges of bourgeois ideology and explicitly connects this ideology to Laclau. Now he seems to be striving to synthesize these two positions with concepts like the parallax (which can also be seen as an implicit critique of his early work: focus on the politic caused the economic to fall out of view in his earlier work). That is, he’s trying to think a sort of “both/and”. It would be interesting to work out the details of this trajectory and why his work has shifted in this way.
Adam Says: August 23, 2007 at 9:39 pm
I disagree with that characterization of Zizek’s trajectory. In my reading, he starts with advocacy of liberalism, then rejects it in Tarrying, without having anything positive to put in its place (certainly not traditional communism) — inaugurating a period of “retreat into theory,” where he tries to work out in greater detail the notion of the “cure,” the rise of the big Other, etc. In Ticklish Subject, through his encounter with Badiou, he is challenged to think of a way to get at a “politics of truth” that would be more than simply trading in one master for another, and he’s trying to work out what the emergence of a “politics of truth” might look like in his three Christian books. The Parallax View would then be the “negation of negation,” where he embraces the rejection of the present order (liberalism, capitalism) as directly being the politics he is looking for — politics of refusal, Bartleby, etc.
All of your stuff in a previous thread about his “nostalgia” for party politics or whatever is a blind alley — he’s mining the Marxist tradition, trying to work through “what went wrong.” And the core problem, ironically enough, is primarily economic determinism, the idea that capitalism (or the process of history) is somehow automatically going to achieve everything for us — meaning that it wasn’t just Stalin who betrayed Marx, it was Marx himself.
larvalsubjects Says: August 23, 2007 at 9:58 pm
All of your stuff in a previous thread about his “nostalgia” for party politics or whatever is a blind alley — he’s mining the Marxist tradition, trying to work through “what went wrong.” And the core problem, ironically enough, is primarily economic determinism, the idea that capitalism (or the process of history) is somehow automatically going to achieve everything for us — meaning that it wasn’t just Stalin who betrayed Marx, it was Marx himself.
I understand this. However, it just so happens that Zizek’s solutions or alternative to what went wrong are often the very thing that went wrong!
I’ve become fairly skeptical of the what’s expressed in your final sentence. While I don’t endorse economic or historical determinism, I do feel these forces place important limits on what is possible in a given situation. The emergence of the great revolutions in the past were not simply the result of “subjects of truth” bearing fidelity to an event, or other subjects passing to the act. There were massively changing economic, technological, and social conditions that rendered the situation open to these forms of engagement. Analysis of these conditions is, in my view, almost completely lacking in Zizek and Badiou.
larvalsubjects Says: August 23, 2007 at 10:22 pm
Or to put it differently, Badiou-Zizek’s “solution” shares little resemblance to Marx and even looks like the core of liberal capitalist ideology in certain respects. There’s that terrific passage in Capital– “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret” –where Marx remarks that Protestant Christianity is the perfect religion for capitalism:
For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material form bring their individual, private labours into relation with each other as homogenous human labour, Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion. In the ancient Asiatic, Classical-antique, and other such modes of production, the transformation of the product into a commodity, and therefore men’s existence as producers of commodities, plays a subordinate role, which however increases in importance as these communities approach nearer and nearer to the stage of their dissolution. Trading nations, properly so called, exist only in the interstices of the ancient world, like the gods of Epicurus in the intermundia, or Jews in the pores of Polish society. Those ancient social organisms of production are much more simple and transparent than those of bourgeois society. But they are founded either on the immaturity of man as an individual, when he has not yet torn himself loose from the ummbilical cord of his natural species-connection with other men, or on direct relations of dominance and servitude. They are conditioned by a low stage of development of the productive powers of labour and correspondingly limited relations between men within the process of creating and reproducing their material life, hence also limited relations between men and nature. These real limitations are reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in other elements of tribal religions. The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society posses a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development. (Fowkes trans, 172-173)
The operative words here are “cult of man in the abstract”, where the subject is conceived as separate and independent of his social and historical relations, i.e., bourgeois individualism reflected in the “personal relationship with God” and the ahistoricism of these religious movements. Yet how are Badiou and Zizek not simply giving us simply a secular form of this structure or phenomenon, and thereby reproducing, at a certain level of social relations, the very thing they claim to be targeting? Isn’t the subject of truth and subtraction identical to the “cult of man in the abstract”? Of course, each of these developments has its own potentialities.
