Nietzsche’s aesthetics

“German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) placed such a high value on aesthetics that his ideas on art form a core of his thought. In this respect he extends the interests of Schopenhauer, of whose writing he was a devotee in his younger years. Indeed, the ideas in his first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872) are suffused with a sympathy for Schopenhauer, one that would evaporate in the coming years. Nietzsche’s scholarship in ancient Greek – as a professor of philology – and fascination with ancient myths and customs led to his engagement with ancient drama as a paradigm of aesthetic accomplishment.

The Birth of Tragedy was Nietzsche’s analysis of human nature and the role of culture in embodying the conflicting (and complementary) sides of humanity. Nietzsche wrote that civilisation rests on twin pillars of temperament and response to natures which find expression in different art forms and modes: the Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian (or Apollinian, named after Apollo, Greek god of light) spirit resides in sculpture, painting and epic verse; it is characterised by appearance, logic, individuation and clarity; it is rational, cognitive and ordered. (“Apollo is at once the god of all plastic powers and the soothsaying god. He who is etymologically the “lucent” one, the god of light, reigns also over the fair illusion of our inner world of fantasy.”[i]) The Dionysian (named after Dionysus, Greek god of fertility, wine and theatre) spirit resides in drama and music; it is characterised by the hidden, emotion, mass body and intoxication; it is irrational, instinctive and anarchic. (“Dionysiac stirrings arise either through the influence of those narcotic potions of which all primitive races speak in their hymns, or through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature.”[ii]) The genius of ancient Greek civilisation was that the Greeks had not only the Apollonian arts, that favoured lucidity, but festivals of excess – bacchanals, named after Bacchus, god of wine, another name for Dionysus – which allowed the expression of Dionysian values….”

This article relates to my forthcoming course Foundations of Aesthetics. Read the full article here on Substack: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/nietzsches-aesthetics?s=w

Aristotle on Innovation

It is said that the Greeks were reluctant to innovate. The prime example given is the steam engine (aeolipile) of Hero of Alexandria. It was a steam turbine, where steam from a boiler was fed into a ball on pivots; the ball had vents for the steam, the ejection of which caused the ball to rotate. It was treated as a novelty and a feat of ingenuity but never used by the Greeks to do any practical function. Yet, when we look at the architecture and art, we can see small constant refinement in methods and tools. The changes in language and ideas over the centuries show curiosity and openness, even if the technology remained fairly stable. While scientific and philosophical ideas developed rapidly in Greece, we find evidence that innovation is different from science. Innovation is tinkering; it is the spotting of certain phenomenon and characteristics of materials or mechanisms and adapting and combining those into new machines or procedures.

The question of change applies in all fields. Innovation in the field of weaponry can allow a city to defeat another. Innovation in agriculture may lead to better harvests or the cultivation of previously unproductive land. Innovation in the way a city is governed can lead to discord and instability. Innovation in religion may lead to heresy and collapse in faithful observance. Change in itself is neither good nor bad though it may do good or bad.     

In the latest selection from the classics, published by Princeton, Armand D’Angour has selected, translated and introduced texts by Aristotle (384-322 BC), Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. C150-250 AD) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90-30 BC).

Diodorus is quoted on Dionysius of Syracuse assembling a uniform army and attracting armourers of the highest ability. Aristotle is quoted on the subject of change, criticising the proto-socialism of Socrates and authoritarianism of Plato. He suggests that citizens be able to own personal property and guard the privacy of their families, allowing that some common property (such as land) may be shared to mutual benefit. Aristotle sets out the foundations of liberalism: “A state is not made up only of many people, but of a variety of kinds of people; a state cannot simply be constituted of similar individuals. It’s not like an alliance, whose usefulness depends simply on numbers, not on different kinds, of men.” He refutes common ownership of everything but leaves open the door to a fragmented society, where factions compete for power and favour. This extract from Aristotle’s Politics (book 2) will make interesting reading for those interested in finding a balance between common good and private autonomy.  

The most famous anecdote from Greece is of Archimedes solving the problem of how to calculate the amount of gold used in the creation of a crown. The complexity of the form (and the possibility of hollows) meant that it was difficult to ascertain how much gold had been used in the object and whether it had been adulterated with other metals. Archimedes sank into his bath and saw his body displaced water and he realised that displacement and weight could be used to determine the mass of the crown. This could then be compared to the weight of pure gold of an established volume – to be multiplied up to the volume of the crown. Any discrepancy would indicate the use of non-gold in the crown, thus revealing any deceit on the maker’s part. Comprehending the solution, Archimedes arose from the bath, yelling “Eureka!” (Gr: I have it!).

Archimedes was a naval architect. From Moschion (via Athenaeus) comes an account of Archimedes designing the Syracusia, a warship for Hieron Syracuse. “Hieron arranged for wooden pegs, belly timbers, rib timbers, and whatever material was needed for other uses come partly from Italy and partly from Sicily. He procured esparto from Spain for cables, hemp and pitch from Rhone valley, and other necessary materials from many different places.” He outlines the elaborate construction, including bronze rivets, later sheathed in lead to protect them from corrosion. Archimedes used a windlass of his own design to get the ship into the sea. The huge vessel had space for multiple levels of oarsmen, a garden, library, gymnasium, a fish tank and temple with a stone floor. The ship was a warship, and had battlements, watchtowers, grappling hooks and a baluster. An Archimedes screw was the bilge pump. Hieron gave Syracusia as a gift to Ptolemy II of Alexandria. It was the only voyage it made.   

Diodoros describes the innovative tactics that allowed the Thebans to defeat the mightiest army in Greece at the Battle of Leuctra. Due to general Epaminondas’s uneven distribution of forces in his line, the Spartan phalanx was twisted – one side advancing fast and the others held back. Out of position, the Spartans were attacked from behind, breaking their formation. “Epaminondas’s corps pursued those fleeing, cutting down in large numbers any who resisted, and gained for themselves a most glorious victory. For since they had engaged the strongest of the Greeks and, though fielding a smaller force, had miraculously overcome many times their number, they won a great reputation for their heroism. The highest praises were accorded to the general Epaminondas, who chiefly by his own valor and by his brilliant strategy had defeated in battle the hitherto invincible leaders of Hellas.”

The short introductions are handy guides and the choice provides a broad range of aspects to innovation. The quoted texts are given in English and the original Greek; the other material is in English only.

Aristotle, Armand D’Angour (trans., ed.), How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardcover cloth spine, 138pp + xxi, Greek/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 069 121 3736

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Ancients on Scepticism and Humour

Humour is one of the things that is difficult to judge and transmit, especially across cultures and eras. Consul, rhetorician and sceptic, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was also famed as “one of the two funniest men in history”[i]. Both in the Senate and the law court, Cicero was notorious for being hardly able to contain his wit and hold back his barbs when it would have prudent so to do.

