Victorian notable for how much of a Victorian he was…

Walter Pater, 1839-1894, was primarily an aesthete, much influenced by the previous week’s Matthew Arnold.

While Arnold was a widely-known and read cultural critic, Pater was less of a columnist, and made his living primarily as a professor on art and art theory, though he wrote some successful books as well.

A student of his, said that his lectures where an experience in “self-communion” he Pater essentially just talked to himself about art for an hour or so.

The service of philosophy,” he whispers, “ and of religion and culture as well, to the human spirit, is to startle it into a sharp and eager observation. Every moment some from grows perfect in hand or face; or some tone on the hills or sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us, – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.”

With this passage, Pater has his roots and his head in several different camps, I think, and several different time periods. Part of this is pure Victorian Romanticism – men glaring at gloomy skies and mountains, ships being tossed about in storms, a rugged landscape with a ruined greek temple in it, etc. I am tempted to cite a little bit of anti-urban industrialism in his writings as well, if only because he shows little interest in society or things emblematic of urban environments. Obviously, he loves ‘art’ and ‘culture’ but note that his language natural and physical. In some senses, he lives in a pre-indsutrial world.

But he also seems to be saying “live in the moment, bro.” If he were alive today, no question, we would know him as a hippy. In this sense, he live in our time as well; he rejects a theory of art to the like of “its beauty and that means Gothic, or that means Classical.” He does not tell us what is beautiful, but he tries to teach us how to see and experience for ourselves what art is and what it should be. In practical terms, he is not stuffy or snobby, he wants to spread how to appreciate art; which ultimately means how to live.

“To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to from habits; for habit is relative to a stereotyped world; meantime is is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike.”

This brings me to my last point. The pace of the argument and the language that he deploys. The pace is unhurried, and unabashed in a way that could not be written today. To us it seems flowery, kitschy, forced. It is true that even for his day, this was probably a bit on the esoteric side, but this is a time when engineers wrote poetry and most Victorians had a definite sense that England was a latter day Roman Empire.



Israel, Palestine, and an attempt at a succinct history

One can trace the origins of the modern morass in the Middle East back to the Jewish Diaspora in 132-135AD, triggered by successive religiously and culturally inspired revolts against the Roman Empire.

Fast forward 1800 years to about the year 1900, where Palestine is ruled by the tottering Muslim-Turkic Ottoman Empire. In World War I, in an effort to break the terrible gridlock and stalemate of the trenches of the Western Front, England is looking to opening up other fronts to press home its strategic advantages, keep Russia in the war, and hopefully knock Germany’s ally, the Ottomans out of the war.

To do this, the English make promises that they can’t all keep in good faith. They stir up restless tribes in Arabia to rebel against the Ottomans (specifically the Saudis), and makes promises to Jewish Zionists groups in Europe. This war against the Ottomans remains peripheral to the War; but after the War, England and France are given modern day Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon as ‘protectorates’ through the League of Nations.

Due to the Balfour Declaration, in 1917, England committed itself to a sort of Jewish homeland. They soon regret this, and by like the early 20’s, really want to take it back. England is now the world’s largest Empire by far, but it has to govern this vastness, and protect itself against a number of rising powers (Japan, Germany, Soviet Russia) at the same time. Jewish immigration to Palestine starts to cause friction with the local Palestinians. At this point, it is not clear what the eventual relationship will be between the Jews and the Palestinians; as long as they are both ruled by an empire, they remain subjects, but the Jews are taking over, economically, and in terms of land and property as well. There is tensions, and bad omens, rioting, and the like, but no progress is made between the wars.

Hitler, World War II, and the Genocide result in most European governments and most european people, and most of the Jews in Europe committed to a political national home for the Jews in Palestine. Put simply, the European powers feel guilty, the Jews, hard-hearted, set about building their own future. Tension continues to build; the English, Jews, and Palestinians all mutually suspicious and wary of each other.