Adam Says: August 23, 2007 at 11:59 pm
By economic determinism, I meant the idea that capitalism would inevitably produce a new, higher mode of production that could somehow maintain capitalism’s dynamism without its contradictions.
I seriously think that the only “positive” political program Zizek has put forward is the Bartleby thing at the end of Parallax — and there is definitely room to critique that move on his part. He is also skeptical about whether it really is possible to challenge global capital wholesale in the present circumstances, and so he is spending his time trying to discern the possible formal structure of a movement that could challenge capital.
I heard him say at a lecture that what we need to do right now is more theory. Someone then asked him, “But what do we do?” And he said, “The theory will tell us what to do!” So to me, it’s jumping to conclusions to directly critique Zizek’s “political views” right now, because he doesn’t have positive political views — if you want to critique him, critique that (and that is worthy of critique — remember Jodi’s frustration with the Bartleby stuff?).
And finally, I am one of the few holdouts who insists that we need to rigorously distinguish between Zizek and Badiou. I understand that this is a minority opinion, but still — when I see the words “Zizek and Badiou,” I reach for my gun.

Religions as the vehicles for the great meaning-events of transcendence have an ambiguous nature

Indistinct Union: Christianity, Integral Philosophy, and Politics Exploration of Unity Consciousness, Christian Life, Integral Thought, and the Future of Politics in a Post-Postmodern World Thursday, August 23, 2007 States and Stages on American Civil Religion Chris Dierkes
Robert Bellah, the great American sociologist, postulated the notion of an American civil religion which combined the Enlightenment notions of optimism, progress, and rationality along with the Biblical notion a chosen group of people who are the bearers of salvation in the world. (Those people in this case being the Americans). With all religions they begin with a state/revelation.
One could point for this religion to George Washington's famous mystical vision. Washington interpreted that vision through his Masonic-Deist leaning frame. Both more so through the civil religion frame. Both elements (Western Enlightenment and Chosen People Motif).
Religions then are meant to translate and help repeat that experience (or similar ones) and cement its theology in a larger scale.
Religions then as the vehicles for the great meaning-events of transcendence have an ambiguous nature. To the degree they help create the conditions for the revelation (assuming it is a good one), they are beneficial. To the degree they don't, they tend towards the metaphysical. That is they speak about the experience, or more typically, the interpretation of the experience/revelation (the latter slipping away), not towards it or from it.
The American Civil Religion, which is Religion, holds a similar ambiguity. Like all mystical traditions, this one, has yet to take clearly into perspective, the notion of the intersubjective, Heideggerian, post-metaphysical turn. In the case of Washington's mystical vision, for example, the difference has serious implications. If you take his vision at pure face value, as "the truth", then the descendants of the Europeans are destined and chosen by God, to overrun the indigenous populations. If we take Washington's vision as a genuine one (which I do) and add the intersubjective, then I need not hold that the interpretation/background factors that influenced the content of the vision, are automatically forever and ever the truth.
Just as I have a pro/con relationship with Christianity (esp. its amber traditional form), so I do with the American civil religion. It is a better religion--particularly after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement--than amber-aristocratic mythic theocracies the world over. (Present and past).
For those who practice the "orange" civil American religion, then they should seek out the more esoteric roots of that tradition, so they can experience its heights for themselves, as true Enlightenment inner scientists. It also makes clear for those who critique the religion, they receive (very often) ir-rational response mechanisms. As a religion, myth is strong and exerts a powerful hold on its believers. Criticism=heresy. Better is to understand the symbols/myth (from the state and stage pov) and learn how to tweak the symbols to criticize from within. To subvert the typical pattern/establishment that they are used to often cement.Both the Enlightenment and Biblical tenets of the American Civil Religion are a two-edged sword. For the Enlightenment belief: Americans can always be called back to a pragmatism, to the so-called can do spirit, to audacious plans and goals.
