This seems to be a primal aspect of human nature: we always believe ourselves to be ethically correct. It would be very surprising to hear a person openly declare that he or she lives without moral principle, and it would be even more surprising to find any society or group of people that openly declares itself to be amoral.
This fact provides a stunning contradiction that ought to be endlessly fascinating to ethical philosophers who wish to deeply challenge their own belief systems. Every past as well as current society believes itself to be moral, and yet when we discuss history we can easily identify various past societies that seem to have been highly immoral. If we examine the ways in which these bygone societies convinced themselves of their high ethical principles, we can glimpse the powerful engine of delusion itself, and discover the mechanics that make it so effective in clouding intelligent minds. We may even discover that some delusions still drive our thinking today.
One great example is provided by the nation that briefly called itself the Confederate States of America, a nation that was defeated in the United States of America's Civil War between 1861 and 1865. I'm beginning a road trip this week to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to take part in the 150th anniversary of the most dramatic extended battle of the entire war. This anniversary provides a nice opportunity for us to pause and look closely at the philosophical underpinnings of the entire secession movement in the Southern states. This philosophical system can be broadly represented by the voice of a once-great politician, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who was a legendary United States Senator, and was the Vice President of the United States for two terms. He died before the Civil War began, but his inspiration was present for the entire period of the war, and he was taken seriously as a brilliant scholar, a passionate orator and a principled ethical thinker by both his compatriots and his enemies.
I've never been sure how to reconcile the fact that I'm a pacifist with the fact that I'm a major American Civil War geek.
Though I'm a major geek, I'm not a Major -- that is, I don't participate in any Union or Confederate reenactment brigade. But I've been to many reenactments since the 150th anniversary of the USA Civil War began on April 12, 2011: First Manassas, Second Manassas, Ox Hill, Chancellorsville. I would join a brigade if I could get over the embarrassment of explaining it to my friends. And if I could square it with being a pacifist. So far, I'm not able to do either.
I can trace my fascination with the American Civil War to a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and more directly to the movie made from the book, Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell. Michael Shaara, born in 1928 in New Jersey, was a modestly successful writer whose career biography seems similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut: he crossed genres from science-fiction to sports fiction to historical fiction, and reached his peak in the 1970s with The Killer Angels, which surprised the author and his family by winning a Pulitzer Prize, but did not become a bestseller until Ted Turner agreed to produce the movie Gettysburg in 1993. The movie was a success, and made the book a backlist hit for the first time. The author did not live long enough to see this happen, though his children Jeff Shaara and Lila Shaara have followed in their father's proud literary footsteps.
It's popular among some of our current philosophers to make a big thing of disbelieving in God. For Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, atheism is an urgent social cause. A widespread naive belief in religion, these philosophers argue, has been a source of great hatred and suffering. And yet they fail to challenge another widespread naive belief that is actually much more malignant than the belief in God. Even some atheists cling to this other naive belief.
I'm talking about the belief that Evil is real. Not evil but Evil -- a mysterious sinister agency that infects certain leaders or populations with the drive to cause great harm. The Evil is a force of almost magical, eternal power, and it operates beyond the reach of trustful negotiation or rational compromise.
We have seen that artistic symbols of absolute Evil fill our shared imagination (with fictional representations like Voldemort and Palpatine) and we have seen that the historic lessons of the wars of the 20th century are often boiled down to a single principle, a vast meme that has dominated global foreign policy since the end of World War II: appeasement of Evil enemies is always a bad idea, and pacifism is a gateway to appeasement.
The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.
The documents present a literal "either/or" representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man's uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a "diary of a seducer", a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the "Aesthetic Man", and the second figure as the representative "Ethical Man". In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the "Existential Man", and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard's own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.
If you're trying to analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby and you're not thinking about Dante's Inferno, you're missing an obvious connection.
The connection is easy to spot and hard to dispute, though it rarely comes up in discussion of the book. I haven't heard it mentioned at all during the big media buildup to the bombastic new Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio Great Gatsby movie that's opening this weekend, though I have read a few clueless movie-tie-in articles that strain to explain the enduring cultural significance of Fitzgerald's novel. These articles usually miss the point by describing The Great Gatsby as a novel about the American dream of wealth and success, or something pedestrian like that.
Explanations of Gatsby as a Randian epic about a businessman don't illuminate the book very well, and neither do theories that Nick Carraway was gay or that Jay Gatsby was African-American. I tend to stick with the standard approach: The Great Gatsby is a chic and tawdry tale of love and romantic illusion. It's written in lush but light poetic prose in a heated tone that evokes a dramatic sense of spiritual hazard. The spiritual hazard is where Dante comes in.
As a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to paint modern society in starkly religious or biblical terms. He does not appear to have been very religious, but he was raised Catholic, viewed Christian ideals warmly, and seems to have been especially fascinated with concepts of Satanic guilt and damnation. This is most clear in his titles: his first novel was called This Side of Paradise, his second The Beautiful and Damned. His short stories include: Babylon Revisited, Jacob's Ladder, Absolution.
But The Great Gatsby, the novel he intended as the pinnacle of his mature literary achievement, is also his most ambitious spiritual work, as it apppears to be loosely grounded upon Dante's Inferno, the first and most famous part of the Italian poet's epic The Divine Comedy, in which a traveler is escorted on a colorful guided tour of Hell.
What do you buy a morose Danish philosopher who invented Existentialism for his 200th birthday?
It doesn't really matter anymore, since Soren Aabye Kierkegaard is dead. He died at the young age of 42, already at this time a mostly broken man, an obsessive writer, a lonely bachelor, and a frequent subject of popular ridicule. Like Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald (with all of whom he shares some sensibility), he died at a low point of literary success, without much reason to expect that later generations would rediscover his work and call him a genius.
But I believe Soren Kierkegaard died a happy man, because he was that rare philosopher who found answers to the hardest questions he asked, answers that satisfied him completely. The questions were of religion, and of how to live a good life, and his answer involved the "leap of faith" or "leap to faith" (a phrase he invented). Kierkegaard was a devoted Christian, but he defied the philosophical norms of his age by expressly refusing to try to justify his belief with reason or logic. The power of religious faith, he pronounced, was in believing without reason or logic.
His belief in Christianity made him a great religious writer. What made him a great Existential writer was the implicit principle that underlies his argument for religious faith: the principle that we human beings regularly think, live and make decisions without reason or logic.
This was as much a "eureka" moment for Western philosophy as Rene Descartes's cogito ergo sum two centuries before. Though Kierkegaard had to struggle to explain his ideas to his bewildered Danish and European intellectual peers during his life, his idea of religion as a leap to faith would spring incredible gardens of original modernist thought: inheritors of Kierkegaard include Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Paul Tillich, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Sartre and many more.
(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today's article, see this post on Tim's own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim's blog, entitled "Timeless" -- Levi)
Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.
Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?
Religious faith is not something one can rationalize, or shove into a semantic corner, or elaborate in words. It's about the mystery of existence, our place in the cosmos, the nature of life, the inevitability of physical death. Are there any subjects more all-consuming than these? Even atheists ponder these subjects with, yes, near-religious fervor. Much of this seems like common sense, but common sense often balks when it encounters the first inklings of religious zealotry. Even people who consider themselves religious (whatever exactly that means) turn into eye-rolling cynics when evident "wackos" of different faiths appear, and those who regularly blame religion for humanity’s myriad ills are always ready with the I-told-you-so’s.
This is the sort of throat-clearing one needs to do when talking about, say, Scientology. Two new books shed some light into the dark corners where this church, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1950, resides.
(Actually, 1950 was the year Hubbard’s groundbreaking book Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health (English) was published; the Church of Scientology was officially opened for business in 1952).
One book is a firsthand tell-all expose of the excesses of the organization by a former insider. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige-Hill. What gives this book a little more oomph than previous exposes of Scientology—and there are countless testimonials to corroborate the revelations herein floating around the Internet, too many, in fact, for even Scientology to snuff out—is that the author is the niece of the current head of the church, David Miscavige. This church leader is, by most accounts, an unaccountable tyrant who tolerates no dissension in the ranks. In short, he is like the head of all religious organizations, from Mullah Omar and the Ayatollah to the Pope and Jim Jones and Sri Rajneesh. Cross them at your peril.
I've just learned that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park/Book of Mormon fame have been animating some passages from seminal Western Buddhist author Alan Watts. The videos are excellent! Here's Music and Life, with a message well worth hearing:
Ask me to name my favorite living writer, and I just might name J. M. Coetzee, formerly of South Africa, now of Australia. I think his best novels are Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, and I also get a tremendous kick out of his two recent meta-fictional adventures in psychological self-deconstruction, Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime, the latter of which has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be the third volume of his ongoing memoir, following Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II. But Summertime, a fragmented third-person narrative about a dead writer named John Coetzee, is no memoir.
Strangely, I'm more likely to recommend his late period works than his most famous novels, which are his earliest ones: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K and The Master of Petersburg. These books won the author a Nobel prize, but the stone-faced dead seriousness of these downbeat parables can be hard to take. As he got older and more successful, Coetzee seemed to become lighter or warmer-hearted, and began challenging himself to write more playful, experimental and archly self-referential novels. Word is out that his very latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, may be the most expansively allegorical, spiritually provocative and magnetically enigmatic of them all.
I haven't written as much about Coetzee as about other writers, though I have brushed past his great works here, here and here, and have also discussed his vegetarian principles here. There is something forbidding about Coetzee's stern countenance that always makes it feel unseemly to gush about his work. An admiring review of Childhood of Jesus in Coetzee's hometown rag The Australian says something smart about the difficulty of writing critically about a writer who seems to plumb such mysterious and deep sources of emotion and meaning with his stark, minimalist texts: