Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Drake, Aristotle, Two French Films, and The Question of Nihilism

"Looking for the right way to do the wrong things"  --Drake, "Lord Knows"

"[V]irtue aims at the median.  I am referring to moral virtue ... We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly.  But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner--that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.


Not every action nor every emotion admits of a mean.  There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder.... In cases of this sort, let us say adultery, rightness and wrongness do not depend on committing it with the right woman at the right time and in the right manner, but the mere fact of committing such action at all is to do wrong."  --Aristotle, N. Ethics, II.6

That Aristotle, such a comedian!  With his understated style and dry wit, one might almost mistake him for an Englishman.

I recently watched two French films, L'Auberge Espagnole and Les PoupĂ©es Russes.  They form a sort of coming-of-age tale, though in this case the coming of age does not end with adolescence but continues into the protagonist's late 20s/early 30s.  (It has been said that we live in an age of protracted adolescence.  I would say that that is a subject for another time, but there is a sense in which that is the recurring subject in all my messages, antedating this blog).  What struck me was the commonness of cheating and affairs in the movies.  In my mind, this all goes back to Romanticism and hence to Rousseau.  This is not a novel idea; Allan Bloom said as much (with the caveat that the roots really go back to Hobbes and therewith to Machiavelli).  It is Rousseau who provides the most forceful argument that, not our intellectual life, but our emotional life, is what makes us essentially human and ourselves, for ideas can be shared in common by everyone, whereas our emotions are all our own.  From there it is a small step to the belief that "The sole duty of a man is to follow the inclinations of the heart in everything."  That is a maxim that Rousseau himself vehemently opposed, but what Strauss said about Nietzsche and Nazism can be applied to Rousseau and Romanticism: the subtleties of his distinctions are easily lost in the general spirit and tenor of his argument.

I said that the movies follow the form of a Bildungsroman.  The defining characteristic of adolescence is that it is a transitional period.  I had almost said that adolescence is by definition a time of confusion, of groping one's way toward adulthood.  But of course that is not true.  Transitions can be orderly and be made with a clear view of one's goal and aspirations.  But we residents of modernity have lost that orderliness and clarity, as everyone knows by now.  I wonder to what extent this is the result of the clamor of philosophical factions--and, more specifically, of the modern philosophical factions.  This question needs to be posed carefully.  It may be, as Strauss suggests, that there is something in the substance of modern philosophical doctrines themselves that leads toward nihilism.  But another possibility is that philosophical disagreement, even between "classical" doctrines, would still be nihilistic by the mere fact that they occur in the setting of modern times.  That is, perhaps the modern world is so constituted that the disagreements between a Plato and a Aristotle without the subsequent history would be as intractable and disorienting today as our disagreements between Heideggerians and Platonists.  This is almost tantamount to asking whether modernity is intrinsically nihilistic.  The question is further muddled in that one cannot easily separate out the modern world from modern philosophy.

I have gone far afield; I have gone from two French movies to Romanticism to nihilism to the question of philosophical culpability.  But in a sense, I have not gone very far afield at all; I am like the Monkey King in the Buddha's palm: it only appears that I have traveled to the end of the universe, when in fact I never left the Buddha's palm.  After all, the juxtaposition of Drake and Aristotle served to implicate all that I've said, in a compressed and allusive manner to be sure.  No?  Not buying it?  Well, let me say this.  One might say that Drake, after all, is not nihilistic, because he still apparently believes in the possibility of distinguishing right from wrong, whereas a genuine nihilist would deny the possibility of making any such disticntions in any nonarbitray way.  But if nihilism is the situation in which "everything is permitted," and the only issue Drake has is with the how and not with the whether--that is, if morality becomes a nonissue and all that is left is mere prudence, then what is that if not nihilism?  I am reminded of what my friend Joe likes to say: one can say anything with words.  But that does not mean that one is using words appropriately.  I am suggesting that someone who says something like, "Yeah I know it's wrong but I don't care," does not know what she is saying.  I am suggesting that you cannot be indifferent to things that you believe to be genuinely wrong.  These statements, like almost all general statements of the sort, need to be qualified.  Let me leave it at saying that arguments can be made in and through action as well as through speech.

Oh, but wait, Joe, I just remembered: Socrates said that it is in the nature of things that speech attains to more of the truth than deeds.  In this case, I could translate that in a slightly provocative way by asking: what is the truth of nihilism?


  1. Nietzsche somewhere intimates that Plato may have been Jewish, and now you call Aristotle an Englishman! This is how you restart your blog?

