Posts Tagged ‘Kierkegaard’

Comedy: Notes on Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

April 21, 2020

I’m afraid I got distracted and didn’t follow up on this like I wanted.  I’ll post the rest of these notes for your comments, and try to rewrite them later.  All notes refer to this text:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm

 

…laughter has no greater foe than emotion.

 

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land tells a story of a human who was stranded among aliens since infancy, raised to think like them rather than like a human, until he was returned to Earth as an adult. One of his most difficult struggles was humor. He did not laugh, and did not understand laughter; among the telepathic and socially peaceful race that had raised him, humor did not exist. He learned to laugh watching monkeys in a zoo; one robbed another of a peanut, the victim vented his rage on a still smaller monkey, and the last found comfort from a young mother monkey. At this The Stranger laughed, because he saw that this reflected what it is to be human; we laugh because something hurts so much that we can’t stand it otherwise.[1] Heinlein’s view of laughter disagrees with Bergson’s and with my own, but one place where Bergson and Heinlein agree is that laughter takes away the pain. People laugh at funeral receptions and wakes. Why? Because they don’t care? No; sometimes those who were crying just before and will cry again stop to laugh, and sometimes the laughter even intrudes into the tears. Maybe we remember some moment of joy or humor we shared with the deceased. Maybe we laugh at death itself. There are a lot of jokes about death. Generally, we seem to laugh at things we fear, which threaten or suggest or even give pain, and when we can laugh at them we can deal with them. When I was diagnosed with hearing loss, I wrote a list of the top ten great things about going deaf, culminating in “And the Number One great thing about going deaf is, “Deaf? Oh thank goodness doctor, I thought you said ‘Death’!” And yes, instead of dwelling on the sadness over what I was losing, I was able to cut hearing loss down to size.

 

Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a SOCIAL signification.

One of the most commonly observed and strangest characteristics of humor is that it seems to be so restricted. It is difficult to find jokes that translate well from one culture to another, and particularly hard to find jokes that translate into another language without losing the humor.

 

…how often has the remark been made that many comic effects are incapable of translation from one language to another, because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social group!

 

Is it true that laughter requires a group? Is it untranslatable? More to the point, is it social in a way other emotional expressions are not? How does the untranslatability compare to poetry? How does laughter compare to the shared terror at a horror movie, or shared sadness at a funeral? Even Bergson’s own illustration of the sermon suggests a kinship.

 

This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.

 

Is all laughter, or even most comedy, a response to or display of “rigidity” or a “mechanical” behavior?

Bergson says laughter is a social response to eccentricity, defined by him as a sort of inelasticity, essentially an unconscious means of social control to discourage such rigidity by the fear of being laughed at. To what extent does this seem true?

Kierkegaard might suggest that laughter is, or can be part of the social operation of envy. In that case, it is punishing not just a failure or anti-life inelasticity, but possibly a positive deviancy. Maybe we laugh at more than one sort of “noncomfority” or unexpected behavior.

 

THE ATTITUDES, GESTURES AND MOVEMENTS OF THE HUMAN BODY ARE LAUGHABLE IN EXACT PROPORTION AS THAT BODY REMINDS US OF A MERE MACHINE.

 

I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes gestures are laughably flexible; and a dancer doing The Robot is not necessarily funny. Maybe what is laughable is a feigned lack of control. If it is obvious that someone is having a seizure, the instinct is to help, not laugh; but someone who is able on command to fall without injury, or stand so still as to be mistaken for a statue, only to move suddenly and startle someone, is funny. The dancer who moves like a robot is so obviously in control, so skillful, that it provokes admiration rather than laughter.

 

Why are imitations of another’s gestures funny? Is it, as Bergson says, because they take on an element of impersonality, of mechanism? Or is it more like what he said before about caricature? Is it funny because we recognize another being mimicked? Is it funny when we see a person imitating his or her own characteristic gestures, satirizing himself or herself?

 

As we hinted at the outset of this study, it would be idle to attempt to derive every comic effect from one simple formula.

 

What is the import of this? Is it a concession that not all humor is routed in mechanism, that this is but one species of comedy?

 

The ceremonial side of social life must, therefore, always include a latent comic element, which is only waiting for an opportunity to burst into full view.

 

Would this be his explanation for political humor? Revealing the mayor to be a drunk, the family-values senator to be a gay philanderer, etc. highlights the disconnection between the ceremonial dignity of the office and the real-life frailties of the people playing the parts. Or it shows up the fact that the people were only playing parts and had no real life, no real investment in it, did not take it seriously.

 

Let us now give a wider scope to this image of THE BODY TAKING PRECEDENCE OF THE SOUL. We shall obtain something more general—THE MANNER SEEKING TO OUTDO THE MATTER, THE LETTER AIMING AT OUSTING THE SPIRIT.

 

Bergson sees the body as the mechanical, overtaking the soul which is the essence of vitality. I wonder if it would be better to see it as the conflict between the artificial and the trivial versus the natural, original and vital. One example: the South Park episode “Hot Catholic Love.” The local priest, distressed by the harm being caused by the ongoing sex scandal and the fact that his parishioners no longer trust him, travels to Rome to push the leadership to do something. They begin debating what has gone wrong, and why boys will no longer keep quiet. The priest is flabbergasted, and demands that they simply stop having sex with boys. This utterly confuses the cardinals, who point out that Church law forbids priests having sex with women so of course they can only have sex with boys. Bergson would say that the comic aspect is that the actual essence, the faith, has been overtaken by the artificial, the rules of the Church. The South Park writers agree, with the priest destroying the Church Law in the name of restoring a simple, vital faith that can guide each person in his or her life.

 

Thus, we laugh at the prisoner at the bar lecturing the magistrate; at a child presuming to teach its parents; in a word, at everything that comes under the heading of “topsyturvydom.”

Bergson sees this as an example of rigidity or mechanization; the situation is reversed as if the characters were algebraic and interchangeable, but with the “wrong” people in the roles it becomes comic; for example, the child teaching the parent or other adult.

Not infrequently comedy sets before us a character who lays a trap in which he is the first to be caught.

This is clearly part of the comic joy we get in seeing a real-life judgmental character being caught doing what he condemned in others, like when prosecutor Ken Starr was found to have helped cover up sexual assaults at Baylor after vigorously prosecuting Bill Clinton for his affair with a White House intern, or when an anti-gay preacher is arrested for public homosexual indecency.

Sometimes we state what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what is actually being done; then we have IRONY. Sometimes, on the contrary, we describe with scrupulous minuteness what is being done, and pretend to believe that this is just what ought to be done; such is often the method of HUMOUR.

Compare Climacus’ very different discussion of irony and humor, in Fragments.

The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.

So “mechanical” and “automatism” are more or less identical?

Convinced that laughter has a social meaning and import, that the comic expresses, above all else, a special lack of adaptability to society, and that, in short, there is nothing comic apart from man, we have made man and character generally our main objective.

A summary of his theory.

Comedy can only begin at the point where our neighbour’s personality ceases to affect us. It begins, in fact, with what might be called a growing callousness to social life.

He said earlier that comedy appeals to the intellect and turns off the emotions, at least temporarily. How so? Do we laugh because we are callous, does laughing establish the distance, or both?

It is the part of laughter to reprove his absentmindedness and wake him out of his dream.

So laughter isn’t there to laugh AT the neighbor and cause callousness, but to mock the callousness. Either way, a rise in comedy would seem linked to a rise in callousness; a comic culture would be one with more social alienation, while more social engagement would suggest more interest in drama, wouldn’t it?

In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbour, if not in his will, at least in his deed. This is the reason a comedy is far more like real life than a drama is.

Comedy as a kind of hazing. Laughter as a social sanction against nonconformity. How might this relate to Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy? Bergson doesn’t see it as punishing those who are “better” but more broadly the unsocial, the unsympathetic, the nonconforming.

