Nietzsche’s Republican Hero: Lazare Carnot

Daybreak, 167

there is a a profound maxim worth laying to heart: ‘What matters is not people but things [quoted by Nietzsche in French]’. This maxim, is like him who spoke it, great, honest, simple and taciturn – like Carnot, the soldier and republican. – But may one now speak to Germans of a Frenchman in this way, and of a Frenchman who is a republican? Perhaps not; perhaps, indeed, one may not even recall what Niebuhr ventured in his time to tell the Germans: that on one had given him so strong an impression oftrue greatness as Carnot. (R.J. Hollingdale translation, Cambridge University Press 1997)

Nietzsche throws a republican Frenchman at Bismarkian imperial Germans. His description on Carnot as great and simple in some ways matches his ideals from the classical past and his hopes for individuals in an age to come . That may not be the full story, but it is still part of it.

It’s worth thinking about Carnot and his life. I confess to not knowing much before. I will be getting what appears to be the standard current autobiography, by Jean and Nicole Dhombres, from an online bookseller very soon. What I have found out is a variety of accomplishments leading to the reception of his remains in the Panthéon, the place which commemorates the heros of the French Republic. A leading military figure in the wars which followed the 1789 Revolution, who was co-founder of what is now the École Polytechnique, one of the leading higher education institutions in France. He stayed true to Republican ideas even after Napoleon acquired semi-monarchical status and then became emperor. As a result he lost the chance for the highest honours, though he did receive some. That indicates a somewhat equivocal role, he was a member of the Committee of Public Safety which lead the Terror of 93-94, and then played a leading role in its downfall and the new government. I would need much more information to evaluate these incident, but my initial impression is of a decent record for a time of great violence and political about turns. He wrote on geometry and spent time in exile during the beginning of Napoleon’s rise writing a book on the metaphysics of calculus. His son Said was a prominent scientist, who had a major role in the emergence of thermodynamics. A grandson was President from 1887 to ’94.

I would not want to simply state that Nietzsche was a republican, and even a Jacobin on the basis of this remark. The remark has a context, which is to challenge the assumptions of German politics and culture after Otto von Bismark unified Germany in a war with France, and turned the King of Prussia into the Emperor of Germany. Nietzsche turned against the nationalism and the elevation of power politics over culture he saw in that period. That has a conservative aspect, a sharing of Goethe’s belief in the value of many German states with traditional rulers providing many cultural centres. That is nevertheless a conservatism with at least some liberal aspects.

Returning to Carnot the Republican, his apotheosis by Nietzsche may serve purposes other than the justification of republicanism, but it is still important that Nietzsche thought it worth quoting a Republic hero and praising him. If his praise for Carnot has a context which might lead us to qualify any republican gesture, it must also be the case that the kind of remarks Nietzsche makes about Carnot should lead us to qualify the critical remarks he makes about the French Revolution in On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay I. We will not understand Nietzsche if we only see him as the enemy of republicanism.

Next post, a democratic hero for Nietzsche.

Original version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Democratic and Republican Moments in Nietzsche

One difficult and necessary discussion with regard to Nietzsche is his attitude to liberalism, democracy, and republicanism. To put it very briefly, there are just too many people with various perspectives who want to dismiss these moments. Would it be a good idea to say that Nietzsche is a liberal, a democrat or a republican.? No, but then it would not be a good idea to say that he is simply purveying the opposite of those positions. Can we define Nietzsche politically at all? Difficult, I would at least say that he is willing to endorse liberalism, republicanism and democracy, where he thinks they serve some selective purpose in finding those willing to overcome negative forces in themselves. Is he willing to endorse other political forms for the same reason? Yes, but the goal of selecting the individual of strong individuality and abundant life, always has some to offer someone who thinks that democracy, liberalism, republicanism rest best on such individuality, not such an unusual or strange idea.

Next post, a republican hero for Nietzsche, after that a post on a democratic hero and age for Nietzsche.