Michael Fontaine, editor and translator of this selection of Cicero’s texts relating to humour, presents comedian Mark Saltveit’s assessment of stand-up comedy. Improvised spoken comedy is dependent on context – exploiting a mood or spiking a person’s transitory attitude – and that comic sensibility cannot be taught, even if turns of phrase, delivery, timing and so forth can be imparted and improved upon. Fontaine has gone for a deliberately broad translation (rather than a literal or detailed one) in order for us to get the mood and meaning.

Cicero wrote that he thought humour was hard to analyse and impossible to teach. He divides spoken humour into – on one hand – quips and retorts and, on the other, prepared routines. The quickness of quips dazzles and that in itself adds to the delight of listeners. “In general, our comebacks are more impressive than our unprovoked cut-downs, for two reasons: (1) the quickness of a person’s mind appears greater in a response, and (2) comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”

In oratory, making the audience laugh is advantageous because (1) people side with you, (2) “Everyone admires a zinger”, (3) “It crushes an opponent: trips him up, ridicules him, deters him, defeats him”, (4) “It shows you that the orator himself is sophisticated, that he’s educated, urbane” and (5) “It eases hurt and breaks the tension”. He writes about adopting the manners and argot of the city or country to make a humorous point.

As for boundaries, Cicero says the only rule is “THOU SHALT TELL NO UNFUNNY JOKE”. Even deformities can the subject of ridicule, according to Cicero. The sort of humour he admires can be cruel. “When a friend was wailing that his wife had hung herself from a fig tree, the Sicilian said, “Any chance I could get a few cuttings from that tree to plant?””

His examples are – regrettably – not very funny, notwithstanding the difficulties in cultural and linguistic distance from us. “A: What are you crying for, dad? B: What, I should be singing? I just lost my case in court!” (Sound of crickets here.) I guess it’s the way you tell them.

The best is as following: “[…] Soldier, Titius, liked to kick a soccer ball around at night ad was suspected of breaking some important statues. When his friends why he hadn’t shown up for his platoon’s morning workout, Terentius Vespa quipped, “Oh, it’s okay – he said he broke an arm.”” “A: In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto? B: A slow one.” Not bad.

How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor is not a source book for best-man speech jokes. However, it is a useful reminder that while wit – and admiration for wit – is constant, jokes are rarely as durable. Wit can also be dangerous, as Cicero found to his cost. “Cicero was hunted down and murdered twelve years after publishing this treatise […] by Mark Anthony, a politician-turned-warlord that Cicero had roasted in a merciless series of political speeches.”

Sextus Empiricus (fecit c. 200 AD) was a sceptic of the Pyrrhonist Empiric school. Sextus is an important writer because of the extensive body of his writings which not only survived but also influenced founders of the Enlightenment. Sextus followed the teachings of Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BC), who supposedly travelled to India on Alexander the Great’s campaign to the Indus, where he met Buddhist and Ajñāna holy men. There are no claims to Sextus being an originator but of being a notable late exponent of Pyrrhonistic thinking, which was known for its radical scepticism in place of advocating a positive worldview. Although the Pyrrhonist school is not considered Stoic, its ataraxia (imperturbability) is a detachment common to Stoicism, Ajñāna and Buddhism.

Richard Bett has selected some of Sextus’s writings in How to Keep an Open Mind, mainly consisting of extracts from Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Sextus presented scepticism not a philosophy but as a method of questioning knowledge and received wisdom. “The skeptical ability is one that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatsoever, from which, because of the equal strength in the opposing objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment, and after that to tranquility.”

The weakness of the setting up of a series of oppositional propositions in order to establish equilibrium is that it allows the sceptic to excuse himself from taking a qualified position in favour or opposing a proposition that has a predominance of evidence undermining it. It can become a system to insulate the sceptic from committing and – in a sense – even engaging fully. However, Sextus was aware of this trap and advised using the technique to question theories of reality and knowledge, rather than applying such analysis to matters of daily life. In a similar way, we can see Post-Modernists ignoring their own principles when it comes to living life and only applying deconstruction of language in the fields of politics, philosophy and intellectual pursuits and then only when advantageous.  

Bett offers Sextus as a model for detachment in an age of polarisation. “[…] if we don’t try to go all the way with Sextus, but still take his method seriously where we can, we may find something useful. To conclude: if Sextus can serve as a model for us, it is perhaps as a model of willingness to look at all sides of any question and not to judge things too quickly – something we could probably use more of in the present state of the world.”

Sextus outlines the method of scepticism and why it is used. “We say up to now that the skeptic’s aim is tranquility in things to do with opinion and moderate reactions in things that are forced on us.” “Arguments to Have up Your Sleeve” is a section dedicated to 15 modes or approaches that allow sceptics to undermine claims to certain knowledge. Sextus warns against inductive reasoning because it is not inclusive of all examples, which allows a degree of uncertainty about the universality of conclusions drawn from induction. Sextus provides a touchstone for the sceptical position generally in late antiquity.

As is usual in the series, extracts of text in the original language faces an English translation, with introduction, glossaries and footnotes in English. These handsome little hardbacks continue the series in a set format with attractive designs and thereby extending Princeton’s library of the ancients.  

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Michael Fontaine (ed., trans.), How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor, Princeton University Press, March 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 292pp + xxxiii, English/Latin text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6165

Sextus Empiricus, Richard Bett (trans.), How to Keep an Open Mind, Princeton University Press, April 2021, hardback, 225pp + xlviii, English/Greek text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6042

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Character agency in David Lynch’s cinema

The films, television series and video projects of David Lynch have vexed and stimulated viewers since the 1970s. Authors James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig have taken of the films and one television series by Lynch as subject for their discussion about agency in Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch. Each chapter relates to Lynch’s films Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE and the third season of the television series Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks season 1 and 2, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Dune and the short films are excluded. (On the absence of Dune, they write: “[…] we both find the film to be unwatchable.” Many viewers find INLAND EMPIRE far more unwatchable.)

They point out that Lynch does not seem to be setting forth a coherent articulated philosophical worldview in his films. “However, the search for thematic coherence in the director’s body of work need not entail a unified philosophical position in evidence throughout Lynch’s oeuvre.”[i] This comes position comes as a relief, as attempts to present any body of complex cinematic work as a fixed, purposeful, consistent and didactic system seems a chimera, more of a projection of a need for certainty and confirmation on the part of the interpreter than any empirically derived assessment of the work as it is.