The comic, we said, appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple; laughter is incompatible with emotion. Depict some fault, however trifling, in such a way as to arouse sympathy, fear, or pity; the mischief is done, it is impossible for us to laugh. On the other hand, take a downright vice,—even one that is, generally speaking, of an odious nature,—you may make it ludicrous if, by some suitable contrivance, you arrange so that it leaves our emotions unaffected. Not that the vice must then be ludicrous, but it MAY, from that time forth, become so. IT MUST NOT AROUSE OUR FEELINGS; that is the sole condition really necessary, though assuredly it is not sufficient.

Compare the “morality switch” mentioned by Pinker. When we become angry, we don’t laugh. On the other hand, lovers laugh. They may even tease each other.

It is not uncommon for a comic character to condemn in general terms a certain line of conduct and immediately afterwards afford an example of it himself: for instance, M. Jourdain’s teacher of philosophy flying into a passion after inveighing against anger; Vadius taking a poem from his pocket after heaping ridicule on readers of poetry, etc. What is the object of such contradictions except to help us to put our finger on the obliviousness of the characters to their own actions?

Or the anti-gay politician or preacher who is caught in a homosexual sex scandal, the righteous judge of others and defender of “family values” caught as a pedophile. The deeds are horrific but the situation ludicrous.

Not only are we entitled to say that comedy gives us general types, but we might add that it is the ONLY one of all the arts that aims at the general; so that once this objective has been attributed to it, we have said all that it is and all that the rest cannot be.

Comedy gives us stock characters. This seems to relate to his view that comedy is about depicting a conflict between life and automatism; to be comic is to be playing a role and to come into collision with the spontaneity of life. You can have types in drama—-the jealous lover etc.—-but the point of drama is to depict life as realistically as possible. Drama, I guess he would say, aims to make the characters as realistic as possible, so while it may take stock situations it has to make them seem original and “true to life.” Comedy aims to show automatism estranged from life, so while a drama must hide its use of stock types, a comedy seeks to take realistic people and conform them to the general types. Example: Miracle Max and wife as the stereotypical Jewish bickering couple.

In short, we do not see the actual things themselves; in most cases we confine ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them.

This reminds me a bit of Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense.” We think and perceive in labels, and only use those labels that are actually helpful. This eases our working with life while falsifying life itself. Art brushes aside the “utilitarian symbols” and puts us in contact, partially and temporarily, with the spontaneity of life. This is part of Drama’s role also. Comedy does not throw away the symbols, but does draw attention to them, and shows them to be in conflict with life’s originality.

In this respect, it might be said that the specific remedy for vanity is laughter, and that the one failing that is essentially laughable is vanity.

Bergson believes the comic is innately social, having to do with the disconnect between the roles we play and our real life, and with society’s punishing of those who violate sociality. The ideal comic character is one that is socially engaged but unsociable, given to a vice but not dangerously or seriously so, and capable of constantly generating new laughable circumstances. Vanity fits the bill.

Now, it is the business of laughter to repress any separatist tendency. Its function is to convert rigidity into plasticity, to readapt the individual to the whole, in short, to round off the corners wherever they are met with. Accordingly, we here find a species of the comic whose varieties might be calculated beforehand. This we shall call the PROFESSIONAL COMIC.

Society is made up of all sorts of subgroups, each with its own standards, values etc. Laughter’s job is to fight the tendency of some group or other to break away and declare independence. My example, lawyers follow legal ethics, which is often different than what the rest of us observe—-they fight to defend the guilty, for example, and they glorify winning the argument more than being right. So we make fun of The Lawyer. Think of “Farscape” s 2, e 8, “Dream a Little Dream,” with the planet that is 90% lawyers and only 10% people who actually do anything, the “utilities.” Bergson discusses the “professional comic” not as we might, the stand-up comedian or humorist, but the comic mocking professionals or professions, pointing out the vanity and rigidity of professionals who see themselves as apart from and superior to the rest of social life.

We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of mind or of disposition, through absentmindedness, in short, through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen.

This seems to fit Scribe’s “First Love” very well.

So, comic absurdity gives us from the outset the impression of playing with ideas.

This seems to me more like the child’s humor than anything else Bergson has said.

Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it. It would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of sympathy or kindness.

Is there no distinction between “laughing at” and “laughing with”? “I said to my brother, ‘Why did you burn down the house?’ He said, ‘It was laughing at me.’ I said, ‘Roberto you idiot, it wasn’t laughing AT you, it was laughing WITH you!’” (Judy Tenuto) When we laugh at that joke, who are we laughing at? Aren’t we just laughing with the comedian, who invites us into the game?

[1] I don’t have the book in front of me, but you can find the relevant material here: https://revolutionmagik.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/why-man-laughs/

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

January 2, 2020

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

——-H. Frankfurt

Aside from Bergson’s essay, there has been relatively little philosophical discussion of comedy or the comic. There has been even less serious discussion of bullshit; in fact, there has been only one book on the subject, which itself was based on an essay by the same author. What is “bullshit,” and why should we care? Our initial thought is that we should not; one calls something “bullshit” to say it does not deserve our attention. Harry Frankfurt’s argument is that it is valuable to consider the concept of “bullshit” even if bullshit itself is not worth considering. ( Harry G. Franfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)) My humble opinion is that the concepts of bullshit and the comic have several connections, and understanding these helps clarify the meaning and significance of both.

Bullshit is not lying, though it is related and they can be confused. Sometimes we say, “That’s bull!” when what we mean is, “You’re lying!” But as Dr. Frankfurt points out, the two seem to be something different. The liar is deceptive about the facts. The liar wants you to believe something about the world is one way when in fact it is another. The liar knows what reality is; as they say, it isn’t a lie if you actually believe it (or more accurately, you’re not a liar if you believe it). The bullshitter is aiming at something else. The bullshitter wants to deceive about his or her self, motives and character. Let me suggest a relatively uncontroversial example. Suppose you heard your father loudly proclaim how wonderful your mother is, how smart, how funny, how she did a wonderful job raising you, how lovely she is and so on. And (for the sake of argument at least) suppose you agreed with everything he said. You wouldn’t say “It’s al lies;” it’s true. But suppose you know that she cries herself to sleep because of his numerous affairs, how he stays with her because the property is in her name, and how he privately shows little appreciation for her at all. Then you may say “It’s all bullshit!”——not that what he said was false, but that he was false in saying it, as if he cared. It’s not that he wants to deceive anyone about what his wife is like; he only cares that he deceive them about what he is like, so that they believe he’s a good, loving, loyal, appreciative husband.
The liar cares about the truth. The liar knows what the truth is and is engaged with it, specifically to avoid it. The concept of “lie” depends upon the concept of “truth;” you cannot have have a lie without there being a truth, and the lie can’t exist unless it is mistaken for a truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth at all. (Bullshit, pp. 33-34) The bullshitter just wants to project an image, and says whatever suits that purpose. The actual content is irrelevant; the bullshitter need not even know what the truth is. If the lie is deliberate miscommunication or false communication, then bullshit isn’t communication at all. ( pp. 42-43) It is “false communication” in a second sense: not the communication of counterfeit truth, but a counterfeit of communication itself. (pp. 54-55) It suits the bullshitter just fine if we all give up on the idea of distinguishing between truth and falsehood completely; the bullshitter simply says whatever is useful to serve the purpose of the moment. Bullshit attacks the very existence of truth itself, and the relevance of truth to discussion. In this regard, Frankfurt says, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than is lying.  ( pp. 60-61)

Comedy has elements in common with both lying and bullshit. One thing on which the philosophers and psychologists seem to agree is that comedy is based on contradiction. Something happens which is surprising and false, but in a way that gives pleasure. Roman occupiers executing a hundred people at a time is horrible. Those hundred people singing  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is hilarious.  The contradiction between the painful situation, the total painlessness of the people, the cheerfulness of the song, and the nihilistic lyrics presents something that has truth in it (“life is quite absurd, and death’s the final word”) in a way that takes the pain away. This bouncy tune, those words, and that situation just don’t go together. Kierkegaard might have said they mutually annihilate each other, as the different elements of irony do ( Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony: with continual reference to Socrates; edited ad translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989] p. 248). Much comedy comes from pain, presented in a way that renders it painless by rendering it absurd, thus meaningless and insignificant, unworthy of consideration. So lying, bullshit and comedy all rely on contradiction: lying on the contradiction between truth and what is claimed, bullshit on the contradiction between the real and purported attitude of the bullshitter to what is said, and comedy between what is said and how it is said.

     The liar and the comedian both rely on the truth. The liar wishes to avoid the truth, and produces a falsity which can be presented as truth. The comedian wishes, in many cases, to present truth but in a way that is not entirely true. The comedian may produce something outrageous in a way that evokes laughter rather than outrage; but still, as John Oliver said, “Any joke is worthless if it’s built upon a lie.” (David Folkenflik, “John Oliver on Facts, Donald Trump and The Supreme Court for Dogs;” Morning Edition (NPR, February 10, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514152562/john-oliver-on-facts-donald-trump-and-the-supreme-court-for-dogs) ) Even in cases where the comedian is telling a story, what makes it funny is if it is relatable, that is, true to the human experience of the audience. And in the case of political humor in particular, that also means it needs to be factually true. A Hegelian might suggest that both lies and comedy are antitheses of some truth, and thus presentations (perhaps mirror images) of the truth. The difference is that the comedian intends to present the truth, though perhaps in a false way; the liar intends to hide the truth. But both differ from the bullshitter in that bullshit does not intend either to reveal or avoid the truth at all.

     Comedy also has elements in common with bullshit, so much that sometimes the two are confused as here. In both cases the performer is more concerned with the reaction of the audience than with the truth of the statement. There is a contradiction between what the performer says (or writes) versus the actual intentions. If you believe Huckleberry Finn or Blazing Saddles seriously mean the racist statements they contain, you find them horrifying (or, if you’re racist, perhaps not) but if you understand the joke and see the disconnection between the comedian’s words versus intentions, you see them as a satire on the racism of the characters and find it funny—-though, as they say, “funny because it’s true” as a true(ish) presentation of racists. The difference is that the bullshitter wants to be perceived as serious, while the comedian wants to be perceived as “just joking” even when he or she may in fact care a great deal about the message hidden in the joke.
Comedy can often “call out” real evils or real problems when a straightforward denunciation might be mistaken for bullshit. The bullshitter, after all, wants to be taken seriously even when he or she is in fact not serious; the comedian says, “Don’t take me seriously” even when saying very serious things. The parallels with Socrates are obvious even without the character of Comicus. Charlie Chaplain’s work is particularly striking in this regard; even without the spoken word, films such as Modern Times pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of early 20th century capitalism, while The Great Dictator called out Fascism at a time when many of America’s political and cultural leaders were praising Hitler.

     This is the real difference between comedy versus bullshit, and the real power of comedy. Bullshit relies on the covert contradiction. It appears to be communication, but it is not; it is just “hot air,” empty exhalation. The bullshitter wants to be taken as sincere, as caring about the words he or she is expressing. If it is seen to be what it is, it loses its power. Comedy, by contrast, relies on the explicit contradiction. This is true even of physical comedy, which appears for a moment to be painful or fatal but then is revealed to be harmless. Verbal comedy in its most frivolous forms (such as puns) depends on the hearer hearing one thing and then realizing that what was actually said and meant was something else. The pleasure comes from the realization of the contradiction. If the contradiction isn’t recognized by the audience, they are said to “miss the joke.”

     The lie gets its power from the concealed contradiction, in presenting a false claim as true. Bullshit gets its power from the concealed contradiction that the bullshitter doesn’t care and may not even know what the truth is, but wishes to seem sincere. Comedy gets its power from the revealed contradiction. This is why it is inherently comic to expose bullshit. When, in the classic fairy tale, the Emperor is tricked into walking down the street naked, what is hilarious is not the nudity. If it had been an act of religious humility, his society would have honored it; if he’d barely escaped from a fire, it might have been embarrassing but also fortunate. What makes it funny is that he was conned by a liar who saw he was vacuous, pretentious, or in short, bullshitting the people. The “tailor” was a straight-up liar, spinning not cloth but only tales of magical clothes that cannot be seen by fools. The Emperor, being a bullshitter, wanted to be seen as wise and was thus too ashamed to admit he could not see the clothes. The courtiers too were not trying to deceive the Emperor about the clothes; unlike the “tailor,” they believed the magical clothes existed, though they could not see them. They only wished to deceive others about what they themselves actually knew. When an ignorant, unpretentious child came along, and blurted out what everyone knew but was afraid to admit, the Emperor was exposed in more ways than one. It is the shame of being shown to have been a fool pretending to be so superior that he could see this magical suit, when actually there was nothing to see, that made the situation so hilarious.  Likewise, there’s nothing terribly funny about the Bible’s anti-gay statements, about a cleric denouncing homosexuality, or about a person living in the closet for fear of being rejected by family and friends, and possibly fired or otherwise harmed if his or her homosexuality became public knowledge. But when a stridently anti-gay preacher is outed by being caught up in a police raid on gay sex in a public bathroom, it becomes the fodder for countless jokes. What makes it funny is the revelation, showing that all that preaching and fulminating was nothing but bullshit.

     Bullshit is an essential tool of dictators and would-be dictators of all stripes. Whether their policies are in fact wise or stupid, they depend primarily on the people believing that the Dear Leader actually gives a damn about anyone else, or about the nation as a whole. That is why authoritarians hate real comedy; the bullshitter is a joke waiting to be made, and knows it, and thus fears being laughed at more than anything else.  Maybe that is part of why we seem to judge comedians more harshly than we judge our so-called “role models” and “pillars of society.” Today even the most conservative, subservient, obedient and reverent citizen these days has decided that the legal, political and religious leaders of society are just bullshit artists, and that even if the policies they advocate and carry out are good, they themselves are phonies. But the comedian is the one who is supposed to expose the frauds; to find out that the comedian is possibly also bullshitting is just too much. If that is the reason, then the real question should not be why we judge comedians so strictly, but why we don’t judge the others at all.

 

What’s Up With Comedy? Preliminary Expectoration

December 20, 2019

What’s Up With Comedy? Preliminary Expectoration

 

This is part of the confusion that manifests itself in so many ways in our day; something is sought where one should not seek it; and what is worse, it is found where one should not find it. One wishes to be edified in the theater, to be esthetically stimulated in church; one wishes to be converted by novels, to be entertained by devotional books; one wishes to have philosophy in the pulpit and a preacher on the lecture platform.[1]

—– S. Kierkegaard

 

 

Does anyone else think it strange that we demand higher moral standards from our comedians than we do from our nation’s political leaders? A comedian’s career can be derailed by a careless tweet. An actor’s career can be derailed by a charge of sexual impropriety. A singer can be called to account for performing at a party hosted by a dictator, or sometimes even just for performing in a country with an unsavory government. But if the President suggests that someone should be beaten or killed, or confesses to a crime, it’s said he was “just joking;” if a dozen or more women testify he raped or assaulted them, they’re all dismissed as liars; if he praises and is praised by murderous, corrupt dictators and even claimed by them as “one of our agents”, it has no noticeable impact on the love of his fans or the respect of his party.[2] Our age accepts any buffoonery from its leaders, so long as they make the crowds laugh; but actual comedians are expected to act like leaders.

In Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the fictitious anonymous author argues that such confusions reflect a society in disarray. “Our age has lost all the substantial categories of family, state, kindred; it must turn the single individual over to himself completely in such a way that, strictly speaking, he becomes his own creator.” Our lives lack context; there is no essential connection between one and another. There is no passion; nothing has significance in itself, and we are left only with the frivolities that capture our interest for a moment. Our age, even more than Kierkegaard’s, seems fundamentally confused and disoriented. We want big, glitzy megachurches with a good show; we analyze the moral messages implicit in the latest blockbuster movie. Leaders are “just joking” or just using “locker-room talk,” while entertainers are expected to be role-models. We look for things where any serious, thoughtful person would not; and what is worse, we find what we’re looking for, because the age itself is careless and thoughtless.

Such thoughts as these suggest that it is time to think about humor, and about what it means in this age. What is comedy? Why do we take comedy so seriously? Why do we look, not to the saints or the scientists or the journalists or the leaders for truth, but to comedians and to politicians who caper and jape more than any real comedian? I want to think about these questions. Maybe, when I’m done, I’ll find the joke was on me; it wouldn’t be the first time.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either Or, v. 1; edited translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hont, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 149

[2] Melissa Lemieux, “Russian Media Calls Trump a Moscow ‘Agent,” Jokingly Suggests He’ll Need to Flee to their Country After Leaving Office;” Newsweek 12/16/19 (https://www.newsweek.com/russian-state-media-calls-trump-moscow-agent-jokingly-suggests-hell-need-flee-their-country-1477554)

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 6, conclusion)

June 17, 2019

Personally, I do not completely agree with MacIntyre’s communitarian ethics. I do think that his critique of Enlightenment and Modern thought offers the best argument for the conservative project. The political rhetoric of today’s Republicans, whether it is named “emotivism,” “nihilism,” or “bullshit,” reflects a loss of faith in the existence of an objective reality or truth. Nietzsche seems to have described this stance pretty well: God is dead, and they killed him, but they don’t quite recognize themselves that he is dead so they continue to make universal pronouncements about how right they are and how foolish and wrong their enemies are while rejecting the validity of logic, objective facts or expertise, all things once prized by conservatives. My own preference is for an epistemology resting on receptivity coupled with a humility regarding our ability to attain complete truth, the whole truth and nothing but: an epistemology and an ethics more rooted in Hamann, Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen.[i] Humility was the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin, according to St. Augustine of Hippo; and there is too much pride in the reliance on “alternative facts” and spin and will-to-power and bullshit and threats and actual violence coming from the Republican Party today.

It is that which causes so much concern in the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the immigrant community, all religious groups outside of the Christian Religious Right (especially non-Christians but also those non-“Evangelicals”) and virtually all others who are not white, conservative Fundamentalist males. Almost everyone outside the Trump base suspects that the supposedly necessary and neutral fact-finding panel is merely cover for narrowing the human rights of everyone who does not fit a very narrow and ideological vision of “human nature.” Perhaps more troubling, the very language of the announcement of this new panel suggests a fundamental abandonment of the whole concept of “human rights” in favor of a conception “American rights.” Instead of looking at humans as a class and declaring that they are valuable in and of themselves, entitled to certain rights, the announcement of this committee’s inauguration said it would found its notion of rights on specifically American history and values. This is abdicating the defense of “human rights” versus attacks by China, Saudi Arabia and other nations that have insisted that in fact there are no “human rights” and that Western nations have simply been attempting to impose their own values on everyone else. Instead, those nations have wanted to say that some people don’t matter, because they are the wrong religion, or wrong gender, or wrong ethnicity, or have the wrong politics. With this declaration, the Trump administration has thrown its lot in with other nations that seek to impose a government-mandated, government-allowed standard of “human” on others, suiting some for exaltation and others for persecution and humiliation, rather than accepting all people as they are, as people, and treating them first as people.

[i] For more on this, see my blog under the category “Humility” https://philosophicalscraps.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/humility/

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Addendum

August 21, 2018

As I was replying (in my usual verbose way) to Nemo, I got to thinking about an event in popular culture that maybe helps make a point about civility and humor.

The event is the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner and Roast, and the Republican reaction to it.  In this, the host, Michelle Wolf, made a comment about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying she burns facts and uses the ashes to make the eye shadow for her “smokey eye” look.  “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies,” Wolf said, in a parody of the classic “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan.

The first thing I would say is that settings matter.  It was a roast.  That means that people are expected to use humor to mock others who are “big enough to take it.”  Traditionally, groups like The Friars Club used it as a form of honor between comedians.  Comedians are not eulogists; they are expected to mock others.  Wolf mocked her hosts, the assembled press, as well as political leaders.  That’s her job and her social function.  Anyone so thin-skinned that they can’t take this yearly ritual should get out of public life.  It’s like going to church and announcing publicly that you’re a worthless sinner in need of forgiveness; if you’re too self-centered to accept the idea that maybe you’re not perfect already, you shouldn’t go to church.  In Roman times, whenever a person achieved real greatness, he would be honored with a parade, called a “triumph,” with marching troops, musicians and all sorts of grandeur; but riding in the chariot beside him was a slave who would whisper repeatedly, “Remember you are mortal.”  THAT’S what a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to do:  remind those in the press, in government and others, all who would walk with the gods and receive admiration and authority above all others, that they are mere mortals.

Second, the point of the attack was to accuse Sanders of routinely and casually lying.  Since her job is to speak for the President of the United States, it is deeply self-contradictory that she often makes statements that are provably false.  Her ostensible job is to keep people informed; in fact, she misinforms.  The joke was that she was “burning truths,” not that she wears too much make-up; the “smokey eye” reference turned her signature style into a metaphor for her misdeeds, a true incarnation for her sin against truth.

Third, Republicans immediately denounced what they said was an attack on Sanders’ looks.  Given that their leader routinely goes on Twitter to attack “Sloppy Steve” or “Little Marco,” the outrage seems even less than hollow.  More importantly, it misses the point, either deliberately or stupidly.  Some undoubtedly want to deflect attention away from the fact that Sanders’ relationship to the truth is like a Trump marriage:  fleeting, unfaithful and mostly centered around money.  But others may have been genuinely offended at making fun of Sarah’s looks, and thought that was mean-spirited.  To that I would say, again, it’s a roast.  You attack the ones you love, or at least the ones who are big enough to take it.  More to the point, that wasn’t the point.  People who were offended by the joke probably didn’t get the joke, so they’re attacking what they don’t understand by focussing on something tangential.

When Michelle Wolf said Sanders was a liar, she went after someone who is in a prominent social position and who has nothing to lose by such mockery.  When Rush Limbaugh, a prominent, powerful and rich person, attacked a private citizen and called her a “slut,” that was simple bullying.  It was also stupid and false, since his mockery revealed nothing deeper than the fact that he doesn’t know how contraception works or he’d have known that a woman has to take the pill every month regardless of how much sex she has, so a person in a committed relationship spends just as much money as one who isn’t.  It isn’t, like the condoms Limbaugh used in his trip to enjoy the prostitutes of the Dominican Republic, something that you spend more money on the more debauched you are—and I can only hope Rush did indeed use condoms in that well-publicized trip, since I’d hate to think of those poor sex workers catching STDs from him.  After all, many of them are children with their whole lives ahead of them.

See, that’s how it’s done.  You don’t beat up on people smaller than you, like Rush does and Trump does; you beat up on people who are big enough to take it, preferably whose egos are also puffed up even larger than their natural size.

“Civility” does matter.  What is “civility”?  Presumably, it is behaving in a civilized manner, as a member of a civilization.  And a civilization means there is some sort of a hierarchy, with division of labor, differing social functions and so on.  It’s one thing when a comedian makes jokes about the assembled guests at a roast; it’s another thing when a politician uses insults and deceits to dehumanize and belittle critics.  One is to entertain and, at times, to speak truth to power; the other is an aggressive self-defense, speaking power to truth to prevent legitimate critique.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing socially destructive about a comedian telling jokes.  That’s what comedians do.  It doesn’t overturn the social order, at least not when it’s done in its own settings such as late-night television or a comedy club, or a roast.  But when the President of the United States abandons the dignity of that civilized office to become just another internet troll, it is as socially destructive as when Emperor Commodus took on the role of a slave to fight as a gladiator in the Arena of Rome.  It undermines the dignity of the office more thoroughly than anything any jester could possibly do.  Nietzsche said that anarchists are no threat to monarchs; if anything, the crown sits more securely on their heads due to the occasional bullet shot at them.  Likewise, authority is not threatened when a comedian lobs a couple jokes at elected leaders.  There was nothing “uncivil” about Michelle Wolf’s behavior; in a civilized society, a professional comedian telling jokes at a roast is not surprising.

From the authoritarian perspective, subordinates like us owe respect to our betters; authoritarian conservatives thus are more inclined to be offended at the disrespect of a person in authority than they are at the borderline sadism of a powerful, rich public figure tormenting and belittling a private citizen.  An authoritarian is more inclined to think that the strong person has a natural right to slap down others in order to defend the status quo.  That’s at least what psychologists like Steven Pinker have discovered:  conservatives tend to react much more negatively to jokes made at the expense of people they regard as authority figures.  It is said that conservatives have five “moral colors” with which they paint their moral landscape:  Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity.  These are instinctive moral values, coloring how an individual reacts to the social world.  They are facts of existence, and thus you cannot really say someone is “wrong” for thinking this way.  But the other fact is that liberals seem to only have three of those principles.  They agree with conservatives that it is wrong, generally, to harm others, that it is important to be fair, and that communal life and harmony are valuable; but they don’t care very much if at all about Authority or Purity.  Those values, the desire to maintain the status quo and to maintain firm boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” lest the outsider contaminate us insiders in some way, are inherent to the conservative mindset.  To liberals, the conservatives seem to be narrow-minded bigots; to conservatives, the liberal seem to be anarchists who threaten the very group (nation, family etc.) that sustains them.  But the fact is that some people see things one way and some the other; some get upset at challenging or mocking an authority figure and feel it is immoral, while others feel no discomfort so long at the mockery seems “fair” and does no real harm.  There is little sense in denying these facts.  However, it is reasonable to ask for consistency and perspective.  The people who are furious about Smokey-Eyegate are likely the same ones who laughed when Obama was President and elected Republican officials passed around e-mails with pictures of the White House garden planted with watermelons, or who agreed when an elected GOP officeholder said Michelle Obama looked like an ape in heels, because they didn’t regard the President they didn’t like as an “authority” and thus their automatic defenses against assaults on authority figures weren’t triggered.  Liberals, on the other hand, are psychologically less likely to divide the world into “outsider” and “insider” and thus were more outraged at the racism, and if anything more rather than less outraged that the racist humor was coming from elected authorities.  You can’t necessarily demand that others feel the way you feel about jokes about “your” President; but you can at least demand fairness, and say that if it was acceptable for them to laugh at your authorities then you get to do the same to theirs.  Thus, psychology tells us that what one person feels is “uncivil” may feel perfectly civil to another, and perhaps both are being honest in their judgments.  In that case, both have to also recognize that the other has a different take, and resist the temptation to see themselves as the only righteous ones.

To wrap up this already prolix essay:  Civility is, and is not in the eye of the beholder.  Often what one finds “offensive” will not offend another, sometimes simply because one respects the target of the “incivility” in one case but not the other.  But that is not what matters in the cultural debate over civility.  It matters a lot more whether the alleged incivility is a violation of social norms.  As Confucius would point out, the noble person should behave nobly, the authority figure should behave with dignity and humaneness, and the person with responsibility should behave responsibly.  This is the source of moral te.  Kierkegaard would add that the responsible person also deserves to be treated with the respect due to a responsible person—no more, but certainly no less.  If a politician holds a town hall meeting in our society, those attending have a right to speak out and air their grievances.  They don’t have a moral right to refuse to let the politician speak at all.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there was a lot of incivility, and many people who objected refused to even listen to their representatives; they counted shouting him or her down as a victory.  It is no surprise that incivility has continued to spread.  And, having attended a Bush rally in the 1980s near my college, I can attest that liberals were equally disruptive and uncivil towards conservatives trying to speak their minds.  These are bad and disruptive to our political order; communication and understanding are essential in a democratic society, and you can’t have communication and understanding without basic civility.  But these are not as disruptive to our society as when authorities, who expect others to treat them with the dignity due to their office or their social status, will not themselves behave like civilized men and women, but instead turn from civilized humans into trolls.

As to Michelle Wolf:  a comedian doing her job is not disruptive to the political climate or social cohesion; if anything, she or he reinforces it.  Besides, it was a damned funny joke.

(more…)

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 1)

August 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard

 

 

…(I)f individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness; but if there is no idea for the individuals en masse and no individually separating essential inwardness, either, the we have crudeness.

 

—-Søren Kierkegaard

 

 

The stereotypical “existentialist” is supposed to be deliberately rude, partly to challenge human conventions and the falsity of most social discourse and partly out of pretension. However, this “existentialist” is a lot rarer than those thinkers who are often called “existentialists.” Kierkegaard is often called an “existentialist” or perhaps “the grandfather of existentialism,” but he himself never used the term. He referred to himself as an “existential thinker:” one who thinks deeply about existence, particularly his (or her) own existence and what it reveals about the nature of human existence as such. It is therefore not surprising that his view is not the same as that expressed by either Diogenes or Confucius. His actual views on civility need to be teased out from his writings on more focused topics, as well as his personal practice, for he is an existential thinker, and they seek to express their thoughts in their own personal existence.

It is said that today’s culture, and particularly its political culture, is increasingly crude. What is “crudeness”?[1] For Kierkegaard, it means something quite particular. The ideal human relationship, he claims, is when people relate to each other while passionately related to an idea. Again, because of the differences of time, language and Kierkegaard’s own unique perspective, we are apt to misunderstand. We are inclined to think that being “passionate” means to be swept away by emotion, so that a rioting mob of sports fans would be “passionate.” For Kierkegaard, “passion” includes emotion, but goes deeper than passing feelings, no matter how strong. A passion reaches to the core of one’s being. As a young man, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he sought “a cause I can live and die for.” That is a “passionate relation to an idea.” It includes heart and mind, and it defines and orients one through time. The ultimate “passionate relationship to an idea” would be faith, an ongoing relationship to God, in which the idea of one’s personal, individual presence in the sight of God was allowed to penetrate all of one’s other relationships and values. Such a passion does not swallow up one’s sense of individuality, as does the “passion” of a mob; it defines and reinforces one’s individuality, giving the individual an orienting goal, a telos, beyond his or her natural self-centeredness.

The “passion” of the mob is that where people relate to the idea en masse. In this case, people are drawn together, but without any personal appropriation of the idea that unites them; so they are swallowed up in the collective consciousness of the mob. In the French Revolution, an entire nation, and to some extent all of Europe was caught up in its relationship to the idea of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The wider culture was asking, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean for me to be a citizen? What is the proper relationship between Church and State, God and Nation, ruler and ruled? What should I do in this time? Hegel, looking out his window in Germany and seeing a victorious Napoleon ride into the city with his army behind him, wrote, “I have just seen Absolute Spirit ride into town on a white horse.” The whole of human history, of human development, of human spirit was represented in the spirit of the Revolution, and in the man who had become its head. In the early days of the Revolution, people were talking and writing and reading and thinking about the ideas of the recent American rebellion and the gathering clouds in France, and each had to think about how he or she stood in relation to those ideas and to their neighbors. In The Terror, that individual relationship to the Idea vanished, and people were caught up in the mob mentality; they still lived in the light or shadow of the idea, but without the sense of individual responsibility. But in the complacent modernity of Kierkegaard’s own time, any passionate relationship to any idea had largely faded, and now there was only crudeness. “Individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.”[2] Unable to build themselves up by relating their lives to something larger than themselves, they settle instead for tearing down their neighbors or anyone who seems to represent a higher spiritual existence. They are too close to each other, Kierkegaard says; they have no sense of self, no core to their personality, and so are swept along by whatever social currents swirl around them; but those currents in turn have no steering power but simply swirl each into the other like leaves in the street, chasing each other around in a circle briefly and then falling to the ground again to await the next breeze.

Civility would be to relate to the other with “decorum,” one individual to another. Each would have his or her own inward core, and treat the other as an individual as well. Because each individual has his or her own inwardness, there is a psychological distance that preserves the sense of self, and one relates to the other in terms of that inwardness. Lose the inwardness but keep the passion, and civility will falter as people get swept up in the anonymous emotion of the mob. Lose even the passion as well as the inwardness, and you get general crudeness, a breakdown of interpersonal relations. If the mob passion is like being swept down the street by a crowd, perhaps without even realizing where we’re all going but either unable to resist or too involved to think about it, then crudeness is like being caught in a crowd that is going nowhere, has no purpose, no goal, just a stifling atmosphere and frustration. A mob can at least be joyful and friendly among itself; if you want to see human nature at its worst, look for a crowd that is just stuck, waiting for some sign of movement. The only ones you’ll find in there with any shred of joy or civility are those who have something else to think about, some inward value or idea.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a literary review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp, 62ff

[2] Two Ages p. 63

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 3)

January 23, 2018

This is what puts Hamann in the Augustinian moral tradition, despite the great differences between them in other areas. For Hamann as for Augustine, humility is the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin. Humans turn away from God out of pride, a prideful desire to be the center of their world rather than created beings glorifying their creator. This in turn also turns them against one another, as each individual becomes a competing center of value striving to put the others in orbit around it. But humility is also necessary for knowledge. Humans must receive truth; they cannot create it. Their pride tends to lead them astray as they see things as orbiting around themselves rather than seeing each thing as it is in its own right. Furthermore, even without the distorting effects of pride, we are limited beings and our senses are imperfect, as is our judgment. We will make mistakes. All our knowledge is therefore only an approximation. It takes humility to admit that one is not the center of the universe, that things and people have value regardless of how they affect you, and that you must be content sometimes with uncertainty and probability; but if one has the humility to do this, one can also have the knowledge that is there, offering itself. Humility is thus not only a moral virtue, but the essential epistemological virtue.

Hamann’s writings had a profound influence on Kierkegaard, as is clearly seen in his repeated references in Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard’s focus was very different, largely because he and Hamann had different philosophical opponents. Hamann’s two targets were skepticism, championed by Hume, and the idealism of his friend Immanuel Kant. Of the two, his preference was for Hume. His major move against skepticism was to emphasize the role of the will in belief—-again, a notion with roots in Augustine. Against Kant, and against the rationalism with which Kant claimed to be breaking, Hamann argued that human pride leads us to create our own truths that can exceed the truth given to us by God through our senses, but which have no actual basis in reality. Hamann believed that it is pride that keeps us from accepting the truth, and that pride expresses itself both when it asserts claims that are not true but are satisfying, and when it rejects truths that don’t measure up to its standards of proof. Kierkegaard’s target was Hegel and his historical idealism. Kierkegaard did not read Hume or English at all, and seems to have not been fully aware of what Hamann’s points were in his critique of Hume; but he did famously take up Hamann’s argument that knowledge of all questions of existing reality involves a movement of the will, to accept the evidence of the senses despite their inherent incompleteness. In his “Philosophical Interlude” in the Fragments, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus argues that even to accept the truth that one is seeing a star includes an act of will. The individual must choose, at some point, to stop questioning the evidence and to accept the evidence as it stands, to close the books and reckon the account as paid in full or not. Doubt will never end until the individual chooses to let it. In his attack on doubt, Kierkegaard (again, using his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) focuses first on Descartes, and then on the modern heirs of Descartes, particularly Hegel, who said that doubt will inevitably run its course and absolute knowledge will, eventually, emerge. Climacus says there is nothing inevitable about knowledge; there is always an element of freedom, even when it is not noticed. This becomes most obvious when the object of knowledge is God’s presence in Jesus Christ, a notion that combines the inherent uncertainty of all knowledge of existence with the added obstacle of defying our norms of human reason. Again, it is pride that is said to motivate this unwillingness to accept God’s self-revelation. As Climacus describes it in his discussion of offense, Reason chooses to set itself up as the judge and standard to which God must conform; a revelation that does not fit reason’s standards is judged to be inferior. By contrast, if God is the standard, then it is Reason that is being judged. Again, it is pride that holds us back from accepting the truth, and humility, specifically the humility to accept reason’s shortcomings and to let God be God, that allows us to accept the truth that gives itself.

Through this 1400 year evolution of the Augustinian tradition, while we have not said much specifically about environmentalism, we have laid a foundation for considering it as a religious and moral issue.   Humility tells us that we are not the center of the universe, either individually or collectively; God is the center, and it is God who decides what is valuable by choosing to bring it into existence. The individual’s task is to accept this. It is pride that leads us to think that people or other beings have value only insofar as we choose to value them. This pride is not only a moral vice leading to other injustices and sins, but also an epistemological vice that distorts our view of reality, and of ourselves.

 

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

January 18, 2018

This is the working draft of a paper I am preparing for a local Earth Day conference, but see no reason to wait until then to start a conversation.

 

 

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

 

 

Abstract:    In this paper I shall discuss the concept of humility, as discussed by Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is the original and deadly sin, from which all others derive; humility is the cardinal virtue of not thinking more of oneself than is the truth. Through Kierkegaard and Allen, this theological virtue becomes an epistemological virtue as well, providing a basis for ways to think about the environment beyond the man/property/wilderness framework often found in fundamentalist theologies and libertarian economic ethics. Finally, I shall use the concept of humility to analyze and critique the environmental pronouncements and policies of my own religious tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

 

 

The 18th century philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) once said that the fundamental mistake of modern theologies was their tendency to take over the dominant philosophies of their day, and try to talk about God based on those constraints. The problem in Hamman’s eyes was that these philosophies began from a more or less atheist starting point; building on this flawed foundation, any theological edifice was bound to be unstable. At the risk of anachronism, I would claim that much of 20th century Protestant American Fundamentalism falls into this trap. The philosophical foundation for writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell is a libertarian political philosophy rooted originally in John Locke. Locke’s philosophy, particularly as laid out in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, profoundly shaped the thinking and the direction of the American independence movement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the grandfather of the American Revolution. His thinking influences our culture still in ways most of us scarcely realize, and I am grateful for most of it. But when it comes to environmental thinking, his thought is unhelpful and, in its current incarnations, downright dangerous. I want here to briefly survey how Locke’s views on property and nature affect much American thought, including Fundamentalist theology. Next, I want to go back to the Augustinian tradition, and look at how the Augustinian concepts of pride and humility can give us a new starting point for discussing our relationship with nature. In particular, I will be discussing the book Finding Our Father, written by one of my favorite professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen. I will be writing this primarily as an exercise in or examination of Christian theology, but I hope the treatment will be interesting and helpful for others as well.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke lays out some very radical political theories. Having argued in the first treatise against the divine right of kings, in the second he argues that political power is in fact the expression of the will of the majority of the people. A nation, he says, is a group of people who have agreed to live together and work together to solve their disagreements peacefully and to protect each others’ life, liberty and property. They achieve this by creating a government which therefore ought to include representatives chosen by the people to make decisions on behalf of the rest, and who are subject to replacement by popular vote. In an era where the people were often treated as property of the monarch as much as the land they farmed was, the idea that the king, courts and Parliament existed to serve the people and carry out their will was quite literally revolutionary: it was born in response to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and it led to the American Revolution a generation later. Instead of considering individuals first as subjects ruled by others, Locke said each was essentially the ruler of himself or herself. No rational being owned another; rather, each owns his or her own body. Nature, by contrast, is not consciously rational, so natural resources such as water, fruit trees in the forest and so on are unowned, or common property. But if some person adds his or her own effort to the natural object, say by gathering the apples from the tree into a basket, then that formerly unowned resource is not a mixture of the natural and the efforts of some person’s body, and thus becomes by extension that person’s private property. Whenever a human shapes or changes nature, that human adds a little of his or her own body to it, and it becomes private property.