Original post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Nietzsche’s Virtues

More general comments on Nietzsche’s ideas of virtues after some discussion in passages in Daybreak in recent posts. Concentrating on DaybreakGay Science, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche declared to be his yes-saying books, I have the following ideas of what positive values Nietzsche looks for, and the virtues that come after morality, or after the morality of good and evil.

Virtues come out of sickness rather than health, at least some of the time. The merit of virtue at its best is that it disrupts normality and universality. Truly individual virtue must seem sick from some perspective, and is a disruption of normal physiological and psychological functioning.

The above point seems to me to refer to difficulties in taking Nietzsche as a completely Aristotelian theorist of the virtues, and in taking Nietzsche as an adaptationist naturalist in his attitude to the origin of the virtues. That is Nietzsche does not take virtues as emerging from a passive reaction of psychology, or physiology, to external circumstances.

Virtue is individuating and intimately connected with strength of character, in its capacity for self-discipline.

The disruption necessary for the emergence of these virtues is likely to at least seem ‘evil’ and to create something dark and impenetrable in individual characters.

The values emerge from selfishness, and selfishness is the prime virtue. A prime virtue that disrupts common virtues, and emphasises individuation.

There is rejection of values associated with the neighbour, sympathy and pity. These are values in which we lose ourselves in orienting ourselves towards others, and subject others to the tyranny of our desire to change them. They reduce individuation and increase conformity.

The superiority of friendship and hospitality to neighbourliness and sympathy or pity.

There is a wish to give and receive, in forms which do not lead to domination, dependence, and co-dependence.

The above is described in terms of sharing beauty and shelter, the taking away the burden of what someone wants to give from the self, the abundance of the self that is so strong it leads to a painful desire to give it away.

Giving as a giving of the self, so that it can be repeated and perceived, taking as generosity because it takes away a burden, distance between individuals which enables individuals to create in a way which is individual and can be shared.

Original post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Link to TV Discussion of Adam Smith

C-Span (USA) discussion of Adam Smith’s economics and ethics

Samuel Fleischacker, left-liberal political philosopher, and Russ Roberts, free-market libertarian economist, discuss Adam Smith’s economics in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

An example of one of my favourite themes, free market libertarians and left-liberals in dialogue and mostly agreeing. Roberts and Fleischacker agree on all the interpretative issues, including Smith’s ethics. He is not advocating wealth as an end in itself, he is advocating moral choices and moral relations between humans, with free economic exchange, as a necessary component, but just a component. Roberts agrees with Fleischacker that the government does more than provide law and order, and national defence, and that money is just a part of life; Fleischacker agrees with Roberts that the US government bail outs of finance and industry are a bad thing, rewarding bad business decision, and that the state should do less. Roberts and Fleischacker’s only clear disagreement is on whether ‘single payer’ health care (i.e. comprehensive government health services paid for our of general taxation) is in the spirit of Adam Smith. Both admit that various positions could be found to have support in Smith, but I think that where they agree, they essentially set the reasonable limits to plausible interpretation.

My own view, looking at what Smith says about education, is that is in the spirit of Smith for the government to ensure that everyone has health care, but that this should be achieved as far as possible by private arrangements, and through the government keeping down costs by preventing anti-competitive practices; the government only to be involved in purchasing, and possibly providing, health care, where those on low incomes, or in circumstances difficult to insure or save for, need help.

I’ve been posting recently on Nietzsche’s criticisms of ideas of the ethics if sympathy and the domination of the producer by the consumer in commercial society. It’s a coincidence that I am posting this link, but a useful one. We can see in the conversation that commercial society and an ethics based on sympathy are both present in Smith, and are brought together. There are aspects of Smith I’ve alluded to before, which connect his thoughts with the Antique virtues Nietzsche puts forward against sympathy and commerce. I hope to return to those issues in future.