Lynch’s background as an artist, his absolute control over most of his projects (as writer, director and editor, as well as his contributions to the music and occasionally acting of his films) make Lynch an archetypal auteur and (as such) an ideal subject for an assessment of overarching ideas and themes. His freedom in combining disparate imagery, genres, tones and themes means his work is very rich. Within films, even within scenes, Lynch juxtaposes (rather than blending) humour, eroticism, the aesthetically striking and the unsettling in ways that allow the exploration of deep emotions, contradictory feelings and rarely posed philosophical questions, particularly regarding reality, desire, memory and understanding.

Alvin from The Straight Story is attributed a high degree of agency because of his active participation and pursuit of self-determined goals in his quest to travel to see his sick brother. The story centres on Alvin driving hundreds of miles with a tractor because he has no driver’s licence and features the encounters he has along the way. In some respects, The Straight Story is judged an atypical Lynch film in that it features little eroticism, horror, gore and Surrealism; what is not mentioned is that the protagonist is atypically assured and purposeful, also able to enact his aims in a straightforward manner. It is uncharacteristically straight. The authors demure at the suggestion that Alvin’s quest is an embodiment of the value of rugged individualism, mentioning the assistance he gets and the framing of his journey as an act of recuperation.

Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer is a character with weak agency. Henry evades responsibility, avoids making firm decisions, initiates little, is passive in most situations and thereby gains his classic Kafkaesque character of the man buffeted by circumstance. He seems barely in control of anything yet is held responsible for the burden of fatherhood to a creature which is not human but has human traits. He fails as a husband and provider and ultimately catastrophically fails as a father by inadvertently killing his “child” whilst trying to alleviate its suffering. He seems to have gained little understanding of his world or what is expected of him, surrendering his agency through ignorance and timidity than any sort of malice. The authors write of Henry as an example of Aristotle’s akrasia (weakness of will), as he is man stuck in stasis which seems (at least in part) of his own doing. Yet, as the authors note, Henry’s infanticide is an act of liberation for him, displaying some agency, perhaps a powerful subconscious selfishness. The problem of drawing any line between reality and fantasy in Lynch’s works means it is not clear whether of not Henry commits infanticide or merely imagines doing so. The deliberate ambiguity of the director leaves the matter in irresolvable doubt.

John (Joseph) Merrick of The Elephant Man is a case of a person whose agency is limited by environment. In that film, based on the true story of a Victorian Englishman afflicted by a severe deformity, Merrick is unable to test his intellectual and emotional capacities due to the cruelty and hostility of a society repelled by his ugliness. His life is so circumscribed by his medical condition, which left him seriously disabled, and by the rejection of society that it is only the intervention of an enlightened surgeon, Dr Frederick Treves, that Merrick is permitted to engage in polite society rather than being confined to a freak show. Ironically, it is through the intervention of another that the character achieves limited liberation from societal hostility, though his medical condition remains unchanged.   

Merrick’s situation and his ability to further his desires rests upon eliciting the empathy of others. Merrick’s intelligence and sensitivity are revealed through the charity and compassion of the high society people who were introduced to him through his guardian, Treves. Once enabled by this, Merrick can explore new experiences and develop his artistry (his ability to construct elaborate architectural models). It is seems slightly off the mark to critique The Elephant Man for taking “considerable liberties with historical fact and seems to ignore the ways in which socioeconomic forces govern human lives, presenting the viewer with stark moral alternatives more in keeping with bad Hollywood Westerns. If there is exploitation to be addressed, its proper target is something larger, and more impersonal, than the individuals directly involved in Merrick’s fate.”[ii] The authors seem to have pre-judged how any socio-economic critique might lay blame. Such matters are not cut and dried and it is unwise to assume their views to be objective and universally shared. Lynch is not an analytical or especially socially-directed creator, so expecting any approach of this type is puzzling.  

In Blue Velvet Jeffrey Beaumont investigates and becomes sexually entangled with club singer Dorothy Vallens and thereby incurs the wrath of Frank Booth. For the first time in Lynch’s work, there is an active antagonist, one who exercises powerful self-directed agency. Frank threatens Dorothy and Jeffrey, kills Dorothy’s husband, kidnaps her son and dominates the crime scene of Lumberton. Jeffrey overcomes his own weak agency and the opposition of Frank to defeat Frank and restore order to Lumberton, returning a degree of comfort to Dorothy by (indirectly) freeing her son. In the film, Dorothy and Sandy have the least power of control or self-actualisation, limited by the actions of others. However, significantly, it is Dorothy’s command of sexual attractiveness that is used to dominate Jeffrey and to demand of him sexual violence against her.  

Blue Velvet is a film about seeing and, importantly, about seeing as an instrument of knowing. This is a film that asks obsessively what it is to know something, how vision enters into the search for truth, and how far the capacity to see reaches in the work of acquiring knowledge, in a Kantian register what the scope and limits of vision can be said to be.”[iii] In the most famous scene, Jeffrey secrets himself in a closet in Dorothy’s flat to avoid discovery and inadvertently observes her unawares. He inadvertently witnesses the emotional abuse and sexual assault of Dorothy by Frank. What was intended as an enactment of a mystery investigation – a staple of detective novels and old films – becomes a shocking insight into depravity and the depths of the human psyche, something for which Jeffrey is completely unprepared. The authors examine the difference between experiencing and understanding. “One of the central events of Blue Velvet boils down to the unmasking of a misguided conception of what it is to come to know. Jeffrey is, it seems, actuated by curiosity, the desire to know simply for the sake of knowing, and, more specifically, as we saw, by the desire to see.”[iv]  

Wild at Heart is a violent road movie with two main protagonists, Sailor and Lula. “If Sailor and Lula frequently appear to be failing as agents, this is partly because they bring with them all the existential anxieties associated with their pasts, in the shape of experience, but also in the guise of significant others, whose lives, past and present, form a web into which their current efforts invariably fall. Sailor and Lula cannot easily escape (or escape too easily in spurious forms of release) because they carry with them the potent influences of those responsible for helping create the contexts out of which they grew and developed and against which they now struggle.”[v]

Interpretation of Lynch’s subsequent films Lost Highway, INLAND EMPIRE and (to a lesser extent) Mulholland Drive is complicated by structural and character ambiguity. It is harder to discuss the characters in these films because disentangling fact from fantasy in these (fictional) films is almost impossible. The reality of the characters resides both in their actions and dreams; their actual selves and their imagined selves (including doppelgangers and alternate selves) overlap. The authors do their best but much of what they conclude is necessarily more debatable due to the complications the material presents. I contend that the discussion of the third season of Twin Peaks is flawed because it does not sufficiently incorporate an analysis of the first two seasons and (especially) Fire Walk With Me. Although Twin Peaks Season 3 has many aspects that make it self-contained, a discussion of character agency cannot be understood without recourse the viewer expectations and experiences of the excluded material, and the way pre-experienced tropes are extended and subverted by the third season.  

