Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Elizabeth Drew argues in the NYRB that the successes thus far of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders are evidence of a revolutionary moment in American politics. "A revolution is taking place in our presidential campaign. Though no one has voted yet and the polls--especially nationwide ones--shouldn't be taken too literally, there's every indication in both parties that what's termed the political establishment is being rejected. We're some distance from the end of the nomination contests, though perhaps not in the Republican race: if Donald Trump were to sweep Iowa and New Hampshire it's hard to see how he can be stopped. So far, the talk of a savior entering the race is only that, and to make such a challenge would be daunting. Those who've ventured to predict the outcome and gone by past patterns haven't had it right. Politically, this country is in a new place. It's best to ignore suggestions of historic parallels. As of now, the anti-establishment candidates in both parties--Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans, and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats--are either well ahead of or giving close chase to the rest of their respective fields. That shouldn't be a surprise. The public mood has been building toward this situation. Leaders in both parties are seen as having failed various tests and are being rejected. The complaints against the status quo are similar among Democratic and Republican voters. In fact, so alike is the dissatisfaction that there are indications of a possible large crossover vote; in a recent survey, nearly 20 percent of Democratic voters say they would vote for Trump in a general election. Some of the complaints are familiar, but a striking one is new. The most familiar--and bipartisan--grievances are that the middle class has been squeezed; that wages haven't kept up; that the divide between the very rich and poor continues to grow. These are deeply felt issues, despite the fact that, in recent months jobs have been coming back and unemployment, at just 5 percent (among those who've remained in the job market), is half of what it was when Obama took office, an achievement that virtually no one expected. A sleeper issue, however, has also finally come to the fore: the corruption that infects our political system. It had long been said that the public doesn't care about this matter, but upset over the gradual loss of control of our political system to those who can buy it is now palpable. For very different reasons, both Trump and Bernie Sanders are seen as incorruptible."
Drew is right. Trump, Cruz, and Sanders are succeeding not only because of their policies but at least in part because they are perceived by their followers as authentic and incorruptible. Trump is famously vague about policy, simply asserting he and American will win. Sanders, while more politically practiced and less reality-challenged than Trump, too has lean policy prescriptions. Sanders promises that he is mobilizing a movement that will break through decades of gridlock and remake the nation. As do Trump and Cruz, Sanders places great importance on his ability to inspire and lead a mass mobilization. The seduction of Sanders, Trump, and Cruz is that they actually believe what they say, that they do want to mobilize a wave of supporters who will weed out the crooks and revitalize the American dream. There is a real possibility that for the first time in my political life, we might have a presidential election between major-party candidates who actually speak from conviction. That is something new, possibly revolutionary.
On another level, however, Drew is too quick to baptize our present moment with revolutionary credentials. Our representative institutions have been corrupted. There is anger and frustration on the left and the right. But what is the answer? Trump channels anger against immigrants, minorities, and even Wall Street. Sanders channels anger against Wall Street but also against the political and business establishments, not to mention what he calls the "billionaire class." What Trump, Cruz, and Sanders offer is an ideological politics perfectly calibrated to our angry era. There is some chance Trump, Cruz, or Sanders will be our next president. If one of them wins, there will be joyful redemption on one side and resentful anger on the other. Trump and Sanders know that the legitimacy of our American institutions is compromised. They have mobilized masses with populist messages. They are not wrong. This is a first step toward real change.