Original version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Nietzsche from Sympathy to Hospitality

A third post on Dawn/Daybreak (Mörgenrothe), referring to 174. Last few sentences of 174 can be found at the bottom of this post. I74 contains linked criticisms of sympathy and commercial society, which deserve a post of their own. For the moment, I will just look at the positive value suggested at the end of the aphorism. That is the value of creating something beautiful and restful rather than of sympathy in relation to another. The beauty is of more use, suggesting that the Hume and Utilitarian style of arguments both overlook the usefulness of creating something. This undermines the other directed nature of usefulness, sympathy, and utility in values, where we are concerned about pleasure for others rather than pleasure for ourselves. Though that pleasure, for Nietzsche, should certainly not be a maximisation of passive pleasure experiences, but rather the pleasure of activity, and self-transformation, which does not put pleasure at the centre.

The self-transformation, expressed as the construction of a walled garden, both keeps out the other person, and provides something beautiful for that other person. The aphorism ends with the idea of the ‘hospitable gate’, leaving open the question of whether the other person enjoys the beauty before entering through the gate. Are we to take the walls as beautiful, as part of the beauty of the garden, or as what conceals beauty while keeping hostile forms of the outside, storms and the dust of the roadway. The roadway has an ambiguity similar to that of the wall: it threatens the garden with its dust, but also brings the other person who can experience the beauty and the hospitality.

The implied positive value of hospitality can be opposed to the negative value of tyranny, an unmistakably political term. In ‘Of the Friend’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche opposes friendship to the slave-tyrant relation, which should lead us to think of such issues in the ethical and political thought of Cicero and Aristotle. That would take us back to the last post on Aristotle and Nietzsche. This is typical of the way political ideas appear in Nietzsche, particularly diffuse, fragmentary and ambiguous, even by his own standards. I hope to return to some of this on another occasion.

The tyrant is opposed to the hospitable, and associated with sympathy. It sympathy which is either ineffectual or a tyrannical control of another person. Sympathy in Hume and Smith is linked with ideas of commercial society, as Nietzsche has suggested (though not through mentioning those names), and also with principles of political and social liberty. Some things to explore on another occasion. For now, it can be said that Nietzsche implicitly defines liberty as being outside relations of sympathy in which someone forces help on another, and relations of hospitality, in which the pleasure of beauty is offered and accepted freely.

In the meantime, the question itself remains unanswered whether one is of more use to another [dem Anderen] by immediately leaping to his side and helping him — which help can in any case be only superficial where it does not become a tyrannical seizing and transforming — or by creating something out of oneself that the other can behold with pleasure [Genuss]: a beautiful, restful, self-enclosed garden perhaps, with high walls against storms and the dust of the roadway but also a hospitable gate.

(German text at NietzscheSource)

Translated by R.J.Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Original post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Nietzsche and Aristotle on Gods, Humans, and Beasts

Yesterday’s post looked at Nietzsche’s relation to Hume’s view of sympathy through his comments on the Neighbour in Dawn 146.  Altruism is an underlying issue there.  We could take Nietzsche as a following a precedent in Hume that undermines selfless altruism, we could take him as breaking with Hume in rejecting an altruism based on sympathy, we could take him as reworking Hume’s ideas of values based on common experience.  I don’t believe it would be a good idea to quickly come down for any of those three options.  Rather than getting into a full discussion of that, I will move onto Dawn 147 (reproduced in full at the bottom of this post, which follows on in discussing human experience of commonality and selfishness.

Just as 146 looks very much like a comment on Hume, or more likely a Humean way of thinking Nietzsche picked up from other sources; 147 looks very much like a comment on Aristotle.  I find this particularly interesting, since there is some recent work on seeing Nietzsche in terms of Aristotle (e.g. Christine Swanton) and Hume (e.g. Peter Kail), and certainly Nietzsche needs to be situated in relation to them.  The naturalist elements may be a big sources for naturalist elements in Nietzsche, though we would also need to think about Lucretius and Spinoza here.

