Archive for January, 2008


Reason, Enlightenment, Perfection, and Man – The Lesson of Czeslaw Milosz

January 30, 2008

“I hear you saying that liberation is possible
and that Socratic wisdom
is identical with your guru’s.

No, Raja, I must start from what I am.
I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.

If I am sick, there is no proof whatsoever
that man is a healthy creature.” (“To Raja Rao”, Czeslaw Milosz)

The problem then is this: in our modern paradigm we assume man to be able to overcome any limitation he may face using the sheer force of reason. Even at the height of religious fanaticism in the Renaissance, faith was not even allowed to have such power – for the Christian teaching was always one of inevitable fallenness. This is the new faith, the faith of science.

However, this new faith treads on shaky grounds. What if this cannot be said about man? What if man is not a healthy animal, nor ever was, nor ever could be? What then does it mean for science to tell us anything by using the light of man’s reason? Is it not just better defining the edges of the shadows on the cave wall – making the illusion MORE real, rather than allowing us to understand anything truer, deeper.

But such a question cannot be asked of the new faith, for it is outside the purview of the new faith. To ask: “Why do we assume reason is flawless” is an unscientific question – and unscientific questions are simply improper to ask. Science doesn’t even attempt to answer such questions, because such metaphysical concerns are deemed inappropriate before they even enter the scrutiny of science.

So we must understand that the new faith is as dogmatic and pretentious as any other, assuming its own foundations to be correct, and then proceeding along as successful judged only by its internal consistency. It, like all other faiths, lends itself to the weak willed, and is only practiced truly by a few elites. The rest simply listen to what the prophets hand down, and accept, for whom else has the time to read the bones except these blessed wise men.

But listen to what I say, for this is more important than the rant thus far. We cannot abandon science because it is like this. We must instead understand ourselves and that we are flawed. Rather than believe that we cannot know, because all previous examples have fallen short, we must assume that we can only know in small amounts. Science has given birth to many miracles, miracles that we cannot deny because of its apparent contradictions and ethical, metaphysical, and ontological errors. It was never supposed to be our savior, asking it to be the explanation of all is in our arrogance, not its shortcomings.

The answer is not a disbelief in all things, but the use of these tools to understand a world that is complex and yet experienced everyday. Understanding shouldn’t be perfect, it should aim at perfection, but never should it be complete. Do not confuse this for a fruitless task, for in so doing you bask in the light of nihilism.

The enlightenment convinced us that man can be shaped to the point of perfection – we can be the perfect arbiter, the perfect class, the perfect race. None of these are true, and all that the enlightenment has accomplished is to fuel the egomaniacal with ideology to persuade the masses. For once perfection is brought into the purview of man, he will do anything to reach it, even commit genocide that he previously would’ve found revolting.

But communism and totalitarianism are not the only culprits, just the more obvious. Their brother, democracy, practices perfection in a more benign form – the form of perfect equality. The ideology of freedom and equality has convinced an entire society that greatness is impossible, that selfhood is found outside of anything higher or different from the individual and that a culture has nothing more to offer history than its own vein reflection – and the result is a gulag that cannot be fought. Not even by the pens of Solzhenitsyn, Czeslaw Milosz, or Tocqueville.

Even under oppression in the Gulag of Russia there was still an idea of greatness. This idea, though grown from the bastardization of communism, did propel a man toward greatness (so long as it was in the name of the party), the government endorsed writing, art, film, and culture advancement in the name of the Russian people – but in so doing reaffirmed the power of the poet, the artist, the director to bring down the system the same way it arose. Without such a confirmation from the government even great authors find it hard to criticize American democracy – for the tread on the most holy grounds our modern society can offer – freedom and equality. There are none better than you, you cannot be great, and hence you cannot contend with what the majority says. Who can deny that one voice cannot outweigh ten voices that weigh the same? – Such logic is infallible, it has been dictated by our ancestors, and can never be questioned.

Though in certain circumstances these gentlemen bellow their loudest like bulls, though this, let us suppose, does them the greatest credit, yet, as I have said already, confronted with the impossible they subside at once. The impossible means the stone wall! What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact. When they prove to you that in reality one drop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow-creatures, and that this conclusion is the final solution of all so-called virtues and duties and all such prejudices and fancies, then you have just to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just try refuting it. – Fyodor Dostoevsky “Notes from the Underground”

Let us take a step back at this moment and examine this notion of freedom and equality in the eyes of Dostoevsky in more precision. Our goal; to understand man’s nature and the possible flaws in his freedom and his equality; our tool – Dostoevsky’s “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”; why go through this trouble – so that some will be able to say that from ideology there rose a voice of discontent even if only to make others think of the consequences of their dogmatic adherence to the democratic process. Such will be the aim of the next post – my apologies if it takes some time to write.