In 1948, England abandons the Mandate, and the Jews, led by David Ben-Gurion, declare the State of Israel, and define its borders as exactly the same as England’s mandate for Palestine. The next day, four Arab countries attacked the new state. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq are all repulsed by the Israelis (who have been preparing for and anticipating this situation).  It is interesting to note that the UN, on meeting to decide how to politically create and define what happens when the English leave, determine an Israeli state, a Palestinian state, and Jerusalem is to be ruled as a special international city. Anyway, this first war generates most the technical problems that still exist today. A massive refugee problem is created, Israel takes half of what was supposed to be the Palestinian state (the West Bank), including Jerusalem.

I should note here the Suez Crisis (1956). Egypt, under Nasser, a modernist, nationalist, a slightly socialist popular leader, annexes the economically and strategically important Suez Canal, to the outrage of the old imperial powers, France and England (whose Canal it is). “Wearing the morality-play masks of Great Powers, punishing transgressors of the international order,” they, with the help of Israelis, invade and capture the Suez Canal. The US here, consumed with the rivalry with the Soviets, basically refuse to back the Brits and the French up, and we basically tell them to leave, which they do. The entire world is watching and everyone notes that England and France must ultimately follow the US’ lead; this event marks both the end of the European empires, and also the start of active US engagement in the Middle East. The US has always been a bit torn with its strategic goals in the area. There is the need for cheap oil. There is the political sympathy and support for Israel. They are also concerned with checking communism (the Soviets supply the Anti-Israel Arab states for this entire period). This results in strong support for Israel, and a mutually embarrassing alliance with Saudi Arabia.

The next incident is the Six-Day War, where Israel pre-emptivly attacks Egypt. They gain the Golan Heights, and for a number of years control the Sinai desert. This war marks the European and global disenchantment with the Israelis. Fear of Islamic jihadism, and the need for cheap oil quickly propels most countries to the side of the Arab nations and the Palestinians. There is also the Yom-Kippur War, where the Arab nations surprise attack Israel on their holiest day. Israel wins, in large part because the US resupplies their military with advanced weaponry. This action is the start of the idea of the US as the “great enemy” behind the Israelis.

At this point, the threat of the Arab nations attacking Israel decreases with the threat from the USSR. The problem shifts towards terrorism, demographics, identity politics, oil prices, religion, etc. Constant Palestinian rioting, terrorism, civil disobedience, coupled with the decline of the external military threat from the Arab states, bring the Israelis and the Palestinians together to the Oslo Accords in 1993. The background to this is that the US, under Clinton, is throwing its weight around and brings Egypt (which after the end of the USSR needs a new patron) to the support the ‘peace process.’ The accords seem to bring real peace within reach; Palestine becomes its own country, and recognizes the right of Israel to exist (the two-state solution).

There are lots of unsolved issues, but the feeling at the time is that, given time, and cooling feelings, the more delicate negation (who controls Jerusalem, water rights, and final borders, etc) will be possible. Lots of things happen to prevent this from occurring. The liberal Israeli leader is assassinated by a far-right Zionist Jew; there is the First Iraq War; there is ongoing extremist violence. Arafat, the moderate (and from an older generation) Palestinian leader is marginalized.

Both sides, up to the present day, while outwardly agreeing to the Oslo Accords, are playing a game of bad faith. Israel, even though it has the economic and military advantage, persists in a siege mentality. The Israelis, aware that any final peace settlement will include a sort of demographic border, where who ever has a majority will gain that area, are bulldozing Palestinian villages and homes and building their own homes and village instead.

Kerry’s recent activity in the area is an attempt to put some fire back into the old Oslo Accords. (I really don’t know any more details than that). The remark of the Israeli general along the line of “Kerry should just get a Nobel Peace Prize and leave us alone” is illustrative of the cynical calculations of many of the actors in the area, the siege mentality of the Israeli generals, and the general disenchantment with any sort of negated peace. The US is the only actor with the power, however, to bring about a peace settlement of any kind. To do nothing then, is not really an option, even though effectively, that is what is happening.

Neither side has  a moral high ground, and I would be suspicious of anyone who claimed such a high ground for one side or the other. That being said, Israel, as it has the economic and military advantage needs to be the grown up in the relationship. Palestinians have no education (and what they do get is fundamentalist, extremist Islamic), no really economy, and like prison inmates, have nothing better to do then try to escape in desperation. In the long term, I think that Israel is doomed; I’m not sure they are able to think clearly and objectively about their long term survival.