What 147 suggests to me is certainly that we need to think about Nietzsche in relation to Aristotle, but not by seeing him as continuous with Aristotle.  There is a very strong opposition made in 147, though that is not the end of the story either,  A full account of Nietzsche on value (moral values or values of life, there is an interesting issue here of which is more appropriate), should certainly bring in Aristotle on virtue, or excellence. (arete/άρετή); more on that, and all these issues, on other occasions.

The first thing to note about 147 is that it is directed against Aristotle’s well known statement inPolitics I, that man is a political, or social animal.  Aristotle goes on to suggest that life outside the community (polis/πόλις), is only possible for a god or an animal.  In 147, Nietzsche refers to ‘divine selfishness’ and ‘the dear animal world’ in being alone.  He brings up that possibility as a reaction to the possibility of being loved by everyone.  Being loved by everyone, instead of one person, is an unbearable burden.  In this Nietzsche might be following Aristotle.  In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle does suggest that the more friends someone has, the less value friendship has.  He also suggests that a god has a perfect live, which does not need friends, in a life of self-contemplation.  That leads us back to the god in the Politics outside the community.  However, in the Politics, Aristotle suggests a rather grotesque kind of divinity, Polyphemus, the one eyed giant, son of Poseidon.  The divine and the bestial come together.  Nietzsche provides a more positive sense of how the divine and the bestial can combine.

This divine-bestial possibility is staged as a negative reaction to the extreme of universal love, but it is not just staged as a reaction to an extreme circumstance.  Nietzsche is drawing out attention to something disturbing about the ideal of love between humans, how can we respond to universal love? How can we keep our own individuality, decisions and actions?  Love as altruism, this seems not to be eros that Niezsche is discussing, is again undermined as it was in 146.  The implicit target was Hume, or ‘English psychologists’, now it is Aristotle.

Dawn 147

Cause of ‘altruism’. — Men have on the whole spoken of love with such emphasis and so idolised itbecause they have had little of it and have never been allowed to eat their fill of this food: thus it became for them ‘food of the gods’.  Let a poet depict a utopia in which there obtains universal love, he will certainly have to describe a painful and ludicrous state of affairs the like of which the earth has never yet seen — everyone worshipped, encumbered and desired, not by one lover, as happens now, but by thousands, indeed by everyone else, as the result of an uncontrollable drive which would then be as greatly execrated and cursed as selfishness had been in former times; and the poets in that state of things — provided they were left alone long enough to write — would dream of nothing but the happy, loveless past, of divine selfishness, of how it was once possible to be alone, undisturbed, unloved, hated, despised on earth, and whatever else may characterise the utter baseness of the dear animal world in which we live.

Translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Original version of this post as Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Nietzsche on the Neighbour; Hume on Sympathy

It seems to me that Nietzsche’s comments on the neighbour could be taken as comments on Hume’s view of sympathy in moral philosophy. I have placed a shortened version of aphorism 146 from Dawn at the bottom of this post, which I think is paticularly pertinent.

This is not a question of Hume directly influencing Nietzsche, or of Nietzsche consciously reflecting on Hume. As far as I know, Nietzsche did not read Hume and he certainly not discuss his texts. However, he was concerned with ‘English psychologists’ (On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay I, mentioned explicitly in 1 and discussed from 1 to 3) and had an idea of Hume’s ideas from their influence on German Idealist philosophy, Schopenhauer’s references, and the work of his friend Paul Rée. He refers to Rée’s book 0f 1877 in The Origin of the Moral Sensations in the Genealogy (Preface, 4).