    You say that "what Strauss said about Nietzsche and Nazism can be applied to Rousseau and Romanticism: the subtleties of his distinctions are easily lost in the general spirit and tenor of his argument." Umm, isn't this just another definition of esotericism? After all, anyone who can be deceived by argument eventually will be; perhaps what we should be inquiring about is whether the 'deceptions' of the philosophers are best...

    And not only that. "But another possibility is that philosophical disagreement, even between "classical" doctrines, would still be nihilistic by the mere fact that they occur in the setting of modern times." The problem with modernity is not meaningfully 'the modern'; the problem is that our civilization (and the world is well on the way to there being only one) does not believe in any single thing. The question is certainly not one of Truth (Ancient China, India, and Greece achieved great, but very different, non-nihilistic civilizations with their own specific 'truths'); the question is one of belief. There must be, at bottom, a single lived tradition. (As you've seen MacIntyre argue.)

    To answer your question, what makes modernity intrinsically nihilistic is that no one any longer is willing to quietly believe a 'noble lie'. Saying and doing belong to everyone. Thinking is entirely ones own. A long, long time ago, that was enough for the philosophers and even their disciples... In the middle ages, for instance, what was thought interesting about Man was what we had in common: Reason. They argued that we are all (potentially) in touch with truth through the agent intellect. But only a tiny few could really achieve this. After the turn towards the body of the early moderns, what becomes interesting in Man is our common emotions (the body). (Nietzsche somewhere says that 'the body is the abiding clue'.) What people mean today by 'authenticity' has only to do with that. The body has proven to be a much more effective tool for control than reason.

    From all this one might conclude that nihilism is merely a consequence of doing, of the modern philosophical attempt to remake the world in its own image. Perhps! But your faith in Logos remains charming; one wonders how much faith Logos has in us? "What is the truth of Nihilism?" Oh but you know the answer! The truth of Nihilism is (philosophical) Psychology. (Socrates is _only_ referring to the speech of the philosophers, btw.) Nihilism (at least after the rise of civilization) is an anthropological category; and like society and religion, it is now a permanent anthropological possibility. Now, the question as to whether nihilism extends beyond the merely human is an entirely separate question.

  2. "(Ancient China, India, and Greece achieved great, but very different, non-nihilistic civilizations with their own specific 'truths'); the question is one of belief. There must be, at bottom, a single lived tradition." There is no question that the above formed "lived traditions." I think there is also no question that modernity itself is a "lived tradition." Are you following MacIntyre and suggesting that modernity is not coherent as a tradition the way other traditions are or the way he would like it to be? But I am not quite persuaded that MacIntyre has shown that the incoherence of modernity is qualitatively different from the incoherence entailed by the arguments between philosophers, sophists, poets, and statesmen--of all times.

    No one is willing to quietly believe a "noble lie?" What is this if not a pretty little lie?

  3. It is interesting that both these ancient civilizations and modernity itself can be designated as 'traditions'. But what is the difference between them? MacIntyre (and you) are looking for 'coherence' in tradition; I am looking for belief. The problem with modernity is that in its rebelling against all that came before it mixed skepticism into its very foundation. Something like postmodernity (= the doubting of the presuppositions of modernity) was inevitable long before Nietzsche was born.

    Civilizations have believed (and always will believe) perfectly (philosophically-speaking) idiotic things. For you (and MacIntyre) this is a problem of coherence. To me it is a problem of belief. If mankind isn't brought over to philosophy (and it never is) then civilization must always be philosophically 'incoherent'. A philosophically coherent civilization is impossible; so in no way am I simply agreeing with MacIntyre. He did, however, show me the importance of the question of coherence (but I say 'belief') in civilizational traditions.

    Civilization is not, and it never will be, a mirror of philosophy. It is merely the sea in which philosophy swims. What makes the 'modern tradition' inherently unstable (and unlike all that preceded it) is the skepticism mixed in its very foundation. The dust-ups between "philosophers, sophists, poets, and statesmen" (and priests) are irrelevant here; the people still believed in the foundations. That is what is crucial.

    In modernity, philosophers and their idolators, are no longer prepared to quietly 'believe' in their civilizations foundation. ...And there is nothing pretty about that.

  4. I think privileging belief over action is a mistake. Ultimately it is not a matter of people in a tradition or culture “believing” in a certain “one thing” but rather in acting in a certain way that others recognize as legitimate and appropriate. Differently stated, non-philosophers don’t actually live in a world of belief as much as they live in a world of action more or less ritualized. As proof for my argument, I would point out that the major Eastern religions are not belief-based in Revelation the way the Western religions are. What is common to all religions, however, is a certain code of action (often times varied according to type), the goal of which is to bind people together in some kind of stable community. I think Aristotle would agree. As for Nietzsche, the man was terribly confused, and using his thought as a descriptive template only results in more confusion.