Ethics and Personhood

Ethics and Personhood: ‘you can’t have one without the other’

            There is an agentive aspect to making the distinction between a morality and an ethics. Yet just here we are already relativists, for morality was never simply one of many, but rather ‘the’ only game in town. Even the recognizance, found in the Hebrew scriptures, that there are in fact other gods – just don’t worship them – presupposes in an essential manner that one’s own morality is at the very least superior to those of the others. So, to speak of ‘a’ morality, one amongst many, is to engage an historical sensibility utterly absent during the actual epochs when morals themselves were in the ascendancy. Then, morality could command because the one upon whom it made its demands was not a fully individuated person in the contemporary sense. The shalt and shalt not of a moral code impinged not upon agency per se but rather upon one’s sanity, if saneness is thought of in the sociological sense of fully understanding what is customary.

            For the Greeks, the ‘moron’ was the one who resisted custom; mores, traditions, rituals and the like, or was akin to a child who simply did not yet understand them and thus one’s duties towards same. And though it seems somewhat amusing that the one who went against the fates was none other than the ‘hyper-moron’, for our purposes we can borrow from the pithy pop lyricist Neil Peart and reiterate with him that for us today, ‘fate is just the weight of circumstances’. Just so, circumstance for any pre-modern human being could be conceived as fate simply because of the singular presence of morality. Bereft of competition, moral principles could very well give the impression that they were good for all times and places, to the point of convincing the would-be moralist that any sane human being would hold to them. I say ‘would-be’, because though moralizing always seems to be in fashion – demarcating the fine line between righteousness and self-righteousness – to actually be a moralist one requires at least some comparative data.

            It was just this that was missing in premodern social organizations, no matter their ‘level’ of cultural complexity. It is not a coincidence that our first serious stab at ethics occurred in the cosmopolitan settings of the Alexandrian Empire. It is well known that Aristotle’s attempt to disengage ethics from metaphysics didn’t quite work, not due to the person-friendly ideas therein – his conception of friendship is still basically our own; the most noble form of love – but due rather to the lack of persons themselves. Even so, the abruptly multicultural scenes of a relatively impartial imperialism forced upon the customary the customs of the others, unheard of, alien, eye-opening. It was the beginning of perspective in the more radical, experiential sense of the term. And the origin of recognizing that one’s culture was simply one of many also prompted the incipience of imagining the possibility that a single human being might just have a slightly different understanding of ‘his’ customs than did his intimate neighbor.

            Yet this too is an abstraction. While the history of ideas presents a far more choate brevis, the Socratic citizen which gains a worldly consciousness, the Pauline persona for which each step crosses a limen between history and destiny, the Augustinian subject which redeems itself and thus adds a self-consciousness – one is responsible for one’s own past, history is also and suddenly biography – and thence fast-forwarding through Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, the process of individuation greatly augmented until the 18th century wherein we first hear of the authentic individual, the Enlightenment’s fabled ‘sovereign selfhood’. It is here, belatedly, that the ‘which’ becomes a ‘who’.

            In literary reflection, the mythic hero which is only begrudgingly human, and then only for a brief period of existence, is gradually transmuted to the person who acts heroically and thence often also dies a human death. Between the hero and the person lies the saint. Between mythology and biography there is hagiography. And while the self-styled heroic author may sometimes engage in autohagiography – Crowley is perhaps an exemplar of self-satire to this regard, though the reader is led both ways there – in general modern literature casts very much human beings into human crises. We have to turn to epic fantasy to attain the echo of the mythic, but in so doing, we also in general cast aside our shared humanity. I resist here the opportunity to provide an alternative to this lot. In any case, it is mortality rather than mere morality that retains its own de profundis in the face of anonymous social relations and mass society.

            The Socratic citizen is lesser in distancing himself from the ‘examined life’. This early Selbstverstandnis has elements of an ethics about it; the idea of virtue, the sense that one should think for oneself over against institutions and customs alike, the weighing of one’s experience in contrast to received wisdom, the questioning of authority. But I feel that it also instrumentalizes youth, seeks the vigor of the question only to enthrall it to the rigor of the argument. Inasmuch as it ‘corrupts’, it also uses youth for its own purposes. In this it feels more like a mission than a mere mission statement. Similarly, the Pauline pilgrim; one is individuated in the face of a transcendental judgment by which the mythic re-enters history through the back door, as it were. The more radical ‘you have heard it said, but…’ is muted by the sense that the objection to history is both final and ahistorical. It vaults the apodeictic into a kind of aphasia, wherein language itself is lost to Logos just as history is lost to Time. That this inability to give voice to one’s own experience is made singular through the redemption or damnation of the soul only underscores the absence of ethics in this kind of liminal spatiality. With Augustine, we are presented with a morality under the guise of an ethics. Self-consciousness is the basis for a redemptive strike; picketing sin in the knowing manner of the one who has sinned but then has broken good, for the good, and for good, in judging the self and finding it wanting. But this is a narrow understanding of the self as its subjectivity is limited to an auto-moralizing; in a word, the subject is subjected to itself.