The book is readable, with a minimum of jargon is used. In its seriousness, the authors do not sacrifice accessibility. The authors apply philosophy and philosophy of cinema at various points whilst not making such discussion too intrusive. They compare Lynch’s cinema to films by others and refer to cinema-theory writings. This title will be most value to students of cinema theory and those analysing Lynch’s unique contributions to film.   

James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig, Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch, 2020, Lexington Books, hardback, 267pp + xi, £69, ISBN 978 1 4985 5593 7  

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


[i] P. 3

[ii] P. 79

[iii] P. 98

[iv] P. 102

[v] P. 129

Cicero: How to Win and Rule

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Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman orator, lawyer, statesman and philosopher. His writings are a major source of information about the politics and history of the end of the Roman Republic. He had been a brilliant student and one of the ancient world’s greatest orators. He studied philosophy and argument in Greece, including Platonism in Athens. His political and legal manoeuvring in Rome endangered him under the reign of dictator Sulla and his time in Greece was partly self-imposed exile to escape the vengeance of Sulla. His later advocacy of a return to principles of republicanism meant that fell afoul of Mark Antony and was assassinated an influential enemy of the new Caesar.

Cicero is considered a leading progenitor of humanism and liberalism by later moral philosophers and political thinkers, although he was opposed democracy. Instead, he preferred a productive tension between aristocrats and Plebs, which checks the power of each and forces the opposing sides to accommodate the interests of their opponents. His advancement of restraint and republicanism align him with Stoicism, a philosophy he expressed as a personal position in Paradoxa Stoicorum. However, he has been accused of opportunism and hypocrisy, using his brilliant speech as a cloak for self-serving arguments. Cicero was never reluctant to offer advice to students, important figures and the public. Two volumes of Cicero’s distilled wisdom are How to Win an Argument and How to Run a Country. The first addresses rhetoric and oratory and the second addresses statesmanship. These are two attractive small volumes which include English translations, Latin original texts, introductions and notes, making them self-contained and approachable for non-specialist readers.

How to Win an Argument has advice for politicians, lawyers and public speakers of all types. He discusses the Aristotelian triad of logos, ethos and pathos in the art of speech. The book includes not only Cicero’s advice to speakers but examples from his own speeches, legal and political. This gives us a chance to see Cicero using his own ideas in practice. A central example is Cicero’s 52 BC defence of Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murder of Publius Clodius. It was a defence that was unsuccessful partly due to interference in the trial and the political manoeuvring that demanded the exiling of Milo.

Cicero exhorts the speaker not to use obscure language or to use excessive rhetorical devices. He likens this to the use of strong perfume, which can be overwhelming. “[…] I don’t mind hearing people say “great!” and “outstanding!” about us, however often, but I don’t like to hear “charming!” or “how pretty!” too often. Certainly, the popular exclamation, “couldn’t do better!” I would want to hear repeatedly.” Of all the aspects that Cicero believed key to good speaking was delivery. “[…] the most effective element in our delivery, next to the voice, is the expression on our face; and this controlled by our eyes.” He quotes Demosthenes, the Greek who was considered that greatest orator in the ancient world. “People generally agreed that, when delivering these words, [Demosthenes] used his eyes, voice, and gestures to such effect that even his enemies could not contain their tears. I am talking about this in some detail because the orators, who act in real life, have abandoned this entire field, while the actors, who are only imitators of reality, have appropriated it.” The great speaker learns to use his body like a musical instrument.

Editor James M. May has compiled a summary list of key points: 1. Nature, art, and practice, practice, practice; 2. Eloquence is a powerful weapon; 3. Identify, arrange, memorise; 4. Not by logic alone; 5. Know your audience; 6. Be clear, be correct; 7. Delivery matters; 8. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and more; 9. The pen is often mightier than the sword; 10, Words, without substance, are hollow things

Once you have won election, how should one govern? How to Run a Country contains Cicero’s comments on how to act as a ruler and politician, a subject he had expertise in. Cicero recalls how, upon returning from a successful governorship of a Sicilian province, he was thunderstruck to encounter some holidaying Romans who had never heard of him. He reminds us of the humility we should exercise to keep our achievements in perspective. “Why should I say more? At this point, I gave up and joined the crowd on the beach.”

His advice to orators is incisive and succinct. “An orator must be able to choose the right language and arrange his words carefully. He must also understand the full range of emotions that nature has given us, for the ability to rouse or calm a crowd is the greatest test of both the understanding and the practical ability of the speaker. An orator also needs a certain charm and wit, the cultured ways of a gentleman, and the ability to strike fiercely when attacking an opponent. In addition he needs a subtle grace and sophistication. Finally, an orator must have a keen mind capable of remembering a vast array of relevant precedents and examples from history, along with a thorough knowledge of the law and civil statutes.” In principle, Cicero is correct. However access to plentiful written sources has allowed the role of memory to diminish for anyone other than a participant in a spoken debate or private argument.  Feats of memory were considered a prerequisite of many roles in public life. Imitation of the masters is recommended to gain command of technique and to learn the application of theory in practice.

Generally, he warns against excessive taxation, corruption and unwise foreign adventures in war. He vaunts service and duty – on both ethical and pragmatic grounds. He warns against tyranny, stating “Whoever tries to govern a country through fear is quite mad. For no matter how much a tyrant might try to overturn the law and crush the spirit of freedom, sooner or later it will rise up again either through public outrage or the ballot box.” Ultimately, Cicero would pay with his life for his opposition to the tyranny of Antony.

Cicero’s insights are as valid as they were 2,000 years ago and his advice could be beneficially applied perennially by speakers and rulers today.

 

 

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (ed., trans., introduction), How to Run a Country, Princeton University Press, 2013, 132pp, half-cloth hardback, Latin/English text, $12.95, ISBN 978 0 691 156576

Marcus Tullius Cicero, James M. May (ed., trans., introduction), How to Win an Argument, Princeton University Press, 2016, 263pp, half-cloth hardback, Latin/English text, $16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 164335

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

Seduction of Unreason: Post-Modernism and Fascism

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The introduction to the original 2004 edition of Richard Wolin’s study of Post-Modernism’s intimate relationship with fascist-related philosophy of the 1920s to the 1940s (newly re-published) has a puzzlingly premature obituary for Post-Modernism.