On the downside--failure is one's own fault. There is nothing in the world that is not rational by this view (hence problems with religious states and mysticism in general in this religion though sourced in it). Nothing that can not be systematized. No fallow ground. No place for mourning. No great understanding of cultural-historical diversity.
On the Biblical belief. Plus Side. Always call Americans, e.g. Lincoln, to their better angelic side. On the torture question, calling to the American soul and saying this is not us. Volunteerism. On the negative side--enforcing Americanization. Mythic American faith ("My country right or wrong, but my country") nationalism.
If the religion takes the place of it being the vehicle for the revelation, then idolatry is afoot. If the US is the only nation founded on the belief in God, then the US of all suffers from the danger of idolatry. [I'm not sure that's the right formulation, but it doesn't really matter for the point I'm making]. posted by CJ Smith @ 5:05 PM 0 comments

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The book of nature lies open to every eye. It is from this sublime and wonderful volume that I learn to serve and adore its Divine Author

Jean Jacques Rousseau: Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, 1782 Part VI.
The Savoyard Vicar and his "Profession of Faith" are introduced into "Emile" not, according to the author, because he wishes to exhibit his principles as those which should be taught, but to give an example of the way in which religious matters should be discussed with the young. Nevertheless, it is universally recognized that these opinions are Rousseau's own, and represent in short form his characteristic attitude toward religious belief...This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
In all these three revelations, the sacred books are written in languages unknown to the people who believe in them. The Jews no longer understand Hebrew; the Christians neither Greek nor Hebrew; the Turks and Persians understand no Arabic, and even the modern Arabs themselves speak not the language of Mahomet. Is not this a very simple manner of instructing mankind, by talking to them always in a language which they do not comprehend? But these books, it will be said, are translated; a most unsatisfactory answer, indeed! Who can assure me that they are translated faithfully, or that it is even possible they should be so? Who can give me a sufficient reason why God, when he hath a mind to speak to mankind, should stand in need of an interpreter?
I can never conceive that what every man is indispensably obliged to know can be shut up in these books; or that he who is incapacitated to understand them, or the persons who explain them, will be punished for involuntary ignorance. But we are always plaguing ourselves with books. What a frenzy! Because Europe is full of books, the Europeans conceive them to be indispensable, without reflecting that three-fourths of the world know nothing at all about them. Are not all books written by men? How greatly, therefore, must man have stood in need of them, to instruct him in his duty, and by what means did he come to the knowledge of such duties, before books were written? Either he must have acquired such knowledge of himself, or it must have been totally dispensed with.
We, Roman Catholics, make a great noise about the authority of the church: but what do we gain by it, if it requires as many proofs to establish this authority as other sects also require to establish their doctrines? The church determines that the church has a right to determine. Is not this a special proof of its authority? And yet, depart from this, and we enter into endless discussions.
Do you know many Christians who have taken the pains to examine carefully into what the Jews have alleged against us? If there are a few who know something of them, it is from what they have met with in the writings of Christians: a very strange manner indeed of instructing themselves in the arguments of their opponents! But what can be done? If any one should dare to publish among us such books as openly espouse the cause of Judaism, we should punish the author, the editor, and the bookseller.5 This policy is very convenient, and very sure to make us always in the right. We can refute at pleasure those who are afraid to speak.
Those among us, also, who have an opportunity to converse with the Jews, have but little advantage. These unhappy people know that they are at our mercy. The tyranny we exercise over them, renders them justly timid and reserved. They know how far cruelty and injustice are compatible with Christian charity. What, therefore, can they venture to say to us, without running the risk of incurring the charge of blasphemy? Avarice inspires us with zeal, and they are too rich not to be ever in the wrong. The most sensible and learned among them are the most circumspect and reserved. We make a convert, perhaps, of some wretched hireling, to calumniate his sect; we set a parcel of pitiful brokers disputing, who give up the point merely to gratify us; but while we triumph over the ignorance or meanness of such wretched opponents, the learned among them smile in contemptuous silence at our folly. But do you think that in places where they might write and speak securely, we should have so much the advantage of them? Among the doctors of the Sorbonne, it is as clear as daylight, that the predictions concerning the Messiah relate to Jesus Christ. Among the Rabbins at Amsterdam, it is just as evident that they have no relation whatever to him. I shall never believe that I have acquired a sufficient acquaintance with the arguments of the Jews, till they compose a free and independent State, and have their schools and universities, where they may talk and dispute with freedom and impunity. Till then we can never really know what arguments they have to offer.
