Jose Fernandez and the burdens of freedom

November 1, 2016

fernandez-boat

Jose Fernandez was a golden young man, with a golden right arm and a golden future.  At 24, he had already been selected twice to represent the Miami Marlins in the All-Star Game, and as starting pitcher he performed with talent and dominance given to very few in every baseball generation.

On the mound, he displayed an intensity that bordered on contempt for the opposition.  Bryce Harper of my Washington Nationals, a kindred spirit, placed Fernandez among those who are “making baseball fun again” because he wore his emotions so openly.  “Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.  And if you hit a homer and pimp it?  He doesn’t care.  Because you got him,” said Harper admiringly.  The last time Fernandez pitched, he shut out the Nationals, Harper included, making a good team look like a pack of minor leaguers.

Fernandez, in brief, was a star who should have become one of the greats in the history of the game.

That was not to be.  Around midnight of Saturday, September 25, propelled by whatever restlessness drives a 24-year-old with endless supplies of money, he and two friends went out to the dark waters of Biscayne Bay on his speedboat, the “Kaught Looking.”  Two hours later the boat was found upside down on a jetty.  The three men on board had been crushed to death.  The golden youth, the golden arm, and the golden future were lost forever.

A bit over a month later, the Dade County medical examiner’s office released its report on the autopsy.  It had found cocaine and high levels of alcohol in Fernandez’s blood.

***

The back story of Jose Fernandez’s life is in some ways more significant than his career in professional sports.

He was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and he determined from an early age to escape that crumbling dictatorship.  By the time he was 15, he had tried and failed three times to leave the island.  Failure cost him a prison term:  in Castro’s Cuba, you are a traitor if you aren’t happy with your life.  In this, Fernandez showed the same determination he was to display on the mound.  In 2008, along with family members, he tried a fourth time.

The boat he was in hit turbulent waters on the way to Mexico, and Fernandez’s mother was swept overboard.  He jumped in the ocean and rescued her.  “I have always been a strong swimmer, since I was a kid,” Fernandez said by way of explanation.  In fact he was a kid when this ordeal took place – barely 15 years old.

The fourth attempt succeeded.  Fernandez eventually made it to the US, attended high school in Miami, became an American citizen, and rode the golden arm to wealth and fame.  He was a ballplayer with a difference.  He had been born unfree and all possible paths were now open to him.  Fernandez often said that pitching in the major leagues never made him nervous.  He had lived through too much to worry about anything that transpired within a game.

The question that haunts the life and death of Jose Fernandez is that of the burdens of freedom.  He faced down a dictatorship with unyielding courage.  Given the freedom to do so, he succeeded, materially and professionally, beyond the dreams of the vast majority of people.  Can anything more be asked of a young man whose life, though eventful, had scarcely begun?

A number of Cuba’s baseball “defectors” – the word implies treason against the state – who have gone from nothing to freedom, appear to have had trouble working out the implications of the latter condition.  The great closer Aroldis Chapman was suspended from the game for 30 days for domestic violence.  Hector Olivera, with a $62 million contract in his pocket, served ten days in prison for misdemeanor assault of a female acquaintance.  Yasiel Puig, worth a mere $42 million, was involved in a drunken barroom brawl after a fight with his sister.  Livan Hernandez, favorite of Nationals fans, has clearly kept company with drug traffickers and has been investigated for money laundering, though he has never been prosecuted.

These men defied Castro’s decrepit tyranny, and succeeded materially and professionally beyond most people’s dreams.  But it may be that freedom, properly understood, entails something more than this.

***

To a man just released from a cage, all his desires will appear licit.  This is an illusion.  It is too much and not nearly enough.  Freedom, I think, is more than the buzz of cocaine, the chill of alcohol, the youthful madness of roaring over the water at 2 a.m. in a magnificent speedboat – more, too, than the right to strike at the persons who deny our desires, and who seem, by that denial, to be pushing us back in a cage.

We must make allowances for those who have escaped from darkness into the light of day, and are dazzled and blinded by the sudden brilliance.  But this isn’t freedom at all.

If you want to learn what freedom means, ask a couple in love.  Ask a parent.  Ask a soldier at war.  Freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  A tinseled despot like Fidel Castro may say, “I own your life – you belong to me.”  Freedom consists of the following response:  “No.  My loyalty is to my family.”  Or to my country.  Or to my friends and neighbors.  Or to my church.

Doing anything we desire isn’t freedom.  It’s tyranny of a different kind.  It’s playing the part of Fidel Castro in a Mini-Me sort of way.

The burdens of freedom are the obligations we choose.  Once chosen, they must be shouldered to the end.  To the shallow mind that may feel like a cage, but it is really integrity, wholeness, the rare and mysterious dignity of being a complete human being.  If you are truly married, you will be loyal to your spouse.  Otherwise, why bother with so many lies?  If you are a good parent, you will give up the party life, the days of rum and cocaine, the midnight races in the Bay, so you can be there to protect your children, and wipe their bottoms, and put up with their temper tantrums, and work for their happiness and success in life.  Otherwise, what do the words “father” and “mother” mean?

Jose Fernandez’s girlfriend, we are told, had just revealed that she was pregnant.  I am old-fashioned enough to worry about the notion of a pregnant girlfriend.  That seems like an obligation, too.  Fernandez, though, was nothing if not loyal, and I want to believe that, had he lived, he would have married the mother of his child.  But he never woke up to what fatherhood meant.  Maybe he needed more time, but he still acted like a restless 24-year-old with an endless supply of money, and then there was no time left.

His girlfriend, I presume, will inherit nothing.  His child will grow up never knowing his father, just as he will never know his child.