Today the postmodern juggernaut seems to have run aground. Outside of the parochial climate of contemporary academe, its program of a “farewell to reason” failed to take root. Its bold proclamation concerning the end of “metanarratives” of human emancipation also failed to gain widespread acceptance.

In recent years we have seen empirical reasoning assaulted by political activists who declare that human sex difference is a scientific falsehood and that Western science itself is a tool of racist oppression. Scientific data is considered “too upsetting” to be published and contentious ideas are so dangerous they cannot be publicly discussed (even to debunk them). It is demanded by students that public institutions must institute racial quotas and that authors should be stripped of their place in reading lists due to skin colour. Language “is violence” and speech can legitimately be met with actual violence. The cult of victimhood holds sway over national broadcasters, political parties and judicial systems. Post-Modernism has expanded to touch every aspect of discussion as ad hominem attacks and emotional grandstanding threaten to overwhelm reason and evidence.

Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism may have fallen from favour in philosophy and English faculties at leading universities 15 years ago, but since then Post-Modernist relativism has powerfully undermined rational discourse as graduates have entered the wider world, eager to dispense social justice. Wolin observes that Post-Modernism has been co-opted in a recent resurgence in nationalism, while suggesting that as a line of academic inquiry it is discredited. Post-Modernism is often spurned by supporters of Neo-Marxism as politically unsound, reliant on philosophy that is tainted by obscurantism and authoritarianism. Yet the combination of Neo-Marxism and Post-Modernism – contradictory though they may be – is what has given the New Left intellectual traction in its attack on the pillars of the West: family, church, capitalism, science, nationhood.

The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism presents the kernel of Post-Modernism in the opposition of the Counter-Enlightenment to the humanism of the Enlightenment. The overlap between philosophy and politics is apparent in the way philosophy was used to justify political prejudices and the way politicians adopted philosophy to provide their positions with intellectual fibre. At the outset, Wolin writes that he does not wish to tar Post-Modernism with guilt by association, but rather to examine how principles that the Fascists advanced became embedded in Post-Modernism.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s aristocratic and anti-democratic proclivities steered his writing towards the espousal of elitism and the necessity of inspired might over consensus – the antithesis of liberal democracy. Nietzsche’s dictum “There are no facts, only interpretation,” is a favourite with teachers of gender and race studies, who use it to bolster the relativism of “personal truth”. Foucault found in Nietzsche support for the idea of power shaping knowledge. Claude Levi-Strauss saw the horrors of Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries as an inevitable extension of humanism. This correlates with Nietzsche’s prophecy of totalitarian regimes dominating a post-Christian Europe. Framing knowledge in terms of power becomes a tenet of Post-Modernism. “Jean-Francois Lyotard attained notoriety for his controversial equation of “consensus” with “terror”. The idea of an uncoerced, rational accord, argues Lyotard, is a fantasy. Underlying the veneer of mutual agreement lurks force.”

Carl Jung is conceived of as the Post-Modernist antithesis of Modernist Freud. Jung’s intuitive understanding of man’s eternal internal struggles to reconcile archetypes of the unconscious stood in stark contrast to Freud’s quasi-scientific teasing out of friction between conscious and subconscious. Jung posited a racial dimension to archetypes and went on to contrast the cerebral nature of Jews with the youthful vigour of Aryans. Fascism seemed to align well with Jung’s collective racial thinking and the idea of a Nietzschean shamanic figure taking command. In an interview in 1939, Jung nominated Hitler as such a figure. Jung was recipient of the Nazi state’s patronage through work with German institutions. Despite Jung subsequently distancing himself from Fascism, there is no doubting the sympathy between Jungian psychoanalytic theory, National Socialist racial ideology and Post-Modernist anti-rationalism.

Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer were both sympathetic towards Nazism’s claims of Germanic intellectual and biological superiority, at times guardedly supportive (or more) in public actions and statements. Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism is well documented. Here Wolin describes Gadamer’s propositions regarding the role of prejudice within judgment and his support for Plato’s anti-democratic Republic as advocacy of the unreason inherent in the Nazi Weltanschauung.

Georges Bataille, informed by study of history and ethnography, proposed an aesthetics of violent spectacle; his dwelling upon (and celebration of) degradation, perversion, suffering and destruction mark him as a precursor of Post-Modernist Post-Structuralists intent on destabilising a society founded on complacent materialism. Sexual libertinism (apparent in his erotic novel The Story of the Eye as well as his theoretical writing) is revolutionary because it returns sex to the sacramental function to be found in pagan societies of recent history and pre-history. The cult of primitivism is an alternative to the fallacy of rationalism which debilitates and denatures man. Transgression of the utilitarian law will give rise to the establishment of irrational laws of pre-Enlightenment culture, religious in essence. Advancing paganism, sacrifice (up to and including human sacrifice), the sovereignty of the mystical leader and communal bonding through observation and participation in the grand spectacle all distance Bataille equally from Enlightenment reason and Socialist materialism. Wolin situates Bataille (and his associates in the College of Sociology and the quasi-pagan Acéphale brotherhood) in the group of Left Fascism. Left Fascism, as Wolin describes it, is a rejection of liberalism, democracy and Enlightenment ratiocination and the adoption of Fascist methods for the advancement of the left. Many of Bataille’s associates of the 1930s and 1940s considered him a covert Fascist and thought his commitment to leftism was a cover for infatuation with Fascism. The final rupture between Bataille and André Breton’s Surrealists was a manifesto which included praise of Hitler. Bataille had included as signatories Breton and other Surrealists without consulting them.

Maurice Blanchot’s anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist journalism is cited as evidence of this thinker’s political sympathies. His post-war literary theories were influential on Post-Structuralists due to “the need to account for the rhetorical dimension of language, the focus on the perplexing ambiguities in literary texts, the problematic nature of citations, and the transfer of linguistic structures to the study of literature, psychology, cultural phenomena, history, and metaphysics.” “Literature’s essential characteristics are absence, silence, meaninglessness, and death.” Aside from their content, it was the deep seriousness and density of Blanchot’s texts which left a deep impression on intellectuals.

Jacques Derrida’s metaphysical word-games deconstruct philosophy and language yet also undermine themselves. A hermetic circularity is commenced, one that fails to offer anything but banal generalities, playful mischief and pervasive mistrust. Buoyed by a comforting wave of nihilism, followers of Derrida’s ideas are insulated from correction and refinement, free in the knowledge that political engagement was not only unnecessary but impossible. If “there is nothing outside the text” one might as well retreat into discourses on linguistic riddles and slippages in meaning. Foucault and Edward Said (among others) lambasted Derrida as a purveyor of weighty minutiae and of adopting the status of an oracular authority. Wolin quotes Michèle Lamont who observes that Derrida has gained credibility in the USA – and to a lesser extent, the UK – which have weak native traditions of leftism, but been rejected by European countries with strong leftist intellectual schools. Derrida’s link with Fascism is his criticism of law based on determinant certitude and legal positivism derived from logos, a set of positive firm attributes which he sees as fundamentally fallacious. In contrast, he stresses the deep irrationality of justice and the need for a mystical authority.