[Footnote 5: Among a thousand known instances, the following stands in no need of comment: the Catholic divines of the sixteenth century having condemned all the Jewish books without exception to be burnt, a learned and illustrious theologue, who was consulted on that occasion, had very nearly involved himself in ruin by being simply of the opinion that such of them might be preserved as did not relate to Christianity, or treated of matters foreign to religion.]
At Constantinople, the Turks make known their reasons, and we dare not publish ours. There it is our turn to submit. If the Turks require us to pay to Mahomet, in whom we do not believe, the same respect which we require the Jews to pay to Jesus Christ, in whom they believe as little, can the Turks be in the wrong and we in the right? On what principle of equity can we resolve that question in our own favor?
Two - thirds of mankind are neither, Jews, Christians, nor Mahometans. How many millions of men, therefore, must there be who never heard of Moses, of Jesus Christ, or of Mahomet? Will this be denied? Will it be said that our missionaries are dispersed over the face of the whole earth? This, indeed, is easily affirmed; but are there any of them in the interior parts of Africa, where no European hath ever yet penetrated? Do they travel through the inland parts of Tartary, or follow on horseback the wandering hordes, whom no stranger ever approaches, and who, so far from having heard of the Pope, hardly know any thing of their own Grand Lama? Do our missionaries traverse the immense continent of America, where there are whole nations still ignorant that the people of another world have set foot on theirs? Are there any missionaries in Japan, from whence their ill-behavior hath banished them forever, and where the fame of their predecessors is transmitted to succeeding generations as that of artful knaves, who, under cover of a religious zeal, wanted to make themselves gradually masters of the empire? Do they penetrate into the harems of the Asiatic princes, to preach the gospel to millions of wretched slaves? What will become of these secluded women for want of a missionary to preach to them this gospel? Must every one of them go to hell for being a recluse?
But were it true that the gospel is preached in every part of the earth, the difficulty is not removed. On the eve preceding the arrival of the first missionary in any country, some one person of that country expired without hearing the glad tidings. Now what must we do with this one person? If there be but a single individual in the whole universe, to whom the gospel of Christ is not made known, the objection which presents itself on account of this one person, is as cogent as if it included a fourth part of the human race.
Again, supposing that the ministers of the gospel are actually present and preaching in those distant nations, how can they reasonably hope to be believed on their own word, and expect that their hearers will not scrupulously require a confirmation of what is taught? Might not any one of them very reasonably say to these preachers:
"You tell me of a God who was born and put to death nearly two thousand years ago, in another portion of the world, and in I know not what obscure town; assuring me that all those who do not believe in this mysterious tale are damned.
"These are things too strange to be readily credited on the sole authority of a man who is himself a perfect stranger.
"Why hath your God brought those events to pass, of which he requires me to be instructed, at so great a distance? Is it a crime to be ignorant of what passes at the antipodes? Is it possible for me to divine that there existed in the other hemisphere a people called Jews, and a city called Jerusalem? I might as well be required to know what happens in the moon.
"You are come, you say, to inform me; but why did you not come soon enough to inform my father, or why do you damn that innocent man because he knew nothing of the matter? Must he be eternally punished for your delay; he who was so just, so benevolent, and so desirous of knowing the truth?
"Be honest, and suppose yourself in my place. Do you think that I can believe, upon your testimony alone, all these incredible things you tell me, or that I can reconcile so much injustice with the character of that just God, whom you pretend to make known?
"Let me first, I pray you, go and see this distant country where so many miracles have happened that are totally unknown here. Let me go and be well informed why the inhabitants of that Jerusalem you speak of presumed to treat God like a thief or a murderer.
"They did not, you will say, acknowledge his divinity. How then can I, who never have heard of him but from you?
"You add, that they were punished, dispersed, and led into captivity;-not one of them ever approaching their former city.
"Assuredly, they deserved all this: but its present inhabitants, - what say they of the unbelief and Deicide of their predecessors? Do they not deny it, and acknowledge the divinity of the sacred personage just as little as did its ancient inhabitants?
"What! in the same city in which your God was put to death, neither the ancient nor present inhabitants acknowledge his divinity! And yet you would have me believe it, who was born nearly two thousand years after the event, and two thousand leagues distant from the place!
"Do you not see that, before I can give credit to this book, which you call sacred and of which I comprehend nothing, I ought to be informed from others as to when and by whom it was written; how it hath been preserved and transmitted to you; what is said of it in the country where it originated; and what are the reasons of those who reject it, although they know as well as you every thing of which you have informed me? You must perceive, therefore, the necessity I am under of going first to Europe, then to Asia, and lastly into Palestine to investigate and examine this subject for myself, and that I must be an absolute idiot to even listen to you before I have completed this investigation."
Such a discourse as this appears to me not only very reasonable, but I affirm that every sensible man ought under such circumstances to speak in the same manner, and to send a missionary about his business, who should be in haste to instruct and baptize him before he had sufficiently verified the proofs of his mission.
Now, I maintain that there is no revelation against which the same objections might not be made, and that with even greater force than against Christianity. Hence it follows that if there be in the world but one true religion, and if every one is obliged to adopt it under pain of damnation, it is necessary to spend our lives in the study of all religions, - to visit the countries where they have been established, and examine and compare them with each other. No man is exempted from the principal duty of his species, and no one hath a right to confide in the judgment of another. The artisan who lives only by his industry, the husbandman who cannot read, the timid and delicate virgin, the feeble valetudinarian, all must, without exception, study, meditate, dispute, and travel the world over in search of truth. There would no longer be any settled inhabitants in a country, the face of the earth being covered with pilgrims going from place to place, at great trouble and expense, to verify, examine, and compare the several different systems and modes of worship to be met with in different countries.
We must in such a case bid adieu to the arts and sciences, to trade, and to all the civil occupations of life. Every other study must give place to that of religion; while the man who should enjoy the greatest share of health and strength, and make the best use of his time and reason for the longest term of years allotted to human life, would, in his extreme old age, be still perplexed and undecided; and it would be indeed wonderful if, after all his researches, he should be able to learn before his death what religion he ought to have believed and practiced during his life.
Do you endeavor to mitigate the severity of this method, and place as little confidence as possible in the authority of your fellow men? In so doing, however, you place in them the greatest confidence: for if the son of a Christian does right in adopting, without a scrupulous and impartial examination, the religion of his father, how can the son of a Turk do wrong in adopting in the same manner the religion of Mahomet?
I defy all the persecutors in the world to answer this question in a manner satisfactory to any person of common sense. Nay, some of them, when hard pressed by such arguments, will sooner admit that God is unjust, and visits the sins of the fathers upon the children, than give up their cruel and persecuting principles. Others, indeed, strive to elude the force of these reasons by civilly sending an angel to instruct those who, under absolute ignorance, lived, nevertheless, good moral lives. A very pretty device, truly, is that of the angel! Not contented with subjecting us to this angelic hierarchy, they would reduce even the Deity himself to the necessity of employing it.
See, my son, to what absurdities we are led by pride, and the spirit of persecution, - by being puffed up with our own vanity, and conceiving that we possess a greater share of reason than the rest of mankind.
I call to witness that God of peace whom I adore, and whom I would make known to you, that my researches have been always sincere; but seeing that they were and always must be unsuccessful, and that I was launched out into a boundless ocean of perplexity, I returned the way I came, and confined my creed within the limits of my first notions. I could never believe that God required me, under pain of eternal damnation, to be so very learned; and, therefore, I shut up all my books.
The book of nature lies open to every eye. It is from this sublime and wonderful volume that I learn to serve and adore its Divine Author. No person is excusable for neglecting to read this book, as it is written in an universal language, intelligible to all mankind.