Sweetness and Light

The Industrial Revolution, along side the obvious technological and economic changes, implied a tectonic shift in how we see and interact with the world and each other. This because the “modes of production” changed. And you don’t have to be an orthodox Marxist jabbering about base and superstructure to understand that how and where you make what you need to survive effects your and your societies entire way of life.

The idea of ‘culture’ dates back to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. In earlier times, culture was something that might be applied to an individual (probably an aristocrat), but no concept of ‘culture’ as:

  1. the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
  2. the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.

existed. The Industrial Revolution alienated workers from their products; the move from the farm or the market or the sea to a factory was a shock. Rabid demand for labour brought the bulk of populations into major urban centers. This time (1750-1850, say) is also the rise of the middle class, and the so called Bourgeoisie Revolutions (American, French, 1848); there is a perception among elites all over Europe that commerce, industry, and some sort of middle-class led democracy is the wave of the future. Our modern idea of culture is a response to these huge changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

NPG x127404; Matthew Arnold by Elliott & Fry

Matthew Arnold, an English poet, and more importantly, a literary and social critic, is the height of English Victorian middle class social commentary. His ideas and writings about culture are, from our sobered post-modern perspective, a bit prone to hyperbole and naive. “Culture,” he writes in Culture And Anarchy, “is properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.” This quote is from the essay entitled “Sweetness and Light” and it is thus from Arnold that we get that phrase.

He is also well know for being the popularization of the term of “philistines”. As he is concerned with culture, its study, accumulation, and how to spread it and teach it to as many people as possible, he coins three euphemisms for the three major class of English society at the time. The aristocracy were termed “barbarians” in reference to their wild and implosive ways; their dated leadership of the nation. The “philistines” are England’s large and politically emerging middle class, which Arnold describes as being the least educated in Europe. They love vulgar entertainments, and Arnold feels they need to be groomed by public education to make them a viable ruling class. The last class is the “populace” which connotes workers, farmers, etc.

What interested me the most was his astute observation about the role of “Hellenism” and “Hebraism”. These strains of thought, or conceptions of humanity and belief, often contrasting, from the fundamental tensions of Western society, says Arnold (I think he’s definitely on to something). Hellenism is anything that is conceded with aesthetics; beauty, spontaneity, aristocratic panache and virtue. “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they real are; the uppermost idea with Hebraisim is conduct and obedience.” Hebraism emphasizes moral thought and action, duty, and keeping the law. “The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience.” Noting that public speakers will invariably promote one or the other, he stress that both strains of equal importance.

Arnold, ultimately, represents a height, an apex. He is the voice of a certain way of seeing society and the world that, while our way of living today is based on it his way of seeing things, we no longer really believe it ourselves. I want to agree with Arnold.


Whale vs. Elephant

In the history of empire and geopolitics there has been a series of classic imperial “match ups” that reflect different imperial regimes. I like to call these narratives, colloquially, whale versus elephant. The Whale is always a maritime empire, whose strength rests on commerce, an assortment of allies and colonies, with a republican type of government. The Elephant is a land-based empire who strength rests on large, powerful armies; its government tends to be autocratic. There are of course many exceptions which keep the comparison interesting; I will try to touch on as many of these as I can.

Here are the classic match-ups: Athens (Whale) vs. Sparta (Elephant), Carthage (Whale) vs. Rome (Elephant), England (Whale) vs. France and later Germany(Elephants), and finally, USA (Whale) vs. USSR (Elephant).