While Wolin’s assessment of influence of Fascist thinkers on Post-Modernism is accurate, he fails to fully identify Fascism as a variant of Socialism. (This is despite Wolin’s nuanced description of Mussolini’s syncretic adaptation of Marxism through the lens of Nietzsche and a discussion of Left Fascism.) Nazi National Socialism and Italian Fascism share many characteristics of Socialism, were allies of Socialist countries and adopted the forms and language of Socialism. Socialism is not the least component of Fascism. Wolin is in error conceiving of Fascism as irrational rightism in opposition to rational leftism, rather than identifying Fascism and leftism as two warring siblings sharing many traits. Wolin takes leftism at face value. “Historically, the left has been staunchly rationalist and universalist, defending democracy, egalitarianism, and human rights.”[v] Sporadically, yes. Yet it is Socialist regimes which were founded on opposition to democracy and the underlying motivation of leftist politics is sentiment not rationality. In Socialist states, human rights apply selectively, to be strategically withdrawn from opponents. Leftists support free speech when they are a dissident minority; when in power, leftists oppose free speech. Wolin fails to adequately highlight the utopian authoritarianism in the Old Left and the sectarianism in the New Left; his conflation of liberalism with leftism is a common error.

On the question of left unreason, Wolin seems a prisoner to the conception that unreason is primarily the prerogative of the political right. Yet it was the positioning of Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci, Horkheimer and Marcuse who dismissed the idea of reason as a tool to critique society. Facing a Late Capitalist society – with its privileges so entrenched in traditional forms and well defended with its weapons of capitalism, consumer goods, mass entertainment and representative democracy – was it not the Neo-Marxist thinkers who determined to avoid persuasion and instead infiltrate institutions to occupy key positions? Was the unreason of the New Left not an admission that tradition, capitalism and democracy could not be overcome by discussion alone and that force and terror may be necessary to combat these axes of oppression? Once these positions had been taken, was not the worm of unreason hollowing out the Western institutions over half a century as much a creation of the left as of the right?

In short, the rise of nationalist populism across the Western world is a reaction to neoliberal social and economic policies – a reaction which has taken the form of identity politics partly due to the legitimisation of the New Left, which has abandoned universalism.

Notwithstanding the reservations outlined above, The Seduction of Unreason is an informative, thoughtful and admirably clear dissection of the ties of Post-Modernism to Fascist thought and identifies Post-Modernist as essentially sceptical towards political liberalism and parliamentary democracy. Anyone wishing to study the intellectual origins of Fascism – and intellectual support for and collaboration with Fascism – will find The Seduction of Unreason a valuable guide.

 

Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism, second edition, Princeton University Press, 2019, paperback, $29.95/£24, ISBN 978 0 691 19235 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

Seneca on Anger, Thucydides on War

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Two timely additions to the Ancient Wisdom series of Princeton University Press have been published. They bring us insights from yesteryear which apply to our age.

In our age of Twitter storms and online petitions, of aggressive demonstrations and refusals to accept the validity of an opposing argument, this extract of Seneca’s Stoic text On Anger is welcome. Seneca was the most noted Roman orator of his age – perhaps in all the ancient world – and his measured words and apt insights bring his philosophy of restraint, decency, leniency and empathy vividly to life. In our age polarised by politics and atomised by social media, Seneca’s instructions guide us to put our petty frustrations and over reactions into perspective.

Some men have called anger a brief madness; in equal degrees, it is unable to govern itself, forgetful of decorum, ignorant of friendships, obstinate and intent on finishing what it begins, deaf to reason and advice, stirred up by empty provocations, unsuited to distinguishing what’s just and true.

Anger is a disaster – “No plague has done more harm to humankind” – or a disease, akin to unsightly swelling indicating an inner malady. It makes us mad and turns us into animals. It makes us ugly and deformed. To give in to anger is akin to throwing ourselves off a cliff. Once we abandon our control we are unable to regain control and can only fall to an ignominious and unnecessary end. Anger hurts us more than any other emotion because it causes us to act against ourselves.

In the following passage Seneca could be describing the iGen, the youngest generation which grew up tethered to smartphones and social media, and its helicopter parents.

The more an only child is indulged, or the more that’s permitted to an orphaned ward, the more corrupt the mind becomes. The one who was never denied anything, whose tears a worried mother wiped away, for whose sake a babysitter got the blame, will have no resources against shocks to the system. Don’t you see how a greater wrathfulness accompanies a greater fortune?

If one looks at the university students furiously protesting real or imagined infractions of politeness, one sees these fortunate ones driven to the heights of fury. These are the individuals that Haidt and Lukianoff describe in The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind – pampered, protected and unable to resist the mildest of challenges. Their rage is not an expression of an attachment to justice but the petulance of an affronted child. Instinctive ire at a sign of disrespect comes not from a position of confident self-knowledge but of insecurity.

In an age when we rush to judgment and post our first thoughts to public forums, we would do well to heed Seneca’s warning against rashness and credulity. We should treat news stories with caution and wait. Often enough, we will see what a trifling matter it was and undeserving of comment or emotion. Your restraint ennobles you – consider the bearing of great men.

Seneca urges us to set aside our selfish anger and instead remember our commitment to duty. He reminds us that none of us are innocent and that we must accept fair rebuke. This is contrary to the advice we get today to express our emotions, to make ourselves important, to indulge our emotions and expect others to accommodate us. Seneca’s Stoicism is tempered by consideration. His belief is that we do others a courtesy by not imposing on them demeaning emotions. We injure ourselves by giving in to anger. “Surely no one would choose to hit a foe so hard as to have his hand get stuck in the wound and be unable to withdraw from the blow.”

To avoid the temptation of ire, Seneca recommends we keep the company of calm people and try not to attempt tasks that are beyond us, for that will frustrate us. When needed, w should be able to turn our backs on the senate and forum – today, that would be switch off the news and unplug from social media. (“It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything.”) We should not seek information which personally insults us. Be wary of drinking parties. He concludes with examples of superhuman self-control by individuals in the face of monstrous provocation and cruelty. The message is clear – if these individuals could restrain themselves, so can you. In lives as short as ours, why poison them with anger?

