Was ist Entzauberung?

Was ist Entzauberung? (What is ‘Disenchantment’?)

            One of Max Weber’s most famous statements declares that modernity’s chief experiential hallmark is its disenchantedness. This is a state of being which differs in essential ways from its predecessors, both historical and prehistorical. The ‘disenchantment of the world’ is a process by which the magical quality of a worldview in itself is transformed, as if the mystical transmutations touted by alchemy had been simply reversed. This reversal is, however, only the surface tension atop the fluids of contrasting discourses, for a mere reversal connotes a retreat, even a reversion. For Weber, the relationship between outlook and worldview is personalized in modernity, most especially in religion. It is Protestantism specifically that carries the vanguard of this personalization, even as the rest of the world around it became more depersonalized. At first, one would imagine that it is this latter effect alone which contributes to disenchantment, but in fact it is both, and in tandem. One the one hand, the world takes on an anonymous hue, while the personal life begins to craft its own enchantedness. From personal fable to even the ‘dreaded hobby’, as Adorno referred to it, in our time it is up to the individual not only to construct his personhood, but to provide herself with meaningfulness.

            Meaning in itself has always been the purview of culture, not person. In premodern social contexts, the argument concerning Entzauberung suggests that there was no other level or form associated with fulfillment, in part because the very concept of the individuated person had not completely gelled. For premoderns, Augustinian subjectivity, known throughout by Godhead and housed in a being shot through with God Himself as imago dei, was perhaps the most radical form of individuation. Ours was a magical vessel set upon the surface of equally magical depths, the ‘ocean of being’, as Peter Gabriel, for one, might image. But meaningfulness was not a distinct character of that being, or possession thereof and therein. To understand something was to know its relation to creation, and although the ‘great chain of being’ proved to be a phrase and a conception portable to modernity – evolution does not obviate creation, but merely makes it more prescient of its outcomes – its premodern caste was made manifest through the divine autograph, in what Foucault has referred to as the ‘prose of the world’.

            Meaning was thus the world in its presence, meaningfulness was the ‘why’ of that world; its purpose and its intent, to be revealed upon the apocalypse. Neither could be said to be remotely personal, and even insofar as one’s character and actions, one’s ‘faith and works’ would determine, if not predetermine, one’s ultimate fate in the revelatory soteriology of a religion of grace, forgiveness and salvation were still to be earned. This edge of the new ethics grew increasingly sharp with the Reformation; from now on, the person as an individual was to be responsible for their own faith. Thus the personalization of religion could proceed apace, while at the same time, the world was relieved of its enchanted quality. No longer could the hand of God be read off that world as signage, symbolic or hermeneutic. Instead, we moderns place a more rational faith in systems of signs themselves, and are skeptical of the symbolic in all of its remaining moments. And whether these residues are remanential only is an open question, for those who read too much into the world could be diagnosed as merely schizo-affective rather than as visionary.

            If we rewind to the point of departure, the context wherein there was instantiated a metaphysical change, definitions of meaning and meaningfulness following along afterward, what can be observed is a conflation between human institution and Godhead, between longevity and infinity, and between luxury and divinity. The Roman church had, over a millennia, taken upon itself the responsibility for grace, while in so doing, granted itself a monopoly upon same. That one would object to this, at least in Western Europe, was generally unimaginable, though ‘folk Catholicisms’ existed long before the era of conquest. We see these phenomena specifically in Scandinavia and in Iberia, and there is yet some question as to how much of the pre-Columbian syncretisms of Catholicism were homegrown in Meso-American and elsewhere, and how much were in fact simply imported directly from the Iberian peninsula having been extant there for some centuries, even if driven into discreet enclaves by the Moorish presence. However this may have been, the model for later personalization does not arrive abruptly in 1517 alone. Even if there was but one God, he had many arrows in His quiver. The expansive sensibilities of the religious manifests of second stage Agrarian metaphysics; Buddhism, Christianity, Islam – the worldviews that introduced ethics to the world and as well, personhood – turned outward only when their once interiors began to foment dissent. It is not an historical coincidence that Europe, for one, sought the rest of the world at the same moment as the schism in belief was made official and became institutional. A religion must have believers in order to survive. Losing half of Europe meant that new franchises needed to be established. A competition between Catholic and Protestant imperialisms thus ensued, and within this, the syncretistic phenomenon were repeated, now on a global scale.

            But there is a deeper reason at work here, and that is: a structural division in any worldview shows not only a loss of faith in the reigning institution of religion, but also a change of heart regarding the source of its beliefs. If the church were part of the world alone, that same world held within it contrasting signatories, human and divine, which thence gives forth the diabolic in their own competing claims. What once was magic might be turned to sorcery. What once was sidereal may in fact be merely real. In religion do we find the first consideration, in science, the second. The church was once the rampart of magic alone, the priest the latter-day magician. This vehicular alchemy was pronounced first by Moses himself, trained in Egyptian magic by the pyramidal priesthood, later outmatching it, providing the grounds for the once Akhenatonites now Hebrews to journey to a new homeland. By the late Middle Ages, however, magic had already given in to the manipulation associated with the sorcerer who, having always been an outsider, sought through his superior use of enchantedness, to gain purchase within official quarters, just as Satan’s mission was to regain Heaven and reorder it to his own less scrupulous affairs. In part, we see the personalization of magic in the troubador’s poetic discourse, the idea of courtly love and personal romance, rather than that merely personified in antique allegorical figures. The ‘love potion’ motif also begins here, and was it not fitting that it was  French fashion revolutionary who resuscitated this ‘scent-sibility’ in Qabalistically numbered alchemical parfums.

