Total Depravity

In a deleted chapter of Dostoevsky’s Demons he describes a visit between Nicolai Stavrogin and Tikhon, a holy man. Pevear and Volokhonsky include it as an appendix to their  700 page translation of that remarkable novel. In that missing chapter Nicolai hands to Tikhon a 30 page epistle, a confession, he wrote to help him clarify in his own mind the sort of person he is and the kinds of things that give him pleasure. He is a sensualist, as Dostoevsky would describe him, a man dedicated to getting as much pleasure as he can, perverse pleasure, from his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. He is, in a word, a masochist and a sadist — a man with a dark soul. In his confession he recounts a series of truly disturbing incidents he brought about when he was at the height of his search for pleasure.

At the time he was renting three separate apartments to which he brought various partners for sex and whatever else might delight him. At one of those places his apartment faced onto the landlady’s apartment and he spent a good deal of time watching what was going on in her rooms and became strangely attracted to the lady’s fourteen year old daughter, Matryosha. The landlady beat the girl on a regular basis, frequently for no reason whatever and often with Nicolai watching. And she seemed to enjoy the fact that Nicolai was watching as she did so. At one point Nicolai lost his penknife and mentioned it to the landlady who immediately reasoned that her daughter must have stolen it as the three of them were the only ones home at the time. She took a switch and was determined to beat the poor girl when Nicolai spotted the knife on his bed. He pocketed the knife and said nothing and then watched as the woman beat the girl until welts appeared and the girl whimpered pathetically. He then smiled, locked his door and went elsewhere, throwing his knife away as he went. Nicolai later seduced the girl after which she hanged herself.

Now, for whatever reason, Dostoevsky chose not to include this chapter in the final version of the book. Like many such stories it is quite possible it came from an incident related in the papers that the novelist read daily and from which he took many of the episodes in his numerous novels. In any event, whether this incident is pure fiction or is based on actual events I would argue that what Nicolai did was wrong. I would be judgmental, if you will, and I would hasten to condemn his actions and those of anyone else who repeated such actions or others even somewhat similar. What the man did was cruel and sadistic, depraved. He was wrong.

I think I could provide reasons, if required, for making this judgment, reasons involving the inflicting of pain on innocent persons, the rape of a young girl, the violation of the ethical principles of honesty and respect for persons. In any event, I don’t regard my judgment as simply my personal opinion. It’s not just a gut-reaction, though there is that. In ethics, moreover, there are many such situations in which a moral judgment seems to be sound and capable of defense. In that regard, ethical judgments are not altogether different from the judgments we make about ordinary things and events every day. They can be supported and verified by means of persuasive arguments and the eliciting of known facts or accepted truths about the world.  We make a mistake when we lump all ethical judgments together and dismiss them as mere opinions or ask “who’s to say?”

The same reasoning applies in the case of judgments about ethical values such as generosity and compassion, courage, and honesty. We judge these things to be good just as we would judge the actions of Nicolai to be wrong (to put it mildly). Values are present in our world, as I have noted many (too many?) times. And so also are the opposite, dis-values, if you will, as exhibited in the chapter that Dostoevsky wisely chose to erase from his novel. They surround the events and objects that are part of our shared world and they provide the grounds for making judgments about those events or objects, judgments that can be well-reasoned or wrong-headed. We can never be certain, but we certainly can, and we do, make ethical judgments.

In sum, though at times times strong feelings may be involved, the notion that ethics is based on the subject’s feelings and opinions alone is simplistic and ignores the fact that many such judgments are based on factual information and ethical principles that we all take for granted and which make civilization possible. If there were no such principles we would be in a state of nature in which, as Thomas Hobbes would have it, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This would be a world, I imagine, in which no one would bother to notice, much less comment upon, the sorts of things people like Nicolai Stavrogin choose to do to himself or to others. Is it possible that this is what we are coming to? I sometimes wonder.

Freud On Trumpism

In an attempt to understand the “Trump Phenomenon,” by which I do not refer to the man himself but to the growing numbers of people who swallow his swill and are ready to take up arms and blindly follow him anywhere he leads, I begin with a section of one of my earlier posts on Freud’s attempts to understand violence.

Freud was convinced that humans develop a conscience, or what he called the “super-ego,” as a result of repression. Parents say “no” to the child and the child represses his natural urges toward aggression and destruction. Thus, what we call “civilization,” in the form of parental and societal repression, thwarts the natural instincts common to us all and they are turned inwards toward the self and become what we call a bad conscience. We feel bad about doing those things we were told not to do as we grow up.