Abundance, Scarcity, and Diversion: Pascalian Pensees and Platonic Philosophy

January 28, 2008

“‘Wealth,’ I said (Socrates), ‘and poverty; the one is the parent of luxury and indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent.'” Plato’s Republic Book IV 422a

In the previous essay we embarked on an examination of poverty’s affect on virtue and found that in extreme cases it brings man to a forked road whose paths lead to either ascent or baseness. It became clear that either road was possible to take, though one more prevalent in the Gulag, but such a choice hinged on the will. Once man had nothing left to lose, it becomes a matter of his own choice whether or not to take either path – no punishment could persuade him either way.

With this in mind we examine poverty’s contrary – abundance. Shall we merely employ Aristotle’s law of opposites set forth in the Nichomachean Ethics? Hardly. Instead we shall employ Pascal’s understanding of diversion and Plato’s understanding of philosophy. I deign to those who will propose that neither of these encompass every thought, and I preemptively applaud all of those who are searching through obscure philosophy transcripts of nameless thinkers to discredit these two great thinkers. Yes, I realize that there are other philosophy’s who make abundance seem very virtuous, but none without changing the idea of virtue, or the definition of good in the process, making it a strange abortion to any familiar with human life.

Why do we think? More importantly why do we think about certain things which we label ‘philosophy’. Once, again, since this matter is highly contested, I do hear all those deconstrucionalists saying that there is no such thing as ‘philosophy’. However, for the rest of the human race, there is, and although their definitions vary greatly they all believe it exists and that it is separate from other arts.

Thinking, particularly about big things (metaphysical things), is, as eluded to in the previous entry, secondary to life functions. Cavemen do not philosophize, they do not have the time. Education, the foundation for philosophy, depends on a certain level of peace that cannot be interrupted by constant movement, hunting, or war. Matters of life and death overwhelm man’s thought process and do not allow philosophy to be planted – notice here ‘planted’, philosophy can grow under these conditions but its original seed cannot be planted when there are more pressing concerns. Likewise, in times of great scarcity philosophy cannot arise, it is hard to think about ‘that without which the cause couldn’t be the cause’ or ‘that thing of which no greater can be thought’ if you are hungry, naked, thirsty, and cold. In other words, scarcity breeds practical wisdom, not philosophy. This should not surpise us terribly, but shouldn’t we then applaud abundance for allowing such a phenomenon to occur?

It is even difficult to philosophize when you’ve been farming all day while maintaining a family. Constant work doesn’t even offer fertile ground for philosophy – since philosophy demands a previous knowledge of writing, of elegance, and of deep contemplation. It is only when people have ‘free’ time, leisure, that they are able to pursue philosophy – and leisure is only possible if there is some sort of abundance.

So what argument could we then have against abundance? Plato responds: luxury and indolence. Or, as we will find out, in Solzhenitsyn’s terms anthropomorphism. Luxury and laziness – greed and sloth – are two sins also present in Dante’s hell and have been widely viewed as vices throughout ethical philosophy and theology. But it is not the point of this essay to merely state what tradition has handed down, but help elucidate it.

Luxury is problematic because man’s wants are endless. Man is the animal which can never be content for long periods of time – he will always return to discontent. Pascal, as well as previous philosophers, point to man’s ability to contemplate as the problem. Man can always understand a more happy condition for him to be in, because, unlike other animals (to our knowledge), man can understand theoretical existence – or things as they could be, rather than things as they are. Man’s mind also knows no bounds and can hyperbolize things to their greatest extent – leaving him constantly in desire.

Hence, Luxury breeds greed. Having luxury doesn’t make you greedy, but it does allow one to hyperbolize an already beneficial position to an even greater one. We know this to be true by example – the rich, though already saturated with material goods, continue to seek wealth. Bill Gates, who can’t even spend the money he makes, still gets more money without complaint. This is because luxury shows us the goods that money can get us, and who in their right mind would deny material comforts. In our modern times this is far more pervasive than it was to the ancients for our material objects can cause us far greater pleasures than they could even imagine.

Yet, there is always something to spoil the limitless material goods. The goods of the body, no matter how comforting, will always remind us of our downfalls. Though we gain pleasure through the body, we also gain pain, and more importantly death. Every pleasure of the body is linked to its death, because as pleasure subsides and disappears it eventually reminds man of a time when his body will not be able to feel such pleasures.

