Situating Tocqueville in Debates about Republicanism, Liberalism and Libertarianism I

The overall argument here is that Tocqueville is an example of what could be called libertarian republicanism, what for Tocqueville is simply a concern for liberty in its political, civil and personal aspects.  In recent political theory ‘republicanism’ has been largely identified with egalitarian liberalism, particularly in the work of Philip Pettit and the many influenced by him, a theory of republicanism serves as a way of giving political support to the kind of egalitarian theory found in Rawls, which refers to ethics and rationality.  Pettit’s normative theory is tied up with the historical work of J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner.  For our purposes, Skinner is the more relevant.  Skinner’s view is that republicanism represents a theory of liberty which precedes liberalism.  Liberalism is understood by Skinner to mean a mixture of utilitarianism and negative liberty.  The vital figure for him is William Paley though he is not widely read anymore, and who was a 19th century theological utilitarian.  Theological utilitarianism did have an influence on 19th century liberalism, the paradigmatic liberal statesman, William Ewart Gladstone, edited the works of Joseph Butler, an eighteenth century bishop whose writing has been taking as anticipating utilitarianism.  Nevertheless, this is a bizarrely narrow way of looking at the origins of liberalism.  Skinner makes this move in order to defend a theory of republicanism as ‘Neo-Roman’ liberty, a new form of the liberty of the Ancient Roman Republic.  Neo-Roman liberty exists in a polemical contrast with liberalism which Skinner understands as a defence of apolitical, and maybe social, individualism.  The kind of republicanism advocated by Skinner and Pettit is nevertheless rather a political.  Roman or neo-Roman republicanism exists in a contrast with Athenian republicanism, or Civic Humanism.  That is in contrast with the position that  human life receives some significant part of its meaning from the political sphere and from participation in civic affairs.  The Athenian republic rested in its democratic phases on regular gatherings of all citizens in the city centre to make major political decisions, and to  make laws.  Leaders of the Athenian republic (most famously Pericles) had to convince citizens  to support government policies, even in the middle of wars.  The Roman republic had similar meetings, but the centre of power was in the Senate, a gathering of the aristocracy.  Though the Roman republic rested on participation as much as the Athenian republic, just with more emphasis on aristocratic participation, the Skinner-Pettit claim is that Rome was a very different kind of state, more a republic than Athens.  They see something intrusive, conformist and over politicised about the Athenian state, compared with the Roman state.  This leads them to take the position they attribute to emergent liberalism in the 19th century, that is the position of the individual isolated from political union.  Pettit equates Athenian republicanism with Rousseau, joining a tradition in which Rousseau is taken to be the enemy of individual liberties, and the prophet of democracy turning to totalitarianism.  In these arguments, Pettit and Skinner are very close to Isaiah Berlin’s view of liberty.  That is the view that Berlin expresses in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958).  Berlin draws on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century discussions of moral and political liberty, in a rather schematic way which does not give much sense of the scope and ambiguities of this issue.  Nevertheless, his discussion is very influential in its presentation of a clearly drawn opposition between negative and positive liberty.  Negative liberty is the liberty to be left alone; positive liberty is the capacity for self-development.  However, positive liberty is quickly taken up as an aspect of state power, directed to elevating individuals and the society as a whole, according to ideas of perfection.  In Berlin’s account it becomes the source of totalitarianism, with Rousseau, Fichte, and Hegel picked out as the philosophical villains who supposedly opened the way to totalitarianism with their notions of positive liberty.  Rousseau is contrasted with his fellow Swiss-French novelist and political thinker, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), who apparently had more respect for negative liberty in his account of the difference between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Pettit accepts the Berlin schema, old and schematic as it is.  He offers what appears to be a departure from Berlin in presenting ‘non-domination’ as a third form of liberty, in which interference by government, or other sources of power is part of liberty if we consent to it. .  However, ‘non-domination’ is presented as closer to negative liberty than positive liberty, and Rousseau is a target, with the addition of Arendt who is supposedly too besotted by nostalgia for ancient Athens.  Tocqueville is briefly mentioned as part of the right sort of Roman Republicanism, along with Locke and Mill.

So should we think of Tocqueville as anti-Rousseau, like Constant.  That is as someone opposed to Rousseau from the point of view of his liberal objection to the unlimited sovereignty of Rousseau’s general will.  If Tocqueville is somewhere on the classical liberal/libertarian spectrum then do we expect him to be more opposed to Rousseau (and Arendt) than Pettit.  Any such expectation would be false.  Let us go back to Constant.  Does he have criticisms of Rousseau with regard to liberty?  Certainly.  Does he just condemn Rousseau as the teacher of tyranny.  Certainly not.  Constant is much more measured than Pettit or Berlin with regard to Rousseau, and he is far more sympathetic to the Athenian model than Pettit.  Constant’s criticism of Rousseau is that he sometimes confuses the general will, the sovereign creator of law in Rousseau’s Social Contract with government.  Hayek makes very similar comments.  This is in line with Rousseau’s own doctrine and is simply a suggestion that Rousseau is not always consistent.  The implications of his inconsistency are quite serious as that is what allows limitations on individual independence from the social body.  Constant famously compared antique and modern liberty to the advantage of modern liberty, because he thought that is more possible in the liberty of the moderns, as opposed to that of the ancients where liberty is to be part of the social body of an independent city state.  Constant does not condemn Athens as the paradigm of antique restraints on liberty though, he refers to its commercial life, the individuality and diversity that allows, and suggests it is the ancient state closest to modern conceptions of liberty.  Constant is closer to Arendt and Athenian republicanism than Pettit.  Hayek also has favourable comments to make about Athenian republican liberty.  In particular, he refers to the role of a court in Athens which checks the constitutionality of laws as a model for the modern world.

Kierkegaard’s Concluding Themes in the Introduction: The Concept of Anxiety XI

So far progress has been very slow getting through the Introduction to The Concept of Anxiety. However, it is now time to speed up. A lot of basic terms and necessary background has been clarified, at some length and after paragraph 11 there is not so much need for explanations. No listing of paragraphs, but a discussion of what Kierkegaard, writing under the pseudonym of Vigilius Haufniensis, has to say in the last few pages.

It is after paragraph 11 that Kierkegaard really outlines the idea of a second ethics that begins in dogmatics rather than in metaphysics, as happens in the first ethics.  That idea of ethics from metaphysics itself refers back to Aristotle’s idea of  first philosophy, to be found in his Metaphysics. Kierkegaard refers to that suggestion in Aristotle and further comments that Aristotle’s metaphysics (also referred to under the label of pagan metaphysics) contains what came to to be regarded as theology. Though Kierkegaard does not say so, or certainly not directly, that seems to suggest that the metaphysics that is the starting point for the first ethics, contains some elements connected with the dogmatics that provides the basis for the second ethics. Dogmatics means the branch of theology concerned with Christian beliefs (I have never seen it used in reference to other religions and I don’t know whether it is used in the context of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism etc), where it does not have the negative connotations that ‘dogma’ or ‘dogmatic’ has acquired in other contexts.

Immanuel Lévinas, in Totality and Infinity (1961) suggests that it is a Jewish philosophy to make ethics first philosophy as opposed to Greek philosophy which makes ontology first philosophy. Lévinas puts Kierkegaard on the side of Greek philosophy. I do not know how deeply Lévinas studied Kierkegaard, but he seems to have overlooked how Kierkegaard rather challenges the ethical-metaphysical distinction, so that in Kierkegaard the important topic is ethics, and the major question is does ethics come from metaphysics-ontology or from dogmatics. The effect is to make ethics first philosophy in some sense, since the central concern is where can we located ethics. Of course, from Kierkegaard’s point of view, dogmatics has some priority over ethics, because it is what constrains ethics and gives it a proper starting point. The issue in Kierkegaard’s philosophy is that ethics  refers to subjectivity, though it is universal in content since ethics must be the ethics of some individual. As Kierkegaard suggests in the Introduction, dogmatics provides the sin which is part of the single individual [Enkelte] in a way that metaphysics-ontology cannot. The first ethics pulls the individual towards the whole race since it demands too much of the isolated individual.  The second ethics shows a way that the ideal can come  up from individual. That characteristic rests on the hereditary sin within dogmatics. Second ethics does not explain sin, it takes sin as a given.

Kierkegaard compares that with the role of the vortex in Greek science, possibly referring to the random swirl of atoms in Atomistic-Eipicurean philosophy, most readily to be found in Lucretius. That is a rather strange comparison since the Lucretian view was for a long time the very definite enemy for Christian theology, and by using it Kierkegaard may be hinting at an acceptance of Enlightenment and not just the most moderate and conservative version of Enlightenment. If we take Vico as typical of conservative Enlightenment, in the New Science, we can see a commitment to the work of providence in the ideal pattern of history, an idea directed at Lucretianism. Kierkegaard further shows his appreciation of Enlightenment with favourable comments on Schleiermacher. What we can draw from that exactly is a topic that will have to dealt with separately some time from now. For now we can just note that Kierkegaard makes a comparison between Schleiermacher and Hegel favourable to the former. The criticism of Hegel is that he claims to know too much, and what lies behind this is that Kierkegaard sees the task of philosophy, theology and ethics as being too investigate the subjective, the individual.

With the ethics based on dogmatics, sin is not necessary. Necessity belongs to the whole state of something, like the whole history of a plant,  and freedom is possibility. Freedom cannot just be possibility, it must be actuality since like God, the possibility of freedom is an argument for its actuality. Kierkegaard very quickly extends the argument that if we can think of God must exist, to freedom as what must exist if we can think of it. My ideas at present of what Kierkegaard means is that the capacity to think is itself tied up with freedom, and that become very clear when we think of freedom, since the idea of it can only come from the actuality of it within the thinking individual.

Psychology deals with the mind that experiences freedom and sin, but is not able to explain those phenomena. Psychology can observe sin, but cannot explain it since unlike ethics it  only observes and never judges. The issue of sin for Kierkegaard is one that cannot be described fully without going beyond immediate empirical description. It is not only metaphysics that is impure in containing parts of theology, but dogmatics is impıre in relation to ethics since it contains non-ethical content, such as beliefs about angels. There is maybe a hint here that Kierkegaard does not take teachings about angels very seriously, and regards the questions of individuality and sin as the real content of Christianity. Sin is important in establishing the reality of Christianity, since for Kierkegaard we can observe it an immediate way, but cannot explain it without resort to what goes beyond immediate observation. Psychology is presented as definitively inadequate for discussions of why there is original sin. Its existence for Kierkegaard is tied up with subjectivity and individuality in ways that require us to go beyond descriptions of immediate states, and the state of something is how it exists over time anyway. Immediate experience is never enough to explain what endures over time.

There is a suggestion that repetition has the same relation to metaphysics that second ethics has to dogmatics. In that case, first ethics is maybe confused version of repetition. The subject matter of repetition is taken back to recollection in Ancient Greece, presumably with Plato’s doctrine of recollection in mind. Thşs both suggests that we have knowledge of pure objects of knowledge and that the knowledge is contained deep within our subjective existence. It is the subjectivity that concerns Kierkegaard and how it might disrupt ideas of subjectless knowledge. Repetition is transcendence, which Kierkegaard discusses in Repetition, the year before The Concept of Anxiety, with regard to the subjective experience of going beyond immediacy, the momentary and the descriptive in a repetition of an act with some transcending transformative result. The ambiguity within first philosophy/metaphysics around theology, is explained as the theatrical nature of religion in paganism, where illusion is mistaken for some great object. Theatre and dramatisation of action are important in Repetition, but in order to investigate subjectivity and individuality.

Cato Institute getting it badly Wrong about Carl Schmitt.

I’m referring  here to a post on Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political which appears in the Libertarian Library at , which is itself connected to the Cato website. That is the Cato Institute, the Washington DC foundation which promotes libertarianism (in the sense of free market limited government thinking). Generally I regards its work with sympathy. It’s strongest work is on public policy, where it offers solutions that allow more scope for government than is favoured in principle by the pure nightwatchman view of the state, at the core of Cato thinking, though not universal amongst all its fellows and employees. There is some interesting discussion of more theoretical issues at Cato Unbound, but apart from that I find the discussion of libertarian theory at Cato and its affiliates, to be rather disappointing. There is far too much boiler plate, comforting formulae, self-confirmation and putting too much emphasis on some of the better known but weaker thinkers and themes within libertarianism (or classical liberalism). These problems reach a level of pure disaster in the anonymous post, on Schmitt which is quoted in full below, and to be very polite is just not good enough.


Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political comes from a perspective so far removed from a libertarian’s view of politics—and even what it means to be human—that it can be a profoundly difficult book to wrestle with. For Schmitt, politics defines humanity. This means that the liberal ideal of reducing or doing away with the sphere of politics means reducing or doing away with humanity itself. Even more troubling, politics only exists because of friend-enemy distinctions. A people genuinely without enemies is a people without politics—and so not really a people at all. The liberal project of toleration and scaling back the power of the state is thus doomed, Schmitt thinks, because it is impossible to abandon our nature, meaning we cannot abandon politics—or enemies. Perhaps even more distressing than the details of Schmitt’s argument is the deep and continuing influence it has had on much modern political thought, particularly that of the neoconservatives and the more radical, collectivist strains of the Left.

The problems with this.

1. The most glaring and most obvious problem with this is that the author clearly does not understand that Hayek refers to Schmitt, not very often but sometimes in favourable terms, particularly with regard to the law-legislation which I have blogged about frequently recently. Please use the search box to find all these items. Schmitt’s reference to growth of    The writer has attacked Schmitt strongly and has failed to realise that he is a major influence on one of the biggest figures in Cato style thinking. This is really not good.

2. Politics does not define humanity for Schmitt, or certainly not in the way that the author assumes. Schmitt was certainly aware that other things are necessary to full human existence. He does believe, like Aristotle for example, that politics is an essential part of life in human communities.

3. The author assumes that liberalism means less or not politics. Liberalism here meaning the thinking of the earlier, classical, liberals from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, along with the ways libertarian though has built on them in the period that ‘liberal’ has come to mean social democrat. . Both Locke and Mil, and other classical liberal thinkers, would have been stunned to hear that they wanted to eliminate politics. They wanted to restrict the role of the state in society, which is not the same as condemning, or minimising the place of law making and institutional formation in human communities, that is the areas of politics less concerned with administration of society.

4. It is hard to believe that the author read The Concept of the Political at all, since Schmitt makes it very clear that he is against the weakening of the distinction  between state and society, and the growing tendency of the state to intervene in the economy and in society.

5. The author has clearly failed to grasp that while there is an authoritarian aspect to Schmitt’s thought about the nature of political sovereignty, including the struggle between friend and enemy, Schmitt is just as much concerned to restrict the state to these areas of responsibility, and that the claim that Schmitt favours socialism is just nonsense. It is true that Schmitt had some sympathy for corporatists authoritarian right regimes in Europe of the 20s and 30s, but he clearly thinks of them asa bulwark against socialism. Who else thought this? No other than Luwig von Mises in Liberalism, an author and a book recognised by Cato as part of libertarian thinking. The author is also clearly unaware that the prominent Paleoconservate Paul Gottfried is a Schmitt enthusiast. Paleoconservatism in American means very traditionalist and very small government conservatism. That current is a major influence on Ron Paul, a political figure generally regarded with sympathy by Cato.

6. The authors refers to Schmitt’s influence on Neoconservatism, I have made a lot of effort to research commentary on Schmitt, and I have yet to find a Neo conservative paper or book on Schmitt. Perhaps some vague misunderstanding of Schmitt, like that in the post under discussion, circulates and has some influence though that that is not what the author says. The author is at least correct (hurrah, at last) in saying that there are many leftwing Schmitt enthusiasts. However, that is not the same uncritical endorsement, and the left wing enthusiasts for Schmitt are not arguing for war, aggression in international relations or hostile conflict as  a constant in politics. They are concerned with politics as a process of conflict, unavoidable in human affairs. They are certainly correct to so, and the author’s real argument with Schmitt seems to be that he provides argument against the apolitical utopianism that influences the author.

7. The author is also apparently unaware of left wing critique of ‘neoliberalism’, and earlier forms of market liberalism, as based on a Schmittian belief in action to preserve a strong state. Hayek has been brought into those critique, as has the free market element in the polices of dictatorship of Augosto Pincohet in Chile. I certainly do not think that market liberalism/neo-liberalism can be defined in those terms, but there are certainly moments where market based economic change is associated with authoritarian governments.

8. The author is hopelessly unaware that Concept of the Political is distinct in relation to most of Schmitt’s writing in the extreme importance attached to politics as an existential struggle with the enemy. Much of Schmitt’s writing is concerned with achieving stability in constitutional arrangements, and a stable order in international relations.

For a balanced short appraisal of Schmitt as a political and legal thinker see Lars Vinx’s item on Schmitt in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Readers of this, of all political inclinations, will learn far far more from that item than from the post under discussion, which really is a failure.

The Political aspect of the Law-Legislation Distinction

There is a law-legislation distinction in Friedrich Hayek and Carl Schmitt, in which there is an argument for the value of law in comparison to legislation. A distinction is made between law and legislation, with law to be accorded high value and legislation to be accorded a lower, and even negative value. We can call this the law over legislation claim.  The law over legislation claim with regard to law is that it states commonly accepted principles, and so is in essence a repetition, refinement and confirmation of already existing codes of rules and punishment for breaking of rules. The law over legislation claim with regard to legislation is that legislation is an essence an edict issued by whatever institution has political power. Since the rise of elected law making bodies, edicts have taken the form of laws passed by consent and can therefore be easily mistaken for law properly speaking. The term for this is legislation. This term is required because ‘laws’ passed by the majority vote of an elected assembly are increasing administrative rules, which award arbitrary power to the state to administer society. These do not describe existing codes of custom and conduct, but instead involve new rules expanding the scope of state action, and the unaccountability of action to law properly speaking. The majoritarian principle in the election to national assemblies, and then in the making of legislation by that assembly, is a deviation from the consensual basis of law, and a means for coercion of the minority, which is likely to undermine law, in the proper sense of that word. The law over legislation claim makes a distinction between: what comes from the will of the political sovereign and what comes from the shared values of a society.  A major issue here is where is that moment of law before legislation or edicts of power? Is not ‘law’ always embedded in political power? Power exercised by judges, and maybe juries, and which is relatively independent of the persons who have governmental power at that moment, but it is still a form of power. The law over legislation claim was directed against the danger of the degeneration of an apparent state of law into a state of the edicts of government, in which any edict is considered a law if it is passed by a national assembly, with some superficial adherence to principles of universality and recognisability. Some discussion of the problem can be found in those who are not adherents of the law over legislation thesis. Examples include Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. For Habermas , the welfare state does tend to become an administrative state outside the real control of law and the national assembly (1986, 225; 232; 235, 241; 242; 250) though Habermas approves of egalitarian welfarism as a foundation for politics, and seeks ways of incorporating the regulation of welfare in law as a whole. For Foucault, Medieval juridification undermined the art of self government as known in antiquity (Hermeneutics of the Self, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling). Government of the self becomes tutelage of the Church, with regard to conscience, which itself becomes a source of ‘disciplinarity’ (Discipline and Punish), Foucault’s way of understanding the administered nature of modern life. Foucault is also far from the more conservative aspects of the law over legislation argument, though he is less associated with a a consensual welfarist egalitarian rationalist position than Habermas.

The law over legislation claim has an anti-political impulse within it, which is  that law is above politics. Legislation is held to be illegitimate, so that the law making function of any legislative assembly is restricted to law, which is apparently already in existence as what is accepted in common custom. There is not much on this account for assemblies to do, except perhaps concern themselves with refining existing law. Even that function is maybe understood as exercised  by judges who ‘discover’ law when they work out the best way to apply existing principles to new cases. This kind of account is based on a very ideal picture of law, before the legislating impulse took hold in the late nineteenth century, as the role of elected assemblies in deciding on laws, as well as holding government to account. Even on this ideal account, governmental bodies have always had a tendency to issue decrees, commands, which are based on the will of the political sovereign, rather than considerations of what law is and how it evolves in relation to cases.         Laws have to be ordered, systematise and harmonised and this is work done by sovereign bodies, therefore on the basis of political will.We can see historically that law may change dramatically as a result of invasion and forcible changes in the identity of the sovereign, what Hobbes calls ‘commonwealth by acquisition’. Law in pre-modern times had an aura of divine origins, of cosmic order and beginnings in customs assumed to have existed for time immemorial. However, there are political aspects to this. Godly origins are an ideal way of presenting the monarchy and aristocracy which conceive of themselves as godlike. Back in the 18th century Vico discussed this in the New Science, where unwritten law is associated with the Heroic Age, which is Vico’s way of referring to the aristocratic domination found in societies like the Bronze Age Mycenaean Greeks depicted by Homer. Fundamental issues of debt and property rights were the source of constant political conflict in antiquity. It is an issue long discussed with reference to the late Roman Republic and which was part of the making and execution of law in that time. This might lead us to question how far we can distinguish the making of statute laws from the exercise of political will. It is a statement of the obvious that law as something that can be enforced by the state, is made by the state and that this is a political process. Since laws constrain the state and often survive changes in the identity of those with power, there is a whole sphere of constitutional law which defines the political system, and at least to some degree law refers to widely held beliefs about what actions are so wrong they should be punished, it is inevitable that law is seen as something distinct from the commands of those in power at any one time. We should not see this as making law distinct from, and outside the political process. It is a constraint on uses of power, but also a product of power.                                The advocates of the law over legislation claim do not necessarily oppose any individual suggestion politics entering law, but their  approach is to prefer an idealised law outside the contamination of politics, and to think of law as an extension of natural, or at least deeply embedded, self organising processes which do not rest on conscious design. The idealisation aspect and the self-organising process aspects are not completely compatible. The idealisation of law assumes a monolithic unchanging nature which does not not adapt to the changeable nature of self-organising processes. Self-organising economic and social processes require frameworks of rules, which do provide some stability and predictability, but also require  changes in the nature of those frameworks as the process goes though major changes of self-organisations. Attitudes to property which put inheritable land holdings at the centre may need substantial adaptation to a world of rising and declining industrial enterprises. Changes in law has serious consequences for the beneficiaries of old laws, and creates new beneficiaries. There are inevitable struggles between these groups, who are necessarily drawn towards political ideas which happen to suit their interests. This is politics embedded deeply in law.  The law-legislation distinction is very valuable as a diagnostic tool in certain circumstances, but taken beyond that impedes an understanding of the relation between politics and law, including that way different legal forms interact with political forms.

Kierkegaard on the ends and limits of ethics: The Concept of Anxiety X

We come to paragraph 11 of Kierkegaard’s Introduction to The Concept of Anxiety, published under the pseudonym of Vigilius Haufniensis. The flow is interrupted at the end of the first sentence where Kierkegaard inserts a very long footnote in which he discusses two of his books published the previous year (1843), Fear and Trembling  and Repetition. Kierkegaard is discussing them as if they are by authors distinct from the author of The Concept of Anxiety. This is his way of working on the distinction between different identities as authors. As mentioned, The Concept of Anxiety was published with the author given as Vigilius Haufniensis, Fear and Trembling was published under the same of Johannes de Silentio, while Repetition  is attributes to Constantin Constantius.

Before considering the main body of the paragraph, we will discuss the footnotes, but before that we will discuss the first sentence which ends in the footnote. Kierkegaard/Haufniensis states that sin only belongs to ethics in so  far as sin is shipwrecked in the concept of ethics, with the help of repentance. Kierkegaard builds up the contrast between the ideal nature of ethics, and the sin inherent in humanity which cannot be accommodated by the ideal in ethics. The footnote intervenes to draw the reader’s attention to how the point is explained in Fear and Trembling and in Repetition, which are published in the same volume in the Princeton University Press edition of Kierkegaard’s Writings.

In Fear and Trembling, the ideality of aesthetics is wrecked on the ideality of ethics. The ideality is desired for aesthetics, but is required for ethics. Religious ideality appears as the ideality of actuality, which is as desirable as the ideality of aesthetics and is less impossible than the ideality of ethics. It seems to me that this discussion of ethics, and related issues in aesthetics and religion, with regard to Fear and Trembling, is very strong evidence against the claims made by some notable Kierkegaard commentators such as Michelle Kosch and John Lippitt that Fear and Trembling is a book about religion and not about ethics. Notable and scholarly though the work of Kosch and Lippitt is, their claim about the status of ethics in Fear and Trembling is flat out wrong, and very distant in the distinction they try to maintain, from the spirit in which Kierkegaard wrote. Kierkegaard goes on say of Fear and Trembling that religious ideality appears in a dialectical leap. That ideality/leap refers to a positive mood,  The positive mood is of the Good News brought by the New Testament. There is also a negative mood which is of the absurd referred to by repetition. Kierkegaard states an alternative between: an existence that comes to an end in ethics; an existence that is transcended in repetition. I presume the first alternative is that of  subordination of individual existence to the abstract generality of ethics, while the second alternative is very clearly the life of self-transformation through religion.

Kierkegaard moves onto a discussion of repetition in the book of that name, with regard to the possibility of such complete transformation. He refers to the natural world to raise the issue that a higher form of animal might retain the imperfections of  lower form of animal (is there some hint here that Kierkegaard favoured a pre-Darwinian form of evolutionary theory?). The suggestion is that repetition is transcendence and therefore escapes from that kind of natural limitation. It seems close to classic Protestant ideas of grace as a gift from God which enables us to go beyond the limits of sinful nature, though as in the rest of The Concept of Anxiety there is not much reference to such ideas, more a tendency to transform those ideas into a language of subjective transformation. Repetition is described as psychological and aesthetic rather than religious, and the status of the pseudonymous author as someone lacking in faith is emphasised. The footnote is a very compressed summary of how Kierkegaard deals with interacting discussions of psychology, ethics, aesthetics and religion through strategies of distanced authorship, which suggest interaction between books with different pseudonyms.  This is of course an indication of how to read The Concept of Anxiety which is is itself pseudonymous in authorship. 

Returning to the paragraph in the main text, which is shorter than the footnotes (itself probably an indication that we should read The Concept of Anxiety in the light of Fear and Trembling and Repetition), Kierkegaard argues that the ethical cannot contain sin, because then it would lose its ideality. The way that ethics presents itself as a goal for humans to become complete, increases that difficulty of not being able to account for sin. The more ethics tries to do this, the more power sin is given, in that it is pusher deeper so becoming a deeper presupposition beyond the individual. Hereditary (original’ sin is even more difficult for ethics to incorporate. Kierkegaard uses some Greek and then gives the explicit message is that ethics is something he sees as essentially the Ancient Greek discussion of virtue. Paganism can only count sin a non-significant exception, in the same way as it thinks of the relation between error and knowledge. That is a slightly strange comment, since Kierkegaard showed some awareness of scepticism in ancient philosophy. We will return to this issue. What Kierkegaard does clearly affirm here is that ‘dogmatics’ (Christian doctrine) is required to comprehend sin. Since he also affirms the need to discuss the interaction between psychology, aesthetics, ethics and religion, the definition of dogmatics is also a question that will be discussed further in these posts.


Greek Ethics versus Sin in Kierkegaard: Reading The Concept of Anxiety IX

In paragraph 1o of the Introduction, Kierkegaard casts doubt on the ethical status of Aristotle’s ethics. What he rejects in particular is the lack of the ideal, as he sees it. The emphasis on luck in Aristotle is treated with suspicion, that is Kierkegaard refers to how for Aristotle, virtue is not enough for happiness, which requires health, friends, possessions and family. We could add to this that the whole idea of virtue in Aristotle is tied up with happiness rather than ideal ethics, and that this is true of antique ethics in general. Ethics something ideal for Kierkegaard and requires some capacity for self-discipline. Kierkegaard explains the non-ideal nature of ethics in the Ancient Greek world as an aesthetic aspect. Aesthetic for Kierkegaard refers to the experience of the moment, to an aesthetic attitude to life and the imaginative world of the arts. It seems to be a unique moment in the history of ethics for Kierkegaard, aesthetic ethics in Greece. I suspect that we should largely see that as a contrast with ancient Jews who were is some kind of relation with Greeks across the eastern Mediterranean world, even before the conquests of Alexander the Great. I also suspect that the famous lines of Saul of Tarsus/St Paul in I Corinthians I are relevant here:

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preached Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness

Paul does not mention aesthetics of ethics here, the point is that the Greek mentality seeks a worldly kind of wisdom below the threshhold of the foolishness given to believers. The limitation of Jewish mentality is to seek a sign which is too literal. Christ-God on a cross goes against the idea of God, so that crucified Christ is an impediment to Jews and foolish for the Greeks. The crucifixion goes against the Jewish conception of God and agains the Greek conception of wisdom, a worldly conception compared with the Jewish obedience to the laws and scripture of one God. The Jews have a the capacity for an ethics of self-discipline lacking to the Greeks.

However, it is not at all likely that Kierkegaard simply wrote to place the Jews above the Greeks in the sphere of ethics. The implication is also that the Jewish mentality lacks the aesthetic. For Kierkegaard the ethical must refer to the subjectivity of the aesthetic and cannot be fully grasped as just law to which we submit, a view conventionally associated with Kant and also with the image of the attitude of Jews to law created in the New Testament. There must be a way that subjectivity relates to law, and that comes from the way that subjectivity has a relation with itself, which is an absolute relation when grasped properly.

Aristotelian ethics, and Greek ethics in general,  lacks the capacity to grasp sin, and it is the topic of sin that Kierkegaard is devoted to in The Concept of Anxiety. Sin provide the means for a complete understanding of subjectivity,  how subjectivity can have an absolute relation with itself, and have a relation with the absolute, God, which is tied up with that self-relation. Another aspect of Kierkegaard’s view of the Ancient Greek world is that he thinks it protects the individual from isolated individuality, since the individual is always thought of as part of a family, a people, and a state, which remove large parts of individual responsibility. The reference in paragraph 10 to the importance of family for happiness and aesthetic ethics in Aristotle is increasingly meaningful if we think about how for Kierkegaard the ancient family provides a form of inheritance which protects the individual from responsibility, as opposed to Christian sin which always brings us back to individual responsibility in the nowness of hereditary sin.

Last post. Errata

I said that the distinguished German actress Hanna Schygulla plays Arendt when I should have written the distinguished German actress Barbara Sukowa

Thanks to Nedim Nomer for pointing this out.

Also when I wrote that Arendt is shown as feeling distant from Jewish women with more distinctly Hebrew names, I perhaps should have made it clear that Hannah is a Hebrew name in origin, though one that was used by 16th century Puritans and and that stands out less as a Jewish name than some other names of Hebrew origin.

Watching Hannah Arendt, the film, in Istanbul

Margarethe von Trotta’s film of 2012, Hannah Arendt is on at the Istanbul Film festival,  at the Rexx cinema in Kadıköy, the largest centre in the Anatolian part of the city, the other side of the Bosphorus from where I live and work.

Trotta has made many films, and the quality of directing in this case shows great use of her experience. It is quite  a virtuoso performance moving fluently between darkened interiors, sunlit out door scenes, Arendt on her own, noisy arguments between intellectuals (usually German Jewish) of strong personality, conversations a home between Arendt (played by Hanna Schygulla, a great name in German cinema) and her husband,  class room scenes, a journalists’ office and so on. No transition seems forced though many are between very different scenes. Contrasts of light and shade, balanced composition, and  harmonious colours are all deployed with great taste, sense and tact. However, these qualities are also connected with the limitations of the film. The highly accomplished good taste directing fits with an idealised world of academics, and other intellectuals, with upper middles class life styles, whose lives are dominated by earnest or angry conversations about deep questions, mixed with elegant solitary contemplation. Arendt and the other intellectual characters dress in a way which is expensive but understated, a bit heavy and formal, and quite elegant. Arendt’s students at the New School dress in a casual version of the same style. Interiors have marching qualities, the slightly heavy and old fashioned rooms or Arendt’s apartment and the New School set the tone. Lots of sombre and restrained wood and panelling, usually dimly lit, provide the perfect staging for characters who live for ideas and morally serious discussions. It’s a stye that belongs to  European ‘art house’ cinema, though its more found in the minor films than the greatest works. In American cinema, Woody Allen’s films set in Manhattan where academics at elite schools write books to a backdrop of autumnal trees and brownish smart-casual jackets provides the equivalent. I don’t mean to just dismiss Trotta’s cinematography, she does it extremely well and the film is worth watching just for her skill in executing it.

It is also the case that she is animating a series of expectations about traditional intellectuals and their environment. It is a lost world, though that is not something that the film really notes. The film does suggest a distance between the culture of today and the culture of the early sixties, but most obviously through  the prevalence of smoking, centred on Arendt’s heavy smoking habit, particularly at moment of intellectual and moral stress, so drawing us back to the picture of the idealised traditional intellectual. The film refers to a time when an original thinker, not an media intellectual celebrity, might contribute to a well known magazine. That brings us to the central drama of the film which is Arendt’s writing on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a major operative of the Holocaust, in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt covered the trial for the The New Yorkerand the articles were gathered after that in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The subtitle gives an idea of why the boo was highly controversial at the time of publication. It might be taken to trivialise the systematic evil of the Nazi murder of six million Jews. What Arendt means by banality is that in many cases, including that of Eichmann, evil comes from people of limited intellect and personality, obeying orders and following bureaucratic rules, without acting from hatred. I am not an expert on the issues around Eichmann, but there seems to be a widespread feeling that Arendt underestimated the degree to which Eichmann was a deliberate, calculated, malicious and enthusiastic persecutor of Jews with a strong belief in Nazi ideology. The film displays Arendt’s though processes on the matter through archive footage from the trial, which intercuts with reaction shots of Arendt. That was particularly unconvincing from the aesthetic point of view. There is more interest in the sequences of Arendt in the city. Her sense of distance from observant Jews and Jews from outside western Europe, is indicated as we see her walking through Jerusalem in her Germany-New York good taste intellectual’s garb. Even with Jewish intellectual friends we sense her distance from women with distinctly Hebrew names, and the issue of her move away from Zionism is addressed directly if briefly in the film. Unfortunately her snobbery, and even chauvinism, towards Jews who were not traditional German intellectuals, or something similar, was much more extreme than is indicated in the film. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she indicates distaste for Jerusalem by suggesting that it is like Istanbul, where I read Eichmann in Jerusalem for the first time, watched the film and where I am now writing.

The film focuses around the outrage initially generated  by Eichmann in Jerusalem, with disastrous consequences for her public life, and more poignantly in her deep personal relationships. The outrage was not just about her use of the word ‘banal’ though did not help. Passages where she referred to Jewish councils which collaborated with the Nazis (under extreme duress of course), and which she found damaging, led to accusations that she was anti-semitic (on the model of the real phenomenon of Jews whose assimilation extended to contempt for unassimilated Jews, or at the extreme complete self-loathing), blaming the victims, excusing the Nazis and betraying the Jewish people. She was caught in the unfortunate situation of playing a major role in the rise of Holocaust Studies and consciousness of the Holocaust, in Israel as well as outside, and of expressing herself in away that could give offence to those who were Holocaust victims, or had reason for identifying with those victims. I cannot comment at all on how correct her analysis of the collaborative Jewish councils was, in any case it certainly did not merit the outflow of abuse and hostility which followed. The book, as I have already indicated, is conditioned and limited by intellectual and cultural chauvinism, it is also a clear exposition of the evil of the Nazi Holocaust, with important discussions of the political, legal and national contexts for the ways the Holocaust operated in different parts of Europe.

The film’s presentation of the extreme negative reaction to Arendt’s writing up of the Eichmann trial concentrates on the melodramatic: stereotypically opportunistic New York journalists, academic administrators and bullying Mossad agents are shown to be Arendt’s persecutors. One of the Mossad agents is an old friend from her Zionist phase, and the academic administrators sit in on a lecture where she wins over her students with her intellectual charisma and deep humanism. A triumph undermined by sadness when she finds an old friend in the audience at the end, who is rejecting their relationship. It is all very well directed and executed but it is an exercise in stylish melodrama, which culminates in Arendt’s regret in expressing herself tactlessly and an apparent commitment to atonement through an engagement with the idea of evil in its full depth for the rest of  her life. This is not an accurate picture of Arendt’s intellectual development. I will just point out that her doctorate was on St Augustine, one of the great thinkers about evil in the history of philosophy. There are a few brief sequences in the film where she remembers the student-teacher  affair with Martin Heidegger she conducted as a student, at the time he was moving towards Naziism. This brings in the idea of commitment to thought as more than abstraction, as something tht is part of life, and does provide some connection between the film and Arendt’s own life of thought, and understanding of thought, though Heidegger himself is not portrayed in a convincing or interesting manner.

On the whole the film has very little to aid understanding of Arendt’s thought though. In some ways it is misleading, particularly where Arendt is portrayed as more interest in love and in friendship than politics. Arendt’s writing is consistently concerned with how humans are social and political in existence, how that intersects with other aspects of human existence, and how all these relations evolve over history. Perhaps in the way that Arendt gets caught up in a public scandal that point is partly made, but it is rather indirect. Some moments refer to what connects Arendt’s life with her thought, as when she is a refugee detained in France, but there is no reference to how she wrote on that issue.  There is no point though in criticising Trotta on this point. I am not aware of any film which does a good job of conveying the ideas of a great thinker, and that is not what cinema is. I recommend this film as a very elegant and skilful portrayal of an intellectual personality caught in a disruptive drama with ramifications beyond her own personal  life, with particular appeal to anyone with any interest in Arendt, or the history of attitudes to the Holocaust.

New Nietzsche Translation: The Greek Music Drama (side by side with Das Griechische Musikdrama)

Friedrich Nietzsche

Das griechische Musikdrama

The Greek Music Drama

Translated by Paul Bishop

Introduction by Jill Marsden

Contra Mundum Press, New York NY, 2013

This is a translation of a text by Nietzsche not previously available in English (or certainly not in print for many years). It is the text of a lecture Nietzsche gave in the Basel Museum in 1870, closely related to his book of 1872, The Birth of Tragedy. So the lecture, along with another two weeks later ‘Socrates and Tragedy’, marks the beginning of the process in which Nietzsche moved from young lion of classical philology appointed to a chair at the University of Basel in his early twenties, to an invalid retired from academia, with no fixed abode, writing books largely ignored by the academic world. These lectures prepare the way for Nietzsche’s approach in The Birth of Tragedy where a philosophy and aesthetics influenced by Schopenhauer and by the history of German aesthetics and philosophy from the Enlightenment to Schopenhauer, is expressed through sweeping synthesising interpretations and bold claims where philological knowledge is used, but is not allowed to get in the way of a striking hypothesis.

I will  not attempt to compare what Nietzsche says  in this essay with what he says slightly later in The Birth of Tragedy, but I may return to that topic since I am teaching (the first half of) The Birth of Tragedy for a philosophy and literature course this semester. I will just note that as in the later text he regards Euripides as less of a tragedian than Aeschylus and Sophocles, at one point grouping Aeschylus and Sophocles with Pindar, and ignoring Euripides. He does also group Euripides with Aeschylus and Sophocles at least once. He does not however come up with an account of how Euripides differs from Aeschylus and Sophocles, or the cultural significance of his shift in the from of tragedies.

Here Nietzsche emphasises the role of music in Greek tragedy, going so far as too suggest that our reading of Aeschylus and Sophocles is deeply limited because we do not have the music that was used in performances. It is as if we are just reading the libretto of an opera Nietzsche suggests. This line of thought is connected with his Wagner enthusiasms of that time, so that in The Birth of Tragedy, Wagner is said to be the heir to the cultural significance of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Mozart is brought in more directly though, when Nietzsche compares the role of the actor in the Greek tragedies with the stone statue of the Commandatore which comes alive in the opera Don Giovanni. This remark in passing could perhaps be taken much further as a way in which the Stone Statue in Mozart’s opera is emblematic of the nature of art in making life out of inert matter. What Nietzsche is arguing in relation to Greek tragedy is that it is the product of a long prehistory in the Dionysian chorus. The anonymous collective experience of Dionysian destruction and rebirth is the inert material from the which characters of tragedy appear, in a way that must have been uncanny to the ancient Greek audience in Nietzsche’s account. The characters, presumably with particular reference to the hero, should not be alive, can only be alive through some strange supernatural event, and are full of a non-living substance. If we think about how the staging of Greek tragedies used drama masks, then we can see confirmation of Nietzsche’s view. The mask of a fixed expression over the face of the actor suggests something like a statue coming alive.

Statues feature in Nietzsche’s discussion when he refers to the ultra-Hellenistic mania (emphasised by Winckelmann)  for insisting on the pure whiteness of Greek statues in their original display, and the difficulty that art historians had in accepting that the statues were painted in a multiplicity of colours. There is a danger of over Hellenising Hellenism, according to Nietzsche, by which he means imposing the ideas of the Hellenic we have now on the past. Since we do not now exactly how the tragedies were staged we are in danger of an invented Hellenism in our ideas about them. We are also prey to a belief that humans cannot be strong enough to stand a pure art form, so may exaggerate the idea of a mixture of art forms in tragedy. The point here, is I presume, to suggest that the different parts of a tragedy and of tragic performance, discussed since Aristotle, should not distract us from seeing tragedy as a pure and absolute art form which makes us see something deeply painful. Nietzsche takes a critical line on Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy, suggesting that it does not apply to Aeschylus. It is certainly true that Aristotle puts forward Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as the model, and that his structure of error of judgement followed by a reversal of fortunes for a happy character (ideally accompanied by an episode of recognition) does not apply to all tragedies.

Thşs publication is a welcome event, the dual text approach is one which should be used more widely. Thee is a very useful introduction and notes by Marsden. The translation is a good balance of accuracy and readability.  There is, however, no index, a major drawback. Ideally other early Nietzsche essays which build up to The Birth of Tragedy  would be included. In any case everyone concerned with reading Nietzsche in English should get hold of this book, which is an essential acquisition.

Political Theory and the Law-Legislation Distinction

Law has a dual nature in that is stands above politics and is established through politics. The hope that law can constitute, stand above, and limit political power, is long enduring. That hope begins with a view of law as something divine and in a linked sense deeply rooted in natural order. The sense that political sovereignty should be constrained by such law is expressed in Ancient Greek tragedy, most famously in Antigone. What we also see in Antigone is the role of political will in the constraining of the kind of sovereignty abused by Creon. The play shows Creon first resisting and then conceding the need to listen to other voices in the city, in practice as well as according to the kind of declarations he makes early in the play. Creon acts arbitrarily from the power that political sovereignty gives him, and is restrained by a process which mixes violent human reactions and the likelihood of punishment from the divine. The evolution of Creon towards good king who rules in line with advice, and with the wishes of his people, is itself a process of political reform which leaves the possibility that any politically sovereign individual, or any citizen assembly, might act outside the law given by nature, and by the gods. Ancient ideas of politea and  res publica in political theory, and the constitutional state experiments of antiquity.

The problem remains and adopts new forms with the rise of modern law making elected assemblies, which legislate at a rate and with regard to detail, beyond anything that happened in  antiquity. Eighteenth century thinkers about politics and law, like Rousseau and Montesquieu assumed that law should be simple, limited in amount, and largely unchanging. Hume and Smith thought of law evolving gradually over history in line with changing moral sentiments and social realities. In practice the societies most obviously influenced by such thought expanded the amount of legislative innovation, and took it into unforeseen levels of detail and complexity. This process can be seen as part of the tension between the law as it has existed with a community over time in line with shared customs, and law as innovation imposed on society by majorities in representative bodies which did not reflect any popular will. Some awareness of this can be seen in the Enlightenment, and carries on in to the nineteenth century, when both Marx and Nietzsche noted a struggle between new statue laws and old customs.

The rise of legal positivism, which places the authority for laws firmly in the hands of the political body with makes new laws, is part of that process. John Austin could not have written what he did earlier, drawing as he did on a pre-history of interest in sovereignty which includes early modern republicanism in Machiavelli and Harrington, and contractual theory from Grotius, and theories of civil society in the Scottish Enlightenment. Positivism is not just the expression of  belief that law originates with the political sovereign, but of the breakdown of any belief in the super historical permanence of law, and its origin in a world transcending this one.

Natural law theory of a kind can be found in the growth of normative theory since Rawls. This gives a place to the political process as that which finds the most rational and just set of laws. However, this is political process modelled on an ideal situation in which individuals are able to make purely rational choices about the best principles of liberty and justice. There is still a wish to find the super historical historical and the transcending level of existence at the origins of law. Positivism has developed in the direction of a Realist account of law as what the community has agreed is the law, which also rests on a rationalisation that undermines any idea of political contestation.

What jurisprudence is often concerned with is how law is interpreted rather than how it is made, which explains the emphasis to some degree on interpretative questions that are not obviously connected with the sphere of politics. This very necessary in a pragmatic way, but then it tends to provide the basis of a kind of political theory which reduces to moral principles and rational procedures, that is a depoliticised political theory. This is the problem in Rawls, and though he attempted to account for the less ahistorical and less rational-moral part of politics, in Political Liberalism and The Law of Peoples, he uses the terms ‘public reason’ and ‘ideal theory,’ which bring back the abstractness of A Theory of Justice. 

The law-legislation distinction in Hayek and Schmitt is another version of that drive to find a place of evaluation outside mere politics for political and legal theory. It goes against Schmitt’s vivid sense of politics as existential struggle;  and Hayek’s criticisms of the idea of any kind of unified summary of all the knowledge dispersed amongst social actors. Both have difficulty with the idea that law and political institutions in their foundations are conditioned by the kind of conflicts, uncertainties, as well as tensions between general principles and specific acts. Their law-legislation distinction is valuable but inadequate for understanding the bases of law and of political forms; and the duality of law between absolute principle and changeable rule.