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How to Think About War is a compilation of speeches from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian, considered one of most accomplished and important of all histories. The author was a general in the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century BC. Athens had established a trading league which became an association of colonies and allies which paid Athens to protect them from hostile forces. This league had a treasury at Delos and thus became known as the Delian League. However, it was known by all – not least the Athenians themselves – that the Delian League was actually an Athenian Empire, with tithes paying not only for the building of warships but buildings in Athens, including the Parthenon. There was “mission creep” or imperial hubris which led to the Athenians seeking to expand their empire. When client city-states revolted, these uprisings were put down with force and compensation extracted. Thus Athens – acknowledged birthplace of democracy and home to the flourishing of Ancient Greek civilisation and the wonders of art, drama, architecture and writing – was also a powerful military power which used a combination of soft power, wily diplomacy and overwhelming force to expand its influence across its neighbours. They prided themselves on propagating (and sometimes imposing) democracy on their client states. However, although Sparta agitated for the freedom of Greek states, it was a society founded upon slave labour. Additionally, Athens had a navy that could protect all of the Greek states from the threat of invasion by Persia. So although Athens was repressive, it also offered protection from foreign threat. The picture is a complicated one.

Not surprisingly, this history (left incomplete) has been seen as a parallel for subsequent imperial ventures. The most recent analogies have been between the Athenian venture and the foreign policy of the USA. Thucydides’s history has been seen as a warning of globalist ambition, military hubris and strategic overreach. Some have found justifications for a nation wishing to spread its values overseas, while others see it as a critique of that tendency. Thucydides position is opaque. While he was an Athenian, he was also critical of the failures in policy and philosophy behind the conflict. Thucydides lived to see the end of the war but he died before he could complete his history, so he knew that the ultimate military defeat of Athens was the outcome for his polis (city-state). He tries to be as objective as possible, compiling the views of participants and attempting to establish the correctness of the statements he has.

One of Thucydides main narrative devices is to record the speeches of various statesmen and generals. Some of these he actually heard, others he had reported to him. The speeches are not verbatim but they convey the position of the speaker accurately even if Thucydides considered the speaker disingenuous or misguided. This book is a collection of the speeches, each preceded by a short introduction.

On the patriotic enthusiasm for war, Pericles says: “I do realize that people are often more passionate when they are first convinced to go to war than when they actually wage it; that as circumstances change, so too does resolve.” Pericles warns that refusing to fight over small matters risks appeasing and encouraging further infractions which infringe the principles of Athens. If Athenians truly hold certain beliefs then they must be prepared to fight and die for them not to allow them to be breached. However, once the decision has been made, Athenians must be willing to fight to win and not disavow their commitment should the conflict prove trying for them. There is tactical advice on the weaknesses of a divided enemy unable to mount a sustained campaign and advantages and disadvantages of winning territory.

The principles which Athens subscribes to are outlined in Pericles famous funeral oration, included here. In this he sets out the achievements of their ancestors who fought and died to protect their people from barbarians. He speaks of Athens ability to overcome obstacles while never falling prey to the weaknesses of other cultures. He praises the education and creativity of Athenians. Grief and suffering are the cost of protecting such freedoms.

On the morale of a divided people, Pericles says: “I am convinced that people are much better off when their whole city is flourishing than when certain citizens prosper but the community has gone off course. When a man is doing well for himself but his country is falling to pieces he goes to pieces along with it, but a struggling individual has much better hopes if his country is thriving. A city can bear its people’s various sufferings but no single person can bear the whole city’s.”

A barb from leader Pericles chastising his mutinous fellow citizens demonstrates his legendary oratorical skills: “Apparently, the real flaw in my policy is the weakness of your resolve.”  He manoeuvres Athenians into supporting the continuing war by stating that whether or not they supported the establishment of the empire, they are burdened by its existence and must bear that burden. “Even if you think it was wrong to establish the empire in the first place, letting it go now would be exceptionally dangerous.” He casts opposition to war as the bind of the free riders and pacifists, who benefit from the actions of others without personally engaging. “One person’s disengagement is untenable unless bolstered by someone else’s commitment.”

A debate between Cleon and Diodotus on the fate of the Mytileneans frames the matters of realpolitik and justice. The Athenians had voted for the execution of every Mytilenean men after their failed revolt but had second thoughts and two Athenians debated whether or not to rescind the order. Clemency and punishment have implicit costs and are weighed in terms of both ethics and pragmatism. In the Melian Dialogue we see Athenians arguing that nothing between submission or defeat of Melos is acceptable because neutrality would present other nations with an alternative and encourage Athenian client states to seek neutrality. The Melians are urged to surrender because they are militarily inferior and war could only lead to their defeat, yet still the Melians claim that the unlikely prospect of victory is better than the sure prospect of submission and associated shame. A final debate is on the wisdom of Athens launching an invasion of Sicily.

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The translation is very readable and is printed facing the original Latin/Greek in matching parallel. The introductions and notes allow new readers to appreciate the texts to the full without preparation. These handsome small books (with cloth spines) introduce people to the classics in a way which makes these ancient writers seem as relevant and wise as any famous author of our own times. The issues in these books are as relevant now as they were 2000 years ago.

 

Seneca, James Romm (ed./trans.), How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 220pp + xviii, English/Latin text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 18195 0

Thucydides, Johanna Hanink (ed./trans.), How to Think About War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 276pp + liv, English/Greek text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 19015 0

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

“Ayn Rand (1905-82) is now more famous as a philosopher and ardent proponent of laissez-faire capitalism than as a writer of fiction. As such she is known for advocating rationalism and pure self-interest as bases for ethical and political action and as a bulwark against collectivist ideologies and government influence. According to this approach, which she called objectivism, the most virtuous man is one who makes money; the most depraved is one without purpose. Wealth, therefore, is a sign of success and a motivator for ambitious capable men. (Rand’s attitude to feminism was ambivalent – personally ambitious, she was opposed to the intrusion of feminine virtues into traditional masculine public spaces of politics, commerce and science.) Although objectivism has furnished American libertarianism with (disputed) intellectual seriousness, a worldview that considers all taxation as theft has had little appeal in Europe. Objectivism has largely been seen by philosophers as a political position rather than a coherent system of ethics and logic.

“Rand’s belief in the great-man theory of history (positing that social and technological progress is made through the achievements of exceptional individuals) translated in artistic terms into a strand of heroic individualism. That is nowhere better exemplified than in her giant novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. An elegant new edition, published by the Folio Society, captures the grand scale and epic themes in its illustrations and pictorial hardcover designs….”

Read the full review online here:

https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/11/22/atlas-shrugged-ayn-rand-novel-of-ideas/

Publication: “Culture War: Art, Identity Politics & Cultural Entryism”

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I am pleased to announce the publication of my book “Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism” (Societas/Imprint Academic).

“Why has identity become so central to judging art today? Why are some groups reluctant to defend free speech within culture? Has state support made artists poorer not richer? How does the movement for social justice influence cultural production? Why is post-modernism dominant in the art world? Why are consumers of comic books so bitterly divided?

“In Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism Alexander Adams examines a series of pressing issues in today’s culture: censorship, Islamism, Feminism, identity politics, historical reparations and public arts policy. Through a series of linked essays, Culture War exposes connections between seemingly unrelated events and trends in high and popular cultures. From fine art to superhero comics, from political cartoons to museum policy, certain persistent ideas underpin the most contentious issues today. Adams draws on history, philosophy, politics and cultural criticism to explain the reasoning of creators, consumers and critics and to expose some uncomfortable truths.”

180pp, 3 b&w illus., Societas/Imprint Academic, March 2019, ISBN 978-1845409982

Link to publisher’s selling page: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100083870

Link to Amazon book description:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Culture-War-Identity-Politics-Cultural/dp/1845409981/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536611127&sr=8-1&keywords=culture+war+alexander+adams

Stoicism: Antidote for Victimhood

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Two new books filled with ancient wisdom offer an alternative to the culture of victimhood which currently dominates public life.

In recent years the culture of offence, emotional lability and learned helplessness has encouraged people to be weak in order to gain social status. If we are upset we display our emotions for support; if we are hurt we show our wounds for sympathy; if we consider ourselves slighted we indulge our injury. By rewarding weakness we encourage it. We learn to make ourselves unable to accept valid criticism by rejecting it as a personal slight. We demand respect without displaying the qualities that might generate admiration. Whenever we encounter opposition we feel defeated because we have defeated ourselves peremptorily. Social and psychological data show that we are making ourselves, our children and our society ever more fragile in a descending spiral of blame, making anyone but ourselves responsible for suffering. The culture of victimhood can be seen in social-media outrage mobs, the prevalence of identity politics and the casual assumption that bigotry is endemic and condemns subjects to lives of intolerable failure.

The Stoics believed that suffering largely emanates from within each person and that each person, therefore, has the power to overcome suffering through conscious thought and learned habit. They believed that treating both failure and success with equanimity preserved the individual from the excesses of pride and despair. An interior search for meaning led to understanding of virtue and to dignified restrained conduct not to temptation to succumb to self-pity, vanity and selfishness. Stoicism’s cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.

Stoicism was a school of moral ethics originated by the ancient Greeks in Athens in the 3rd Century BC. Two of the most prominent writers were Epictetus (c. 55-135 AD) and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-36 BC). Princeton University Press have produced two attractive small volumes of which publish the original texts (Cicero in Latin, Epictetus in Greek) with parallel English translations and brief introduction and endnotes.

How to Be a Friend (Laelius de Amicitia – literally “Laelius on Friendship”) was written by Cicero for his friend Atticus when they were both old. He was reflecting upon the importance and nature of friendship, using the general and orator Gaius Laelius not only to share Laelius’s thoughts but to reflect Cicero’s own understanding of friendship. In the translator’s introduction some of Cicero’s observations are summarised:

Only good people can be friends because trust, wisdom and good faith are essential to deep friendships; persons of low moral character cannot be trustworthy friends. Make new friends, but keep the old because your friendships of longstanding may change as your circumstances change; new friendships reflect new aspects of your life. A friend never asks another friend to do something wrong because moral distortion of a friendship is the result of moral flaws which should disqualify the friend from your trust. Friendship should never – ideally – be material or the result of dependence.

To the degree a person relies on himself and is made sturdy by virtue and wisdom so that he depends on no one and thus possesses all he needs within himself, to that extent he most excels at seeking out and cherishing friendships. Did my departed friend Africanus need me? By Hercules, not at all! And I had no need of him. But I loved him because of his goodness, just as he, if judged rightly, loved me because of the virtue he saw in me.

In one touching passage, Cicero talks of two friends becoming competitive in their attempts to help each other, trying to outdo each other with consideration and generosity. Elsewhere he writes, “Friends are the finest and most beautiful adornment of life.” This is tempered by moral seriousness. “True friends should give faithful advice to each other, not only with frankness but with sternness if necessary. And this advice should be heeded.” On the response to the death of a friend, Cicero writes “If you let your sorrow overwhelm you, you’re not showing how much you loved your friend, only how much you love yourself.”

One might quibble with a handful of points – including that one must never give consideration to negative comments made about your friends – but generally the book is full on sound insights into human nature.

How to Be Free (comprising extracts from Encheiridion (Ἐγχειρίδιον) (“Handbook”) and Diatribai (Διατριβαί) (“Discourses”)) is a parallel translation with the colloquial Greek, as spoken by Epictetus in his lectures. They were transcribed from memory by his pupil Arrian of Nicomedia. Epictetus was a freed Geek slave who became known as a thinker after he was granted his freedom. For Epictetus, freedom was a mental choice. One could examine one’s self and become aware of the virtues and vices and understand how different phenomena affect one’s outlet. After knowledge and self-knowledge comes the exercise of will. Epictetus does not, however, address the dangers of passivity in the acceptance of one’s fate. The philosopher enjoined persons to treat every situation as expected and necessary and to only respond by tempering one’s reactions. Mastery of oneself – through deciding how to respond – gives both serenity and stability.

Epictetus helps us view with equanimity things that most people care about: wealth, poverty, illness and so forth. If we treat such matters with distant appreciation and mindfulness we become not entirely indifferent but less swayed by passing states. Do not get carried away with your passions, for good or ill.

“In company don’t go on at length about your deeds or adventures. It may be pleasant for you to recount them, but others are less eager to hear about what has happened to you.” (That just about kills social media.) Refrain from luxuries, socially unacceptable sex, emotional excess and humour. Epictetus is capable of his own dry wit. “If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: ‘Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.’”

If someone in the street were entrusted with your body, you would be furious. Yet you entrust your mind to anyone around who happens to insult you, and allow it to be troubled and confused. Aren’t you ashamed of that?

In an age of vanity, fear and self-absorption, Stoicism offers hard truths and curt truisms. These small tomes should appeal to readers with a desire to better themselves and a willingness to take on tough wisdom that has not aged in 2,000 years.

 

Epictetus, A. A. Long (trans.), How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 173pp + liii, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17771 7

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (trans.), How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 208pp, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17719 9

28 September 2018

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art