>The Life of Max Weber

>I’ve just finished reading Joachim Radkau’s biography of Max Weber (Max Weber: A Biography. Polity, Cambridge, 2009.  German edition, 2005).  That is Max Weber familiar as one of the three usually said to be founders of sociology, along with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx.  Weber’s work covers history, economic history, comparative religion, political and legal theory, as well as large areas of the the discipline of sociology that he helped to define.  He certainly deserves to be read by philosophers, at least those who see philosophy as belonging with the knowledge of human history.  One major reason, though not the only reason to read the book is in regard to his influence on Foucault. not an issue Radkau says much about, and he quotes Bourdieu more often.  Another issue of interest to me, Nietzsche’s influence on Weber is not so well covered.  I do not get the feeling that Radkau is either a deep or sympathetic reader of Nietzsche.  He tends to reduce Nietzsche, to the most unpleasant stereotypes, and dismisses his influence on Nietzsche.  Towards the end of the book he does briefly recognise some relation between Birth Of Tragedy and Weber’s late thoughts on religion and mysticism.  However, he also misses other ways in which Weber may have been directly and indirectly influenced by Nietzsche, as in accounts of antique society, and of priestly classes.

The biography has a lot of detail about Weber’s private life, ‘nervous’ problems, difficulties with his family, particularly his mother and his wife.  His wife, Marianne was nevertheless a great intellectual partner and a famous feminist thinker in her own time.  There’s also plenty of material about German politics, academic life, the places Weber visited, and so on.

I certainly think this is a book anyone interested in Weber should read, and there are plenty of people who don’t know much about Weber who would be very interested if they studied him. 

 He was one of the great unifying thinkers about history, politics, social and economic life, the rational and less rational ways that humans deal with life.  As Radkau rightly emphasises, Weber’s approach os very passionate as well as very scholarly.  Radkau goes so far as to suggest that Weber identified with the Old Testament prophets as a passionate revealer of difficult truths.  Whether or not that is  justified claim, Weber writes from a point of view which aims for truth rather than value judgment, but in doing so creates a great passion of the search for truth, the conditions for truth to emerge, and the other values which may be linked with truth.

Radkau says  bit more than is necessary to my mind on the issue of whether Weber’s idea of the Charismatic politician pre-advocates Hitler in anyway, and the same for Weber’s form of nationalism.  As Radkau shows, there is no connection, but he gives the idea that there might be a bit too much tolerance to my mind, and a hasty reader might misunderstand this.

What I think would be really interesting is a discussion of Claus von Stauffenberg, the would be assassin of Hitler.  The brilliantly promising and culture colonel from an old aristocratic family, who moved from a romantic sympathy with Nazism, seeing it as something to do with his own Medievalising, classicist, aristocratic, aesthetic  and Catholic nationalism; and moved to a role in which he unified left and right, military and civilian opposition to Hitler,  almost single handedly killing Hitler, and leading a coup agains the Nazis in July 1944.  The assassination and coup did not succeed, but anyone who takes the trouble to study the history will see that Stauffenberg bore an impossible burden of responsibility for individual action and political leadership.  If we want to explore the complex combinations of Weber’s thinking, the meaning of charisma, and the ethic of responsibility, and in a deeply ambiguous situation where collaboration with tyrannical evil comes can switch to heroic self-sacrificing opposition, then Stauffenberg is the great instance.  Admirers and detractors of both or either men would I think learn a lot from working on this.


Some particularly interesting points for me

On a visit to the United States, Weber declined an invitation to meet President Theodore Roosevelt, but did meet W.E.B. DuBois, the author of The Souls of Blackfolk, a sociological classic and a classic of African-American self- reflection.

Weber sent a message to the German government during World War One criticising the use of indiscriminate submarine warfare, and may have had some success on this issue.

Weber was deeply impressed by the antique remains when visiting Italy, and it gave him some feeling of closeness to Ancient Roman society.

Weber’s reputation achieved its present status after World War Two, and there was a time when his brother Alfred was just as well known as a thinker.  His wife may have been better known than him in Germany for a while.

In World War One, Weber advised a nephew, quite seriously it would seem, to become a cavalry may.  This expresses one side of Weber, the emotional nationalist and romantic traditionalist, alongside and combined with the political liberal and rational scientist.  There is a rational side to the element of Medievalism in Weber, in his appreciation that Feudalism contains elements of freedom, and some important advances over Antiquity.

He also once challenged someone to a duel, but the dispute faded out.  Weber admired duelling over honour, and thought it would be adopted in America.

In World War One, he did not share the standard nationalist view that the USA was a nation with no martial spirit or capacity, and that therefore it could not make any difference to the war.  Weber’s observations while in America of the enthusiasm for sports and athletics, and his general observation of character, led him to a very different view.

Marianner Weber seriously believed her husband had a good chance of becoming Chancellor of Germany after World War One, during the period he was very active in the liberal Democratic Party of Germany (ancestor of today’s Free Democratic Party).

>Kierkegaard the Wagnerian?

>I was recently giving a paper on Kierkegaard’s discussion of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, in Either/Or at a music and phenomenology study day.  I’d already thought about the reference to the medieval legend of the Venus Mountain in that section of Either/Or, as possibly connected with with Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, which refers to that legend.  I was  asked by an audience member  if Kierkegaard was influenced by Wagner.  That person was I think a musicologist, but probably not a Wagnerian, as the answer is definitely no.

It is certainly possible in chronological terms that Kierkegaard might have influenced Wagner.  They were born in the same year (1813) though Wagner lived much longer (until 1883) than Kierkegaard (until 1855).  Either/Or was published in 1843, and Wagner premiered Tannhäuser in 1845.  On the other hand, it looks like Wagner was working on the opera from 1842, and it is definitely 1843 that Kierkegaard came on to the philosophical (and literary and religious) stage with two books other than Either/Or (Fear and Trembling and Repetition) and some sermons.  Wagner’s emergence as a ‘Wagnerian’ composer is associated with The Flying Dutchman, premiered in 1843 and he seems to have worked on it from 1840.

Kierkegaard was writing in Danish and was not translated at all into German until much later in the century.  I think some may have been translated in the 1870s, but Nietzsche never seems to have read Kierkegaard, despite encouragement from the  Danish literary critic Georg Brandes.  In general, Kierkegaard seems to only have had a major impact in German speaking countries starting in the early years of the Twentieth century.  Kafka, Adorno, and Wittgenstein are among the first wave of major Germanic writers with a strong awareness of Kierkegaard.

What links Kierkegaaard and Wagner is common sources, the way that German writers of their generation, and the generation before, like Heine and Tieck had dealt with the legends of Medieval Germany, and the general Germanic and Scandinavian interest of that period in folklore, legend, and Medievalism.  This common cultural influences, extend to shared attitudes towards the erotic, even if the lives of Wagner and Kierkegaard were very different on that issue.  Kierkegaard could be seen as a Parsifal figure, in contrast to Wagner’s own life, but it is of course important that Wagner could feel so drawn to that type of character.  Kierkegaard’s own interest in the seducer, which is particularly clear in Either/Or, in the long discussion of Don Giovanni, and in the novella within Either/Or, ‘Diary of a Seducer’, creates symmetry with Wagner on that issue.

Wagner’s interest in opera as the absolute work of at certainly connects with Kierkegaard’s way of writing which is often totalising and  synthesising in tendency, though also ironic, disintegrative, and fragmented.  What Kierkegaard says when discussing philosophical aesthetics and literary philosophy engages with the German Romanticism and Idealism, which is also at the background of Wagner’s aesthetic attitudes.  It would not do to say they have the same attitudes, but there is certainly much to compare, and Either/Or gives some insight into why there might be someone like Wagner, particularly when Kierkegaard makes opera the highest form of art, in which the others can be found in emergent form.  Kierkegaard connects Don Giovanni with poetry, epic, and theatre, even will emphasising the absolute purity of music.  It is the absolute nature of music which leads it to express itself as poetry, and other art forms.

The most obvious philosophical interest of Wagner’s was Schopenhauer.  As far as I know, Kierkegaard only became aware of Schopenhauer late in life, and never deeply engaged with his texts.  Schopenhauer can be brought into a discussion which Kierkegaard and Wagner, along with Nietzsche, and along with the philosophy, literary criticism, and literature of Germany from the 1780s to the 1830s.

Kierkegaard and Wagner, certainly a comparison deserving further investigation.

>A Classic Text on the Resistance to Tyranny

>Etienne de la Boétie (1530-63), short lived friend of Michel de Montaigne, commemorated in Montaigne’s discussion of friendship in the Essays, wrote a great short classic on tyranny and resistance to tyranny, very relevant to recent and current events in the Arab world.  Read it.