***

I’m not really writing this to moralize over the death of Jose Fernandez.  Even at 24, he was old enough to know better, but he paid with his life for his misjudgment.  That was much too high a price.  There can be nothing but sadness from the loss of this extraordinary young man.

I write because I believe many of us – not nearly so young, not nearly so dazzled by wealth and fame – have lost sight of what freedom means.  We have come to reject the very idea of obligation, because it feels like oppression.  We blame shadowy forces, some secretive but all-powerful Enemy, for whatever doesn’t go our way.

Everything today ends in politics, and this post, alas, will be no exception.  I don’t know how it happened that American politics became the equivalent of a cocaine high, with so many of us feeling like brazen masters of the universe, expecting as a matter of right the triumph of our opinions and the fulfillment of our every desire.  I don’t know how we came to believe that only the villainy of those who disagree with us is blocking the perfect utopia of our dreams.

But that isn’t the way of freedom at all.

Personal freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  Political freedom entails the understanding that our choices will often collide.  Only the tyranny of a single will – rule by a Fidel Castro, say – can prevent that from happening.  The frustration we feel because others disagree with our choices is the essence of political freedom.

If we embrace freedom as a political ideal, then we must shoulder certain obligations.  Chief among them is the assumption that others are as wise in their reflections and as virtuous in their intentions as we are.  On any given question, they may turn out to be right, and we may turn out to be wrong.  If we desire the power to persuade others, we must be willing to be persuaded.  Keeping an open, receptive mind is the only way to make room for all of us.

We can’t shrug off the burdens of freedom without vandalizing our own objectives and beliefs.  We can’t strike at those who block our political desires and not expect rage and rant in return.  None of this is particularly profound, but all of it, I suppose, is hard, being a question of character.  Still, every generation since the Civil War managed the trick:  and we can too, if we so wish it.  The alternative is to allow American politics to fly with reckless abandon into dark waters, stupefaction at the helm, and count off the seconds until the fatal hour.


Our moral nakedness

July 19, 2016

adam eve adoration

Years ago, unperceived by most, we entered the age of rant.  We have learned to condemn dissenters in language steeped in nihilism and violence.  Morality has become the equivalent of an assault rifle.  We use it to silence forever those persons and opinions we find hateful – and there are so many, so many of the hateful.  They should be shamed.  They should be fired from their jobs.  They should be prosecuted as criminals.  They should be crucified.

On occasion, some lost soul takes this process to its logical conclusion, picks up a real rifle, and starts mowing down his version of the hateful.

I find this remarkable.  Anyone who considers the rant and fury of our moment must find it remarkable – not because it is extreme, but because it seems to float on nothing.  Each condemnation implies that a right or principle of good behavior has been violated.  But our rights have been torn off their foundations, our principles lack first principles.  God and Christianity are out of the question.  Convention and tradition are precisely what is under attack.  Reason, nature, science – each is a bone of contention, a battleground rather than a starting-point.

So we stand morally naked, ranting at others whom we find hateful because of their moral nakedness.

***

Consider a basic but nonpolitical question.  Should I pursue pleasure as the highest good, to the ultimate extreme?  To do so would subject every loyalty and relationship of mine to the test of that one principle:  my pleasure.  I’d be free to, say, have as much sex with as many women as I could, provided it’s pleasurable, and I’d be absolved from the duties of child-raising, because (as every parent knows) parenting is kind of a pain.

Many would object to this behavior – but on what principle?  Puritanical?  Conventional?  Sociological?  Humanitarian?  Valid objections to a purely hedonistic life can be raised from each of these foundations.  None is generally shared, however.  None will persuade across the patchwork of moralistic war-bands that define contemporary life.

The moral reality is that many men today behave just as I have described, yet they are not the target of anyone’s rant.  Nobody cares enough to want to shame them or to get them fired or arrested.  When Hollywood makes sexual hedonism into a virtue, as it sometimes does, nobody calls for a boycott.  Though we may disapprove, our opinions lack purchase and conviction.  We have grown comfortable in a posture of outrage about many things, but sexual predilections are a big part of identity, and we are reluctant to draw boundaries.

In the age of rant, transgression appears in the guise of liberation, and liberation engenders feelings of moral outrage and unease.

***

At this point, the Fist-Nose-Peace argument usually makes an appearance.  It goes something like this:  “Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.  Your right to pursue pleasure ends when you inflict pain.  In sexual matters, you have no right to treat women as objects of your pleasure, because that’s hurtful.  You have no right to rape.  And please note:  many are outraged, and make a loud noise against, those who objectify and rape.”

To which is added (often tacitly) the Peace corollary:  “The spread of science and reason means that ever larger numbers now abstain from hurtful behavior.  The human race has evolved inexorably toward humanitarianism.  If you are selfish, abusive, or exploitive, you will be left behind by history.”

But this is Christianity without Jesus.  Fraternal love and compassion are the prime virtues.  It used to be that God so commanded – who commands it now?  The law?  But our law evolved from Christian doctrines.  Cut off from these, we are, philosophically speaking, adrift.  Our natural empathy?  But we can train empathy to be highly selective in its objects, much like soldiers can be trained out of the horror of killing strangers.

Why should I care about your nose, or your hurt feelings?  Here is our own riddle of the Sphinx, the question that lays bare our moral nakedness.  It isn’t rhetorical.  Ranters, so delicate about the feelings of those in their own camp, are vicious to those they consider hateful, with jail, rape, and murder part of their typical repertory of threats.