            In this self-conscious subjection, I appear before myself as a shadow, awaiting the completion and uplifting of secular being through the death of sin. The world is itself the untended garden, its overgrown paths serpentine and thus leading one on but never out. I dwell in this undergrowth as my soul dwelleth only in the shadow of Being. There is no way in which a holistic and authentic selfhood can germinate here. For this, we have to wait for the being-ahead of the will to life to overtake the nostalgic desire for either childhood or death itself. Both are impersonal events, abstracted into Edenic paradise on the one hand, the paradise of the firmament on the other. Only in our own time does our childhood become our own – if only for a moment given the forces of socialization and marketing, schooling and State – and as well do we, if we are resolute, face our ownmost deaths, the ‘death which is mine own’ and can only mean the completion of my being. It is the happenstance of birth, the wonder of the child, the revolution of youth, the Phronesis of mature adulthood, and the singular ownmost of death, which altogether makes the modern individual a person.

            Given this, the history of ethics as a series of truncated attempts to present agency and responsibility over against ritual and duty – and in this, we should never understand Antigone as representing an ethics; her dilemma lies between conflicting duties and customs, not between a morality and an ethics – comes to its own self-understanding in the person-in-the-world. In doing so, it recapitulates its own history but one now lensed through a ‘completed’ ethics; self-reflection seems Socratic, anxiety has its Pauline mood, resoluteness one Augustinian, being-ahead its evolutionary futurism, and its confrontation with tradition its messianic medium. The presence of key moments of the history of ethics geared into our interiority – we use the term ‘conscience’ for this odd amalgamation of quite different, if related, cultural phenomena – allows us to live as if we were historical beings cast in the setting of timeless epic. Though we no longer write myth – at most, the new mythology is demythology – we are yet able to be moved by it, think it larger than life, imagine ourselves as mortal heroes. The formula for this Erlebnis-seeking is pat enough: the rebellious youth takes her show on the road, discovering along the way that some key elements of what she disdained are in fact her tacit allies; trust, faith, and love. In coming of age as a person, our heroine gains for herself an ethics, differing from the received but suffocating morality of the family compact, deferring the perceived but sanctimonious mores of the social contract. If her quest is to reevaluate all values, her destiny is to return to at least a few of them after being otherwise. The new ethics she presents to the world after conquering her own moralizing mountain is simply the action in the world obverse to her own act of being in that selfsame world.

            This is the contemporary myth, our own adventure and not that of our ancestors, however antique. Its heroes are fully human but indeed only demonstrate this by overcoming the dehumanizing effects of anonymity and abstraction the both. In short, today’s epic hero becomes human, and indeed this is her entire mission. Everyone her own messiah? Perhaps not quite that, not yet. For the godhead forced upon the youth, even though not her own, confronts her with the idea that there could be something more to life than what meets the shuttered eye. In its very parochiality, the heroine is made witness to the possibility that her world is but a shadow of the Being-of-the-world itself. It is in this realization that the adventure begins and the young halfling of a person, beset by market personas and upset by parental identities, strikes out with all of her ‘passions unabated’, as well as all of her ‘strength of hatred’, in order to gain the revolution all youth must gain. The very presence of this literary formula in media today at the very least cuts both ways; at once it is a surrogate for the real fight in which youth must engage, and thus presents a decoy and a distraction therefrom, but perhaps it also exemplifies and immortalizes that same fight, inspiring youth to take up its visionary sword and slice through the uncanny knot that shrouds our future being and history alike. If so, then with personhood comes also ethics; an agency in the world that acts as no one has ever acted heretofore. If so, then the most profound wisdom that we can offer our youth is the sensibility that what we are must not, and never, be repeated.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Two Contrasts: History and Soul

Two Contrasts: History and Soul

            Man is still in his childhood; for he cannot respect an ideal which is not imposed against his will, nor can he find satisfaction in a good created by his own action. He is afraid of a universe that leaves him alone. Freedom appals him; he can apprehend in it nothing but tedium and desolation, so immature is he and so barren does he take himself to be. He has to imagine what the angels would say, so that his own good impulses (which create those angels) may gain in authority, and none of the dangers that surround his poor life make the least impression upon him until he hears that there are hobgoblins hiding in the wood. His moral life, to take shape at all, must appear to him in fantastic symbols. The history of these symbols is therefore the history of his soul. (Santayana, 1954:222-3 (1906)).

                Angelic intellect results in a paucity of the imagination. Condemned to walk the earth, to till it, to lay upon it and ultimately be buried within, we human beings might well imagine another kind of existence which would never stoop to simply being life alone. It has life, no doubt, but living it is not. And hearsay, whether it implies angels or demons, nymphs or goblins, does nothing to free us of our own poor imaginations. Nay, rather it provides their fuel in the face of both cosmos and freedom alike.