One great sentence

Similarly, the more tyrants pillage, the more they crave, the more they ruin and destroy; the more one yields to them, and obeys them, by that much do they become mightier and more formidable, the readier to annihilate and destroy. But if not one thing is yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies.

>Ancient Greece and Rome: Civic Freedom or Unlimited Religious Government?

>I’ve just been reading Fustel de Coulange’s classic 1860s account of Ancient Greek ethics, religion, tradition, and politics in the city state (The Ancient City).  Click for the edition I’ve been reading.  Click here for free text in French in various formats.  Click here for free pdf in English. 

I’ve been reading a lot about ancient politics, and democracy, or probably a lot for a non-specialist, as background to some work on Michel Foucault, on ancient politics, and general interest in the political theory implications of what Benjamin Constant referred to as the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Constant referred to the unlimited authority of the social body in the ancient world, including the city republics of Rome and Greece.  He did also make some differentiation between different republics, and particularly picked out Athens as closer to modern liberty, which Constant considered to largely consisting of freedom from state interference, and freedom to pursue self-determined ideals and life projects .

Coulange takes the idea of unlimited authority of the social body as the essential aspect of ancient city states.  He sees them as born from communities of pietistic tradition, in which worshipping the same gods, absolute paternal authority, closeness to where ancestors lived, respect for ancestors, and suspicion of foreigners in relation to  natives were fundamental.

Coulanges emphasises the continuity of this situation from the earliest settled human communities, in India, as well as in Greece and Italy, right up to the Roman Empire.  Ancient emocracy he sees as just a variation on this emphasising that in democratic Rome and Athens a foreigner could not have political rights, because such a person could not have the same gods, and it would therefore be impious to allow them into political office.

Variations also appear, which maybe challenge the more monolithic aspects of Coulange’s account.  These include the rise of Sophism in Ancient Greece which led to challenges to the moral basis of city law, and in reaction to that a Platonic search for justice above law.  Christianity, which was part of the late Roman Empire is seen as undermining the old form of state piety, because of the transcendental nature of the Christian god.  Coulanges also notes the the Epicurean and Cynic schools advocated abstention from politics before Christianity challenged the absolute status of the ancient state.  Coulanges’ account of the Roman Empire, refers to it as a system which was uniquely able to integrate many religions into its religious-state system.  He traces this back to the mythical and pre-historical origins of Rome from Latins, Etruscans, Sabines, `Greeks and Trojans.  Coulanges sees this mixture, which appears in some form in the legends and myths of early Rome (the founders Romulus and Remus were descended from the Trojan Aeneas, in their early years the Romans abducted the Sabine women, and then allied with the Sabine people, some kings were Etruscan etc).

Roman history and mythology certainly puts an extraordinary emphasis on duality of various kinds.  (Trojans and Latins; Romulus and Remus, Romans and Sabines, the two consuls who took over the powers of the early kings in the republican period, a dictator always appointed a master of horse).  Quite how sound Coulange’s own claim is, I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth investigating.  His claim of the uniqueness of Rome is perhaps difficult to reconcile with his generalising arguments, but it is certainly an intriguing and productive tension.

A historical classic with many ideas in sociology, political theory, anthropology, and so on.  Well worth comparing with Nietzsche (particularly Nietzsche’s account of antiquity in Genealogy of Morals, Essay I. ), as well as with Weber, and with Foucault himself.

>First Suggestion that Gaddafi is About to Fall

>I’m happy to say I’ve just seen the first suggestion that Muammar Gaddafi is about to fall from his position as lifetime dictator of Libya.  See James Forsyth at Coffee House: The Spectator BlogThe general drift of the story, that the regime is losing control and unity, is confirmed by Ian Black in The Guardian.  

The loss of life among peaceful demonstrators is terrible, but if this is the fall of a despot, then this a great event.  Presuming that the current Arab democracy movement does not install new forms of tyranny, it is too soon to say.  The terrible example of Iran looms over this great moment.  However, we cannot support existing tyranny for ever, for fear of what might come next.  We must rejoice and hope.

>Hobbes and Kierkegaard on Bees, Humanity, Politics and Art

>Recently I noticed a passage  in Søren Kierkgaard, Either/Or I (1843), ‘The Insignificant Introduction’ to ‘The Immediate Erotic Stages of the Musical-Erotic’, which is is largely on Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In the passage which caught my eye (Either/Or Part I, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1987, page 50), Kierkegaard says that art of genius cannot purely be the product of the artist.  Kierkegaard’s explanation is that if art was purely the product of the producer, then art would be produced in the same way that the cells of a honeycomb are produced by bees.  As the cells are identical, and great works of art are not identical, there are is a strong reason for saying no art is the pure product of the individual artist.  This gives Kierkegaard the opportunity to introduce issues of accident and of the ideational content of art.

I was reminded of Hobbes comments about the difference between humans and other kinds of social animals like bees and ants in Leviathan(1651).  The passage can be found in ‘Part II: Of Commonwealth’, Chapter XVII ‘Of the Causes, Generation, and Definition of a Commonwealth’, ‘Why Certain Creatures Without Reason, or Speech, Do Nevertheless Live in Society Without Any Coercive Power’.  Hobbes argues that bees can live together without what can be described as a a sovereign power, an artificial man, a commonwealth, civil power, or what we would now call a state, because they do not have language.  Since they do not use words, they cannot deceive other bees.  Without deception, through the rhetorical misuse of words, bees have a community which exist without coercion.  According to Hobbes, the way that a political community arises from ethics in Aristotle, could not apply to humans and can only apply to bees, and similar creatures.

In Kierkegaard, if art came purely from within ourselves, we would not be capable of producing distinct works of art.  We could only produce in the way that bees produce.  Humans can only exercise choice in the creation of art, if what is from outside the individual is part of that creation

In Hobbes, bees are lacking in the manipulative possibility of words, so can only co-operate with each other fully.  They just cannot choose to live any other way.  Humans must create a state, in one of its possible forms .  They must exercise choice

We are not bees, because we have a state and we have works of art.

>Reading about Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

>I’ve just finished a ‘spare time reading book’, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development, and Birth of Europe by Peter Heather (Pan Books, 2009).  I read another book by Heather a year ago, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Macmillan, 2006).  Both books aim to present a relatively popular version of work of the last few decades, even going back to World War Two, particularly that which might contradict continuing popular assumptions.

(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen from about a year ago, see Margin Revolution politics blog roll on the right)

I’m not competent to judge the scholarly worth of these books, but Heather evidently has a had a good academic career in this field, though more in Late Antiquity than the Early Middle Ages (traditionally known as the Dark Age).  He has written very readable syntheses of relevant scholarship including his own, and I certainly felt a lot better informed after reading them.

I’ll list the main points in Heather’s work which either changed my preconceptions, or were completely new to me.

1.  The Roman Empire was not in constant decline from an early peak.  The borders of the Empire stayed very stable until the 5th century, and the structure worked in defending itself and financing itself over centuries, even through political crises and civil wars regarding who the Emperor was.

2.  Hostile barbarian tribes only started to enter Roman territory, in a substantial way, towards the end of the 4th century.

3.  The collapse of the Roman Empire in the west was just as much caused by Parthian attacks on the Empire in the east, as by barbarian incursions in the west.  Or at least, Parthian attacks stretched the common resources and the solidarity of the west and the east to breaking point.

4.  The famous destruction of 3 Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE was not the reason that the Empire did not incorporate Germany.  The thickly forested land, and other geographical conditions, made it economically unviable, the conquest of this land would not have brought financial benefits to the Empire.  A large part of what is now western Germany was Romanised in elite culture, trading and political ties.

5.  The Barbarian incursions into the Roman Empire, and occupation of the whole of the Empire in the west, were not a mass migration of peoples.  It was a movement of elites, hangers on and dependents which amounted to something between the migration of a whole people, and a pure replacement of the royal and aristocratic elite.

6.  The tribes of non-Roman Europe were predominantly Germanic from what is now Belgium to the Don River.  That is a large part of what is now Slavic Europe was Germanic, and the Slavs only started to emerge as a distinct people at the end of the Empire in the west.

7.  The first Slavic tribes to be identified were Croats and Serbs.  The resemblance of these words to words in Persian makes it possible that Slavs were led by tribesman of  Persian origin in the Balkans for a time.

7.  The Empire in the east, which became the Byzantine Empire could claim to be the inheritor of Roman Imperial power until the 7th century which Arabo-Muslim conquests deprived Byantium of its richest provinces in northern Africa and the Middle East.  The Arabo-Muslim conquests where themselves preceded by a Parthian expansion, which was only partly turned back by Byzantium.

8.  The richest provinces of the Roman Empire were in northern Africa, west of what is now Egypt.

9.  Remaining Romanised aristocrats in Gaul/France referred to themselves as senators into the 7th century.