Locke does have some constraints on this natural acquisition. Importantly, he said that no one has a right to more of anything than he or she can use before it spoils. It would be irrational, a violation of the law of Reason which rules even in nature, for one person to gather all the food and hoard it until it spoils while others starve. But essentially, Locke treats the natural world as having worth only as it affects humans. People turn nature into property, and have an inalienable right to do so. Locke’s Second Treatise had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers, and his philosophy both explicitly and covertly influenced our culture and still does. Explicitly, it shaped the Declaration of Independence, and Locke’s idea for a tripartite government is the foundation of our Constitution’s division into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Less explicitly, his views of property were very congenial to colonial and frontier farmers/plantation owners, justifying their wholesale conversion of wilderness to private farmland. Locke basically assumed that Nature was inexhaustible, an idea that was questionable on the British island but which seemed obviously true to the Englishmen and later Americans looking west towards apparently limitless horizons. And even today, this view of Nature is powerful, particularly in the business community: nature is raw material, and essentially limitless, unless pesky regulations get in the way.

Locke often used religious language in his political writing, referring to the law of Nature, Reason and the will of God more or less interchangeably. This made it easy for later American religious conservatives to take over his philosophy and incorporate it more or less unaltered into such theologies as Christian Reconstructionism. This represents a major and important misunderstanding of Locke’s thought, one that in turn delegitimizes this entire theological project. In his primary theological work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argues that the true heart of Christianity is a moral monotheism. He has no real use for miracle stories, or the idea that one guy could die for the sins of others; his religion and thus his God is philosophical, ethical, and like the title says, reasonable. But at least since Rousas Rushdoony and continuing through Falwell and others, as well as countless Evangelical Protestant preachers, this idea that humans have a “divine” right to treat nature as an inexhaustible source of human wealth has been treated as an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not hinder private property. For Locke, saying this was divine law was the same as saying it is reason’s law; thus, we can use reason to interpret it. For some conservative Christians, the “law of God” is more like the absolute eternal pronouncement of the Divine Lawgiver, so far beyond all human reason that even to hint that we might be harming the Earth is literally said to be rebellion against the LORD. Not only is Nature treated as an unlimited resource with value only as human property, but to say otherwise is, in some theological circles, literally a sin. And while this attitude is not the majority opinion of religious people, it has an outsized influence on American politics through the influence of well-financed lobbyists and media organizations supporting and supported by religious celebrities and mega-congregations.   Returning to Hamann’s observation, rather than start with a religious standpoint, derive their ecological theology from that and then dialog with American culture, a large swath of American fundamentalism adopted a humanistic attitude towards nature derived from Locke’s views on property as these were expressed through American culture and particularly American business culture; then, tacking on a fundamentalist Divine Commander to the rationalist foundation, they derived a theological approach to Nature that severely limits what religion can say to humans that they are not already happy to say to themselves. There can be no prophetic voice when the theology is merely an echo of the interests of economic and political powers.

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.4)

July 6, 2016

CONCLUSIONS

In Two Ages, Kierkegaard compares the present age to a Roman emperor, fat, bored, wandering through his palace and through life looking for something to amuse himself. He isn’t evil, exactly, so much as simply sullen, lethargic and self-centered, and desperate for something new to stimulate his senses. He torments others simply out of boredom. Likewise, Kierkegaard says, the present age delights in having a tabloid press to torment and humiliate the best and brightest, anyone who stands out from the crowd, simply so the rest of us can watch and be entertained for awhile. Kierkegaard started his authorship with a discussion of boredom, and here when he is beginning a new phase in his career he is returning to it. Boredom and envy are connected, in a way neither is to anxiety, leading Kierkegaard to mention them both in the same breath.

The connection is passion. This seems to be an easy concept to misunderstand; in The Logic of Subjectivity Louis Pojman, who is normally a pretty sharp cookie, compares Kierkegaard’s discussion of passion to Hume’s notion that “reason is a slave to the passions.” This is clearly off target, since Hume’s point is that we have no real freedom to act against our desires while Kierkegaard is saying we should strive to free ourselves from just that sort of bondage to our whims and appetites. Taking what Kierkegaard says about passion in various references and bringing it together, it is clear that the essential quality of the life of passion is that the individual feels that what he or she does matters. Don Juan, lost in the moment of pure pleasure, feels absolutely alive.[1] He is totally immersed; no part of him stands outside what he is engaged with; he is passionate. However, that sort of passion cannot survive reflection or even self-awareness; it starts to collapse as soon as it is put into words. The pre-moral, esthetic life described in Either/Or is a life lived for arbitrary goals, and thus is essentially meaningless; the more one becomes self-aware and reflective, the more one finds oneself standing outside oneself, unable to fully immerse in whatever arbitrary project one has chosen. It is simply too small. And being essentially meaningless, it is essentially boring. Don Juan can pull it off mostly because he is a fictional character in an opera, and exists only in imagination and music; a real person is never safe from the threat of self-reflection. Kierkegaard thus depicts the egoistic, pre-moral life of the esthete as something of a willful self-deceit, where the esthetic person either invests his or her life in some petty project or rotates between petty projects, and avoids boredom mostly by luck if at all.

In the age of revolution, people are swept up in a shared passion. That may not be a good thing; the same passion that led to the overthrow of tyranny also led to The Terror and to the destruction of the Napoleonic wars. Passion, in and of itself, may not be moral; but it is at least alive. People feel that things matter. Without reflection to go along with that passion, you can have wildness, irrationality, and a loss of sense of individuality; but at least you have the vital force. With both reflection and passion, you have liveliness together with self-awareness, and you have a community of moral individuals. With reflection and no passion, as in the present age, you have triviality. Nothing matters, and what’s more, we feel clever because our reflection has shown us that nothing matters so we are not being fooled. We don’t fight for the good or against the evil, because we don’t feel that either matters; we simply don’t think those words apply to us. We might temporarily flare up in some passing enthusiasm, but it soon fades because it is as arbitrary as anything else, and we lapse into bored triviality. I think of how outraged we all were when Cecil the lion was killed, for awhile, but how little most of us think about the extermination of the world’s most majestic species. No one really cares about the moral principle; they just wanted to be part of the moment and part of the crowd gathered to mourn Cecil. If anyone had actually acted on all that outrage, either to avenge Cecil or to dedicate his or her life entirely to saving Earth’s endangered animals, we would have considered it madness. It is acceptable to get angry and to tweet death threats even, to sign a petition and to talk about it endlessly on Facebook for two weeks; but then, really, you have to get on with your life, right?

In an early journal entry, written when Kierkegaard was merely a perpetual student, he wrote that he was seeking “the cause for which I can live and die.” That is what it is to live a life of passion! And that is what is lacking in the present age, according to Kierkegaard. No one has a cause. In the age of revolution, everyone has a cause, whether you are a revolutionary or a reactionary; either way, you are part of the same passion, and the revolution matters. People in a revolutionary age don’t all agree, but they all care about the same thing; even if some love it and some hate it, “it” is the same. In the age of reflection without passion, we have no cause, and those who do seem strange, even fanatical.

In this boredom, when nothing matters, our attention has no common focus and no higher focus than one another. That reflection that tells us that nothing matters turns on our neighbors, as we determine to prove that any claim to “matter” is arrogance. Therefore, we level. Leveling is the prime social expression for passionlessness, which is the literal meaning of “apathy.” The leveling society is the apathetic society, knocking down the highest out of sheer boredom.