The point is that I am arguing that there is something to be gained from thinking about some passages in Nietzsche’s as if they were polemical comments on Hume. Discussion of the ‘Neighbour’ are particularly relevant here. Nietzsche takes a critical view of the relation of ‘neighbour’ and implications he finds in it of dependence and herd existence. In particular, in this passage from Dawn, he questions the value of concerning ourselves with the suffering of the neighbour. Our automatic reaction to the pain and pleasures of others, is the most important component of moral sense for Hume (rather complicated by his scepticism and sense of social evolution), and is what he refers to as sympathy. Sympathy comes from seeing ourselves in others, and is increased by closeness in space and similarity of qualities to ourself. This is in line with what Nietzsche says about the Neighbour, who is clearly part of a general relation not just defined by living next door. This context for the ‘Neighbour’ is justified by ephorisms 143-5. 132 mentions sympathy in relation to Mill and Schopenhauer,

Nietzsche rejects sympathy for the suffering of the Neighbour in the strongest terms, welcoming the sacrifice of a few neighbours to the future, in what is is his most apparently sinister tone. However, what he also says is that we should sacrifice the Neighbour in so far as we are willing to sacrifice ourselves. This indicate that Nietzsche is probably not referring to the culling of a few people to serve the future, there is no way in which he suggests suicide in the service of the future. There are various ways in which he suggests that a willingness to take risks, and encounter danger, are valuable for the self.

What Nietzsche suggests is that we benefit the Neighbour by placing such a person under the same values of risk and danger, struggle and over-coming, as we place ourselves. In one way that is a return to ‘sympathy’, to the value a concern for commonness of concern. However, it is also a rejection of Humean sympathy, because it avoids reduction and dependency in our own sense of self. Nietzsche proposes the value of demanding sacrifice and self-overcoming, from ourselves, in the creation and promotion of a sense of individuality. Aphorism 175 takes an unfavourable line on how commerce creates a sense of the wishes of the consumer, limiting the sense of self; and Nietzsche compares the competition of commercial society unfavourably with the contests of Ancient Greece. 146 (including sentences I’ve replaced with ellipses). refers unfavourably to a morality of consequences and utility. All these remarks could be taken against Hume.

Dawn 146

Out beyond our neighbour too.— […] May we not at least treat our neighbours as we treat ourselves? And if with regard to ourselves we take no such narrow and petty bourgeois thought for the immediate consequences and the suffering they may cause, why do we have to take such thought in regard to our neighbour? Supposing we acted in the sense of self-sacrifice, what would forbid us to sacrifice our neighbour as well? […] Finally: we at the same time communicate to our neighbour the point of view from which he can feel himself to be a sacrifice, we persuade him to the task for which we employ him. Are we then without pity? But if we also want to transcend our own pity and thus achieve victory over ourselves, is this not a higher and freer viewpoint and posture than that in which one feels secure when one has discovered whether an action benefits or harms our neighbour? We, on the other hand, would through sacrifice — in which we and our neighbour are both included —strengthen and raise higher the general feeling of human power, even though we might not attain to more.

Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Original version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Progress of Democracy in South and East Asia

Let’s demolish a widely held claim, sometimes made by people who should really know better.

The main claim: East Asia is not democratising

Sub-claim 1: Market economies are progressing in East Asia, so there is no link between market economies and liberal democracy.

Sub-claim 2: East Asia is culturally different, some inner spirit of Confucianism, or something, resists liberal democracy.

I’m bringing in Souther Asia as well, because the issues of new economic power and non-western culture are together there as well, and there are strong cultural connections, particularly through Buddhism.

What’s wrong with the above claims?

Large number of East Asian and Souther Asian countries which are now solid if more or less rough, democracies, including the 2nd, 4th. 10th and 12th most populous countries in the word.  (Relevant details at bottom of story).

What of the non-democracies?  We’re really only talking about one country China.  North Korea is non-democratic, but the South which is more populous is more democratic.  Vietnam, Laos, and Burma are non-democratic, but Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines are more or less democratic (much less in Burma’s case), and certainly more than they were.

Singapore has an extraordinary and economically successful mix of formal liberal democracy and substantive one party rule.  Singapore has a population of 5 million and is now the only other example apart from China of economic success and a non-democratic ‘Asian’ values authoritarianism.  Singapore is really about the mildest version of semi-authoritarianism ever devised, with rule of law and good individual rights if you don’t directly take on the legitimacy of the government.

So that’s it the distinctive Asian Confucian Authoritarian model combining political illiberalism with capitalism can be found in China and Singapore.  OK throw in Burma, Vietnam and Laos, still a small number. The one thing that makes these ‘Asian model’ claims even  superficially viable is that there are so many people in China and it’s had so much economic growth.

Let’s just look at China.

Is it a mature liberal democracy?  No.

Is it more democratic than under Mao, and becoming more democratic? Yes.

I don’t want to trivialise or dismiss the terrible human rights violations still going on, but if we look at the trajectory since Mao

End of mass purges and political terror across the whole country.

End of mass starvation from demented economic policies forced on the country by a totalitarian machine

Contested elections at local level

Constant growth of civil society, and the increasing sources of opinion and opportunities for debate created

Much more protection of individuals from state apparatus, even though more is still needed.

Hong Kong incorporated with its semi-democracy and strong rule of law still remaining.

Democracy needs to be understood as shorthand for the following

Contested elections

Rule of law

Freedom of opinion

Civil society (institutions outside the state)

Social tolerance of differences of various kinds

A country in which some of these things is improving is moving towards liberal democracy.  China is improving in all these areas.  China is moving towards democracy at the same time as the economy is growing.  Economic growth is the product of market reforms, and these are feeding into progress towards democracy.

Both advocates and opponents of capitalism are disposed to make claims that China is evidence against the links between capitalism and democracy.  They are simply and obviously wrong, if we look at China as a whole, or if we look at the whole of Eastern and Souther Asia.

There has never been democracy without capitalism.  Even if we go to the Ancient world, we see commercial trading culture in the early democracies.  Capitalism is just a word with insulting overtones in some people’s minds, for individual property rights and enforceable contracts.  That is, individuals make voluntary contracts which are enforced by law.  There has never been a democracy without those individual rights under law, and there never been a society where such rights are strongly entrenched which has not been moving towards democracy, if it is not already democratic.  Economies based on individual property rights, rule of law, and competitive markets have a strong cultural and social tendency towards overall openness, legalism, negotiation, dialogue, pluralism.  Of course we can find less pleasant aspects in the development of such societies, but it is the direction of change which is significant, and which brings an end to colonialism or the violent construction of nation states, for example.    Finally, on the economic issues, Asian growth was not based on ‘pure’ free market capitalism, but those countries which grew and are growing now were and are the ones which make more market oriented than the other countries, and more market oriented than they had been in their own history.  It is those countries which could grown economically, raising living standards for all, and generating the income to pay for education, public services and social protection.

There is no Confucian Asian model.  The Confucian ‘model’ is itself open to interpretation and Confucianism has been open to a great variety of interpretations over its many centuries of history. Even just China mixes Confucianism with Daoism, and a very strong  and old Buddhist influence, to which we can now add Christianity and an old Muslim influence in some regions.  Even in just East Asia, we have Shintoism. Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity deeply embedded in many people.  Extend to Southern Asia and we have a Hindu tradition which also influences south east Asia.

The last gasp of the ‘Asian Values’ model would be to refer to more traditional communal family based pietistic cultures, but all these are strongly present in European history and have only been recently displaced from the centre, and have not yet completely disappeared.

East Asian countries that have adopted democracy since the ‘80s, after periods of authoritarian government


Population 230 million.  4th most populous country in the world.  World’s most populous Muslim country


Population 92 million.  12th most populous country in the world.  Predominantly Catholic in religion.

Republic of Korea (South Korea).  Population 50 million.  24th most populous country in the world. Strong Confucian heritage, nearly half the population are Buddhist or Christian

Malaysia.  Population 28 million.  43rd most populous country in the world.  Mostly Muslim country with significant numbers of Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.  A small Confucian minority.  Constant rule by one party (in fact a party alliance) and a lively opposition which governs many states in the federal system.

Taiwan (Republic of China).  Population 23 million.  50th most populous country in the world.  Strong Confucian heritage, but also strong influence of Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity.