An appeal to rights only begs the question.  Who or what has the authority to grant us rights?  Some claim the right to change sexes, on the grounds of personal identity.  The same persons are likely to deny the right to own guns, even if that is part of someone’s identity.  So the claiming of rights has become little more than a weapon in the clash and push of enraged opinions.

As for the inevitable triumph of humanitarianism – that’s a pretext for limiting one’s engagement to the rant.  Why risk a fight for the good, when everything is bound to turn out for the best?  Yet this proposition, though it gestures vaguely toward science and reason, is grounded on nothing.  Science is amoral.  It gave us penicillin and the ovens at Buchenwald.  Reason is an empty bucket – it needs reasons to act on.  Empirical evidence is at best ambivalent on the inevitability of human kindness.

Hundreds of thousands of human beings, most of them helpless innocents, have been slaughtered during the last five years in the Syrian conflict.  To wash our hands of them because they stand on the wrong side of history is an act of monstrous moral condescension and indifference unto death.

***

Given our nakedness, and the endless conflict, and the intensity of our mutual loathing, one would expect a frantic search on all sides for higher-level arguments to justify our opinions.  One would expect a new golden age of moral inquiry and creative philosophy.  Instead, every trace of curiosity and humility has been bludgeoned out of our public conversations.  A police shooting might inspire a debate about the proper use of force by the authorities:  instead, it becomes a shouting match between those enraged by attacks on law enforcement and those enraged by racist cops.

We seem to think we know – absolutely, universally.   And so we rant at those hateful people who don’t get it.

Even Fist-Nose-Peace is less an argument than a background assumption, rarely articulated.  We seem uninterested in arguments.  That’s the remarkable bit:  in all our shouting, we never look down to see that our dogmas have come unmoored, that we and they are floating in mid-air.  We take for granted that our war-band’s slogans are absolutely valid principles, universally accepted.  The very act of doubting, questioning, criticizing, will translate into betrayal and place us among the “deniers.”

We are terrified of doubt.  We don’t care to persuade, because that requires a space that is open to hurtful possibilities.  So rather than convert the infidel, we prefer to scream threats at him, in the hope that someone will implement them.  For me, this gives the game away.

If the why or what or how of the ideology we embrace holds no interest, then we must be fixated on the who.  The age of rant isn’t about moral conflict or disputation.  It’s about the will to power.  We don’t argue, any more than Nietzsche’s Artist-Tyrant would.  We decide.  But even then our tyranny is flabby – cowardly.  Our pitch is high-decibel, our tone is absolute, our condemnations are fevered and violent, but except for the occasional crazed shooter our actions are always virtual.

We are not a population of Madame Defarges, knitting by the guillotine.  That would be too real.  In the perfect world of each moralistic war-band, some impersonal agent, preferably the government, would criminalize the views and activities of hostile groups, as purveyors of hatred.  Those who belonged to such groups would be publicly shamed and re-educated.  If they resisted, they would be harassed at every step of their lives.

And maybe, in a far corner of the city square, out of everyone’s sight, a single guillotine might be erected, for symbolic purposes, to encourage the others.

***

I don’t have the power to change the spirit of the times.  Nobody does.  Sanity, if it ever returns, will arrive one newly-blossomed mind at a time.

Nor do I wish to rant about ranters – that would deliver me body and soul to the zeitgeist.  Perdition lies that way.

But I can make choices.  All of us can.  At every turn I choose what binds over what splinters.  I offer my feeble endorsement to Major League Baseball and Pokemon Go, because in our games we seem to be at our best and least contorted.  I treat politicians with respect whose policies horrify me, because they represent the electorate.  I despise Black Lives Matter and alt-conservatives with equal measures of contempt, because both tear at the open wound of separation and human distance.

No community can survive with members self-exiled to distant islands of identity.  I choose to consider people under the largest common denominator:  not whiteness or blackness, not richness or poorness, not maleness or femaleness, not straightness or gayness, not any of the now-mandatory shards of human spirit, but as part of a single gathering, of the same moral community.  And so I choose the only morality all of us can possibly share:  that given by our history and our traditions.

Call it conventional morality.  Or call it vulgar, as I do on this blog.  Anyone can appeal to it, because we share in common the sources and the ideals and the phrases:  “do unto others,” “created equal,” “pursuit of happiness.”  Yes, it exalts kindness and compassion – but also courage and strength of character.  It demands equality of moral standing but applauds superiority earned by excellence and honest work.

The appeal to conventional morality commits me to making arguments.  That’s how the tradition works.  I must respect advocates of hostile opinions enough to offer persuasive reasons to change them.  To my surprise, I have chosen to do this too.  I have posted 683 times on this blog – each post is a kind of argument, an attempt to stitch a threadbare cover to our nakedness.  Have I changed even a single mind?  I have no idea – possibly not.  But I can only choose to try.

Ultimately, I choose to valuate individuals according to moral worth:  kind or unkind, good or bad, strong or weak.  Beyond this framework, I have very little interest in their identities.

And in the Hobbesian war of all against all in which we are presently engaged, I choose to be a conscientious objector.


Conversation in the desert

November 16, 2015

ca desert westin 003

The desert pares the mind down to the essentials of human existence.  Emptiness concentrates, even as luxury dissipates.  In the lush woods and streams of classical Greece, people discovered a thousand gods and nymphs, but the Israelites in their barren wilderness could conceive of only one all-determining force, which was their Father, Lawgiver, and Commander of the Army.

So it should not be surprising that, when I visited my sister and her family at their home near the Mojave, the conversation turned metaphysical.

I began with a story I recently told here.  Our way of life, I said, resembles a confused version of Christianity – Christianity with a hole in its logic.  We espouse humanitarian ideals like love, compassion, and equality, but we fail to attach them to any necessary cause.  These are, of course, Christian ideals.  They were once attached to God and the Ten Commandments.  God, in old days, was the necessary cause.