Had I been born on a desert island, or had never seen a human creature beside myself; had I never been informed of what had formerly happened in a certain corner of the world; I might yet have learned, by the exercise and cultivation of my reason, and by the proper use of those faculties God hath given me, to know and to love him. I might hence have learned to love and admire his power and goodness, and to have properly discharged my duty here on earth. What can the knowledge of the learned teach me more?
With regard to revelation: could I reason better or were I better informed, I might be made sensible perhaps of its truth and of its utility to those who are so happy as to believe it. But if there are some proofs in its favor which I cannot invalidate, there appear also to me many objections against it which I cannot resolve. There are so many reasons both for and against its authority that, not knowing what to conclude, I neither admit nor reject it. I reject only the obligation of submitting to it, because this pretended obligation is incompatible with the justice of God, and that, so far from its removing the obstacles to salvation, it raises those which are insurmountable by the greater part of mankind, Except in this article, therefore, I remain respectfully in doubt concerning the Scriptures. I have not the presumption to think myself infallible. More able persons may possibly determine in cases that to me appear undeterminable. I reason for myself, not for them. I neither censure nor imitate them. Their judgment may possibly be better than mine, but am I to blame that it is not mine?
I will confess to you further, that the majesty of the Scriptures strikes me with admiration, as the purity of the gospel hath its influence on my heart. Peruse the works of our philosophers, enriched with all their pomp of diction: how mean, how contemptible are they, compared with the Scriptures! Is it possible that a book at once so simple and sublime should be merely the work of man? Is it possible that the sacred personage, whose history it contains, should be himself a mere man? Do we find that he assumed the tone of an enthusiast or ambitious sectary? What purity, what sweetness in his manners! What an affecting gracefulness in his delivery! What sublimity in his maxims! What profound wisdom in his discourses! What presence of mind, what subtilty, what truth in his replies! How great the command over his passions! Where is the man, where the philosopher who could so live and so die, without weakness and without ostentation? When Plato described an imaginary good man6 loaded with all the shame of guilt, yet meriting the highest reward of virtue, he describes exactly the character of Jesus. The resemblance was so striking that all the fathers perceived it. What prepossession, what blindness must it be to compare the son of Sophroniscus to the son of Mary? What an infinite disproportion is there between them! Socrates, dying without pain or ignominy, easily supported his character to the last; and if his death, however easy, had not crowned his life, it might have been doubted whether Socrates, with all his wisdom, was any thing more than a vain sophist. He invented, it is said, the theory of morals. Others, however, had already put them in practice; he had only to say what they had done, and reduce their examples to precepts. Aristides had been just, before Socrates defined justice. Leonidas gave up his life for his country before Socrates declared patriotism to be a duty. The Spartans were a sober people before Socrates recommended sobriety. Before he had even defined virtue, Greece abounded in virtuous men. But where could Jesus learn, among his compatriots, that pure and sublime morality of which he only hath given us both precept and example?7 The greatest wisdom was made known amidst the most bigoted fanaticism; and the simplicity of the most heroic virtues did honor to the vilest people on the earth. The death of Socrates, peaceably philosophizing with his friends, appears the most agreeable form that could be desired; - that of Jesus, expiring in the midst of agonizing pains, abused, insulted, cursed by a whole nation, is the most horrible that could be feared. Socrates, in receiving the cup of poison, blessed indeed the weeping executioner who administered it; but Jesus, in the midst of excruciating tortures, prayed for his merciless tormentors. Yes, if the life and death of Socrates are those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus are those of a God.
[Footnote 6: De Rep. dial. 1.]
[Footnote 7: See in his discourse on the Mount the parallel he makes between the morality of Moses and his own. Matthew v. 21, &c.]

Shall we suppose the evangelic history a mere fiction? Indeed, my friend, it bears not the marks of fiction. On the contrary, the history of Socrates, which nobody presumes to doubt, is not so well attested as that of Jesus Christ. Such a supposition, in fact, only shifts the difficulty without removing it. It is more inconceivable that a number of persons should agree to write such a history than that one only should furnish the subject of it. The Jewish authors were incapable of the diction, and were strangers to the morality contained in the gospel, - the marks of whose truth are so striking and inimitable, that the inventor would be a more astonishing character than the hero. And yet, with all this, the same gospel abounds with incredible relations, with circumstances repugnant to reason, and which it is impossible for a man of sense either to conceive of or to admit. What is to be done amidst all these contradictions? Be modest and circumspect. Regard in silence what cannot be either disproved or comprehend, and humble thyself before the Supreme Being who alone knoweth the truth.