            Let us then take history and soul as our two contrasting epigones. The one betrays morality at every turn, the other is supposed to have ingested it whole; indeed, might be said to be its conception as a fetus is conceived and develops in the human womb. This womb is conscience, its child our better selfhood. Better than what? Superior to both tedium and desolation, which is, on a bad day, what the universe so free and so aloof looks like to the naked eye. The twinkling stars be damned, for their winks are a smug conspiracy of eternity which mocks and sneers and at the end of each night simply despairs that mortal consciousness the cosmos over – once again, for the heavens do not have favorites – will ever ascend to anything more than what it has already been. From Mahler to Sagan, this motif haunts us: ‘The firmament is forever blue… But Man, how long do you live?’ opens up the desolation – though never the tedium! – of The Song of the Earth. The artist asks us to contrast our own paltry existence with the very thing that reminds us thereof, and does so each night. In turn, the scientist warns us of the myriad of civilizations which, upon attaining a certain level of technology, promptly destroy themselves. Will humanity be the next? This is not a case of a much-reported ‘Jewish’ anxiety, ported into that Pauline and made ahistorical by living on, step by unutterable step, as an anti-historical force. From Marx through Husserl, Mahler and Freud, Sagan and Chomsky, the idea that their family backgrounds had anything to do with their accomplishments or outlooks on life is a piece of anti-Semitism at best, for anyone who is so accomplished has become so in part by shedding his life-chance variables; in a word, has chosen soul over history and thus engaged in the transformation of both.

            But this is precisely the question with which the rest of us are left, when confronted by either art or science: what of the contrast, even confrontation, between history and soul? Just as the conception of the sacred is said to be transcendent to history – it survives even the oceanic shifts associated with changing modes of production, for instance; and this without respect of course to any of its historical contents, which do not so survive – soul is an archetype, both in the Jungian sense of the term but more tellingly, in the yet wider linguistic sense of it being ‘archiphonemic’. On the way to this exalted status, it accedes to also being an apical ancestor, the unmoved mover which sits atop a certain kind of genealogical diagram, as if it generated the world from nothing. It is the local version of Godhead and it itself is divinity made worldly by being implanted in a mortal vessel. Like the sacred, the soul survives the end of this vehicle, which in the meanwhile, giving into both its brute senses and its brutish imagination, has betrayed its spirit and made soul nothing more than an admired prisoner, to be genuflected at but otherwise utterly ignored.

            In spite of our ‘childhood’, which in Santayana comes across more as childishness as expressed by beings who in fact do know better, soul asserts itself. In casual language, we hear it associated with a certain kind of feel or spirit in the arts; this or that ‘has soul’ or is soulful. We hear of it being blessed, both as a kind of rustic epithet – ‘the old bastard, bless his soul’ – as well as being in earnest and directed to a beloved other. Either way, we cut to the chase by its use. ‘Soul’ is meant to refer to the essence of one’s character, and thus pertains, indeed, even dictates, how such a character has expressed herself. Has she attended to her conscience, her ‘better self’, or has she betrayed it? Has she raised the soul of another upwards to compete with the imaginary angels or has she cast it down, to the penury of temptation and eventually soullessness? And while the childishness which too often guides us yet might imagine the judgment to come nonetheless, we also know better on that score that no one is after all keeping.

            As an archetype, soul is not supposed to have a history at all. Thus no accounting of it makes any ultimate sense. There is no score, beyond the nonexistence of the scorekeeper, and yet the game remains always and already afoot. What then of its purpose, its meaning, its ends? History the game, soul the player? History the narrative, soul the protagonist? History the meat, soul the bone? One could go on of course, but suffice to say that the essential contrast between these idealities, one the fullness of change and the other its fullest absence, is one between movement and presence, even existence and essence. And if we have learned by now that ‘consciousness is itself a social product’, then why not soul ‘itself? It would seem no serious slight to sign off on such a saying. Consciousness contains both history and soul insofar as the first is written and lived by we conscious beings and the second comes to be known through its oddly awry impingement upon the ethical aspect of consciousness; the conscience and its conscientiousness. One might suggest, with some effort at countervalence, that history also objectifies consciousness and soul makes it into a subjectivity. In fact, this is the better manner of understanding both their constitution and their confrontation.

            History is played out, not without consciousness but even so, ‘outside’ of it. I can read our shared history since I too have participated in it, but I cannot read your singular soul as mine own is always in the way. Just as I can never see the shadow figure of the schizo-affective who, in absence of most, even all, of the other salient archetypes, has retreated into the radical and existential doubt the shadow represents, simply because I have my own shadow that in turn, no one else can ever see, your soul forever remains invisible and can only be communicated through the translation my own makes of your conscience brought into history by conscious act and speech. We humans are distinct from one another just as we are separate from the cosmos at large. What makes us so is, perhaps surprisingly, not to be found in history after all but in the individuatedness of a perspectival consciousness which has, graciously or no, included soul in its wandering embrace. If history carries us along, we in turn do the same for soul. We, in fact, are its history as well as being its movement, its vehicle, its expression. In being so, my own life becomes the fulcrum that balances their autochthonous contrast. History pulls me along willingly; I am change and I desire to be so. Soul provides the existential weight that must be so pulled along; I am nonetheless that which changes and not the change itself.

            But if we wish to speak of species infancy, we should first acknowledge the history of this sensibility. For the Greeks, existence in history connoted as well as promoted a regression into a baser form, a return to infancy from being otherwise. For the Christians the infancy of Man was his existence entire, and we would experience maturity only by being freed of our mortal penance. But for the fin de siécle infancy was more of a promise than even a premise. Yes, we are a child-race – this sentiment can be found, though without rancor, in H.G. Wells’ 1903 address to the Royal Society, and has become a staple of science fiction in general from Sir Arthur Clarke to Star Trek – but the child is nevertheless the father of the man. Santayana is more critical than is the British Wells or even his American comrade in the history of consciousness, William James, but he is still hopeful. For Nietzsche, that other great pundit of the end of a culture, childishness was something to be overcome by the other dominant feature of infancy: child-like wonder.

            We understand, more or less, the history of the soul. We know these conceptions apart from one another and as contrasting forms twice over, as it were, for hovering about the soul’s own history is the question of the soul of history. At one glance, we might say that the soul of history is change itself, but the effort to identify change then becomes all in all. In the self, in society, in morality, in consciousness, even in that firmament ‘forever’ blue. The next step in development away from species infancy lies in our collective ability to understand the changes that are occurring even if our childish solace which selfishly hugs the soul only to itself fears now this and now that without reason and in ignorance of its own powers. The phantasmagoria of symbols which is the history of soul in form and indeed in history must no longer be taken for the future, which only comes into being bereft of mere symbology and instead takes up love’s perfect freedom. For if soul is the manner in which I love myself, history attains a higher love; that of the other at first, then the culture, then the species, then the cosmos. But in all of these portages, ethical and existential alike, soul historicizes itself and only thence frees itself from its self-love, which was after all the source of all fantasy in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the inter-disciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Raw, Raw, Raw Putin, Lover of the ‘Russian Gene’

Raw, Raw, Raw Putin, Lover of the ‘Russian Gene’

            His motive was impersonal. He had grasped a great ideal, and he served it with devotion, sacrificing everything to it, and not sparing himself. The absolute State was the ideal, or rather the idol, for which he toiled, the State as it had been devised by Machiavelli and Hobbes. To raise the country by the employment of its own internal forces was an unpromising and unprofitable enterprise. He, who was himself a barbarian, could only accomplish his purpose by means of aid from outside, by the instrumentality of those who had experience of a more advanced order of things. The borrowed forces could only be employed by the powers of a despot. (Acton-Dahlberg, 1906:282).

                Lord Acton speaks here of Peter the Great. But his characterization applies equally to all those who succeeded him into our own day, almost as if there were a ‘genetic’ inheritance for Russian leaders, from Catherine, Nicholas and his son, Lenin, Stalin, and now, Putin himself. These leaders sought a raw absolute power, not for themselves, for they were only a vessel, a vehicle through which the completed State would become personalized enough for its citizenry to obey it. We mistake the autocrat as some kind of narcissistic nightmare, as is the wont of a contemporary psychology that must needs see everything as individual. No, the absolutist politician is no different from the being who founds a religion; he is possessed of a vision that transcends both what has been political and what has been the spiritual alike.

            So Peter, so Putin. Yes, the personal element is one that is given to both projection and hallucination; one must be, after all, a visionary in order to have a vision in the first place. After the revelation, however, it is all about the person transfiguring himself to match its visionary content. No mere human will suffice. The great danger of any visionary is that he truly believes, but not in himself, as this selfhood is now to be discarded as ‘human, all too human’. Once shed of mortal aspirations, those which are attended at every turn by both hope and anxiety and to which the rest of us remaining mortals cling, the visionary enables himself to drive forward through faith alone. He now knows the truth of things, and he also knows what must be done in order to align the dishonest world with the revealed order.

            In every case, there will be sacrifice. The visionary does not take this lightly. He projects his own special martyrdom on an unworthy world. After all, he has annihilated his own personhood, complete with conscience, and in so doing, he knows he has become a role model for we lesser beings; either we follow his lead, whether as martinets or martyrs, or we die a different death in the face of the truth. For death is now both a release from illusion – the disciple – or a penance for continuing to worship that same illusion – the victim. And wherever there are visionaries, victims abound.

            So Putin, so Ukraine. Perhaps a millennia old, this conflict has time and again served as the ‘aid from outside’ that Russian leaders have needed to make their visionary claims material. The ‘bread-basket’ of Europe is Russia’s golden calf, Putin only the latest in a Mosaic lineage that understands the same truth and needs to express it once again. And if those unbelievers were more ‘advanced’ in the old order of things, in that new they shall be far surpassed. The first shall be last. That larger conflict, between Russia and the West, is also about competing visions of the world; we have victimized Russia, according to the vision, and indeed, that part of it has sometimes been historically accurate, Barbarossa included.

            Even so, the visionary is deluded only by virtue of his absolute value, and not in assessing his material means. What he has at hand is not about to be wasted in a fight he cannot win. And yet the unbelievers defend! But since the vision itself cannot be wrong, it is merely the mortal means of establishing the new order of truth upon the earth that is wanting. And this is where things become the more dangerous for all. The means are there, even if victory is raw, Pyrrhic. And at the same time this is also what is saving us; Putin’s vision is not otherworldly after all. He seeks to establish the religion of today, the absolute State, and upon this world and no other. He is the messiah of modernity, the savior of citizenship, the pariah of perilous power unsullied by mere human feelings of empathy and compassion. For the visionary has himself been taken beyond humanity.