If an anthropologist from Mars had asked one of my forefathers why he lived the life he did, that worthy person would have responded, in the manner of Urban II, “God wills it.”

But we have done away with Christianity as a source of moral certainty. We are reluctant to acknowledge any authority greater than our own opinions.  If that Martian scientist were to ask us why we live as we do, I wager that most of us today would respond, “Because I will it.”

This makes the framework that sustains our way of life a poor, contingent thing.  I will humanitarianism.  But my next door neighbor may will cannibalism.  I can have no moral or logical objections to his choice – he and I, humanitarian and cannibal, must point equally to our internal states, our desires, to justify our lives.

***

My sister seemed surprised that I identified the humanitarian way of life with Christianity.  To her, the two were quite distinct.  She had a different story to tell.

In the beginning, she said, people worshipped dissolute gods and allowed themselves immoral and inhumane behavior.  They did so out of ignorance.  They lacked awareness.  In time, with the progress of the human spirit, they – that is, we – came to understand the superiority of humanitarian principles, of kindness, compassion, equality, toleration, and the rest.  These, she insisted, were not particularly Christian ideals, but universal, self-evident goods.  For many centuries we needed a strict, moral God to command and enforce them, much as children need a stern father to enforce good behavior.  But that is no longer necessary.

Humanity is now grown up, and humanitarian principles can stand on their own merit.  Atheist and Christian alike acknowledge the superiority of this way of life.

I asked whether humanitarianism would be self-evident to the Aztecs, who ripped the beating heart out of their sacrificial victims.  My sister wouldn’t hear of it.  The Aztecs, she said, were in the past.  Nobody, today, rips out hearts and thinks it a good thing to do.

***

What follows is my attempt to understand my sister’s position during that conversation in the desert, and should not be confused with her own words.

If humanitarian ideals are a self-evident good, they need no defense or justification, any more than, say, eating healthy food to stay alive needs a defense or justification.  All that’s required is an adult understanding of reality.  Given enough time, the entire human race must converge on these ideals:  Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, wiccan, Hegelian, Neoplatonist, Confucian, agnostic, atheist, animist, environmentalist, socialist, Republican, Democrat, all will end as one in the humanitarian gathering-place.

Ignorant or evil persons or groups may reject our way of life – exemplified, in typically unimaginative web disputes, by Hitler and the Nazis.  But Hitler and the Nazis are not a viable alternative to humanitarian principles.  They are a pathological denial of the reality of human progress.

This is theodicy:  the idea that the evidence of the universe endorses our values.  This is also what Karl Popper called historicism:  the idea that the machinery of history produces intelligible and predictable patterns, in this case nudging all of humanity in the direction of the post-Christian West.  The implication seems to be that, in matters of morality, everyone will end up just like us.

I suspect that many people who support humanitarian ideals share my sister’s position on their inevitability.  President Obama is certainly among them.  When he refers, as he often does, to the “right side of history,” he means “the predictable direction of the future” rather than “the correct moral (or political) posture for the present” – although, as with every theodicy, the two for him are really the same.

One effect is passivity in the face of contradiction.  President Obama, for example, has conducted a notoriously passive foreign policy.  Why not?  He has faith that history must move in his direction anyhow.  Those who share the president’s creed tend to be reluctant to assert or propagate it, even while hostile voices rant from the rooftops.  It may be that they, too, feel certain that mere inertia will deliver a happy future.

***

There is no empirical evidence that the human race is becoming kindlier or more humanitarian.  A case has been made – by Stephen Pinker among others – that we are “less violent than ever,” but this is connected to the monopolization of violence by the state, rather than to any progress in human nature.  It may also be a temporary development.

A decrease in violence, in any event, is by no means identical to an increase in tolerance, generosity, egalitarianism, or the humanitarian spirit generally.  Today we are divided against ourselves, alienated from our institutions, and vocally angry at those who are not exactly like us.  Our historical moment, I predict, will not be remembered for its loving-kindness.

A theodicy, however, never pretends to be an empirical hypothesis, but is what Isaiah Berlin labelled a “metaphysical attitude.”  Theodicy provides the categories that give meaning to empirical data:  it exists a priori, and, as with every system of meaning, it is either intuited to be true or not.

My sister intuits an inevitability to moral progress.  I don’t.  Though our temperaments differ, we largely pursue the same ideals of behavior.  The question that divides us is whether these ideals are metaphysically necessary and inexorable, or imposed, in a wholly contingent manner, by the will.

There is a path out of the controversy – a middle ground that has provided the theme for this blog.  If our way of life has been made and unmade by history, and not by God or some cosmic force, then we must treat history with a great deal of respect, and break loose from our own past with a great deal of care and self-awareness.  In the domain of morals, and hence of politics, at least, we are what we were, and no amount of unhappiness with our present condition should confuse us into believing we can commune with God or nature or science and so transcend, socially or personally, our fallible humanity.

Historical change is inevitable.  Consider human language:  within a few centuries it becomes unintelligible.  Planned radical change, on the other hand, is nearly always a disaster – at best it has turned out to be the sociopolitical equivalent of Esperanto, at worst a savage holocaust.  We don’t know enough, we aren’t pure enough:  and this will be true for as long as we remain human.

To that question from the puzzled Martian about why we live as we do, a reasonable answer is:  “Because that is our custom.”

