Nietzsche’s Friend Jacob Burckhardt: How a Conservative 19th Century Historian Anticipated ‘Poliitcally Correct’ views of Antiquity.

I’ve just started reading The Greeks and Greek Civilization by Jakob Burckhardt. Burckhardt was a friend and colleague of Friedrich Nietzsche at the University of Basle. Unlike Nietzsche, Burkhardt was a native of Basle. He turned down the chance to succeed to Leopold Von Ranke’s chair in Berlin. Ranke was a great historian, who preached objectivity and the importance of archives, but also wrote history from the point of view of the Prussian dynasty. Burckhardt rejected Ranke’s Prussian-German nationalism, but from a conservative point of view. In this he followed the precedent of Goethe. The emphasis Burckhardt puts on the individual above national state ideology also gives him a liberal aspect, like Nietzsche. They were both suspicious of democracy and mass culture, from the point of view of an individualism which stands above conservative tradition, particularly in its religious aspects. At the very least Nietzsche and Burckhardt turn conservative tradition into an instrument of individualism, and Nietzsche certainly found it possible to take the same view of democracy. Both of the Basle Professors shared an early enthusiasms for the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Both were attacked by the brilliant but narrow minded philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Mollendorf.

I was previously familiar with Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which looks at the individualism of the Renaissance as a movement in politics and statecraft as a well as art, and which clearly bears comparison with Nietzsche. In fact both books by Burckhardt are essential companions to Nietzsche’s philosophy (that is not to say they are the same in all respects).

The focus of today’s post is the way in which Burckhardt anticipates attitudes to antiquity from a ‘politically correct’ point of view since Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. I do not have a firm view right now of Black Athena, or any text influenced by it. I may return to this in the future, all I have to say for now is that I am sure that Bernal addressed issues that need to be addressed about the place of Greek antiquity in the broader antique world. It may or may not distort history for political reasons. It may or may not mix such distortions with valid points.

The issues that are associated with Bernal and his followers that matter regardless of the value of what they wrote: the Greek polis (city state) follows the example of earlier states in the Near East; there are ways in which aspects of Ancient Greek thought that take things from the Near East: some aspects of Near Eastern culture and thought were in advance of Greek culture and thought in antiquity.

Where does Burckhardt come in?
1. The Greek polis, to some degree, was preceded by Phoenician city states in which the supreme power of rulers was limited by an aristocratic council.
2. Ancient Greek culture took many things from the Ancient Assyrians and Egyptians.
3. Ancient Greek culture seemed immature to the Ancient Egyptians due to its faith in immediacy and lack of any real transcendence of perception.
4. Ancient Greek culture had an instrumental attitude to truth and oath taking whoch shocked other Antique peoples and this is not just a case of seeing the worst in another culture.

Burckhardt emphasised other things that undermine the idealisation of Ancient Greece, particularly the view of the polis as the goal of human existence. Burckhardt emphasises that the polis emerges from extreme violence on villagers. A polis was formed by forcing inhabitants in a group of villages to leave their homes and live within fortified walls. The reasons for this were militaristic. The process in which villagers were forced to live in a polis in constant military conflict with rivals is what lies behind Greek myths of sacrifice (voluntary and involuntary) to the interests of the state and the harsh punishment of critics of the state. Villagers had the cruel experience for Ancient Greeks of being torn from the graves of their ancestors. Legal codes were designed for the aristocracy who struggled to protect original laws against amendment and addition by the people. ‘Democracy’ was based on one group forcing itself on other peoples and subordinating them to itself. This could happen because citizenship excluded slaves and those of foreign origin, as well as women. Greek gods were immoral and this limited Ancient Greek moral understanding, which included obsessions with revenge, though this was mitigated to some degree by philosophy. However, even philosophical ethics was primarily concerned with the health of the individual self, not obligations to others.

Fear and Trembling: Ethics of Marriage

Further thoughts while teaching Kierkegaard.

Marriage and Ethics
What is the topic of Fear and Trembling? Is it the story of Abraham and Isaac? Yes, but we should not be distracted from the other topic. This is the topic defined in the ‘Diapslamata’ of Either/Or I, in the first sentence of the section on ‘Either/Or: An Ecstatic Discourse’

Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way (Princeton University Press, edited and translated by Hong and Hong: 38)

Either/Or I deals with the aesthetic stage in which marriage is to long term in a perspective dominated by the interest of the immediate. Most of Either/Or II deals with the ethical stage, and that is defined by marriage. The ethical stage is presented by Judge William, the aesthetic stage in the fragments of an anonymous young man.

Marriage and the Daemonic
Fear and Trembling deals with the drama of Abraham and Isaac, but in large part it deals with relations between men and women and the possibility of marriage. There is more to be said about Fear and Trembling but will concentrate on the marriage theme which is deeply embedded. It was published in the same year as Either/Or, so we would expect some common themes. Kierkegaard deals with various ways in which the possibility of marriage, and barriers to such a possibility, are presented. In comedies, Kierkegaard gives Danish examples which seem to correspond with Hollywood Romantic Comedies in structure. A barrier to love and marriage is overcome through happy accident. In the more sombre examples, marriage is related to terrible danger. Sarah and Tobit in the Old Testament/Torah book of Tobit, are married despite the deaths of seven previous husbands of Sarah. Faust avoids marriage with Gretchen in Goethe’s poem to protect her from his daemonic side. In a very Danish touch, Kierkegaard refers to the story of Agnes and the Merman in Hans Christian Anderson, the story is non-Danish in origin but given that it was published by Anderson and that it fits with various reference Kierkegaard makes to Nordic myths and monsters, we can see it as belonging to the Danish-Nordic element Kierkegaard regularly introduces. Kierkegaard thinks of various possible alternative versions of the story of the girl seduced by a merman. They all deal with the daemonic in the merman.

Kierkegaard discusses various fictional and scriptural examples of the daemonic in the individual coming into conflict with the desire to marry, in a way which relates to Abraham’s choice between ethics and obeying God. Abraham’s solution is the paradox in which he obeys both, Kierkegaard recommends the same solution for the marriage dilemma. The ethical relation of marriage is threatened by the daemonic within the individual, the daemonic element within makes marriage apparently unethical for that person because it threatens the destruction of the loved person

Ethics and the Absolute Self
Kierkegaard recommends faith that ethics will not be contradicted in marriage, just as Abraham is a hero because he had faith that God’s command could be obeyed while remaining within ethics. Ethics must be suspended in order to preserve it. Ethics rests on the absolute, the absolute self, the absolute capacity of the individual for a decision. Ethics is always suspended in relation to that absolute, the necessity of the judging self.

By any standards, marriage can be defined as an ethical relation because it requires two people to think of at least one other person, and because it provides a basic structure for the existence of a society based on ethical principles. This is particularly clear if we think of the way Hegel thinks of marriage, it is the first step of the ethical. For Hegel, the ethical is a social form, a form of life as opposed to nature and as opposed to purely individual morality.

In the very first page of ‘Problema 1’ in Fear and Trembling, Hegel is referred to with regard to individual conscience as evil. In the section on morality and conscience in Philosophy of Right, Hegel refers to individual conscience as evil in its results, because it is purely individual. Opposing the individual to universality can only be evil. Hegel describes a move from morality to ethical life (Sittlichkeit, which is something like the being of ethos/mores), in which individuals are part of universality through marriage, family, civil society, and the state.

Absolute Individual and Marriage
The project announced in Fear and Trembling is that of showing that the individual is higher than the universal but is not evil. That should encourage us to read the Abraham/Isaac story as referring to individuality rather than God. This is very clear with the accounts of marriage dilemmas which in their most serious refer to the daemonic within an individual.

Fear and Trembling deals with the aesthetic individual who is beneath marriage and the absolute individual who is above marriage. The individual as individual is beneath and above the ethical relation or marriage. There is no complete distinction between the aesthetic individual and the absolute individual. The absolute emerges from the aesthetic through the melancholy of mere immediacy.

Foucault and Derrida. Antique Ethical and Political Concepts

Foucault and Derrida
Something I’m working on at present is the discussion of antique ethical and political concepts in Foucault and Derrida. Both published work focusing on this in 1984. In Derrida’s case in Politics of Friendship; in Foucault’s case the 2nd and 3rd volumes of History of Sexuality: The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self.

Republicanism and Individualism: Ancient and Modern Liberty
In both cases, there is a turn towards what is known as Republicanism, the political approach according to which citizenship and participation in politics are good in themselves. There is a well established historical narrative that has been discussed going back to the Eighteenth Century according to which the Antique world understood liberty as independence of the nation and the absence of a single all powerful ruler, in which everyday life is very tied up with public rituals and the duties of citizenships, and in which liberty means participation. In this narrative liberty in the modern world is understood as individual freedom from outside interference, the limitation of the public sphere, the right of the individual to be indifferent to public affairs, and in which liberty means individual freedom from constraint. This narrative maybe goes back to Hobbes in the Seventeenth Century, it certainly appears in Montesqueiue, Rousseau, Hegel, Constant, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Tocqueville. Kierkegaard refers to it in his discussion ancient and modern tragedy.

Foucault and Derrida do not challenge this narrative, but they do very effectively show the ways in which individuality appears in the antique world and the ways in which the unity of individuality and public citizenship becomes fractured.

Foucault on Sexuality
Foucault looks at the ways that the capacity to be a citizen is defined in terms of sexuality. The person capable of citizenship has sexual relations with social inferiors, young women or men. This indicates the way that antique citizenship is based on mastery of slaves, or at the very least not belonging to a slave class. capacity for citizenship was also understood in terms of control of the passions in self-mastery. The emphasis both on sexuality as mastery and limitation of sexuality is paradoxical. The paradox becomes greater in antique history as the merit of chastity is more and more recommended for the health of the soul. Foucault clearly has a particular regard for the period proceeding the greater emphasis on chastity. In the earlier period he sees creation of the self, individual freedom, through the emphasis on maximising pleasure.

Derrida on Friendship
Derrida picks up on the role of friendship mostly with reference to Aristotle. Aristotle’s typology of the main kinds of friendship are generally well known as part of his ethics. Derrida picks up on the political significance with regard to democracy. Democracy presumes friendship between citizens. Aristotle’s discussion refers to friendship in political terms, the ruler should be the friend of the ruled. Derrida points out political consequences of Aristotle’s views. Aristotle thought that friendship must be selective, if I have too many friends the idea of friendship is extremely weakened because the available energy is split between too many people. Derrida suggests that logically Aristotle is bound to find that a man’s friend can only be himself or a god. Friendship requires death, because I can only test someone’s friendship completely by testing their reaction to my death. Since democracy is defined as friendship, the politics of friendship is conditioned by the paradoxes of friendship. Democracy must become oligarchic because it rests on selection of friends. The friend is is defined by relation to the enemy, as Carl Schitt suggested. None of this can eliminate the problems of friendship,. Democracy has to become, it is ‘yet’, a ‘to come’.