Such is the involuntary skepticism in which I remain. This skepticism, however, is not painful to me, because it extends not to any essential point of practice; and as my mind is firmly settled regarding the principles of my duty, I serve God in the sincerity of my heart. In the mean time, I seek not to know any thing more than what relates to my moral conduct; and as to those dogmas which have no influence over the behavior, and about which so many persons give themselves so much trouble, I am not at all solicitous. I look upon the various particular religions as so many salutary institutions, prescribing in different countries an uniform manner of public worship; and which may all have their respective reasons, peculiar to the climate, government, or laws of the people adopting them, or some other motive which renders the one preferable to the other according to the circumstance of time and place. I believe all that are established to be good when God is served in sincerity of heart. This service is all that is essential. He rejects not the homage of the sincere, under whatsoever form they present it. Being called to the service of the church, I comply, therefore with a scrupulous exactness, to all the forms it prescribes in my duty, and should reproach myself for the least wilful neglect of them. After having lain under a long prohibition I obtained, through the interest of M. de Mellerade, a permission to re-assume the functions of the priesthood, to procure me a livelihood. I had been accustomed formerly to say mass with all that levity and carelessness with which we perform the most serious and important offices after having very often repeated them. Since I entertained my new principles, however, I celebrate it with greater veneration: - penetrated by reflecting on the majesty of the Supreme Being, and the insufficiency of the human mind that is so little able to form conceptions relative to its author, I consider that I offer up the prayers of a people under a prescribed form of worship, and therefore carefully observe all its rites. I recite carefully; and strive not to omit the least word or ceremony. Before going to communicate, I first recollect myself, in order to do it with all those dispositions that the church and the importance of the sacrament require. I endeavor on this occasion to silence the voice of reason before the Supreme Intelligence. I say to myself: who art thou, to presume to set bounds to omnipotence? I reverently pronounce the sacramental words, and annex to them all the faith that depends on me. Whatever, therefore, be the truth with regard to that inconceivable mystery, I am not fearful of being charged at the day of judgment with profaning it in my heart.
[Footnote 8: The duty of adopting and respecting the religion of our country does not extend to such tenets as are contrary to moral virtue; such as that of persecution. It is this horrible dogma which arms mankind inhumanly against each other, and renders them destructive to the human race. The distinction between political and theological toleration is puerile and ridiculous, as they are inseparable, so that one cannot be admitted without the other.] 1782 rousseau-savoyard.html

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rousseau had a Hobbes problem, too: he shared the Englishman’s criticisms of theocracy, fanaticism and the clergy, but he was a friend of religion

The Politics of God By MARK LILLA The Times Magazine: August 19, 2007
After centuries of strife, the West has learned to separate religion and politics — to establish the legitimacy of its leaders without referring to divine command. There is little reason to expect that the rest of the world — the Islamic world in particular — will follow.
III. The Inner Light
It is a familiar story, and seems to conclude with a happy ending. But in truth the Great Separation was never a fait accompli, even in Western Europe, where it was first conceived. Old-style Christian political theology had an afterlife in the West, and only after the Second World War did it cease to be a political force. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a different challenge to the Great Separation arose from another quarter. It came from a wholly new kind of political theology heavily indebted to philosophy and styling itself both modern and liberal. I am speaking of the “liberal theology” movement that arose in Germany not long after the French Revolution, first among Protestant theologians, then among Jewish reformers. These thinkers, who abhorred theocracy, also rebelled against Hobbes’s vision, favoring instead a political future in which religion — properly chastened and intellectually reformed — would play an absolutely central role.