I’m aware that such an answer runs counter to the spirit of the hour.  The past, we are told, is slavery, patriarchy, economic exploitation, social exclusion, sexual bigotry, political oppression.  History is the Great Satan, and we must denounce its works if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.  The angry left does this by heaving slime at every form of established authority, from religion to the university.  The right, which might be supposed to respect tradition, discovers its own style of rage and repudiation in the romance of an invented past.

It’s almost a relief to observe the direct approach of the Islamists:  they take a jackhammer to history.

These are the voices of entropy, devourer of civilizations, destroyer of worlds.  If they triumph, we will inherit a great emptiness, a moral desert of negation and nihilism – and the conversation about the inevitability of humanitarian values will be settled for an age.


The metaphysics of history (5): The justification of freedom

November 9, 2015

migration

The great historical systems of human ideals were never self-justified.  They derived the authorizing magic of legitimacy from a source beyond themselves.  Everything internal and consequential to these systems, such as the status of individuals and the policies of the state, were aligned, explained, and praised or condemned according to the mandates of that external source.

To Greek and Christian, and to every society known before the present time, the justifying source lay in the sacred realm of the transcendental, above and beyond.  Its commandments regulated humanity’s relationship to the universal.  Justification was thus direction, and direction, that clear path across time, a human necessity, was justified.

For all its unprecedented material success and quality of life, liberal democracy, at the present moment, is bereft of justification.

Material success and quality of life are praiseworthy only within a humanitarian scale of values that is suspended in mid-air, itself unjustified.  We, the children of democracy, have been given much, we have been pandered to, yet we are unhappy with our condition.  Appeals to God on his mountain are useless:  a system rooted in the soil of indeterminacy would be baffled by the riddle of which God, on which mountain.  The existential threat that, in one possible future, will rouse democracy out of its subjective torpor, cannot justify the system.  The instinct for self-preservation, available to hero and coward alike, justifies nothing.

***

The problem of justification for democracy, however, must not be confused with the same problem for all previous systems.  In the laws of its development and the range of its experience, democracy has left far behind the categorical patterns of the human past:  the old forms and the old logic now stand stretched and warped by distance.

Every system in history considered “the good” to be an eternal and immutable quality.  The transcendental source of justification was present in the now but also unchanging for all time.  Justification meant achieving a condition of perfection that must never again be altered to the slightest degree.  Legitimacy was the magical feeling of existing within that condition.

The societies that embraced these ideals were, objectively, scarcely less dynamic than our own, but their metaphysical foundations, the ideals themselves, aimed at a cosmic point beyond time, forever fixed.

In contrast, for liberal democracy “the good” assumes the attributes of a process:  that of becoming.  Orientation is not toward an immutable point in time, but toward the indefinite future.  The paramount democratic ideal, freedom, is a procedural value, a door that clicks open and appears otherwise empty of content.

Critics of democracy have thus typically accused the system of being a mere emptiness, all process without spirit.  But this could be said only from a specific perspective, one that looks upward and backward for justification.   From a different perspective, freedom appears overfull:  it is pregnant with every possibility, and oriented toward the future.

Because of the indeterminate spirit of liberal democracy, the source of its justification must forever lie concealed over the horizon.  To be justified means to move ever closer to a transcendent condition located in the indefinite future.  Direction for democratic societies is thus more a matter of search than of commandments from on high.

The object of migration is perfection, within the bounds of human possibility:  and that is many, not one, because the house of truth has many mansions.  Even if the universe is one, our condition will perceive the whole through a glass darkly, in fragments and pieces.  Even if humanity itself is one, we can never quite know what we are.   We may thirst for the universal – and, being human, we invariably will – but that is motive power to move faster and farther in our exodus, rather than to rest or to dream.

Insofar as democracy is a system driven by individual freedom, the shared purpose of existence becomes discovery, not absorption into the one.

***

There will be times when, crushed by the weight of our rootlessness, we will stop and stay.  From weariness, from weakness, we will erect false idols and bow before them:  this may well describe the present moment.  But the flood of events will sweep around us, and we will either resume our wandering or we will drown.

A moral and political system oriented toward the future will appear appallingly provisional.  This sense of fundamental impermanence has been seized on, critically, by an intellectual class that has always perceived itself as the mediator between humanity and the absolute.  From Plato to Heidegger, the judgment of philosophers has rarely favored democracy.

Yet the philosophers have treated each other’s ideas as if they were provisional steps to a greater truth, which each alone had grasped.  The “reason” of Heidegger or Foucault differed from that of Kant and Marx, and all of them differed still more substantially from Plato’s.  The absolute principles these brilliant men conjured with such confidence were products of history, and thus unstable, fleeting.  The same is true even of the great doctrines of Christianity:  the division of scripture into Old and New Testaments is a frank confession of the impermanence of human understanding.

Every human ideal is in some sense provisional, pending future events.  The justification of democracy – the future of freedom – hinges on whether a system can survive that honestly acknowledges this condition.


The metaphysics of history (4): On the destruction and resurrection of democracy

October 22, 2015

isis skull man

If human directionality is a form of destiny, the destiny of liberal democracy, under the spell of universal rights, has been to announce, to an astonished humanity, the nonexistence of the universal, the atomization of society, and, hence, the dissolution of its own founding principles.

This represents a traumatic break with the assumptions of every previous age.  Even people’s sovereignty, which discarded God and Church, simply exchanged the democratic state for the monarch, while retaining a vision of the sacredness and majesty of the people as one.  Popular sovereignty stood on a prophetic glimmering of something beyond mere contingency, sufficient to generate the explosive energies of militant democracy.

The direction in which democratic nations are currently launched, however, forecloses the possibility of wholeness at any level.  We have strayed, seemingly blindly, into the kingdom of pure contingency, where the concept of the universal can have no meaning.