What is missing, however, is what Hannah Arendt once referred to as a "real analysis of the existing situation," a recognition of the uniqueness of our current situation and a new way forward. The candidates can't be faulted for the fact that they don't have solutions. Nobody seems to. But a politics of anger rarely blooms into a rose. A revolutionary situation, Arendt writes, "need not lead to revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, it can end in total anticlimax; it need not lead to anything." With the candidacies of Trump, Cruz, and Sanders, justifiable anger is raising the stakes in a dangerous game. Which is why Drew rightly concludes her essay with a warning: "The anger, fear, resentment, racism, and frustration that are playing into the current political climate make for a turbulent situation. This is a situation prone to undermining our democratic system. It's not an overstatement to say that in this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We're not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed."--RB
Jessica Bennett reports about how students and college campuses are trying to fix the problem of sexual assaults on campus by changing how they educate about what consent is--a task which is harder even than it sounds: "Campuses like Trinity's have thick handbooks full of sexual assault resources, filled with pages upon pages of legal definitions and situational scenarios. But that doesn't mean that students necessarily understand the new policies. Yes, 'consent' is now emblazoned on T-shirts and posters--it was the subject of a recent public service initiative at Columbia, 'Consent is BAE,' that was criticized by students--but even that does not ensure that students can define it. 'I think it's when two people agree to have sex, yeah?' a young woman, a junior at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said when approached on a recent day in Manhattan and asked if she could define 'affirmative consent.' 'Isn't that when only yes means yes? But not really?' said another woman, a dance and fashion major at N.Y.U. 'I know what consent is; is this different?' said a young man, a sports management major, also at N.Y.U. And there is a whole new vocabulary to memorize, with terms like 'enthusiastic consent,' 'implied consent,' 'spectrum of consent,' 'reluctant permission,' 'coercion' and 'unintentional rape.' Even 'yes means yes,' the slogan of the anti-rape movement is sort of confusing. 'It should be "Only yes means yes,"' said Dr. Brod, the sociologist. (And if you still can't tell, then ask.)" As any first year law student knows, consent is one of the trickiest concepts in our moral universe. Can silence signal consent? Can actions or behavior mean consent? When is consent rescinded? What is knowing versus impaired consent? Can one consent to be enslaved? Is it permissible to consent to be violated? The effort to make sex consensual is laudable. But the demand for consent is hardly a silver bullet that will prevent unwanted and non-consensual sex. This is above all the case because so often we, and especially young people, don't know for sure what we want.--RB
Michael Massing has published a two-part story in the NYRB calling for a new form of journalism dedicated to covering the business, philanthropic, and political activities of the 1%. "Even amid the outpouring of coverage of rising income inequality, however, the richest Americans have remained largely hidden from view. On all sides, billionaires are shaping policy, influencing opinion, promoting favorite causes, polishing their images--and carefully shielding themselves from scrutiny. Journalists have largely let them get away with it. News organizations need to find new ways to lift the veil off the superrich and lay bare their power and influence. Digital technology, with its flexibility, speed, boundless capacity, and ease of interactivity, seems ideally suited to this task, but only if it's used more creatively than it has been to date." Massing offers a number of preliminary examples of what he has in mind. One concerns Paul Singer, CEO of the hedge fund Elliott Management. "Looking more closely at these individuals, I became fascinated with Singer. He seems to typify the ability of today's ultrarich to amass tremendous power while remaining out of the limelight. Singer did receive a flurry of attention in late October when news broke of his decision to back Marco Rubio's presidential bid, but it quickly faded, and he moved back into the shadows. Going online, I found out (from Forbes) that Singer is worth about $2 billion. He is the single largest donor to the Republican Party, with his money going overwhelmingly to candidates who support free enterprise and oppose regulation. (A major exception is his support for groups promoting gay rights and same-sex marriage; his son is gay.) From the Times I learned that the fund-raisers Singer hosts in his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side can net more than $1 million a session, and I read in The Wall Street Journal that he was instrumental in the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012. In a detailed profile of Singer in Mother Jones, Peter Stone noted that Elliott Management has frequently been called a '"vulture fund" because a chunk of its profits comes from buying distressed companies' or countries' debt at a steep discount.' In 2012 a subsidiary of the firm, seeking to extract full payment from Argentina for some bonds on which it had defaulted, had an Argentine naval vessel impounded in a Ghanaian port. In 2004, Singer contributed $5,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked John Kerry's war record, badly damaging his presidential bid. Since then, he has given generously to American Crossroads and the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that has backed many Tea Party candidates. Singer's influence, though, extends far beyond that. He is chairman of the board of the Manhattan Institute, a member of the board of Commentary magazine, and a major donor to the American Enterprise Institute. He has given to and/or sat on the boards of several organizations dedicated to a strong Israel, including the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; the Republican Jewish Coalition; the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that sponsors trips to Israel by members of Congress; and the Israel Project, a group dedicated to boosting Israel's image. From 2008 to 2011, Singer gave $3.6 million to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has worked tirelessly to isolate and sanction Iran. All of these groups were active in the campaign to kill the nuclear deal with Iran. As I examined their interlocking boards and overlapping missions, I became aware of the enormous political, financial, and lobbying infrastructure behind that campaign. From Paul Blumenthal at The Huffington Post I learned that four hawkish-on-Israel billionaires--Singer, Sheldon Adelson, Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, and Seth Klarman, the head of the private investment house Baupost--gave a combined $11.5 million to anti-Iran groups from 2011 through 2013 (while also giving $115 million to Republican Party Super PACs in the 2012 and 2014 elections). A parallel array of groups (led by J Street and the Ploughshares Fund) worked to support the deal, but as Eli Clifton pointed out at LobeLog, the anti-Iran groups opposing it had operating budgets nearly five times as large as those in support. Despite the nonstop coverage of the debate over the nuclear agreement, this network remained largely hidden."