When the restraints of civilization are loosened, as they are in a permissive society, the aggressive instincts turn outward again in the form of violence toward others. Given the fact that, thanks in large measure to a misreading of Freud, ours is an increasingly permissive society where we rarely say “no,” we can expect to see increasing levels of violence. We no longer turn the aggressive instincts toward ourselves in the form of a bad conscience, we turn them loose on others in the form of rage and violent actions: we let it “all hang out.” When guns are readily available, as they are in this society, this can easily take the form of an increase in what we call “gun-deaths.” Couple the lack of repression with a growing sense of powerlessness among people [who see others as obstacles to be overcome and are] used to getting their way as children and we can begin to understand why violence is on the rise in this country.

I should begin by saying that this post, “Freud On Violence,” was written several years ago and still remains the most popular post I have written, drawing the major portion of my “hits” each week, even now. I am unable to explain it, but there it is. In any event, I do think Freud can help us understand why Donald Trump is so popular. In a word, Trump embodies the permissive society. He promises his followers a world without restraint. He empowers people who are frustrated by their seeming impotence in an overcrowded society that inhibits the free activities of people who have no idea what the word “no” means.

Given that violence is an expression of aggressive instincts encouraged by a permissive society, and given that Donald Trump embodies this permissiveness (given his unfettered hatred and fear-mongering, his outspoken condemnation of all things and peoples that seem to interfere with free action), it is not difficult to see why many people are drawn to him. These folks want to live in a world in which they can do all those things they have been told they can do as children — which is to say, whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. He is anti-establishment in the sense that he is opposed to any sort of restraint on the baser instincts that are at the core of our essential human being. Thus he speaks for those many who feel the strong urge to express themselves in outward violence, who lack a super-ego, or conscience, and who find civilized society confining and repressive.

Ortega y Gasset once said that “civilization is before all the will to live in common. A man is uncivilized, a barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account.” What this involves, I take it, is tolerance for others, all others. And it involves a willingness to avoid doing things and saying things that might hurt others no matter how strongly we feel the urge. The alternative is Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Liberal Individualism

British and American political thought arise out of the Enlightenment tradition that places the individual at the center of the political state. For thinkers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and even Thomas Hobbes thinking about politics begins with the individual in what a number of them liked to call a “state of nature.” By placing their emphasis on the individual and beginning the discussion about civic membership with focus on human rights — as opposed to human obligations, which are the other side of human rights — they gave birth to what British MP and author Jesse Norman calls “liberal individualism.” The words, taken in their original meaning, suggest the emphasis of much of contemporary political and even economic thought on the rights of individuals and the notion that the human ideal is one of the self-sufficient individual with complete freedom from the restraints placed on them by civil laws. This thinking permeates much of contemporary political theory by both conservatives and liberals. As Rousseau would have it, the central idea in political thought is the question how a person can obey a law and in doing so remain free — implying that the paramount good in political societies is human freedom. The issue is not what sorts of things a citizen must do in order to become a good citizen and practice what the Greeks called “civic virtue.” The issue focuses almost exclusively on individual rights and freedom, freedom from restraints and the right to do as we want.

This Enlightenment view, as Norman has argued in his excellent book on Edmund Burke, is diametrically opposed to the classical, Greek and Roman view of politics that begins with the notion that human beings are social animals — even, as Aristotle said, political animals — and cannot be taken out of the social context without stripping them of their essential humanity. As Aristotle would have it, society makes possible those things that make Homo sapiens specifically human — such things as law, speech, and morality. A man or a woman taken completely out of the social context that defines them is not fully human: the hermit living alone in a cave is more nearly an animal, struggling to survive, having no ties with others, and lacking in the ability to communicate with others of his kind. Such a person is the imagined man in a “state of nature,” as Burke would have it. And such a man is not one we would want to emulate, one would think. And yet we do, unknowingly, in our adoration of the idea of the individual free to do his or her own thing.