            So Putin, so our neighbour. How many of those whom we know share that seeming ‘innate’ sense, that supposedly intuitive ‘gene’ that ‘something must be done’ lest all is lost? The evangelical, the ‘freedom’ fighter, the nationalist, the book-banning school board member, the tough ‘love’ parent, the demagogue, the uniformed officer seeking ‘respect’, the ‘Incel’ male desiring a slave; yes, after all Putin is a role model, a model for all workaday visionaries. Fascists of all nations unite! You have only your conscience to lose. You have a world to win.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.

Who was that Unmasked Man?

Who was that Unmasked Man?

            The concept of authority is a much troubled one for we moderns. In the previous age, power amongst human beings was certainly brandished in a more subjective fashion, often based on personalist traits including the apparently vanished ‘charisma’, which the social scientist Max Weber implied could not exist in modernity. There was a corresponding paucity of rational mechanisms for the exertion of power by way of achieved or accrued status. Heritable station, even caste, was enough to endow some and deny many the necessary stakes in social life with which to maintain a viable existence. Though we are suspicious of authority in all its forms, we do pride ourselves in leveling the field to an extent that most persons in wealthy countries can at least live without daily fear of sickness and death.

            Why then, if we are aware of this transformation from what now appears to us as the patent unreason of a culture masking itself as a fraudulent nature – perhaps the final residue of this older worldview pertains to eugenics and ‘race’ theory, though any reductivist applied science skirts it at its peril; neuroscience, sociobiology, cognitive therapy – do we also consistently maintain an oft unreasoned skepticism regarding the space and status of modern authority? Why, given the seemingly obvious sensibility that an illness can be transmitted in this way or that, would some of us shun the equally obvious precautions? More than this, immediately declare that such passing modifications to daily life are a symptom of a deeper and darker recess within which authority conspires to dominate the world at large?

            The ‘strange bedfellows’ of politics aside, the resistance to the wearing of masks and practicing the so-called ‘social distance’ hails from the margins of mass democratic statehood. Small time evangelicals, neo-fascist militias, conspiracy ‘theorists’ of many stripes and streaks, even some neo-conservatives who feel abandoned by their chosen political representatives populate this pastiche. Who, exactly, are these fellow citizens, and why do they appear to differ from the vast majority of us along these sudden lines? Is the anti-mask affair merely a convenient hitching post where a number of unrelated horses may be tied during a tavern tabernacle? Is it a question of metaphor; a mask denies part of our identity, for instance, or is likened to a political muzzle? It certainly hasn’t taken long for advertisers to take advantage of this additional apparel ‘accessory’, given many masks now sport logos of various kinds. If there is a semi-conscious sense that a mask inhibits my personhood, many people have taken to creative work-arounds that still proclaim something about themselves they think it is worth others’ while to know, kind of like a removable tattoo.

            But not everyone. Authority in its contemporary issue is at once loosed from above and below alike. Above due to the apparent absence of godhead, and below, due to the problems of direct political representation. One the one hand, there is no ‘higher’ authority than the State, a difficult pill to swallow for many of us, myself as a thinker included. I would like to be able to say, ‘no, truth is itself the highest authority’, or more murkily, ‘art’, or ‘the good’. That the neighbor takes precedence over the socius, that my justice overtakes that of the law, that my ethical life exists beyond the general ken of rationalized morals, and so on. Aside from its claim to possess a monopoly of force, the State also declares itself to be the final court of both accusation and appeal. On the other hand, its presence, like the Leviathan, is to be taken as given and might only be indirectly questioned through regime change by way of the electoral process. Seen in its naked fraudulence, already less dressed than its predecessor the Church, the State is easy to unmask. That we understand our governments to wear the mask of responsibility – and sometimes even live up to this general theater in a convincing manner – is to also comprehend that they are not what they seem to be. So if the one who already wears the mask and is known to be other than it is demands that we too now don this same article, is that not to tell us that we must become yet more like the State in our private lives?

            We do hear the cliché refrain about the ‘nanny state’ within the fragmented voices of the anti-mask huzzah. Ask the same people about EI and healthcare etc. and there might be a different response. But bracketing this ever-present irony, I think that these protesters must view the State as something that is mysterious, a persona like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, to use some old-fashioned examples, but one which is magnified into a monstrous form. The Lone Ranger, from whose juvenile script the title of this piece is paraphrased, is, with further irony, a persona who would in fact appeal to the anti-maskers. They appear to see themselves as more individual than the rest of us, more self-reliant, more heroic, and evidently also more immune, even to non-human forms of life. If we were merely jaded, the entire affair would appear only as an ongoing cliché, the evil state making yet more demands upon freedom-loving individuals.