Das Zeitalter des Perikles / Foltz - The Age of Pericles / Foltz - L'epoque de Pericles / FoltzAthens and Sparta are the first, and as you might expect, represent the classic imperial conflict. This rivalry operated on many different levels. Most striking is the different political and cultural rivalry between the two. The image here on the right depicts Pericles’ Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War (the war between Athens and Sparta, in which Athens is destroyed). The Funeral Oration itself depicts Athens at its full imperial glory, where Pericles explains what makes Athens special and different. As you can gather from the picture, there are a number of important cultural and artistic references, and the crowd listening to Pericles both indicate the republican, democratic, as well as artistic nature of the Athenians. Most Greek city-states would have been oligarchic in nature, and we know that there was major tensions between the aristocrats and the people in each city; Athens achieved a extremely high level of citizen participation (reading their constitution, one wonders if they had time for anything else but to sit on committees). The interesting contrast with Sparta is that, while Sparta was indeed a conservative, oligarchic place, it was famous for its militaristic, communal way of life. In this sense, the Spartans had a very egalitarian society, making it the model for weird utopian visions from Plato’s ‘The Republic” onward.

BattleofZamaTrans Carthage (in modern day Tunisia), was an oligarchic trading empire in the eastern Mediterranean.  Rome, also on the rise, was a aristocratic republic whose strength led in the tactical power of the legion, in turn based on the discipline inspired by citizenship. In the picture to the left, it is the Carthaginians using the war elephants (but they are more of the whale here), and the infinity on the right represent the ultimately successful Roman legions. Politically speaking, the Romans are more interesting then the Carthaginians due to the enormous expansion of the Roman Republic. Sparta was never good at converting its communal warrior-monks into an attractive model for other peoples. To this day, people and governments draw history and legacy from the Romans. It is also interesting to note that in these ancient imperial rivalries, it is the Elephant that wins (usually after the Whale is defeated or neutralized on the sea).

Skipping hundreds of years, we reach the early modern period of the 17th century, where France was emerging as a cultural and military powerhouse. The resplendant Louis XIV, known as the Sun-King due in part to his claims to Absolutist monarchy, inheriting a France which had been carefully and consciously reformed  by previous kings and officials, embarked on a series of expansionary wars. France’s expansion in the 17th century marked the beginning of a power dynamic in Europe that would remain valid for several hundred years. As France emerged as the Elephant, England, partially in response, began to emerge as the Whale. To contain the Sun-King, England subsidized European powers, especially the Hapsburg Austrian Empire to fight the French, while England maintained a naval blockade of the French, attacked and annexed their colonies. This strategy reached its climax with French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that followed.

Napoleon_returnedIt is at this time, that the English start to pick up on the narrative of the Whale and the Elephant, or the autocratic land power versus the republican, democratic, sea power. What you can also see happening is that the Whale starts to win over the Elephant, which I think reflects changing economics and technology more than anything else.  At the height of the British Empire, a British geographer, Mackinder, formulates his global Heartland theory. This is very much a geographer’s attempt at geopolitics; but he postulates that world history rests on the pivot of roughly modern day central asia as the center of the largest land mass; ultimately, he who controls this central pivot area can control the world. This may seem worn and dubious today, but at the time it reflected England’s global empire, and its anxiety in maintaining it in the face of the Elephants of Europe (namely France, or Germany, or Russia).


Above, we have some modern replicas of the ancient Greek tireme (three banks of oars for the best possible ramming speeds; but also useless for trade and commerce). On the right, we see poster which shows us part of the narrative of the sea power. England, having been the leading empire for hundreds of years, is an “island fortress” sustained by a massive naval and commercial presence (threatened by various land-power attempts to gain control of the seas). After the victory of England in the Napoleonic Wars, and the unification of Germany into an empire in 1870, Germany increasingly plays the role of Elephant, which again looses in a series of wars to Whale.


The final match up, the Cold War of USA vs USSR is much better known. It is interesting to note the role of Mackinder’s Heartland thesis plays in the doctrine of Containment; they are psychologically and emotionally linked. There is a sense of playing for global domination, so one side must gather as much land as one can to ultimately win. The above picture really does a good job of illustrating it. USA military strategy to this day is based on the doctrine of power-projection, a quintessential sea power tactic. The image of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier, capable of delivering an air force anywhere, easily contrasted with the image of hundreds of Soviet tanks pouring into Germany, captures the essence between the Whale and the Elephant.

Maybe a separate post later about exceptions and dubious cases to this model.



An apologia for the humanities…

A friend asked me recently, quite off the cuff, to justify the importance of history, and the humanities in general. I should not have been surprised, given that this was Phd philosophy student. It is something that I feel strongly about, yet had never attempted to formally justify the study of the humanities. In the conversation that followed, I remember being quite unimpressive.

At the University of Sussex, the crown of the campus is the new Jubilee Building, which houses the business school.  It’s no coincidence, of course. The architectural dichotomy continues in that all of the humanities are stuck away in the buildings that date back to the ’60s. It is not the age of the buildings that bothers me, it is the implicit marginalization of certain subjects even at the University; the space in public life where ideas are developed in equality. The ‘University’ maintains its importance to society and culture because it is a space that is separate from what we mean when we say “the real world.” It’s a national park for ideas and intellectual endeavor.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The humanities have intrinsic value, and I place this in direct contrast to the extrinsic value of money and the market. The study of humanity is of universal interest and at some level, we all are humanists in some way; being a humanists means as little as really enjoying a daytime soap. In one sense, this reduces the market value of the humanities because, as humans we are all humanists. There is too much supply, you could say. I think this view, and the ‘market’ view  artificially reduces the true demand  for humanities. We have trouble seeing past the direct application and market value of the humanities. There true values lies in the appreciation and  internalization of the lessons and views gained by the humanities.

Deep down, the humanities show the plurality of the human experience. In other words, “its complicated.” It is this complication which contains the value and the richness of the humanities. This bares a practical value in that it resists classifying and dismissing others as the ‘crowd’ or ‘women 21-30’ etc. The more we value ourselves and others as individuals, we understand the danger of the ‘generalization’ or what we might term the ‘totality’. A practical example of totality would be the claims of the international socialism of Soviet Russia. I mean to say that deep down, every generalization about humanity contains some falsehood, and this has shown to eventually have disastrous effects.

I guess you call that the political/philosophical defense of humanities. I would also like to try a historical and social justification.

It is a truism to say “those who do not learn about the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them”. This is largely true, but perhaps not in the literal sense. I distinctly remember being told several years ago during the initial invasion of Iraq that it would not turn into a quagmire like Vietnam because there were no jungles in Iraq, and no Soviet Union to resupply the bad guys.

For example, a common lesson drawn from the appeasement of Hitler in the ’30s was that “appeasement only makes the aggressor more aggressive”.  Applied to the geopolitical specter of the Soviet Union, the result was ‘containment’, MAD, and the Cold War. But there are huge consequences; Vietnam was fought entirely because of the logic of ‘containment’.

If history teaches anything, it is that of the unyielding truth of the law of unintended consequences. The study of history teaches perspective, humility, and an awareness of the limits of power, and insights into human psychology. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan should have been seen as obvious quagmires from the start, but just a general public awareness of the phrase “wars start when you will, but no one knows when they will end” probably would have been enough to keep us from those disasters.

Society is increasingly rationalized to a profit-maximazation and GDP growth goals and conceptions. As the logic continues to its logical conclusion, every thing that cannot contribute to profit will be steadily eliminated. Money is really the only relationship left. I think that the alienation of the vast majority of people (this is manifested in a million ways; escapism through intoxicants, violence and militarism, mindless television, serial killers, etc etc) is the obvious result. The humanities represent a way out and past this. It puts the focus not on money and profit, but on actual people and their lives. I think this is something we can all buy into.

And nietzsche…

In  my last post, I talked a little about dialectics, the origin of critical theory,  and most importantly the problem of human consciousness and the idea that we need to figure and understand the correct ‘mediation’ between ourselves and Nature.  Hegel saw a ‘World Spirit’ working itself out through human history. Marx saw labour as the source of mediation.  The next philosopher to come down the pipes was Nietzsche.
Portrait2We normally associate Nietzsche with Hitlerlism, the idea of the superman, and madness. I know that personally I picked up Thus Sprake Zarathustra and was so put off by the emotive, dream-like writing, I put it down after about twelve pages. Its tag line of “A book for everyone and no one” is accurate, at least.