Norman, in his study of Burke, is convinced that this peculiar Enlightenment notion of liberal individualism is the root cause of today’s stress on the self  and the resulting narcissism that permeates our culture and arises largely from viewing the individual in isolation. Much has been lost, in Norman’s view, by ignoring the classical view of human beings as social animals. One of the few thinkers who refused to buy into the Enlightenment view of liberal individualism was Edmund Burke who is usually labelled as a “conservative” thinker even though much of his thought is remarkably in line with such familiar “liberal” or “moderate” politicians as Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In any event, labels don’t really help us to comprehend where a person stands on complex philosophical and political issues, and the term “conservative” may be the least helpful label of all. It is certainly the case, for example, that Burke would be appalled by the behavior of so many self-styled “conservatives” in America who pursue self-interest and unlimited wealth without any consideration whatever for the obligations they have as citizens.  Norman puts it well in the final paragraph of his rather laudatory study of Burke when he notes that:

“. . .Burke also questions the present self-image of politics and the media, an empty post-modernism in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of narrative deployed in the service of power. Instead, he offers values and principles that do not change, the sanction of history and moral authenticity of those willing to give up power to principle. He gives us again the lost language of politics: a language of honor, loyalty, duty, and wisdom, which can never be adequately captured in any spreadsheet or economic model. And he highlights the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared norms, and the role of human creativity and imagination in re-enchanting the world and filling it with meaning.”

Those who like to think of themselves as politically conservative would do well to read and ponder the writings of Edmund Burke — as would we all. It is certainly the case that the political landscape is barren at present and would benefit greatly by thinking past profit, power, and personal advancement to the values listed above. And it is certainly the case that we could all benefit from another way of looking at ourselves — not in isolation, free and unfettered, but as members of a body politic and as such concerned about others. Therein may in fact lie true self-realization and even happiness — even, perhaps, true individualism.

State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of nature to be a condition we were all in before the rise of political states. He described it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The basic emotion shared by all in the state of nature is fear. The purpose of political states is to keep us all in awe of the Sovereign and therefore at peace with one another. While other political theorists, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau borrowed the notion of a primitive state of humans prior to the formation of political states, none imagined the condition to be quite as unsettling as Hobbes did. For the most part, Hobbes’ notion was dismissed out of hand.

But what about the relationship among nation-states themselves? Might it not be possible to make a case that nations are in a state of nature such as Hobbes describes with respect to one another, though not quite so bleak? Just consider the current disposition of nuclear weapons among the nations and think what their possession means to the various nations that possess them — and especially to those who do not possess them. Also, consider the fact that concern over the possibility that bellicose nations such as Iran seem on the brink of having such weapons has struck fear in the rest of the world — a fear that has driven other nations to express outrage.

But, when you think about it, it may well be that the possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers is what keeps nations from one another’s throat. At least, that is a possibility, and our hope. But there is also the possibility that as nuclear weapons proliferate the likelihood that a nuclear exchange will take place increases. There are currently eight nations (possibly nine) with nuclear weapons in their possession — the United States leading the pack with 10,300 such weapons at last count (!). It is ironic that the nations that have yelled loudest at the thought that Iran might be in possession of nuclear weapons control the majority of such weapons worldwide. Ignoring the fact that this is the height of hypocrisy, concern is legitimate when a nation that has openly expressed its antipathy toward the rest of the world seems about to possess nuclear weapons.

The defense that Iran, or any other country, is simply developing nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes is irrelevant, since 4 out of 6 countries with nuclear power capacity also have nuclear weapons. One seems to lead to the other. Another way of looking at this is to note that the six countries with the most nuclear power plants control 97% of all nuclear weapons worldwide. But whether or not the fact that a country has nuclear power leads invariably to the possession of nuclear weapons, the world is correct in wanting to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and resist the attempts by any more countries to get them.

The mere possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers like those in the U.S. is morally indefensible. This is especially true when not long ago an American President was reportedly contemplating the use of “low yield” nuclear weapons as a first strike option in the Iraq war [Hint: Not the sitting President; his predecessor.]. It has generally been assumed that such weapons would only be regarded as deterrents to war, or at worst retaliatory, never as the first option in a war. The mere suggestion is marginally insane, as indeed is the buildup of such weaponry itself.

In any event, it is reasonable to say that nations in our nuclear age exist in a state of nature in relation to one another. Thus, one might well follow Hobbes in suggesting that what the world needs is a Sovereign, a world government with punitive powers to keep the nations at bay. If any single nation ever seriously considers the use of such weapons as a first-strike option, the case for such a world government is all the stronger. Hobbes insisted that bellicose individuals needed a Sovereign they would fear more than they feared one another.  As things now stand, the obvious choice to play this role is the United Nations, but at present, the United Nations is a toothless tiger. If we are to follow Hobbes’ lead, the tiger must be armed and fearsome and probably relocated in a neutral country.  Perhaps this is what the world needs to get along in a nuclear age.