            Not only is this dull it is also dimwitted. One, no member of mass society can claim to be free in this way. Our individual freedom in the public realm is immensely limited, simply because of the existence of others. Respecting this is in fact an act of free will and a recognition of it as a principle of human life, as in doing so, we grant the freedom of others to also reassure us of our human status. To do otherwise is to set oneself apart from one’s fellows, however and otherwise strange they may be, and claim that only a certain few should be ‘free’ and the rest of us can go to the wall. Two, if there truly is a serious concern about civil liberties that too is addressed by not by making exceptions but by giving the other the courtesy to live with the best chance of being unassailed by health concerns. Freedom, in its ethical essence, consists of being a vehicle for the freedom of others.

            That the State must demand this of us can only be put down our own lack of ethical awareness. But organizing a symptom of such interaction amongst citizens is not the same as defining what freedom is or is not. A mask is metaphoric also in this way; it does not pretend to be the reality of mass society, only its appearance; anonymous and impersonal, generally non-responsible and always flirting with authoritarianism. The reality of our existence remains, as ever, within our own conscience. No decisions are being taken from us. When I forget my mask in my car on the way to the grocery store I duly return and retrieve it. I have done so uncounted times already as we are creatures of daily habit. Why I do so is another matter. I want to be one momentary vehicle for the freedom of the other. I do not want to ‘set an example’, ‘toe the line’, mock the other or chide her for her own neglect. And I do not desire to make myself mysterious; indeed, I am the less so because others observe my action as consistent with the otiose demands of the day. I have nothing to hide in wearing a mask, in the same way I might wear clothes, or that I might drive defensively, or that I limit my glance at an ‘attractive’ woman to a good-natured and discreet one-off. Perhaps I could do yet more to this last regard and many others, but the mask-wearing should be seen in the same light as all the other trifling things we do to make life easier and to let others know that we’re on their side no matter how ludicrous the effect.

            Freedom is itself a modern conception. One cannot imagine that modernity turns its back on its own native child. It is true that this birth, so cherished, has not lived up to its expectations, but what child does? Freedom is such a recent idea that one cannot expect it to manifest its historical genius overnight and over against the countless eons within which even its herald could not exist. I would suggest that anyone who has doubts about authority and feels his freedom impinged upon examine the critical threshold over which conformity becomes truly dangerous. I’d also like to say, ‘I’ll let you know’, but in fact each of us is charged with the task of confronting authority at every turn. It’s only the professional job of the thinker to do so; more profoundly, it is the birthright of all human beings. More than this, it is the working side of human freedom, which is absolutely not a given, as is the State, and which can only be made real through our being’s resoluteness, its being-ahead, and its receptivity to the call of conscience. Freedom, like history more widely, is both a gift and a task. The unmasked man of resistance in reality resists the work necessary for freedom to become authentic. Only in this authenticity can we in turn unmask any fraudulent attempt at truth, the enforced freedoms of institutions, for instance, or more personally, the beliefs we imagine overtake those same institutions, almost all of which arose in ages wherein human freedom was non-existent. The unimpressive irony of the anti-mask associates betrays its lack of historical consciousness precisely along these lines; that it seeks freedom from modern authority through the use of older and likely imaginary authorities that would, if left unconstrained, demolish every last bit of human freedom we have painstakingly attained over the past four centuries. Thus the mask I wear protects me from far more than just a virus.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Learning how to be Properly Anxious

Learning How to be Properly Anxious

Anxiety proper is part of our core being, just as is care, resoluteness, and the ‘being-ahead’ which orients us to the future and our own singular finitude. It must be separated from anxieties, plural, which have to do with the concerns of the day. It is an alert mechanism, can initiate the call of conscience, and mediates between the unconscious surreal language of dreams and the like and our conscious self-understanding. It is the personal ‘effectiveness’ of historical consciousness insofar as it can be relied upon to make us more aware of our present situation.