Paul La Farge believes that we shouldn't be so worried about what the Internet is doing to reading: "A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet's flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called 'the shallows,' a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr's view, the 'endless, mesmerizing buzz' of the Internet imperils our very being: 'One of the greatest dangers we face,' he writes, 'as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is ... a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.' There's no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips... The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along. When we read, the eye does not progress steadily along the line of text; it alternates between saccades--little jumps--and brief stops, not unlike the movement of the mouse's cursor across a screen of hypertext. From the invention of papyrus around 3000 B.C., until about 300 A.D., most written documents were scrolls, which had to be rolled up by one hand as they were unrolled by the other: a truly linear presentation. Since then, though, most reading has involved codices, bound books or pamphlets, a major advantage of which (at least compared to the scroll) is that you can jump around in them, from chapter to chapter (the table of contents had been around since roughly the first century B.C.); from text to marginal gloss, and, later, to footnote."
After being illegal for over 60 years, Mein Kampf may once again be published in Germany. Adam Gopnik wonders whether Mein Kampf remains a dangerous book: "the striking thing about the text as a text is that it is not so much diabolical or sinister as creepy. It is the last book in the world that you would expect a nascent Fascist dictator to write. Most of us--and most politicians in particular, even those who belong to extremist movements--try to draw a reasonably charismatic picture of our histories and ourselves. We want to look appealing. An evil force may emerge and temporarily defeat the narrator, but that force is usually placed against a childhood of a purer folk existence, now defiled. That's the way most politicians' campaign memoirs still work, for instance. Hitler, whom we suspect of being an embittered, envious, traumatized loser, presents himself as . . . an embittered, envious, traumatized loser. The weirdness of this is especially evident in the earlier autobiographical chapters. His resentments are ever-present. His father was dense, mean, unforgiving, and opaque. ('My father forbade me to nourish the slightest hope of ever being allowed to study art. I went one step further and declared that if that was the case I would stop studying altogether. As a result of such "pronouncements," of course, I drew the short end; the old man began the relentless enforcement of his authority.') His schoolmates were combative, his schoolmasters unappreciative. The petty rancor and unassuaged disappointments of a resentment-filled life burn on every page, in ways one would think might be more demoralizing than inspiring to potential followers.... 'Mein Kampf' is a miserable book, but should it be banned? I could certainly sympathize with any German who would like to see it kept illegitimate; some speech should, in fact, be off-limits. But is it a dangerous book? Does it circulate sinister ideas best kept silent? Putting aside the book's singularly creepy tone, it contains little argumentation that wasn't already commonplace in other, still-circulating anti-Semitic and extreme-right literature. Hitler's character remains bewildering, in the obvious mismatch between the extent of his miserableness and the capacity of his will to power, although perhaps it should not be--many other personal stories suggest that miserable people have the will to power in the greatest intensity. But his themes are part of the inheritance of modernity, ones that he merely adapted with a peculiar, self-pitying edge and then took to their nightmarish conclusion: the glory of war over peace; disgust with the messy bargaining and limited successes of reformist, parliamentary democracy and, with that disgust, contempt for the political class as permanently compromised; the certainty that all military setbacks are the results of civilian sabotage and a lack of will; the faith in a strong man; the love of the exceptional character of one nation above all others; the selection of a helpless group to be hated, who can be blamed for feelings of national humiliation. He didn't invent these arguments. He adapted them, and then later showed where in the real world they led, if taken to their logical outcome by someone possessed, for a time, of absolute power. Resisting those arguments is still our struggle, and so they are, however unsettling, still worth reading, even in their creepiest form."