Human rights are said to be universal, but are now detached from any scientific theory, chain of logic, or tradition of transcendence that would merit the use of that word.  In the present political context, “universal” has become an incantation, a polemical argument-stopper, denoting the strength of will of those who wish to expand the search for individual identity.

Nothing is more transient than political will.  It has turned against democracy in the past.  It could do so again tomorrow.

To the tender-hearted, the atomization of humanity under liberal democracy can look like a return to the state of nature, with the strong devouring the weak while striking pious poses in defense of freedom.  Political and intellectual elites have always found the fractured democratic state too unmanageable for their grandiose schemes.  The mass of citizens, having pocketed immense gains in material prosperity and quality of life, now grumbles under the sting of the system’s imperfections:  jobs are always too few, costs are always too high, and the future, once home to Utopia, is now imagined as the opposite of progress.  Any crisis, any sudden shock, could inspire a fatal number of defections.

Against such a turning of elite and public opinion, democracy stands defenseless.  There are no moral or intellectual barriers to its overthrow.  Any other system, whether revolutionary or reactionary, ultra-humanitarian or anti-humanitarian, must be considered equally legitimate, so long as it attracts equal levels of political will.

A metaphysical nakedness so extreme can be explained by the onset of terminal decadence, that is, by the exhaustion of the possibilities inherent to the system – or alternatively by an attempt, as yet incomplete, to discover a new foundation on which to sustain the present system.  In other words, liberal democracy, if we read its ambivalent symptoms right, must either be perishing of a degenerative malady or has gotten lost, like Hansel and Gretel, in the woods.

***

Scarcely a generation has lapsed since the “end of history,” the moment of extinction of the great totalitarian systems, when the ideals of liberal democracy were said to have triumphed not just for then, but forever.  If, after so brief a career, these ideals have instead fallen into the final stages of decay, a revaluation is in order.

The question we must answer has nothing to do with longevity, and everything with fertility:  a proposition that exhausts itself in a generation can hardly be considered an autonomous force in history.  If the voice of God falls silent in a single lifetime, the probability is that it was never heard at all.  Democracy, in that case, was never a system, in the way we have understood that term.  It must be considered in light of some other system, and can be explained only in relation to that other.

The last two centuries can be interpreted in a manner that shows liberal democracy to be an episode in the long decadence of Christianity.

On this account, democracy becomes a short chapter in the search for something that cannot be found:  the magic formula to resurrect, in more respectable garb, the fierce old Christian ideal.  The historical context is well known.  The Wars of Religion inflicted fatal deformations on Christianity.  The one God of a single Christendom was torn to pieces at the hands of frenzied sectarians.  The trauma drove the thinking classes of the West away from religion, and toward philosophy:  in a realm of abstraction, they devised a path out of the crushing dogmatism of the times.  But this was always a salvage mission.  For all their derision of the Church, the philosophers of the 18th century were engaged in a desperate effort to preserve, on a new foundation of reason, the humanitarian spirit of Christianity.

Liberal democracy was the central element of this audacious project.  Once again, the historical details are familiar:  morality and the state were to be reorganized according to universal truths derived from the “science of man,” as systematic and irrefutable, to the philosophers, as the Newtonian science of nature.  The most admired precepts of archaic Christianity, such as compassion and the call to perfection, rescued out of the bonfire, were to be sustained by the Goddess of Reason in place of the God of Jesus.

The motive behind these maneuvers was cultural self-preservation.  A civilization wounded in body and soul wished to project its ideals, and thus its identity, into the future, but it had lost confidence in the transcendental framework that had given birth to these ideals, and it had come to despise the institution – the Church – that had long been the keeper of the faith.

The philosophical defrocking of Christian civilization repeated the pattern of ancient Greece, with similar results.  Brilliant intellects deployed the power of reason to overcome history, but the project was tangled in contradiction, and inevitably failed.

For the children of the post-Christian West, there was no path back to paradise.  For liberal democracy, failure meant incoherence and subjectivity unto death.  God was replaced by the people as the source of transcendent certainty, but the people fractured into the individual, and the individual, in the exercise of his rights and freedoms, absent any unifying force, has dissipated into a mist of subjective impulses.  Where the mystic and the churchman once stood on the plane of human ideals, we now discover the nihilist.

The individual is too frail a vessel to impersonate God.  The spectacle is ludicrous, comical, like that of a small, frightened animal rattling inside an immense suit of armor.  Our present predicament, this episode, democracy, will expire in the mode of comedy, not high drama, amid laughter and applause rather than tears.  What follows must obey the logic of directionality.  Once individualism has degenerated into nihilism, and subjectivity becomes burdened with the sentiment of an unbearable loneliness, prophets will arise who hear the voice of God calling us in the opposite direction:  toward the one.

Whether this great summoning takes the form of religion or of secular ideology is impossible to predict, and of no particular significance.  Whether the aim is to revive archaic Christianity in some new guise, or exalt a novel system under entirely different principles, the moment will be fraught with danger and the possibility of bloodshed.  Tragedy and terror, never laughter, attend the difficult birth of every human ideal.

***

A less calamitous explanation can account for the symptoms afflicting liberal democracy.  It starts from a conventional reading of recent history:  liberal democracy is, beyond doubt, the successor system to Christianity, not a mere episode or pale afterglow.  The predicament of democracy is the opposite of infertility:  the system lacks defining boundaries and is pregnant with too many possibilities.  It has shattered the mold of history, and placed humanity in an uncomfortable place beyond its own experience.  Radical indeterminacy has meant a radical disorientation.