Just as an existential analysis prefers the present in understanding the state of being, the consciousness of ‘Dasein’ – being-there or being-in-the-world –  and its possible entanglements, so does any phenomenology of the altered perceptions anxieties, remorsefulness, and nostalgia brings about within Dasein. But what is the present, after all? It cannot be summed explicitly, for any attempt to do so, somewhat proverbially, takes us into the realm of reflection upon something that has already occurred. Danto suggests that we live in a ‘posthistorical’ period because we no longer possess a ‘narrative of the present’ (cf. 1993:138), but I think also in part this sensibility subsists because of a sensitivity we maintain regarding the ‘just before’ or the beforehand. Such a sensitivity is also ironically present and maintains its presence in part because of the prevalence of both anxieties and nostalgias in our social world. Not enough remorse, to be sure, but otherwise a fair display of remorsefulness, for the benefit of others and the looking-glass selfhood. If anxieties are distractions, they at least have the merit of drawing our attention to an ad hoc concernfulness which might lead to the more authentic variety. But nostalgia is just plain ugly. Even so, just as there may be no beauty to be discovered either by science or philosophy, (cf. Heidegger 1992:152 [1925]), we cannot simply rest with such a casual judgment upon what appears as its opposite. And if the social world is often ugly, the world itself is not. Nor is it, as the supposedly heroic thinker or scientist  might imagine, ‘apathetic’ (cf. Binswanger 1963:171). Though Lucas speaks here of the lost moments of ‘personalist idealism’, including most famously that of Lotze, it is in principle better to have one’s thought ‘examined and refuted’ rather than simply fading away to be mentioned only in arcane and advanced histories of one’s respective vocation (cf. 1993:112). This kind of apathy we can ill afford. Better to restate and defend the idea that “…all modes of human existence and experience believe they are apprehending, something of the reality of being, in the sense of truth, and do so, indeed, in accordance with their own proper ‘forms of reason’, which are not replaceable by or translatable into other forms.” (Binswanger, loc. cit:173, italics the text’s). Binswanger is lauded by Fromm-Reichmann, who states that the former applauds the ‘constructive aspect of anxiety’, and the ‘tension aroused’ in a person who is determined therefore and thereby to ‘face the task set by the universe’, the universal task and the ‘action’ that is called forth by it (1960:139 [1955]). This is itself resoluteness guided by care. It is not only authentic to the Dasein it is how Dasein must needs ‘apprehend’ the world. One must beware the ‘temporalization of counterconcepts’ so that one does not ‘abolish’ otherness (cf. Koselleck 1985:165 [1969]), and phenomenology is not immune to such ‘temporal loading’ in its exploration of the reciprocity of perspectives. It may also be the case that entropy itself, seemingly non-reciprocating and ‘one-way’ is neither isolated or of course, ‘perpetual’ (cf. Horwich 1988:65). Nostalgia attempts to arrest entropy inasmuch as it desires to do the same for history. Remorse does so in a more ’subjective’ manner, whilst everyday anxiety disregards the temporality of the act and thus hamstrings our own ability to both react and to take the kind of action resolute being must engage in.

But all of this is given the lie by an examination of our shared condition and the experience thereof and therein. Part of our existence is ‘strange’, is even strangeness itself, since we are the sole creature known to have lost our ‘nature’, in both the sense that we are no longer apart of the wider natural realm as well as seemingly having departed from any sense that we can come home to ourselves in a manner bereft of culture or cultures. As Puech suggests, the presence of this sense of Ungeheuer tells us that we have not always been what we are at present (cf. 1957:73 [1951]). But what is revealed by this disconnect is our ability to ‘have conscience’, to ‘choose the presupposition of being of itself’, or more simply, ‘choose itself’ (cf. Heidegger, loc. cit:319). Running along towards death, this ‘forerunning’ is in fact “…the choice of willing to have conscience.” (ibid). This is a momentous discovery. Not only does it allow human reason to engage in itself, it contravenes and stands against all forms of entanglement and regression. Its ‘care’ does not stand for it, and thus it becomes resolute. It may not be “…the final trace of the ontological proof of God…” (Adorno, op. cit:133), but it most certainly is the core of being human as well as the ethical essence of becoming humane. The call of conscience is a reveille that enacts Anxiety proper. We do not at once care, but we can do so given the Aufklärung that is at once an enlightenment. Just as all great art begins in scandal, so “The law of scandal answers the law of the ‘false consciousness’.” (Ricoeur, op. cit:281). The scandal of art, of thought, even its evil, according to convention at least, must be present as a manifestation of Anxiety proper and as a bulwark, chiding, mocking, satiring, but most of all, critiquing, anything that would backslide into a regressed state; nostalgia, remorsefulness or regretfulness, and the decoy of anxieties. It too does not rest with a pedigree that culminates in an origin myth. Archaeology exposes what is left of the truth of things, both psychoanalytically if taken within the fullest light of the recent, as well as more literally; the history of humanity as buried but still grounded nonetheless. These spaces, subterranean and occlusive, are indeed what contemporary art, in all of its scandal, represents: “If modern art is characterized by the disintegration of external reality and an activation of the transpersonal psychic world, it becomes understandable that the artist should feel a compulsion to depict the powers in their own realm…” (Neumann 1957:31 [1950]). This is a kind of externalized ‘disposition’, a finding of Dasein in its own being and in its ‘own there’ (cf. Heidegger, loc. cit:255). The psychic realm is often unobservable in any direct fashion. Aside from jokes and linguistic ‘slips’, dreams known only to the sleeper, and other faux pas, art is the most potent expression of a shared subjectivity which has overcome the bonds of an also shared subjection. In literature, the new mythos evolves in a similar manner: “Once the hero is no longer an innocent child, but a young adult fighting for values not yet socially accepted, the plot can finally dispense of its fairy-tale-judicial framework.” (Moretti 1987:215). Such values can of course ‘become nonsense and even outrage’, “…but it also forces us to seek a new meaning, to revive our scale of values.” (Dardel 1960:587 [1958]). This is, by definition, the necessary counterpunch to any form of regression: “…that the experience of loss of self and loss of the sense of subject-object relations is a loss of a certain kind of anxiety generated self-consciousness; it is a creative rather than a regressive movement.” (Fingarette 1960:576 [1958]). This is obviously more than the acceptance and even slight fatalism suggested by Shaw’s famous quip regarding ‘making the family skeletons dance’ (cf. Erikson, op. cit:41). In fact “It is not an anxious interrogation on our discouraging historicity, on our way of living and sliding along in time, but rather a reply to this ‘historical’ condition – a reply through the choice of history…” (Ricoeur, op. cit:25).