Having read a little bit more about his thinking, I believe it is far to say that he, like pretty much all philosophers has been misread. I would go so far to say that Nietzsche is probably the most misinterpreted and least understood of the philosophers, which is only partially his own fault. He died before the world wars, I imagine him horrified by the irony of what happened to his intellectual legacy.

Like Hegel and Marx, Nietzsche sets out to untangle the paradox of the individual in society; he is concerned with a sort of ultimate freedom. Hegel sees historic process, Marx, labor, and both of these have a somewhat reassuring ‘rational-ness’ to them. Nietzsche has no sense of an eventual utopia for humanity, and he follows a darker, more convoluted path: you could say his ‘mediator’ is will, or the ‘will-to-power’.

Nietzsche starts out by noting that to put it roughly, the vast majority of us will never know, much less be able to handle Truth. But a few people will come to know the Truth and master the “fear of nature that drives ordinary humans into society…induces social conformity” (quoting from The Critique of Instrumental Reason from Weber to Habermas by Darrow Schecter) through a special aristocratic, knowledge -enhancing form of life which will be different for each person. Nietzsche is concerned here with individual creation, and self-transformation, but I know that this is far left field. In a sense, and I should warn my viewers that I may be wrong in this, Nietzsche sees an inner turmoil, challenging the nature of ‘subjectivity’ (your life force in your own head is the closest I can come to explaining it); and through this struggle, one emerges with totally unique values and knowledge. This would mean people capable of living quite apart from what we think of as society, fully sustained emotionally and psychologically by a creative inner life force and values.

It is clear that there is quite literally and element of anti-social thought here, and one sees the potentials for the Hitlerian sense of the superman trampling other people; I also get a sense of Ayn Rand here as well. But Nietzsche, I think, was much more interested in inner-ness of this, not the ‘outer’ side of this. Nietzsche’s philosophy, if nothing else, bares important psychological insights for more systematic sociological study.

Well, I hope that was clear-ish…



Dialectics and the Problem



There is a basic problem for us all, individually and as a total humanity. It is a problem that is approached from many angles, and each of us deals with it every day it our own way. Many academic subjects bore away at it in different ways. What I would like to do here is to introduce it, and give some background on approaches to the problem, especially in how it developed. This is a tough topic and I may not be the best guide to this topic, but I wanted to give it a stab. But I wanted to tell the philosophical history as I know it so far.

Western philosophy describes and introduces the problem, traditionally from a basic mental process, starting with (most famously) Descartes’ cognito ergo sum. I’ll spare you the play by play because the basic problem is this: human self awareness and consciousness. We apart of nature, in that we are part of the environment, we are a species on planet Earth, and we need food and shelter, and yet we are outcasts in Nature. We are not like, say ants or deer or fish who live their lives completely at one with nature. There is no angst, no ennui, no suicides, no wars in animal life. We are not gods, nor are we animals. We are a part of Nature, but not reducible too it. Humanity is the ultimate outcast, doomed to loneliness.

There is a further problem, in that a analytic philosopher will tell you that our ability to know the outside world or “the object” by us as “the subject” is flawed, and ultimately unreliable.  Our senses are flawed and easily tricked. But further, the ‘input’ from our sense is also subject to our various mental processes (there are many different terms deployed by western philosophy to describe our mental ability to know and understand “the object” this is an area where neuroscience might actually produce some really meaningful answers on this point, thought a hardcore philosopher will tell you that we cannot ultimately know if that science is accurate as its correspondence to an objective truth); Kant uses the term ‘categories’ for example. It is easy to get bogged down in the lexicon and process of each of these philosophers.

So we could present the Problem as one of mediation between humanity and Nature. What is the proper, or what is the best or the true relationship here? You will be unsurprised to learn that each philosopher critiques the one before him, and has his own answer.