In a previously unpublished essay, Aaron Swartz considers the history of complaints about American education and the way that the testing regime we've recently emerged from affected students: "The single-minded goal of maximizing test scores has been a blessing for the textbook market, which forces schools to buy expensive 'evidence-based curricula' which has been 'proven' to maximize test scores. The packages include not only textbooks and workbooks but also scripts for the teachers to read verbatim--deviating from them hasn't been proven to raise test scores, and is thus prohibited. The package also comes with trained supervisors who drop in on teachers to make sure they're actually sticking to the script. The effect on the students is almost heartbreaking. Taught that reading is simply about searching contrived stories for particular 'text features,' they learn to hate reading. Taught that answering questions is simply about cycling through the multiple choice answers to find the most plausible ones, they begin to stop thinking altogether and just spout random combinations of test buzzwords whenever they're asked a question. 'The joy of finding things out' is banished from the classroom. Testing is in session." Swartz stops at high school, but the way that standardized testing teaches students to learn has stunning effects after they've graduated and gone away to college. As a graduate student teaching assistant at a major public research institution, I'm always amazed at the kind of questions students ask about their tests: they're much more concerned with the way the test will be structured and the point breakdown of each section than with the material they need to know to do well on the test, almost as if they believe that all they need to be prepared for the test is to be good at taking tests. If testing were the answer to a problem with education in America, it would almost certainly be the wrong one; in her essay "The Crisis in Education," Hannah Arendt writes that such a crisis "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices. Such an attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides." From a naive point of view, these tests are designed to address gaps in knowledge (the crisis). But if testing suggests anything, it's that the answer to the question, in Arendt's phrasing, "of why Johnny can't read" isn't to teach more things and then test them on it. Instead of bemoaning what students don't know, we should be enticing students to figure out what they don't know and then give them the writing, research, and critical thinking skills that enable them to go explore on their own, that is, the facility to make their own judgments. Among the myriad ways that American public education fails its students, this one is among the most serious. No test is going to give them the curiosity they need to face the world they were born into.--JK
Ian Storey writes about the twitter hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv, a recorded response from an unidentified bystander to the terrorist attack in London at Leytonstone Station in which two were severely injured in a knife attack by an individual claiming his acts were in the name of "Syria". The bystander is heard saying, "You ain't no muslim, bruv. You're an embarrassment". Storey writes: "The temptation would be to think that the unidentified bystander is simply denying the attacker his religiousness. Certainly, the figure seems to self-identify as Muslim himself. But there is something much deeper in his statement, which was hurled in anger for a minority population already under social siege. Indeed, there is a denial that violence terrorismus--in Kant's terms, violence that justifies itself only in terms of the descent and not the positive possibility of humanity--is itself justifiable under the terms of a religion. Yes, in this case, the speaker speaks of Islam. But again, an underlying claim made the quote resonant on social media. That claim is one that resonates with Arendt's account of action and her critique of Pericles: that justification and action can be claimed but not claimed authoritatively or in permanency and never at the expense of another, for action is only ever action in the world of others. For the speaker, if one believed in Adonai, or G-d, or Allah, the very definition of the name denies terrorismus, the belief that human life can only decline into violence, and that one can be an agent of it. Whoever said 'You ain't no Muslim Bruv' was not suggesting that the attacker did not believe in Allah; he was suggesting 'you're an embarrassment', that if it were truly religiosity motivating the attack at Leytonstone, it would never have happened in the first place."