The escape from boredom, which Kierkegaard traces through Either/Or to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is to choose to live a life where things do matter. As his pseudonym The Judge says, it is not to choose the good, but first to choose to allow the concepts of “good” and “evil” into one’s life. As Ron Green points out in Kierkegaard and Kant: the Hidden Debt, Kierkegaard starts with a very Kantian notion of what “ethics” means: that one lives according to the moral law that one discovers with one’s own moral reason. Just as logic is a purely mental law that dictates what is rational or irrational thinking, so the moral law is a purely rational principle that dictates what is moral or immoral action. To reject either logic or morality is certainly possible; in fact, few of us live totally logical or moral lives. But insofar as a person is not a slave to whims and appetites and irrational impulses, one lives according to these laws of rationality and morality that one finds within one’s own reason. The only way one can escape being determined by the essentially meaningless pursuits of the egoist is to choose the ethical life. When one does this, one has something far more important to deal with than whether one’s neighbor is getting too uppity; so the moral passion of the ethical life can be the antidote to envy.

Thus, the escape from boredom and from envy is the same: reject apathy and embrace the life lived for what matters. However, at this point anxiety rears its head. As Kierkegaard says, to live with the knowledge of good and evil is to live in anxiety. One first becomes aware of the distinction by becoming aware that one has done the evil, and cannot undo it, and might even do it again. The more one tries to escape from anxiety through one’s own power, the more anxious one becomes. Eventually, since anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” the only escape from anxiety is to try to escape from one’s own freedom. For this reason, says The Concept of Anxiety, the person may be tempted to try to immerse himself or herself in the trivial and philistine life of social conformity. I find myself to be desperately bored; I realize my life and my concerns are meaningless, and seek to find what really matters, that is, what is good; when I find it, I realize that I have in fact done what is worthless and evil, and that it still remains a tempting possibility; the more I try to live a meaningful life the more stressful and anxious I find this constant threat of falling again into what I now know to be the evil; and finally I choose to simply embrace the soulless conformity of the passionless, reflective society. Thus boredom and envy are not just the problems of those who know nothing more in life; they are much more the characteristics of those many who are actively choosing to live lives without a relationship to what is truly good.

The only true escape from anxiety and envy, according to Kierkegaard, is to choose the religious life. Again, this is a claim that is likely to be misunderstood by postmodern Americans. Most of what we typically call “religious”— social conformity and judgmentalism, blindly following a charismatic leader, allowing others to tell us the moral rules and convincing ourselves that using our own minds is somehow wicked and rebellious—- this is actually what Kierkegaard would consider more of that anxious, envious, self-immolating life that Kierkegaard labels “objectivity,” “idolatry” or “demonic.” True religiousness starts with the attempt to find the good: that is, with the ethical. For Kierkegaard, the attempt to live an ethical life by following one’s moral reason serves much the same function as the Law in Paul’s epistles and Luther’s theology.[2] One must first try to live according to the ethical, and fail, and in failing realize one’s need for grace. At the same time, grace is not there to free one from trying to live a good life; it is there to free one from the burden of one’s past failures, so that one can try again. Grace allows one to finally be free from the overwhelming burden of anxiety, which otherwise leads one to flee the whole attempt to live a life as a morally directed individual.[3] Particularly in Concept of Anxiety, but consistently throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship, “the good” is individuating; to pursue the good is to be an individual, and to try to evade the personal effort of being an individual moral agent before God is to choose the evil.

The irony of envy is that from the religious perspective, it is right. Envy says, “You are no better than me;” the religious person says, “Indeed, I am no better than you; we are both individuals before God, dependent entirely on grace.” Accepting this is what allows the truly religious person to escape the bondage of envy. The faithful person has the complete security of being worthwhile and even loved by God, despite knowing himself or herself to be morally unworthy of that love. The faithful one thus has no need to enviously tear down others, and can rejoice in their value before God as much as in his or her own. Therefore, if you see someone whose sense of self-worth is dependent on asserting superiority over others or tearing them down, you can be sure that this is not “religious” zeal but is in fact faithlessness.

The desire to tear down scientists and scholars and “the elites,” while adulating some self-promoting huckster whose only claims to superiority are the purely mathematical ones of wealth and popularity, is an expression of faithlessness and the bondage of sin, as Kierkegaard understands it. This is true whether the would-be idol is a political demagogue or a religious charlatan, or some combination of the two. It is a sign of an age that has, in Kierkegaard’s words, “annulled the principle of contradiction.” It is an age that fears to let Yes be Yes and No remain No, and wants to eliminate all ultimate distinctions between true and false, good and evil, logical and irrational, so it can avoid having to make a decisive choice. The present age says that all truths are partial and relative and based on perspective, so there is no need to rationally discuss or to question one’s own views; the reflective and passionate view is humbled by reflection but inspired to seek truth nevertheless, admitting that the quest for truth is never-ending while remaining devoted to the quest regardless.

When “the principle of contradiction has been abrogated,” as Kierkegaard said using the language of Hegelian philosophy, there is no absolute truth. Every concept is simply one side of a larger reality. Hegel still had an historical optimism underlying his annihilation of the distinction between truth and falsehood, good and evil; he believed history is progressing towards a state of greater human consciousness, and eventually the race will attain an apprehension of reality that encompasses all of the various perspectives. But for Hegel, that day is not yet; in the meantime, your moral values are simply expressions of your culture’s values and your own class interests. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the French Revolution was succeeded by the Munich Putsch, that optimism was harder to sustain. Today we have even more thoroughly abrogated the distinction between true and false, epistemologically and ethically, in what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism.” There is no truth, so anyone who claims to know truth is simply an oppressor trying to impose his (maybe her) will on others; thus the only morally proper and epistemologically correct option is to admit all views are equally valid, even contradictory ones. The problem with that is that the “tolerance” and “honesty” that supposedly demand this admission are themselves moral and epistemological virtues, and thus themselves become victims of reflection. What we end up with is moral nihilism and a contest of irrational wills. As Harry Frankfurt discusses in On Bullshit, today we have a whole category of verbal behavior that is neither truth nor lying, because the speaker is simply unconcerned with either sharing or avoiding the truth. And this may explain Trump’s method and success. Donald Trump does not lie; he bullshits. He says whatever will serve his purpose, and is not concerned with whether what he says is true. Much of the time he does not even know. And to the morally and intellectually vacuous public today, this seems entirely appropriate. In a world where no one can “dictate” truth, and where truth itself cannot dictate, every single person can believe whatever he or she wants to believe. If I want to believe that slavery never happened, or that solar energy sucks heat out of the air and will freeze us all to death unless we burn more coal, or that most American Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers even though I don’t actually even know how many Muslims there are in America, then I have a right to my opinion. Truth and goodness are replaced by the language of “rights,” and the stupidest and most selfish has as much right as the wisest, for we are all equal. The ability to get others to agree with you is seen not as a triumph for fact over fantasy, but just as a victory of one will over the others. From the point of view of the postmodern person, there is no truth and the best leader is merely the best bullshitter; and the bullshitter who has persuaded the most people to give him or her the most money is clearly the best. From the point of view of the one who is religious in Kierkegaard’s sense of the word, the wisest is the one who recognizes that there is truth, who loves the truth (particularly moral truth) and who attempts to live according to the truth so that his or her life might have some real meaning, but who knows that human existence is always to strive for truth, never to possess it completely. That person will know that anyone might have a piece of truth, and thus anyone is worth listening to, just as Socrates listened to politicians and slaves alike as he went around Athens asking questions. And just as Socrates seemed more than a little odd in a society dominated by demagogues and Sophists, so today any real truth-seeker seems goofy at least, if not absolutely insane. The popular teachers in the days of Socrates were the ones who said “man is the measure of all things, what is that it is, and what is not that it is not;” and the popular leaders were the ones who did not try to make their citizens better morally or better informed, but took them where they were and pandered to their appetites. And in the days of Socrates, that sort of relativism led to moral and epistemological nihilism, leaving nothing to guide the society but the naked ambition of its politicians; and themselves being unguided either by moral principles or factual truth, they led the nation into defeat and destruction. The age without faith is the age without truth, without a love for truth, and thus without guidance how to live or what to choose, a mindless herd following the loudest voice without knowledge of whether it is being led to the sheepfold, or to be sheared, or to the slaughterhouse.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” in Either/Or, v. I, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 45ff

[2] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 76-107

[3] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) pp. 40-57