            If sorcery could have been seen as the proverbial ‘left hand of God’, His ‘darker materials’, and so on, by definition it could not occupy the lighted space of institutional, or institutionalized, being. Its fuller presence within the interior of grace could only lead to disenchantedness, which today is our common lot. We are very aware of the corruption of political institutions and organizations alike, the success of those who cheat not merely at games but somehow also at life, and the loopholes, legal or otherwise, which inhabit the detailed deviltries of policy and policing, of schools and schooling, of familiality and family as well as others. Some of us have reacted to this present context by instigating nostalgia in lieu of authentic magic, but this is a dead end, as Weber himself recognized. For the fin de siecle thinkers, only art could provide the outlet for a human being, otherwise historical through and through, to generate meaningfulness in the face of the abyssal void. This sense was particularly evident in Freud, and even he was unsure of art’s long-term ability to provide a niche of enchanted existence. If science has conquered much of the discursive territory religion used to rule, it is art that has proven to be a more essential iconoclast, since it has taken up the task of replacing divine grace itself with an aesthetic subjectivity which ‘glimpses the shared soul’.

            This oversoul has itself become humanized, just as our individual participation in it has become personalized. Attending a concert or taking in a gallery showing does not make us a community. Just as politics fails to unite us, modern aesthetics reaches into our consciousness in order to scandalize it in its too-complacent relationship with the normative. In that, it is deserving of all of our efforts, but at the same time, unless this critical stance is itself able to construct something meaningfully novel and generative of community in the face of anonymous and rationalized relationships, however ‘interpersonal’ or even intimate they may be, then we are at an historical loss whose absence of meaning may well be subject to latter-day sorcery. And if politics may be safely divorced from morality, it cannot be so from ethics. Correspondingly, belief may be separated from aesthetics proper, but it cannot lose the quality of enchantedness now primarily associated with art. And while art is still not life as lived, it is nevertheless life in one of its ideal formulations; that which transcends the moment and thus reveals its history.

            So, while Entzauberung has been the default of modern culture for some centuries, it is equally clear that sorcery, the darker magic of manipulation, has survived, and even flourished, the more disenchanted we become. For in Weber’s argument there is a subtext: the world’s loss of magical quality begins with our disenchantedness at its worldly magus; that is, we ourselves. We doubt our ability to make meaningful remaining meanings because we are taught nothing of the hermeneutic in our education. ‘Interpretation’ is rather something to be avoided, we claim, because all it does is foster conflict. Yet since there cannot be, in the work of existence, one true meaning shared by all, a reactionary sectarianism promotes an anti-hermeneutic soteriology. But it is hardly the sole instance of Babel to this regard. Governments self-promote an official truth, the schools a pedagogic one, the family one based on personal loyalty to status-authority alone, and even science may be guilty of overstating its paradigms, noting that while its methods are open-ended and include interpretation, its results, once evidenced, are the less so. Science, as the historically favored child of religion, has never quite been able to rise above its original kinship to this regard.

            Even so, if it is art that engages us with otherwise scandalous, even evil, insights, exposing our moral hypocrisies and our ethical heresies alike, it is science which in turn reveals cosmic wonders seemingly as infinite as was the premodern idea of creation. And even if demographically it is the case that the vast majority of sectarians have been culturally divorced from both art and science and thus have had to cast round for meaning in the fearful undergrowth of human hope and dream, the more noble instantiations of modernity’s self-made freedoms are nevertheless available to all. That one must approach both art and science with the lingering overtones of magic and sorcery respectively, does contain a challenge to each of us as persons. We experience wonder now as an unsure sign of re-enchantment, in art and through science, but we must do so in the absence of a community which can itself agree on what meanings these wonders denote. In our uncertain certainty that we have at all a future, the will to life demands a magic that will overcome human finitude, and receives in turn only a sorcery which distends existence in various ways. To recognize our historical condition as one in which magic is itself effable and sorcery only nostalgic is to begin to separate disenchantment, which is of a world made into ratios and not necessarily understood rationally, and disenchantedness, which is not of the world at all, resting instead in the heart of the overly personalized meaning of an overtly rationalized human life.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, aesthetics, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Reason Radical, Rationality Revolutionary

Reason Radical, Rationality Revolutionary (Is thinking, after all, abnormative?)