Glenn Hendler in the LARB appreciates David Bowie's song "Kooks." "'Kooks' is written entirely in the form of a direct address. However, the addressee is a newborn infant--indeed, a very specific, personal one, the child he'd just had with his wife Angela. Then known as Zowie Bowie, and referred to next to the song's title on the handwritten back cover of Hunky Dory as 'Little Z,' he has grown up to be the film director Duncan Jones. The song's conceit is that the singer is asking whether the child is willing to 'stay in our lovers' story' even though its parents are 'a couple of kooks/hung up on romancing.' He confesses that the child will need 'a book of rules/on what to say to people when they pick on you/because if you stay with us you're gonna be pretty kooky too.' The only part I recall liking, each time it came around (skipping a song being played on vinyl did take some effort, after all) was the 'school's out' bit at the end: 'And if the homework brings you down/then we'll throw it on the fire/and take the car downtown.' As a child in public school in the Common Core era, who has lots of homework even in first grade, my son thinks that's a hilarious idea.... But my point is that I heard--everyone heard--'Kooks' in a context that had very little to do with reproductive heteronormativity. What David and Angie Bowie projected at that moment was a radically alternative model for living. And the fact that they included in that model a song about having a baby accentuated the fact that this was a model for adult life. Plenty of rock stars produced images of perpetual youth, and especially of perpetual adolescence (including, by the 1970s already, rock stars who were no longer adolescent youths). But Bowie--in his public persona--taught that adulthood could be complicated, thrilling, unfixed. That he was sixteen years older than I was helped, of course. But so did the fact that he was self-consciously part of a younger generation than the already 'classic rock' stars of the 1960s. He knew exactly the demographic he was addressing when he wrote in 'All the Young Dudes' from the perspective of someone whose brother was 'back at home/ with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff/What a drag/Too many snags.'"
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, February 5, 2016
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Jazz, as the modern art form that lays claim to improvisation, situates music in a productive tension between individual freedom and a mysterious yet sentient order. As do modern theories of liberalism in politics, Jazz insists both on the individual liberty of each that is through fidelity to common truths, recognition of traditional customs, or embrace of collective ends is rendered compatible with a larger inter-subjective order. Freedom as an art of improvisation means that men are free only insofar as they act in ways that are both free and constrained. This is very much what Hannah Arendt means means when she writes that "Men are free-as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom- as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” In this evening on "A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation,” we bring together leading thinkers and musicians to explore the nature of improvisation and the art of freedom.
Free & Open to the Public
Monday, February 15, 2016
László Z. Bitó '60 Conservatory Building, 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.
Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to
- Prevent avoidable epidemics;
- Detect threats early; and
- Respond rapidly and effectively.
Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.
To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.
Free & Open to the Public
Thursday, March 31, 2016
Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the "Banality of Evil" when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt's life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.
Wednesday, April 8, 2016
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA
On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!
Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Ellen Rigby discusses how the authority of teachers lies, at least in part, in their ability to set aside judging and to present the world as it is to their students in the Quote of the Week. David Bowie reflects on how judgment and negative thinking can stifle creativity in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. A supporter of the HAC discusses understanding and humanity as an initium in this week's Library feature. Finally, Ian Storey reflects on the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv as a symbol of humankind's ability to resist a kind of violence that is bound to doctrine.
By Ian Storey
“The ultimate aim was neither power nor profit. Nor was it even influence in the world in order to serve particular, tangible interests for the sake of which prestige…was needed and purposefully used. The goal was now the image itself, as is manifest in the very language of the problem-solvers, with their ‘scenarios’ and ‘audiences’ borrowed from the theater.”
-- Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics”
It has in several countries, particularly Turkey but all across Europe, been a week of horrors. Terrorismus, a term first coined in Germany, represents the idea that humankind is always declining into a state of chaos and violence and only the righteous might rescue it. (Kant calls it one of the three basic theories of history. He rejected it, categorically, as did Hegel.) Now, the term “terrorism” has come to signify something altogether different yet obviously related: the deliberate infliction of pain, death, and fear on non-combatants for the sake of maintaining an appearance, a distinction Arendt first noted in the second section of “Lying in Politics”.
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.