Hence why the natural state of man is unhappy. The more goods we obtain, the more we have to lose when we die (or the more we have to lose in general). This is why it is not good for man to experience too much luxury. Luxury not only weakens him by inducing laziness (by solving problems with money rather than skill, talent, or ability), but it also crushes the soul – for it must.

The soul wants acknowledgement, it wants betterment, it wants knowledge. The soul knows that the body is weak, the body will die, but the body does not want to hear it. The body will cling to life and all its pleasures. The more luxury we give it, the easier it becomes to feed the body and ignore the soul. And every time the meager voice arises from within we crush it with what Pascal calls diversion.

We live in a time where one does not even need luxury to get diversion. Even people living below the poverty line bask in the glow of the television. Thus we turn every person into the kind in Pascal ‘s Pensees 139:

139. Diversion.- When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home. / But, on further consideration, when, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely. Whatever condition we picture to ourselves, if we muster all the good things which it is possible to possess, royalty is the finest position in the world. Yet, when we imagine a king attended with every pleasure he can feel, if he be without diversion and be left to consider and reflect on what he is, this feeble happiness will not sustain him; he will necessarily fall into forebodings of dangers, of revolutions which may happen, and, finally, of death and inevitable disease; so that, if he be without what is called diversion, he is unhappy and more unhappy than the least of his subjects who plays and diverts himself.”

This is the truest definition of luxury – being able to buy oneself out of the natural misery of our condition. This is why luxury is even more pervasive in modernity than ever before – because it can be afforded by the poor. In the modern western state it is not impossible that 90% or more of the population owns a TV, subscribes to a magazine, has a money intensive hobby, or plays video games and even more likely that they spend over 4 hours a day doing it. Diversion from the ultimate wretchedness of bodily existence is the foremost luxury and in our age of ADD, ADHD, and Hyper Activity this problem has seemed to emerge in a very real and genetic way – a concern? or an explanation for our natural love of diversion?

Although we need leisure to promote the best activities, we also need to use it properly. Diversion impedes our ability to practice, to educate, to read, to philosophize, or even to contemplate or write. Leisure means being comfortable confronting the issues of your human conditions as they arise by giving voice to them through art, music, philosophy, or any of man’s high functions ( they are considered higher because they help others going through similar problems without diverting them from the same meaning). Luxury works against this by providing more pleasurable options and more diversions from essential human problems that tax or even frighten the mind.

This brings us back to America (the pinnacle example of Western Ideals) and its spiritual deadness as seen by Solzhenitsyn and Milosz. The spiritual ascent seems to be noted as a hard one for Milosz, and a painful one for Solzhenitsyn, but both considered it an inward turn that very much involves confrontation with the most fundamental problems of human existence. It is their knowledge of these fundamental conditions that propels them, and others like them to this spiritual height, but in so doing gives them a vantage point from which the American system, despite its pleasures, looks low. The inhabitants of this basilica of freedom have no desire to look inward, or to turn to the most important questions, they have replaced such concern for their spiritual wellbeing with the concern for money – that from which they can obtain luxury. Such is the most insidious snare of our modern gulag: even the pursuit of luxury is a diversion from our fundamental problems because it gives us a goal that is outside, if not contrary, to our spiritual wellbeing.


Solzhenitsyn and Plato: Ascension and Oppression

January 24, 2008

“You only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power — he’s free again.” – Solzhenitsyn The First Circle 

“But then the words swell up with their full meaning, and an awesome vow takes shape: to survive at any price. \ And whoever takes that vow, whoever does not blink before its crimson burst – allows his own misfortune to overshadow both the entire common misfortune and the whole world. \ This is the great fork of camp life. From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. One of them will rise and the other will descend. If you go to the right – you lose your life, and if you go to the left – you lose your conscience.” – Solzhenitsyn The Gulag Archipelago pg. 302 

“No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.” – Plato, Apology 41d 

I am heavily tempted to let these quotes speak for themselves. For who could add to such succinct commentary without thinking himself far greater than he is or reducing such apt observations to little more than historical quotations. But write I must – if not for anyone else but myself. 

Death – the ceasing of our bodies, a reduction of function, a returning to equilibrium whereupon all production and consumption cease. We all exist in the framework of death – either consciously or subconsciously. The fear of death causes us to seek diversion or pleasure. The curiosity of death leads first to philosophy, politics, and religion. But it is pride which causes us to seek immortality through fame, or progress, or the end of history.  

Survival – The ability to cheat to death. Preservation of life is the essential precursor to the creation of life. Any animal, plant, or bacteria has within it a mechanism for survival, which, in a cold Darwinian sense must come before deeper concerns. This need for survival has undergone an ethical imperative for the simple reason that the dead cannot be virtuous. Though this phenomenon has been heavily discussed throughout the ages, as promised, I will only present two such cases in an attempt to keep an already complex question as simple as possible. 

I would like to begin by breaking my promise to you and making a side note worth mentioning. Dante’s interpretation of the afterlife in the Divine Comedy gives us a great perspective on the reward\punishment dynamic which has been present in nearly all afterlife philosophy \ belief. It is from this work that Solzhenitsyn draws the title of his work The First Circle. The first circle of hell was the least painful of the circles because they were the closest to being virtuous without knowing salvation. Solzhenitsyn’s novel revolves around scientists who were privileged, yet still imprisoned, in the Gulag Archipelago. This allows for an interesting perspective of the damned looking upon the more damned and being grateful – an image that might not be so far from the everyday life of man as political animal. 

This serves as a good introduction to Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on survival. Although survival is the prerequisite for all ethical goods to follow, it does have a price. There are some acts, though aimed at survival pure and simple, that are not worth the sacrifice. In laymen’s terms; selling your soul. To reduce oneself to a mere survivor is to place ones self on the basest and most animalistic of human natures. Such a base and powerful instinct is even removed from domesticated animals who will often submit to death and punishments from their masters – an interesting and significant fact.  

Those who have given into to survival at any cost, have allowed themselves to view all other things and more importantly people as means to an end. The ‘cost’ of survival is always worth paying, even at the expense of another. By dehumanizing others you dehumanize yourself and mankind. Suddenly all ethical questions are removed and concerns for base necessity arise to take its place. Solzhenitsyn points out the disastrous affect that this had on the souls in the prison camp. They still had something to lose, namely life, yet they still remained in a position where they had nothing else to lose, and this might be the greatest prison of all. They were meager and powerless, yet they had to cling to life – because they desired it too much. Without the power to continue there own life they are reduced to lying, cheating, stealing, and forceful manipulation to secure such needs. This is the road away from ascent. 

On the other hand removing fear of death, and the possession of the body, makes you truly free. Materialism begins in the desiring of the body, then moves to the comfort of the body, and finally to the desires of the body. They get removed in the same order when crisis or scarcity arises. First we sacrifice the desires, then the comforts, then the needs, and finally are left with the body itself. Here we come to a choice: either there is nothing more precious than our body and our current lives; or there are better things in store for man and the loss of such a petty device is mere transformation rather than ending. To ascend, for Solzhenitsyn, is to choose the later.  

Enter here Socrates, in Plato’s Crito. When given the option to be freed from prison by his friend Crito, Plato responds that the city had proclaimed it’s justice (viewed by most as injustice) and who was he to go against the rules of the city. Previously, in the Apology, after being pronounced guilty Socrates gets to purpose a ‘punishment’ which would ‘fit his crime’. The solution will be weighed against the council’s punishment – death. The two options would be voted upon and the punishment with the most votes would be Socrates’ destiny. Knowing all of this Socrates’ chooses: Free Meals in the Prytanium and a fine of 100 drachmae.  

The ‘punishment’ Socrates’ chooses is the comfort of the body (free meals in the Prytanium, usually reserved for the rich and the athletes) and a very meager fine considering the amount of connection he had. The jury had no choice but to vote for his death, since the majority undoubtedly viewed the comforts of the body as a benefit, not a punishment. This leaves us with two options for understanding: either Socrates was being sarcastic and that he too felt the free meals were a reward which he earned through philosophy – in which case he chooses justice over life. Or, he is being honest and the comforts of the body would be a suitable punishment – in which case he is choosing temperance over life.  

Socrates was old, but he did have two young children and a wife. Yet he chooses death in the first of the three dialogues (The Apology) and again in the second (The Crito) and finally in the third (The Phaedo) we see his death. Throughout the first two his bravery seems illogical, even unwise, bordering on selfishness – didn’t the state NEED the gadfly around to prod the youth into philosophy? Wasn’t his job yet unfinished?  

Socrates response comes in the Phaedo and rings true as the foremost logical error in human thought to this day: Do not confuse the cause with that without which the cause couldn’t be a cause. Life is the cause without which the cause couldn’t be the cause; however, that does not make life the ultimate good, but rather shows its baseness – it is an accidental and necessary cause but not nearly sufficient for a human life to be human. We know this because many non-human life forms are alive (holy obvious statement). Socrates takes it a step further by almost embracing death throughout the trilogy and even minutes before his death he takes the time to engage in a philosophic conversation about the immortality of the soul and what the causes of life are. Not exactly the usual deathbed conversation.