Flight from the universal, idolatry of the individual, the reduction of human life to private urges, all these moves express a sort of civilizational agoraphobia, the panic of the West over the sudden boundlessness and lack of direction of historical space.  Confronted with such an enormity, we have retreated to subjectivity.  We have tried to subsist in slivers of personal feeling, that is, in pure contingency.

This may be a pathological response, but it is not destiny.

To each previous epoch of history, the universal has manifested itself in the form of an explanation that entailed an obligation to pursue a specific path:  the repudiation of the body, in Christianity’s case.  In the present instance, however, directionality has been nullified by the force that set it in motion.  The frightening indeterminacy of the democratic system began a stampede away from the center, but all possible directions, including back, remain available.

The next step is open.  That is not to say that the pressure is equal toward all points of the compass.

Indeterminacy simply means openness to many types of action.  The logic of the future must work through the actors within the system:  the children of democracy.  The present condition can be described in terms of concealment, suspension, uncertainty.  We seem to be waiting for some event to launch us back into history.  Yet we are alienated from history, from memory, by our flight into the subjective.  We have each crawled into our private shelters as deep as it is possible to go while still retaining some connection to a coherent community – indeed, to any condition that tolerates more than a single individual will.  The next step forward will either take us to nihilism or turn us in the opposite direction:  up and out, toward the universal.

***

We never, in truth, escaped history:  we merely turned our backs on it.  We never broke loose of objective reality:  we merely willed our subjective dreams to occupy the place of that reality.  But the human animal must swim in the flood of events.  Empirical reality will drown us, if we dream for too long.  We may look inward and, for a brief comic interlude, attempt to impersonate God, but in time the impulse to self-preservation will return our consciousness to history.

There, we will find the metaphysical landscape dominated by two pervasive forces:  the democratic condition of indeterminacy, and the human need for the universal.

Terrible events tread restlessly in the wings.  Sooner or later, they will take their place at center stage.  Confronted with frightful choices, liberal democracy will either crumble like the World Trade towers or come to terms with the one, that is, with some ideal of shared transcendence.  This could take the form of a return to people’s sovereignty, with fraternité once again the war-cry of democracy in arms.  But another possibility exists, charged with consequences.

Indeterminacy is not the negation of the one, or of the absolute, or of any possible common direction.  Indeterminacy negates obligation.  We are no longer commanded by God from on high.  We are no longer compelled by the very fabric of the universe.  We exist in a state of free play, and will so continue while liberal democracy endures.  Once roused out of our existential panic by the threat of events, we will be turned, by the flow of free play, to the universal.

This turning will not resemble the narrow way of Greece or Christianity, or even of popular sovereignty.  There will be no guillotines or metal-detectors to enforce it.  All that will be required is a handful of persuasive democratic ideals (illustratively:  “self-reliance,” “self-rule,” “public-mindedness”), voluntarily embraced, with a few models to embody them and a few precepts to articulate them.  The effect will resemble an elaborate musical counterpoint on the theme of morality, politics, and the state.  Unlike all previous systems, we will not be made to sing in unison, but we will express our various parts, large and small, high and low, tuned to the same pitch.

Whether the universal will actually be glimpsed is uncertain, but this is true at all times and under all systems of ideals.  We can never fully know what we are.  For the purposes of liberal democracy, what matters is progress.  The exodus out of subjectivity will mean a resumption of movement, of direction, of history.  Philosophers and political leaders might search for an oasis in the wilderness, but there will be no stopping-places.

The spirit that imparts the mobilizing energy to democracy will be nothing that is, but a powerful consciousness of not-being, of the eternally incomplete.  By its very enormity, indeterminate humanity will partake of the transcendent.


The metaphysics of history (3): Democracy and indeterminacy

October 20, 2015

democracy indeterminacy 2

Of the ideologies that contended over the fallen body of Christendom, there can be little doubt that liberal democracy has emerged triumphant.  This, in itself, is surprising:  liberal democracy, embodiment of the many in power, has been considered a weak and invertebrate system.  Democrats, at all times, seem to be in a panic over the future of democracy.

Nevertheless, it was democracy that muscled aside the monarchies in the nineteenth century, and eradicated, root and branch, the totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth.  During this period of conflict, democracy managed to transform the human condition – not only materially, but in terms of education and quality of life.  Evidently, the system has greater strength than credited.  One source of strength can be traced to what Plato, a hostile witness, called democracy’s willingness to “pander” to the public.

From a certain perspective, liberal democracy appears in the guise of Christianity with a hole in its logic:  that is, Christianity without eternity or a Last Judgment, ultimately without Christ.  Humanitarian precepts are asserted and applauded, but never attached to any necessary cause.  Universal rights are declared in many documents, but such rights exist independently of God, nature, reason, or any grounds for transcendental certainty.  In fact, they are derived from political will:  beneficiaries of universal rights demand to possess such rights, and demand further that they be considered universal.  But there is nothing universal about political will.  The confusion leaves the door open to arbitrary moral and political claims, and to a state that, on behalf of the many, usurps the power to define reality.

The Greek and Christian ways were predetermined by their understanding of the universal at a specific moment of history.  Each began with coherent ideals that fell to pieces over the centuries, due to the seismic pressure of events.

Liberal democracy, in contrast, is a radically indeterminate system.

Under the banner of the sovereignty of the people, it can assume the terrible aspect of the many seeking, at any cost, to become one.  The people’s sovereignty entails centralization, bureaucracy, the citizen-soldier, iron discipline, and a ruthlessness toward the enemy that could only be envied by monarchical states and was scarcely improved upon by the totalitarians.  It was with cries of fraternité ringing in the air, and in the shadow of the guillotine, that the democratic state summoned the unity of will to overwhelm its rivals.