This is where the dialectic comes in. A dialectic, I think, is best understood as two opposing concepts, say Black and White. The idea is that when you have these two opposing opposites, when one investigates closer, one finds that they are really the same thing. I don’t mean Grey; I mean here they are really just aspects of light waves (absorption, really). This is a simplistic example. Hegel (top right), in investigating presupposition-less thought, the idea of “being” quickly slid into the idea of nothingness, or non-being. This is a dialectic. Hegel then observes that because when one thinks constantly about being and non-being, what really is happening is that one is thinking about ‘becoming’ as the one idea quickly slides into its opposite. ‘Becoming’ then is the synthesis.

Kant (top left), as the grandfather and starting point for pretty much all philosophy these days, I will not linger on (sorry; I just don’t know enough about it). But Hegel takes this idea of ‘becoming’ and the idea of dialects and works his way to the idea of Freedom as the ultimate destiny of the human race. I can’t help but joke that for Hegel, the ultimate realization and Freedom of humanity is when everyone realizes that we’re Hegelians (though this might be a joke you can use on all of ’em). This Freedom of Hegel’s is not physical or political, but rather a kind of existential, emotional, psychological Freedom. He sees a “Spirit” behind this, at work in and through human history, slowly working towards this Ultimate Freedom. I’m not really doing it justice, Hegel brings an emphasis on dialectics, and a sense of historical processes to philosophy.

Marx comes next, and he’s actually a bit easier to understand. For Marx, the idea of “Spirit” is a bit out there too; Marx is a strict materialist. This means that for him, economics, modes of production are everything, determining history, culture, art, religion, etc. The mediation between humanity and Nature is purely material (not a sort of historical Spirit working in and through us), says Marx.

Marx’s dialectical materialism was a huge advance in terms of intellectual understanding of human society, and it led to modern strides of sociology and anthropology, amongst others. Marx begins a sense of hidden structures to life and society; hidden forces at work below the surface which runs through many academic discourses today. By the 1920s, Communism was seen to have failed by Western intellectuals, leading to the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. I should mention here that each of these philosophers would be absolutely horrified by the way I, as well as everyone one else has interpreted their work. Marx (I bet you a million bucks) would have strongly divorced himself from the communism we know of. Anyway, his importance as an economist and intellectual quite massive, and I think he was important to steer a lot of philosophy away from more metaphysics like Hegel, etc…

I will be continuing in this vein in several subsequent posts, given time…

Decline and Fall

The Roman Empire is primarily interesting these days because of its disputed and widely claimed history and heritage. For some, it’s a cautionary tale. For others, and inspiration. For other’s an identity to be claimed, and for some a story to be told.

We might take it for granted that the Roman Empire did indeed decline and then fell, usually said to be in the year 476 AD. But this is has not always been the case. And the story you tell about what happen to the Roman Empire says a lot about what you believe about your identity and how you see your society.

The initial problem in Roman history is the problem of ‘freedom and empire.’ There are two basic competing narratives. The first goes like this: the Roman Republic was full of civic virtue. Through this this virtue an empire was acquired. This encouraged vice, known as ‘decadence’ which inevitably led to the decline and fall of the empire. The idea is that the loss of freedom is what is battled over. Was freedom the source of empire, or our freedoms and republics incapable of running empire? By establishing an empire, the Roman Republic, the city of Rome lost itself.

The interesting thing about the Roman Empire is that for a very long time, people didn’t think it had fallen at all. This is know as ‘translation.’ The idea is that through Christianity, the Roman Empire ceased to be a political/military unit, and turned into the universal, Pope-led Christian republic. So while political power devolved on a patchwork of barbarian kings and chieftains, this did not matter because this was the rule of the Church and the Pope. In this sense, the Pope crowning Charlemagne as “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 AD was more than act of political theater and hyperbole; the Pope actually felt that it this was a title that was his to give, and that Charlemagne was legitimate Roman emperor.

Edward Gibbon, writing at the end of the 18th century, titled his great tome on the Roman Empire, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It may not be readily apparent, but he is grinding an axe here. The story he is telling – decline and fall – was a complex commentary on his own contemporary events and controversies. For Gibbon, the rise of Christianity, and the decline in the republican virtues of the Romans sealed the fate of the Empire. Even at the height of the Empire, amidst the martial splendor, there is a sickness. It is the sickness of hypocrisy, militarism, and the homicidal consequences of absolute power.