Enlightenment Ethics as Critique of Progress

My latest post at New APPS group blog

I don’t think I’ve got anything surprising to say for anyone whose read Enlightenment texts concerned with ethics texts at all attentively, at least in terms of pointing out what is obviously there, but what I’m discussing as far as I can see is underplayed in most discussion, and certainly in the ‘average understanding’ that circulates prior to any close reading of texts.

The obvious exception is Rousseau who gets understood as the back to ‘natural man’ nostalgic. Some recent work on Smith and Rousseau (e.g. Dennis Rasmussen) maybe gets to some degree at Smith’s concerns about the ‘progress’ of commercial society, and there is a discussion in Foucault of the relation between the subject of eighteenth century political economy and the ‘savage’, though that is not so much about endorsement of ‘savage’ ethics as bringing out a supposed persistent ‘natural’ person. Given that Vico was already criticising any tendency to read legally defined rights back into ‘natural’ humanity in the early eighteenth century, we should be careful about simply attributing a brute identification of individual rights in commercial society with ‘natural or ‘savage’ humanity on the part of all Enlightenment advocates of commerce and legalism.

Now read on here


Expanding the Liberty Canon: Tacitus on Barbarian Liberty

My latest post at Notes On Liberty

Notes On Liberty

Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian from the early Roman Empire. Some details of his life are oddly evasive given his high status in the Roman system and his fame as a writer. It is not known what his first name was (Romans had three names), but Gaius and Publius are the most widely accepted hypotheses. It is not clear where he was born except that it was some distance from the city of Rome. Southern France (or Gaul) or northern Italy are the most widely accepted hypotheses. His exact dates of birth and death are not known, but he lived from about 56 to 117CE.

Tacitus was one of the great antique historians and prose stylists. He deserves to be read by liberty enthusiasts for the record he provides of ideas of liberty in Rome, as well as for reasons of literary appreciation and general historical knowledge…

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Against Imperial Nostalgia: Or why Empires are Kaka

My latest post at the group blog Notes On Liberty

Notes On Liberty

I write in response to Fred Folvary’s post on this sit, Restore the Turkish Empire. Living as I do in the largest city the Republic of Turkey, Istanbul which is its commercial and cultural centre, with a formidable concentration of universities (explaining my presence here), it made an impact, but of the most irritating kind I have to say. To say the least I find it bracing to find the foundation of the state where I live rejected, since I believe the foundation of that republic was a positive event in twentieth century, which in its vices has been mo worse than the Ottoman Empire and in its virtues considerably superior, even if much meeds to be done by way of securing liberty here.

I will expand on the Ottoman Empire to Republic of Turkey transition and then move onto the other object of Fred’s nostalgia, the Habsburg Empire…

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On Types of Republicanism

My latest post at the group blog New APPS

The academic literature on republicanism, in my experience, largely assumes one major distinction between kinds of republicanism. As I did not do conduct a major literature review just recently on the issue, I may have missed something, but it seems safe to say that the distinction I am getting onto is well established. That is the distinction between Roman and Athenian republicanism, with the two big names in the field, Philip Pettit and Hannah Arendt lined up on either side.

There are other distinctions between Pettit and Arendt, in the ways they approach political thouht but I will leave those aside here. In terms of general political thought, Pettit has a more individualised and reductive approach to rights, while Arendt refers to a lived experience of the political side of humanity. Pettit’s ‘Romanism’ is indeed a claim to avoid the supposed denial of individuality and the right to be free from the political sphere, apparently inherent in ‘Athenianism’. Arendt’s ‘Athenianism’ is a claim to deal with the role that politics has in the life of humanity, which can never just be ‘social’, so lacking the competition for power in a public space. There are ways we might try to equate those with differences in political position with regard to issues other than pure political structures, but I do  not believes that those really work out and that is again something I leave aside.

For the rest read on here.

Nietzsche Writing in Blood V (final part)

(From ‘Nietzsche Writing in Blood: Themes, Rhetoric, and Strategies of Violence, a paper presented on 13th October 2014 at the 20 International Conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society ‘Nietzsche, Love and War’ at the University of Birmingham’)

For Nietzsche, The formation of the ancient Doric (Spartan) state is accounted for in terms of a triumph of the Apolline. The victory of the state as an entity abstracted from community is the denial of the Dionysian moment of absolute community. The absolutism of the Doric state is in conflict with the absolute community of the Dionysian, which is both ritualised and ecstatic.  We should look this in comparison with Aristotle’s discussion of citizenship, friendship and tragedy.  Nietzsche implicitly takes Aristotle as a point of departure and then develops the more agonistic aspects of Aristotle’s constitution of these questions.

The Dionysian-Titanism of tragedy in Nietzsche’s conception has an experience of death at the limits of law, where there is an aesthetic struggle.  The aesthetic ideal is rooted in the tension between the formlessness of imagination and the forms it creates.  Nietzsche suggests that the legislation of aesthetic form is a violent act, which does not derive from an idealised aesthetic law or ideal form, beyond observable nature or the empirical.

Nietzsche’s model of the tragic is also a model of the polity which has emerged from the communal gathering of the Dionysian rites.  The human community contains a wisdom which separates humanity from nature, but this can only happen in a Dionysian-Titanic moment of crime against nature.  For Nietzsche Oedipus is a form of such a figure, his crimes against nature and his rescuer of Thebes through solving the Sphinx’s riddle, shows that wisdom comes through a crime against nature and sacrifice of the wise man (The Birth of Tragedy Section 9).  The Dionysian itself is an offence against nature, the same Dionysian rites that celebrate the communion of humanity with nature. The Dionysian rites dissolve selves in a communal way in a primal sense of community, while the Apolline transformation on stage refers to a royal hero.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche, 1966) engages with Aristotelian themes of friendship and the state, if in the most transformed way.  The ‘friend’ is advocated in comparison with the ‘neighbour’ who is condemned and the warrior who is the opposite of the ‘neighbour’ and closer to the ‘friend’, though certainly not identical with the friend.  The ‘neighbour’ refers to dependence and averaging out of differences, in the weakening of individuality. The ‘friend’ shows the best disguise to the ‘friend’ and maintains a hard exterior to the ‘friend’ in an elemental community of agonism, as the friend is the best enemy, a rather distinct view from the merger of souls associated with friendship by Aristotle and Montaigne, though if we think of friendship as a model for the interior self-relation, we may see something closer to Aristotle and Montaigne.

The ‘friend’ is not a tyrant or a slave, since such people are incapable of friendship; a passage which shows why we should not take the more provocative statements about slavery in ‘The Greek State’ and elsewhere as literal statements of political principle.  The ‘warrior’ is loved by Zarathustra, because the warrior hates without despising, but Zarathustra urges him to remember that Man must be overcome in a struggle that produces the ‘friend’ as the ‘friend’ lacks human ressentiment, in that context.

Nietzsche makes rhetorical attacks on politics, the state and the limits of the human.  In this he he opposes the classical celebration of the polity (a city state in origin but any political community with its institutions now).  as the political end of humanity.  Nietzsche points to antagonisms between the state and citizens, citizen and citizen as constitutive of the state.  Nietzsche wrote in the context of the end of the city state as ideal polis, in the formation of nation states.

Modern political thought has dealt with the polarisation of civil society and state which has no place in Antique political thought.  This is rooted in a study of contestation as already essential to the Ancient City state together with a metaphysical or anti-metaphysical commitment to constant becoming and struggle, and its biological exemplification in  Nietzsche’s version of Darwinian evolution. This is a theory written in terms in which the physical bursting through of natural processes overwhelms previous categorisation, just as Nietzsche’s strategies of writing allow for a physical force emerging language activity.

Nietzsche Writing in Blood IV

(From ‘Nietzsche Writing in Blood: Themes, Rhetoric, and Strategies of Violence, a paper presented on 13th October 2014 at the 20 International Conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society ‘Nietzsche, Love and War’ at the University of Birmingham’)

‘The Greek State’ emphasises that Greek Antiquity emphasised hierarchy originating in military organisation born from a need to overcome the primal pre-social war of all against all.  These points are not original, from Plato to Hegel, political theory had emphasised war and the existence of a military to defend frontiers as essential to the existence of the state.  It was Hobbes, who famously emphasised that the state exists to overcome the fear of death presented by the human state of nature, which is a war of all against all. Nietzsche notes the origin of any state and any nation in agonism.  Agonism is a state of conflict between humans seen as the primary driving force in human culture.  That agonism needs to contain itself in forms which limit the growth of life and culture.  Hierarchy is a product of agonism since hierarchy includes a struggle between different social levels, between master and slave.

Only those individuals can emerge from this horrifying struggle for existence who are then immediately preoccupied with the fine illusions of artistic culture so that they do not arrive at that practical pessimism which nature abhors as truly unnatural.  (The Greek State in the Cambridge University Press edition of On the Genealogy of Morality, page 176)

In the essay on Homer,  power also produces religion. The individual exists as the tool of the state, which exists as the tool of the artistic individual, of individuals of great culture.  ‘Homer on Competition’ shows that the individual hero or genius is an instrument of great culture or artistic genius through agonism. The structure which creates great individuals is not necessarily one which denies rights to the majority, therefore the view that society and the state are justified by great artistic individuals does not require the suffering of the many.  It does require opposing ‘justice’ in the sense of pity and compassion for the unfortunate (which is not the same as wishing misfortune on the unfortunate or indifference to their misfortunes).

There must be a hierarchy in the society which produces great individuals, because of the agonism inherent in hierarchy.  A justice of pity and compassion for the less fortunate can only weaken the achievements of society.  The desire for ‘equal suffering in pain’ is the problem.  That does not mean wishing suffering on the ‘unfortunate’ though it may appear so at first and is probably intended to provoke such an immediate reaction.

‘Justice’ itself is the problem as a basic concept since life (as natural and historical) in a becoming of pain and contradiction destroying what already exists, as every moment in time destroys every previous moment.  An ethic of pity for every pain suffered in this constant agon will be highly destructive, we would be paralysed by pity.  The status of individuals is as servants of a state which stands aside from pity in its principles.  That does not mean that the many suffer so that the few are happy, as the artists and heroes are themselves formed agonistically.   This bloody strategy of power operating in the state has an energy which undermines Platonist hierarchy, or any fixed hierarchy. If it has a hierarchical structure to it, it is a hierarchy which is challenged by the life flourishing of Nietzsche’s form of naturalism, which is the overflowing and self-destruction of aristocracy rather than the triumph of its permanency.

The Birth of Tragedy presents a theory of tragedy as derived from agonism and of literature Nietzsche explores the dilemmas of the state and political community through tragedy.  Nietzsche’s position can be constituted with reference to Rousseau, with his essay on language in mind as well as The Social Contract and The Discourse on Inequality.  Rousseau defines social contract as the outcome of the loss of nature.  In society the natural rights of man are (re)established in the creation of laws by a social body, the whole of the community transformed from a collection of natural individuals, and implemented by a representative body, at a further stage of alienation from natural man.

Nietzsche describes a primal community, in the Dionysian rites and early Satyr choruses, which is the existence of community itself.  The Apolline concern with images, law and boundaries alienates the Dionysian ritual in the staging of a tragedy for spectators, a vital element in the communal life of Ancient Greek cities.  There is a  parallel with Rousseau, there is pathos in the loss of nature, a constant struggle with that reality, and an attempt at the return of nature in the constitution of an ideal social community, though there is also distance from the leanings of Rousseau towards a natural self contained community to individual.

Nietzsche Writing in Blood III

(From ‘Nietzsche Writing in Blood: Themes, Rhetoric, and Strategies of Violence, a paper presented on 13th October 2014 at the 20 International Conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society ‘Nietzsche, Love and War’ at the University of Birmingham’)

Competition in Greek Antiquity is conceived by Nietzsche as essential to that world.  The genius or hero exists through competition.  Where there is no competition for the hero, the hero in such a state of isolation is close to the gods, who are then competing with the hero.  Such a divine competition destroys the hero who is lured into hubris and the subsequent fall that punishes hubris.

Greek states existed in a state of competition with each other in a desire for triumph over the over states just as the hero exists in a state of competition with other heroes.  Genius only exists through competition and that is provided through dramatic competitions which were a part of city life, of the rituals which defined the existence of a city.  Plato’s dialogues are explained through the principle of competition, they are an attempt to compete with the dramatists, the Sophists and the rhetoricians in order to destroy them.  The value of imitative art is denied by showing great aesthetic prowess in a competition with the Ancient tragedians in particular.  The competitions of the city define the state, the politics and nature of the city.  The institution of ostracism, exiling the citizen voted most worthy of exile, is seen by Nietzsche as originating in the desire for competition (Homer on Competition).  A competition which can only be maintained by excluding those who are so strong that they preclude the possibility of meaningful competition.

The contests of youth existed for the sake of city: they were competing in the service of the city.  They competed with each other with regard to who would serve the city better and the competition itself maximised the strength of the city by maximising the strength of all those competing with each other.  Agonism from this point of view is essential to Republican political philosophy, since the civil union is promoted by competition.  The competition is limited to the sphere of the city giving it a focus lacking in the modern world.

The world of international law, monotheistic religion and Enlightenment universalism lacks a precise focus for competition since the city-state is no longer the goal of human existence. That is a summary of the context in which Nietzsche writes on antiquity. The view of the self-contained unity of ancient republic as lost in the modern world can be found in political thought from Montesquieu to Hegel through Rousseau, Humboldt and Constant. It comes out through literary aesthetics as in the discussion in both Hegel and Kierkegaard of the difference between ancient and modern tragedy.

If we speak of humanity, it is on the basic assumption that is should be that which separates man from nature and is his mark of distinction.  But in reality there is no such separation: ‘natural’ characteristics those called specifically ‘human’ have grown together inextricably.  Man, in his highest, finest powers, is all nature and carries nature’s uncanny dual character in himself.  Those capacities of his which are terrible and are viewed as inhuman are perhaps, indeed, the fertile soil from which alone all humanity, in feelings, deeds and works, can grow forth.  (Homer on Competition, in the Cambridge University Press edition of On the Genealogy of Morality, page187)

The emphasis on competition in this early essay is one way of harmonising aestheticism with naturalism, or culture with nature, a conflict which can also be explained with reference to the tensions of Homer (Odysseus versus Achilles) and tragedy (sovereign will against divine-natural order), and in the tension between the Dionysian and the Apolline, which is a matter of both writing and performance; text, bodily action, and spectacle. Tragedy is agonist in its inner form, as it shows a hero modelled on Prometheus or the titans in their struggle with the Olympian Gods.  There is a struggle between individualism and law; and a tension between Dionysian ecstasy and Apolline form.

For Nietzsche, the whole of Greek Antiquity is defined through competition, but in three stages.  There is the pre-Homeric, the Homeric and the Hellenic.  Though the Homeric is merely Apolline in the Birth of Tragedy, here is serves as the ideal of the agonistic.  The essay itself is framed by an account of the cruel treatment by Alexander the Great of a living enemy.  Nietzsche suggests that this is a grotesque version of the treatment of Hector’s dead body by Achilles in The Iliad.  Alexander’s cruelty is taken by Nietzsche as paradigmatic for the Hellenic world, which he sees as a degeneration of Classical Greece.  It is also a return of pre-Homeric cruelty.  That is ‘evil and cruel […] vengeful and godless’.  (Homer on Competition, in the Cambridge University Press edition of On the Genealogy of Morality, page194).  The ‘envy, jealousy and competitive ambition’ (HOC 194) of the Ancient Greek city states is a limitation of cruelty.