***

But the dramatic spectacle of democracy in heroic mode should not blind us to the master impulse of the system:  the ambition to subjugate the one to the many.  This inclination follows the logic of universal rights:  a doctrine that repudiates, on principle, every obligation and discipline demanded by the state, and raises a protective shield behind which humanity can fracture along every conceivable divergence in identity.

Universal rights are individual rights.  The one must somehow be collapsed into the many:  specifically, the rigors of democratic solidarity are to be dissolved into personal freedom and a private morality.  The state, shackled with checks and balances, is compelled to bow before the sovereignty of the individual.  The citizen-soldier is first disarmed by a pseudo-Christian pacifism, then transformed into a unique vessel of identity and experience:  a tourist in in the exotic bazaar of existence.

The ideal of perfection is superseded by that of toleration.  Every manifestation of the universal is perceived as oppression or threat.  The only permissible reality is a material world scrubbed clean of spirit and transcendence.

In this unprecedented migration of the human race away from the center – the one – to parts unknown, the effects of the system’s radical indeterminacy are revealed.  We are headed to nowhere in particular, and to everywhere all at once.

Questions still arise about unifying principles, about metaphysical certainty, about the standard of morality and even of propriety and manners:  but we have left such concerns far behind.  Assertion of our common humanity matters less than the endless refinement of individual identity.  Our ideals are private, contingent, subjective.  Our encounters are therefore uneasy, and break down in recrimination.  The temper of the age is a peevish anxiety.  We feel incomplete, and we are certain that someone, somewhere, is to blame.


The metaphysics of history (2): Greece, Christianity, and the cycles of God and of silence

October 15, 2015

st jerome 2

The question of one or many throws a long shadow across history.  At the dawn of every age God speaks with perfect clarity from his sacred mountain, ordering existence.  Morality and politics breathe the same divine air.  The state is a theater of perfection for the history-making and history-interpreting classes, who believe with unshakeable confidence that the performance will continue, unchanged, forever.

Later ages look on this moment with awe and regret, as a paradise lost.  A single direction has ascended to the universal, and there is no consciousness of any other.

Inevitably, however, passage of time and the evolution of events must impose new perspectives, each more distant than the last from the archaic starting-point.  The voice of God gradually grows faint and confused, and, in a terrible hour, begins to sound like childish babbling, before going altogether silent.

This is a period of desperate intellectual effort, as brilliant minds seek to demonstrate an identity between the new and the old, between doubt and certainty, between silence and God.  Their labor is fruitless:  with nerve-wracking strain, the burden of faith is rolled up to the heights, only to roll down again at the slightest touch from history.  Elites are exhausted, bewildered, demoralized.  Religious sects and schools of philosophy proliferate, and humanity, exiled from paradise, fractured and dispersed, retreats into individualism and hedonism.

Such historical mood swings have behind them the force of necessity.  Because we are partially blind, we will pursue to the last mile our own brightly lit civilizational path.

***

The Greeks penetrated into the universal more deeply and with greater clarity than any people before, and most since, yet at the end their best minds could conjure nothing deeper than living in a tub or chasing pretty boys.  The Greeks had awakened to the meaning of human directionality.  The dream of Olympus, of the eternal, dissipated abruptly, and all that was left, in the light of day, was the contingent, in the form of customs, conventions, and implausible stories.

The reaction to this disaster was philosophy.  Reason was to restore what history had broken.  No other human activity, not even modern science, has benefited from a more sustained application of genius over the centuries than the search for absolutes in the Greek and Western philosophical tradition, beginning with Plato but still evident in the call for total commitment of the existentialists  and, more remotely, in our determination to “save the earth.”

For all the unquestioned brilliance of the philosophers, their enterprise was doomed from the start.  We cannot reason our way back to paradise, or stitch an ideal of perfection out of subtle syllogisms.  In a real sense, the endless multiplication of schools became their refutation.  The philosopher argued desperately for the one, but served the many.

The Christian centuries pursued the universal and eternal with an intensity that would have been condemned as hubris by the Greek mind.  At the high tide of faith, morality and politics shed the human organism like a leprous skin, and sought to reorganize humanity into a congregation of souls – that is, of portals to eternity.  The state was allowed to endure, but only as a sort of customs office, to assist in passage to a better place.  Yet the magnificent edifice of Christianity was at the end abandoned to materialists and utilitarians, people who, in a literal sense, had lost their souls.

As was the case with Greece, the loss of vital energy stemmed from internal causes.  The primitive Christian impulse to treat the realms of the universal like newly-conquered territories, open to colonization, was dissipated in the encounter with new directions and perspectives.

We would be mistaken to suppose that Christianity was overthrown by the arguments of science or rationalism.  Causation moved in the opposite direction:  science and rationalism were intellectual offspring of a Church that had lost its way.  Churchmen were converted out of the primitive ideal, in the first instance to philosophy, then to classical paganism, finally to modern comfort.

Every turn of the screw subordinated the soul to the claims of the body.  The faith of flagellants and desert mystics can be said to have expired, quietly, in an air-conditioned church.

Christianity’s exhausted retreat from Heaven breached a hole in the logic of Western life that has yet to be repaired.  We still espouse, with some zeal, Christian principles like equality and love – but we have lost the justifying metaphysical framework, so our moral and political ideals are now unconnected to our understanding of the world.  They seem to float in mid-air.

The history of the last two centuries, particularly in Europe, has been that of a string of desperate attempts to stitch a universal one out of a contingent, materialist many.  Self-contradiction unto absurdity has not prevented this enterprise from convulsing the world and drowning it in blood.