 A lesser man would’ve escaped, would’ve given a better argument, would’ve fought such seeming injustice – but Socrates did not. Socrates would not have been Socrates if he had cared so much for his body and its pleasures. The true form of man is his intellect, which for Socrates was not in the mind, but in the ‘form’ of human – something analogous to what we call the ‘soul’ of a human. The form, most importantly, is not the body, but owns a body from which is can be separated without ceasing to exist but rather changing how it exists.  

Socrates was saying then what is echoed centuries later in Solzhenitsyn. An echo from oppression in democratic Athens where a majority of citizens found Socrates guilty and sentenced him to death to the Gulag Archipelago where a people’s revolution instilled a government which would slaughter 20 million (Estimate taken from the Black Book of Communisms) in the name of human progress on earth aimed at a perfect end in which all bodily desires can be pursued equally. Such an echo can only be viewed as the thread which runs through the heart of every man, the nature of man, which is swayed toward one way or the next. Man’s attachment to his body is natural but is merely necessary, not sufficient, for him to live a good life – it is the lowest common denominator from which we derive our modern liberties, but we mustn’t constrict ourselves to living in the shadows of the lowest common denominator –we must ascend.  

Furthermore, the lowest common denominator for ascent is freedom, but it is not sufficient for people often choose to enslave themselves when confronted with freedom. What the prisoners of the Gulag Archipelago did out of necessity we do out of desire. They were subject to the removal of goods, causing them to attack out of survival – we however are inflicted with too many goods, we are so far removed from mere survival that we endow upon material objects the weight of our very lives. Part of this is due to an explosion of technology – an explosion that makes phones and cars NECESSARY for survival on a broad scale. But it is also due to a boredom, a general malaise, that accompanies the proliferation of goods like a smell accompanies a fetid corpse. Our life is not just important because it causes us to do good things, but because it is that from which we derive pleasure from the world. No longer are we souls capable of detached contemplation – we are machines that run on food. We imprison ourselves with diversions, with pleasures, and gluttony. We have it all – and we want more.  

Such desires are the topic of another post. This has been too long of a post already. In conclusion – Plato’s portrayal of Socrates shows a denial of the body in favor of a good accessible to mankind without a body. Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of the Gulag shows what the forked road of a forced removal of goods has on the human soul – it makes us choose baseness or ascension by its very nature. That leaves us to explore the opposite – a proliferation of goods surrounding the human body making it the nexus from which all knowable pleasure comes. We will see similar forked road, but will the options have changed? Will it be harder or easier to choose? What choices will we even have? 


Exile, Selfhood, and the Political Animal

January 23, 2008

“If our condition were truly happy, we would not seek diversion from it in order to make ourselves happy.” – Blais Pascal.

Happiness has everything to do with our human nature. Either happiness is impossible because of our nature or it is achievable only through our human nature. Furthermore, working with our nature will make us happy, or working against it will make us happy. Lastly, man’s nature is either in concord with Nature or it is not in concord with Nature.

This becomes important because man (so far as we can tell) is the only political animal. Man is the only creature with language (sophisticated language with words, grammar, and connotation) which can tie him to a culture, a place, even a TIME – furthermore he is the only creature who derives his identity from the relationship between language, culture, place, and time. This political aspect appears to be part of man’s ‘nature’ but rather against ‘Nature’ – since it only appears once in a very particular group of mammals. Likewise, the political nature of man is either the foundation of a happy life (friends, family, language, philosophy, and even virtues like justice, courage, and magnanimity) or it is that which holds him back from happiness.

The question remains open, but important to keep in mind as we discuss exile. Exile is a separation from one’s language, culture, place, and time. I can hear the objections to the last of those 4 qualifiers, but let me remind you that while the dark ages were ravaging Europe, China and the Islamic Middle East were reaching their heights. Time does not always mean a year or date but sometimes a movement or Geist that proliferates a large area isolated from other areas. This understanding of time has disappeared because of the difficulty of isolation within the modern world but still prevailed as late as the 1980’s when the West and East were separated by an Iron Curtain.

Russia and the Soviet Satellite states were undergoing the industrialization which took 200 years in the West while pushing forward into the new era of space exploration and communist supremacy – thus dramatically shifting the ‘time’ they lived in. Meanwhile America was becoming entrenched in a new age – the age of Democratic supremacy, which would expand across the globe to promote world peace, would become imperialism by ideology. America didn’t need to own foreign lands, it needed to open foreign markets, and could do so with force by hiding behind an ideology of humanism.

Exile severs the ties one has with his homeland. This is even more dramatic for the writer, poet, or philosopher whose tongue becomes an alien in his own mouth – and whose thoughts become a stranger in his own head. Exile forces one to live in one’s homeland only through the musty muse of memory. Yet, it is often the exiles among us that can see their homelands more clear than we see ours. In the case of Solzhenitsyn, Milosz, and Dante it even allowed them to see other countries more clearly than its inhabitants.

In short, exile gives a man something which is dangerous to the political institution – fearlessness. The man with nothing left to lose, is the man that the political regime cannot control. Punishment only works if you can take something away from someone, and rewards are only good if the person WANTS something you can give them. The man with nothing left to lose is the man who has realized the freedom of the spirit, the power of the mind, and the profit of a clean conscience – and those are things a political regime can never take from him.

Solzhenitsyn, more than the other authors I have mentioned, talks about this phenomena in respects to one of the most pernicious types of exile: imprisonment – the imprisonment of the Gulag Archipelago. In particular he speaks of the enslavement of the body and the ascension of the soul as if the two go hand-in-hand.  Set parallel to Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo we can begin to see how this ascension is apolitical, perhaps anti-political, but shockingly human. With this understanding of humanity we will investigate our own political system and how exactly freedom has become the American Gulag.

However, before indulging in such a pleasant conversation, we turn to that aspect of human nature which puts all others in context – death. Death serves the final exile. Exile, in those terms, is a metaphor for death, the death of an individual to a certain community, culture, and place. Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo all lead up the Socrates’ death. The Gulag Archipelago, on the other hand, tries to serve as a memorial for all those who spent their lives there only to end up in a grave pit. Death, and the willingness to embrace it or the need to avoid it, drive humans at their most natural and inmost core. Perhaps one’s view of death, affects his view of exile. No small task, and one too large to even start at the end of this post. The first step on this journey will begin in my next post: Solzhenitsyn and Plato: Ascension and Oppression.


The Line Running Through the Heart of Every Man: Brothers Born Centuries Apart

January 20, 2008

“Memory was once regarded as the mother of the Muses: Mnemosyne mater musarum. I can testify that it is really so, that when perfection summons, it is untrappable except as the detail recalled…” (The Land of Ulro, Czeslaw Milosz, pg 11).

As stated in the previous entry, Dante is the patron saint of all those who only visit their homelands in memory – Milosz being one of those who pray to Saint Dante for strength and inspiration. Such a distance from one’s homeland, a distance of the time and space of forced exile, is the mother of the Muses which informed the poetry of Milosz: whose aim was to capture a significant and precarious century which most others had swept under the rug as finally overcome when the Berlin wall fell leaving only Democratic freedom within the purview of the globe.

Dante adds to the conversation of exile a pre-democratic (once again, democracy in the modern sense) look. Dante himself was a white Guelph who opposed the presence of the Pope in Florentine politics. Dante was part of a movement which would eventually lead to the enlightenment and the separation of religious authority and political authority which makes possible the modern American Democracy.

Dante’s discontent with the political situation of his day arises from a concern with corruption in the church. The realization that a religious government was prone to corruption was also a concern for Pride, that a Pope could put himself above the needs of God, and when he does so politically he corrupts an entire nation. In some ways, his discontent is one of Ideological Absolutism, which, since the birth of Christianity had manifested itself in Religious terms, but since then has reared its head in secular forms. In short, despite Dante’s role in bringing forth the enlightenment, his desire to do so was born from a concern that he thought would be removed by removing religious authority. This concern did not disappear. Whereas Dante assumed religion would still play a major role in people’s lives, hence balancing political tyranny, the institutions that arose did not maintain religious authority in any way, allowing secular Ideology to merely replace Religious Ideology.

Such a move was incomprehensible to a Europe that had been understanding its politics within religious contexts for a millennium – incomprehensible to all except Tocqueville. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was published in 1835 and talked much of a perceived possibility of great decline in the spiritual characteristic of America – one that for better or for worse we all must admit, has come true – 173 years after he first published. This merely goes to show that democracy was not always considered the only option for political justice, despite the modern trend, it was considered by many foundational thinkers in Western Civilization, as a dangerous turn – one that always comes before tyranny according Plato.

Hence, after three entries, we have finally concluded the introduction to a most interesting problem, which challenges a paradigm once thought unquestionable. Our allies in this questioning range from the former Soviet Union, to Imperial England, Renaissance Italy, and even Ancient Greece. The thing they all have in common is exile. Solzhenitsyn from Russia, Milosz from Poland, Dante from Florence, and Plato from Athens (Plato being the only one exiled FROM a Democracy in leau of execution, which was Socrates destiny).

Exile brings from the fore what exactly caused all these people to bring the best critiques. Exile means you have no home, nothing to lose, no national language, no cultural pressure – you are allowed to be a voice of all, of yourself, and of none simultaneously standing outside culture, outside history, and yet inside the vision of all. The memories, usually painful, of their homeland and of their loss, are the motivations, the Muses, that drive them with otherworldly fervor and power. They, unlike us, understand what it is to lose it all, to walk but be dead and this inability to lose any more, to understand what it is at stake gives them an omnipotence and wisdom beyond their peers.

Finally, from ambiguity, we are free to rise to a particular question. The question is exile. The frame is 20th century ideologies including democracy. The people are Milosz, Dante, Tocqueville, Solzhenitsyn, and Plato. Together they form an unbroken line which runs through the heart of every man. They share a destiny, a pain, and an insight which, if we are to be free thinkers, we must confront as the possibility that there is an option outside of our current system, which may allow the soul to ascend to greater heights.


Solzhenitsyn, Czeslaw Milosz, and Tocqueville: An Eternal Golden Braid

January 19, 2008

“Moreover, since I have lived a long time in exile, I may be legitimately claimed by all those who had to leave their native villages and provinces because of misery of persecution and to adapt themselves to new ways of life; we are millions all over the Earth, for this is a century of exile.” – Czeslaw Milosz Banquet Speech 1980

I now return to anthropocentricity, and in particular evaluate the 20th century (‘the century of exile’) and how these strange sons of the enlightenment became distasteful of the direction that Western Civilization is heading in. In particular the role of extreme oppression, totalitarian regimes, and genocide on all sides turned the minds of Solzhenitsyn and Milosz toward democracy with a critical eye – but first lets turn several centuries back to a man heavily admired by Milosz: Dante Allegeri.

Why Dante? Why do we trun centuries back to Italy to discover our current dilemma? “A patron saint of all poets in exile, who visit their towns and provinces only in remembrance, is always Dante” (Milosz, Nobel Prize Lecture 1980). Dante not only embodies poetics but he was also an exile, who, unlike Milosz, could not find solace in being in the century of exile. Dante also understood anthropocentricity as he placed pride in the bottom two layers of hell, as well as the first layer of purgatory. It is the proud who become traitors, as we see Judas, Brutus, and Cassius in the mouth of the devil himself. But alas, Milosz is not talking about the pride of just one man against his fellow man, but the pride of Man against God (or anything higher than man, for that fact).

This anthropocentricity arrives as a product of the same movement that brings modern democracy – the enlightenment. Note here a delineation between modern and ancient democracies – this will be explored later. Ironically, the enlightenment also makes way for the two greatest opponents of democracy – communism and fascism (fanatical nationalism). All three governments share a commonality, which shows best their relation to anthropocentricity and the enlightenment.

Democracy is founded on the principle that man can logically understand what is best for him and that in groups his desires are checked by others to form a common good created through the fulfillment of contrary private goods. It is man who makes laws which reflect what is best for man and only through this communal process can he create a government which is just. Here anthropocentricity appears as man’s ability to rule over himself – through law.

Communism is the belief that true utopia can be created on earth by the sharing of all, and is not far from Christian Theology. However, Communism puts heaven on earth by creating an ultimate and absolute end to history whereupon all social classes are equal and all conflicts cease. Any aim short of this absolute end is deemed political heresy, and what arrives is the belief in man’s unlimited possibility to achieve this end; a faith in mankind over God.

Fascism is the bond one has with his nation – and its absolute leader and speaker. Here we see cold efficiency of tyranny combine with ideology to create a super state whose goal is the consumption of all. Fascism’s close ties to nature and scientific realism allow it to set aside justice as something higher than man, and rather embrace the cold power of the will to achieve ends – for what else is there for man other than ends – the belief in anything higher than man himself is deemed a dream.

All three were born from a single principle of the enlightenment – that man’s reason (and his reason alone) is what gives him his identity – and furthermore – his power. This power, if properly aimed, could and SHOULD master nature to make it his slave. It is cold reason which rejects anything higher (anything beyond reasoning, i.e. epiphany, faith, belief, or revelation), it is mechanical reason which applies lifeless history to known future in an attempt to reach a paradise within man’s mind, and it is short-sighted reason which dictates the new laws.

Triplets of the Enlightenment. Of whom, 1 has risen from the ashes of two world wars and one cold war. Democracy, the child of liberalism, of the ill-fated French revolution, of Locke, has stretched the globe like the once great English Empire. Democracy, the study of Tocqueville, the asylum of Solzhenitsyn, the linguistic prison of Milosz, offers freedom of the body, and enslavement of the soul. So is the contention of these three authors, who see in the world’s most prolific political institution a problem only visible from outside its persuasive walls.

Inside its walls nothing is clearer than the supremacy of democratic Western ideas – it is enough to fuel wars and commit atrocities so long as democracy is preserved and is allowed to metastasize. Allowed to escape criticism by being in the shadows of its two brothers for an entire century, it has now emerged as a beast too big to be fed, but it eats and it is still hungry. The two biggest modern critics of this beast are already layer before you (Solzhenitsyn and Milosz), and interestingly, grew up under the oppressive weight of democracy’s twin; communism (Milosz having experienced all three triplets of the Enlightenment when Nazi Germany invaded Poland).

How could these two writers be so critical of democracy? The answer lies in exile, and in Dante Allegeri. 

More on Dante’s role, and role of Exile, in the criticism of Democracy to come… but I feel enough head way has been made to warrant a rest to better distance ourselves from this material for a short while.


The Captive Mind

January 16, 2008

“Distance is the soul of beauty” Simone Weil

Recently, as the title would suggest, I read Czeslaw Milosz’ The Captive Mind which outlined the transformation of Western thought as it progressed through the 20th century. In particular Milosz discusses the same duality expressed in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago as well as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The duality in question revolves around freedom versus true freedom, and what slavery has to do with the difference between them.

Milosz, much like Solzhenitsyn, but unlike Tocqueville, has experienced both tyranny and exile first hand. Unlike Tocqueville’s trip to America, Milosz was exiled from Poland after separating with the communist government there. Much like Solzhenitsyn he would eventually come to America to write his poetry, which wouldn’t get published in his native tongue until the fall of the iron curtain. The key here is that both Milosz and Solzhenitsyn got to experience the collision of Western and Eastern values as they converged at the crossroads of an odd and bloody century. A century predicted in Dostoevsky’s Demons and Tocqueville Democracy in America.

The 20th century for Milosz is the pinnacle of a “great upheaval” (Nobel Lecture 1980) which started “centuries ago on a small western peninsula of the European Asiatic continent”(1980) which has changed focus from God to “uniform worship of science and technology”(1980). This echoes Solzhenitsyn’s words given not two years earlier given in an address at Harvard: “Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive” (Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart). Yet both authors found asylum amidst the spiritual exhaustion, and from it cast their stones at thier once oppressors.

This is an irony appreciated by both authors. The Captive Mind wrestles with the exact complications of freedom. Milosz cannot deny that he is the way he is because of tremendous oppression. Milosz witnessed both Nazi and Communist occupations in Poland first hand, coming to understand fully the power propaganda has on a hopeful nation. Yet without the freedom offered by the West he could not profess what he had learned through oppression. Solzhenitsyn too has similar emotions when he writes “thank you prison for having been in my life” (Gulag Archipelago) though he published his novel once he finally left the prison system and escaped to America.

The paradox of freedom is its tendency to promote conformity. A conformity far more pernicious than oppression. Tocqueville calls it “soft despotism” imposed by the “tyranny of the majority” (Democracy in America). Solzhenitsyn, having the benefit of hindsight that Tocqueville did not, points toward the media: “Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press. It stops at sensational formulas” later saying “nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges…there is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent minded people from giving their contribution to public life” (A World Split Apart) .

Milosz picks up on this idea of media and combines it with Western education to produce a scathing criticism: “Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember.  Certainly, the illiterates of past centuries, then an enormous majority of mankind, knew little of the history of their respective countries and of their civilization. In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know now to read and write and even teach in schools and Universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion; Moliere becomes a contemporary of Napoleon, Voltaire, a contemporary of Lenin” (Nobel Lecture, 1980). This confusion informs Western minds with a false history which allows them to mix and match ideas into one all powerful Ideology, neglecting any negative statement as an accident of thought, rather than a necessary problem. This idea, itself, being a product of western thought which places man (and man’s intellect) atop the universe as sole arbiter. Solzhenitsyn calls this dangerous development anthropocentricity: “It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.” (A World Split Apart).

The topic of anthropocentricity will be picked up in light of the documents already discussed in another post. I feel this one is already too long to be grappled with as it is. Please feel free to comment, although understand that there are unfinished thoughts present above.