The distinct case of Japan

A liberal democracy since World War Two, though one party has been in power most of that time. Population 127 million, 10th most populous country in the world.  Strongly influenced by Confucianism, but mostly Buddhist and Shinto in religion.

More marginal cases

Thailand.  Recent military government, but still a multi-party democracy.  Population 63 million.  21st most populous country in the world.  Mostly Buddhist in religion, with a Muslim minority.

Cambodia.  Not a mature liberal-democracy, still run by those parts of the Khmer Rouge who broke with Pol Pot, but a lot more democratic than under Pol Pot.    Population 14 million.  Mostly Buddhist in religion.

Southern Asia:

India.  Rising economic power.  Liberal democracy, with a lot of bad spots, but a functioning liberal democracy since independence in 1948.  Population 1 billion 177 million.  World’s 2nd most populous country.  Mostly Hindu in religion, but with the world’s second largest Muslim population.

More marginal.

No details here, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal all have claims to be functioning liberal democracies with various ups and downs in recent history, not perfect liberal democracies but liberal democracy keeps persisting and coming back.

Original version of post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Kierkegaard’s Ambiguous Virtue Ethics

Kierkegaard is sometimes understood to be a virtue ethics theorist, that is he has a view of ethics derived from Aristotle’s discussion of excellence, habits and reflection in relation to action in a community. This is a view of ethics which emphasises the learning of correct habits in a well balanced personality that interacts with others successfully. This understanding generally refers to the two very long letters of William to an unnamed Young Man which make up most of Either/Or II.

Kierkegaard himself is not, however, expressing himself through William, and he makes that very clear in the very last section of Concluding Unscientific Postscript a few years later. It should be clear enough that Kierkegaard sets up the religious perspective in the sermon that forms the very final section ofEither/Or as distinct from William’s point of view. William attaches the sermon to his second letter but simply does not get that his ethics does not encompass religion at its deepest. There are a number of hints that William is a complacent character of limited understanding at abstract and common sense levels, within his letters, and in Victor Eremita’s Preface to Either/Or. There are plenty of reasons to see the aesthetic fragments of Either/Or I as encompassing insights necessary to the religious lacking in a purely ethical perspetive.

Nevertheless, the people who have seen Kierkegaard as William and as endorsing his version of virtue ethics are not just being obtuse. Kierkegaard us trying to draw his readers into a complete immersion in every perspective he explores, there is no blame in doing so. We need to see what happens when philosophers take up one voice in Kierkegaard’s text as the voice of Kierkegaard.

Even taking William as the Voice, we can see some ambiguity in what he says. He takes ethics to be what emerges from a commitment to repetition over time (not in the deepest sense of repetition for Kierkegaard, but that issue will have to wait for another time), including the commitment to marriage, in which he claims that the fist moments of love are preserved in marriage. He recognises possible contradiction of the preservation of the moment over time, but assumes its resolution. His view of life, and therefore his view of ethics, has referred to a contradiction he cannot confront. As far as virtue theory is concerned, on Kierkgaard’s account it looks like it is troubled by an unresolved tension between the moment of experience and enduring experience, habit.

William’s account is not theoretical, but does implicitly refer to views of ethics which resemble Kant, Aristotle, and Hegel. Following on from the last point, Kierkegaard is implying that Hegel does not resolve the contradictions he claims to have, he has only covered over them. We can see Hegel as attempting to resolve Aristotelian ethics with Kantian ethics, and that makes a good frame for thinking about William’s letters. In that context, we can think about Fear and Trembling where Kierkegaard suggests that ethics can be seen both as Kantian universal abstraction and Aristotelian virtue, with a very social content.

The above suggests that Kierkegaard regards virtue theory as caught between contradiction between the moment and habit (the contradiction between the aesthetic and the ethical) and the contradiction between habits and the abstraction of the rules governing those habits (virtue theory and Kantian universality).

Original version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog