It's refreshing to see rival social, political or philosophical doctrines debated online with the kind of clear, brisk, brief writing that the best blogs feature. Last week, Michael Lind of Salon challenged the American libertarian/Paulist movement with a blunt Salon article titled "Grow Up, Libertarians!" This article led with a powerful question: "If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?"
In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg responded directly and thoughtfully with a piece called "Freedom: The Unfolding Revolution". Goldberg tried to swipe away Michael Lind's direct thrust by pointing out that the political ideal of liberty is too essential to be weighed on Lind's scale. Goldberg may or may not be right about the broader meaning of libertarianism, but his piece also echoes and agrees with a basic point of Michael Lind's that contrasts rising tide of 21st Century libertarianism with the sad history of 20th Century Communism. Here, both Michael Lind and Jonah Goldberg are accepting a sweeping premise about world history that is itself untrue, and must be challenged:
It'd be nice to report that intelligent public debate about privacy and governmental overreach followed, but it really didn't. Instead, various existing opinion groups immediately began spinning the news to support their various agendas. For the conservative media, the existence of NSA/PRISM is simply evidence of President Barack Obama's personal lust for power and totalitarian control. (This is despite the fact that PRISM was initiated before Obama became President, and only represents the widely accepted mandate of the NSA to gather intelligence against potential threats.)
To opinion groups closer to my own heart, represented by voices from various anarchist or Occupy movements, there has at least been a willingness to condemn the entire federal/corporate/military power structure for the NSA's latest offense against our constitutional right to privacy. But these voices also often seem to miss the larger and more important point: if you care about your personal privacy, and if you don't like the government snooping into your phone records and Internet activities, you ought to be a pacifist. Our culture of aggressive militarism will never be consistent with a culture of privacy.
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 use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root. And in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war through drones or special forces or troop deployments will prove self- defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.
So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. And moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better. But our security and our values demand that we make the effort.
-- President Barack Obama, National Defense Institute, May 23 2013
We've been waiting patiently -- too patiently, we may sometimes think -- for President Obama to address our concerns about disturbing new advances in the technology of warfare that seem to promise a horrific future for our entire planet. What can we possibly think about targeted killings in Pakistan and Afghanistan using remote-controlled aircrafts -- targeted killings that aren't targeted enough to avoid killing innocent civilians? Are we still trying to pretend that there can ever be a meaningful rulebook for drones?
Last week, the President didn't manage to answer these unanswerable questions, but at least he talked about them, in a speech designed to advance public debate on all topics involving the USA's military policy and war on terrorism. The speech is worth reading in full, even though the best moments occurred outside of this transcript, when the brave activist and Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin heckled the President repeatedly, demanding something more than wishy-washy answers.
I can't write a Philosophy Weekend blog post this weekend. I've been working too hard on some tech changes to the site that will finally launch on Tuesday or Wednesday ... and I'm also too broken up about the final show of the final season of my favorite TV show, "The Office".
So, instead of a thoughtful existential blog post, here's one of my old favorite scenes from that show, the Nobody But Me lib dub that opened season 7.
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.
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.
I don't have much of a Philosophy Weekend post for you this weekend. I'm working on some technical improvements to the website, and I'm also pondering some big themes for the next few weekends. But all I've got to show you today is a clip from a 1993 movie about Ludwig Wittgenstein that I only discovered myself recently.
The always fascinating Derek Jarman lays out the philosopher's story in fairly straight fashion, with Chancy Classay playing the role of the groundbreaking philosopher. I particularly like the part of this clip in which Wittgenstein explains to an impudent student that he really can't absolutely know for sure whether or not he just slapped his own face. If he could know for sure, then the word "know" would not need to exist. I'm not as completely convinced by Wittgenstein's famous statement, also played out in this scene, that "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him". (But then, I've always had an affinity for cats, and I sometimes think I understand them better than I understand humans. Maybe Wittgenstein was a dog person.)
(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?
Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.