The outcome of this ‘choice’ is crucial, for we can choose an end due to the wrong means, or one can reverse the two of them, or yet engage in tasks that make them seem co-extant or even identical. Unethical means are said to ethically affect the end, as well as perhaps more logistically, effect it. But unethical ends that look like means are surely the more dangerous: “One wants to break free of the past: rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.” (Adorno 1998:89 [1963]). So the hero, the being who is still young but may be socially considered an adult even so, must not only root out what is hidden in her inherited world, but must hide herself within that world as if it were both cloak and cape at once. The ‘when and how’ of means and ends within this quest may not even be visionary or epic, allegorical or mythic, or all of these at once. They may exact their truth of both departure and terminus in the smallest moments of self-realization, of a Dasein which cares with each step of its being. There will always be resistance, but most heroic quests do not involve the ‘Worldcraft’ of a total transfiguration. And if it is in the very ‘nature of crises’ to go unresolved, at least for an indeterminate amount of time, what cannot be predicted as a future outcome knows still that such a crisis will itself end, one way or another. (cf. Koselleck 1988:127 [1959]). And we also know that “In the form of memory and hope, for example, past and future consist in the fact that something other than natural change takes place in the now, namely, reflection.” (Lampert 2012:87). And finally, as Wood reminds us, though judgments may emanate out of both recollection and retrospection, the ‘horizon they celebrate is that of the future’ (1989:89). We have in fact overcome something, mostly ourselves, no doubt, but also a piece of the world of action and the world that has engaged us to ourselves engage in inertia-defying action. Our heroine may make a fool of herself during her quest, and this is indeed inevitable, but its necessity rests as well upon the perception of the others to whom she must communicate the new tables of value: “The spontaneous, unreflecting attitude of the young fool enables him to maintain himself in the heart (center) of time.” (Wilhelm 1957:222 [1950]). Certainly, one must ‘accept one’s life’ in order to exercise a ‘genuine freedom in the present’ (cf. Shabad, op. cit:124), but equally so, the ‘anxiety about remaining normal’ must be overcome, overleapt, even transcended (cf. Canguilhem, op. cit:286). Indeed, “The menace of disease is one of the components of health.” (ibid:287). For a society, the menace of insurrection, subversion, scandal and yes, even evil, are necessary features that youth, especially, bring to the historicity and facticity alike of both being and world. The ‘sociality’ of this mediative limen, that which must be crossed – in the sense of ‘no crossing at this point’ versus the heroine’s ‘don’t tread on me’ – is a fulfillment on the order of the momentous forerunning.

Dasein, before its own completion, has itself completed the death of an aspect of its world (cf. Heidegger 1962:288 [1927]). It is specifically through such heroic deeds that the Dasein becomes ‘ripe before its death’ (ibid). It is ontologically the case that ‘No one can take the Other’s dying from him’ (ibid:284). Why would we care to? The hero ‘dies’ before ‘his time’ in this way. He has taken his own death and run into it well before the horizon of the future has made its final approach. This is, subjectively, a scandal, but objectively, so to speak, an evil. It is the ‘art of dying’, the celebration of life at its most ripe. This fruit is sweet beyond words, and no aftertaste lingers to sully its sweetness. Since Dasein’s only ‘experience with death’ is as a ‘Being with Others’, (cf. ibid:281), this is ‘objectively’ the case for Dasein as well. But this is still not an experience of one’s ownmost death and can never be. To experience this one must become the hero first, to live as Anxiety and as the apprehending, while maintaining a disentangled being, for of course, the whole impetus to scandalous revolution and thence transfiguration is the realization that one is a prisoner, a slave, a servant, a maiden. It is a human realization because slavery is a human institution, a way of organizing our relationships and no one else’s. Just so, the ‘false consciousness’ that pervades species slavery is answered by ‘the law’ of a scandal that appears evil. But in fact it is beyond both good and evil at once, for it has acted consciously, perhaps for the first time: “Truth does not emanate from ‘the nature of things’; it requires a decree of the mind, a decision about life that runs a risk in order to partake of the truth.” (Dardel, op. cit:591). This risking is not only apparent in hermeneutically inclined dialogue, but in every ‘having of’ a new experience in an equally hermeneutic sense. The newness of this experience is a microcosm of revolution, just as every thought enacted and reflected outside the boundedness of the conventional and the slavish sensitivity to change is also radical to what has been. Anxiety proper overtakes anxieties plural, and the remorse momentarily present at the loss of the old life is itself overcome by resoluteness. There is no turning back, but there is also no need to do so. It is the very essence of the human adventure to leave all things behind it and to engage in all things that come to it, no matter their character. Only through this does the human character itself emerge and make the history which is its own. Here, the last word belongs appropriately to Kierkegaard (op. cit:255) himself: “I will say this is an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing to anxiety. Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books in ethics, education, social philosophy and social psychology, religion and aesthetics.