And the questions they posed were good ones. While granting that ignorance and fear had bred pointless wars among Christian sects and nations, they asked: Were those the only reasons that, for a millennium and a half, an entire civilization had looked to Jesus Christ as its savior? Or that suffering Jews of the Diaspora remained loyal to the Torah? Could ignorance and fear explain the beauty of Christian liturgical music or the sublimity of the Gothic cathedrals? Could they explain why all other civilizations, past and present, founded their political institutions in accordance with the divine nexus of God, man and world? Surely there was more to religious man than was dreamed of in Hobbes’s philosophy.
That certainly was the view of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who did more than anyone to develop an alternative to Hobbes. Rousseau wrote no treatise on religion, which was probably a wise thing, since when he inserted a few pages on religious themes into his masterpiece, “Émile” (1762), it caused the book to be burned and Rousseau to spend the rest of his life on the run. This short section of “Émile,” which he called “The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” has so deeply shaped contemporary views of religion that it takes some effort to understand why Rousseau was persecuted for writing it. It is the most beautiful and convincing defense of man’s religious instincts ever to flow from a modern pen — and that, apparently, was the problem. Rousseau spoke of religion in terms of human needs, not divine truths, and had his Savoyard vicar declare, “I believe all particular religions are good when one serves God usefully in them.” For that, he was hounded by pious Christians.
Rousseau had a Hobbes problem, too: he shared the Englishman’s criticisms of theocracy, fanaticism and the clergy, but he was a friend of religion. While Hobbes beat the drums of ignorance and fear, Rousseau sang the praises of conscience, of charity, of fellow feeling, of virtue, of pious wonder in the face of God’s creation. Human beings, he thought, have a natural goodness they express in their religion. That is the theme of the “Profession of Faith,” which tells the parable of a young vicar who loses his faith and then his moral compass once confronted with the hypocrisy of his co-religionists. He is able to restore his equilibrium only when he finds a new kind of faith in God by looking within, to his own “inner light” (lumière intérieure). The point of Rousseau’s story is less to display the crimes of organized churches than to show that man yearns for religion because he is fundamentally a moral creature. There is much we cannot know about God, and for centuries the pretense of having understood him caused much damage to Christendom. But, for Rousseau, we need to believe something about him if we are to orient ourselves in the world.
Among modern thinkers, Rousseau was the first to declare that there is no shame in saying that faith in God is humanly necessary. Religion has its roots in needs that are rational and moral, even noble; once we see that, we can start satisfying them rationally, morally and nobly. In the abstract, this thought did not contradict the principles of the Great Separation, which gave reasons for protecting the private exercise of religion. But it did raise doubts about whether the new political thinking could really do without reference to the nexus of God, man and world. If Rousseau was right about our moral needs, a rigid separation between political and theological principles might not be psychologically sustainable. When a question is important, we want an answer to it: as the Savoyard vicar remarks, “The mind decides in one way or another, despite itself, and prefers being mistaken to believing in nothing.” Rousseau had grave doubts about whether human beings could be happy or good if they did not understand how their actions related to something higher. Religion is simply too entwined with our moral experience ever to be disentangled from it, and morality is inseparable from politics.
IV. Rousseau’s Children
By the early 19th century, two schools of thought about religion and politics had grown up in the West. Let us call them the children of Hobbes and the children of Rousseau. For the children of Hobbes, a decent political life could not be realized by Christian political theology, which bred violence and stifled human development. The only way to control the passions flowing from religion to politics, and back again, was to detach political life from them completely. This had to happen within Western institutions, but first it had to happen within Western minds. A reorientation would have to take place, turning human attention away from the eternal and transcendent, toward the here and now. The old habit of looking to God for political guidance would have to be broken, and new habits developed. For Hobbes, the first step toward achieving that end was to get people thinking about — and suspicious about — the sources of faith.
Though there was great reluctance to adopt Hobbes’s most radical views on religion, in the English-speaking world the intellectual principles of the Great Separation began to take hold in the 18th century. Debate would continue over where exactly to place the line between religious and political institutions, but arguments about the legitimacy of theocracy petered out in all but the most forsaken corners of the public square. There was no longer serious controversy about the relation between the political order and the divine nexus; it ceased to be a question. No one in modern Britain or the United States argued for a bicameral legislature on the basis of divine revelation.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Mark Lilla is professor of the humanities at Columbia University. This essay is adapted from his book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West,” which will be published next month.