            When are we called upon to think? Or casual idioms are suggestive: ‘thinking things through’ is about following a thread to its end, but one that is centered around things; both the things of this world, which would include objects and objectives, as well as relations between and amongst persons. Such ‘worldly’ things demand an utmost pragmatism; the ability to consider only our conduct in that same world. Or take ‘think about it’, a hortatory device in turn demanding of us to pause for a moment and consider potential alternatives. While generally handy, there is still the presence of the ‘it’, once again, the thing, about which we are supposed to direct our fullest attentiveness. ‘Think before you speak’, an admonition usually levelled at children in all their as-yet not fully present sociality, as well attracts the mind to the dynamic between thought and world; one should marshal the former in complete service to the latter, but the latter as it is at present or as it has been known to be thus far. It is this world-as-it-is that presents to us a contrasting, even conflicting duet; on the one side, custom and tradition, on the other, what needs be done in the mutable day to day.

            Though the weight of what has been done directs our present-day action, tradition is not history. Very often, the two are in confrontation with one another. History is change, after all, tradition stasis, so the tired phrase ‘the dead weight of history’ is actually a misnomer; it is more truly referring to custom, that which we idealize as unchanging. If the definition of gender, say, is a current and apparently newsworthy example of how change conflicts with custom, history with morality, it is simply one of a myriad of possible exemplars of this type. Tradition proffers to us the act, history counters with action. At once we are compelled to work in the world, all the while knowing that the vast majority of it is not of our making. The world is not the result of our work alone. Further, the world itself ‘works’, gets along, moves in an expected manner, in part through forces which seem bereft of humanity. The world, in short, worlds itself, as Heidegger as famously noted. In this worlding of itself, the once-shared and acted-in world takes on its own mantle, one of anonymous rather than eponymous movement.

            In between human institutions, which have their own air of aloofness about them, atmospheres slightly alienating within which we are nonetheless compelled to breathe, and a world which is, in both its nature and cosmic source, alien to us, we humans are called to live. History is our willing ally, so we are not alone in our projects, but history can only present its presence to us through living action, and these actions, taking place in the spaces of institutions such as family or school, the workplace or the State, in their turn can only be effective in their dialogue with history and thus in their confrontation with the tradition, through human reason. One says ‘human’ here because, traditionally, there was also a reason divine, and today, a natural ‘reason’ which the cosmos orders unto itself, as well as the basis upon which this order rests and evolves. Even so, reason divine or cosmic are more metaphors than anything else, and though reason may well be possessed by other, as yet unknown beings, for now it is the singular province of humanity alone.

            And so oft singularly ignored. Why, when we know that our very nature is change, that history begins with the advent of humanity, do we more shun this unique character in our daily lives and in our relationship to the customary than wield it? Perhaps we imagine that the leg-work has already been done, at least when it comes to those issues less profound. But this is a conflation between that which requires only recreation and that which demands creation. Alongside this, a confusion between pragmatism and practicality is present. The former, as stated, centers our attention upon the results of our conduct in the world, rather than the sources of our ability to think and act. It does not disdain metaphysics, but it brackets it, places it in a mental docket, something to be reflected upon in the slower hours, when one has accomplished the needs of the day. The latter does not recognize either the metaphysical or the pragmatic; it is solely concerned with the easiest thing, never the best thing. In this, practicality inevitably slides toward what has already been done, what has been done before, and thenceforth issues a further error; that what has been done is also the best way, even the only way to in fact carry onwards.

            Even our managerial phrase, ‘best practices’, reflects this series of errors. Knowing only the presence of what has been done, we seek to emulate what gives the appearance of working, indeed, of ‘managing’ the world as it comes to us. Certainly, there are situations in which nothing else can immediately be done. Time is always a factor, which is appropriate in the sense that time and history are neither the same nor are they generally friendly to one another. Time suggests presence alone, a lack of change, which is why we find the seeming redundancy ‘historical time’ in textbooks and like studies. Contexts that are defined precisely by deadlines commit us to a certain style of work in the world, even though this same world has nothing about it that is suggestive of an ending. It is this which troubles both the person interested in metaphysics as well as the practitioner, for whom whose practice is all in all. This lack of ending brooks alongside that of an absence of goal or even objective, so for our human projects, we must construct an end. We ask, ‘what are we doing this for?’, and this has a pragmatic ring to it. But we seldom ask ‘why are we doing this at all?’, a question that calls into play our very existence in relation to both tradition and history alike. It is the child who, using the first language, actually intends the second. ‘This for’ is uplifted into ‘this at all’ only to be placed back into itself by the adult, who interprets this nascent call to conscience as a mere mechanical error. Our answers to our youth orbit the practicality of worldly activity; all action tends to its center of gravity. ‘This is why’, we also mistakenly respond, for we are not, in fact, providing an answer to their ‘why’ but only a goal-orientation. In the same way, our ‘reason’ for acting the way in which we do, is not a product of human reason in general but rather a reaction to a worldly demand, as often as not unreasoned and certainly sometimes even unreasonable.

            Through this other series of conflations and casual speech, it is likely that we ourselves begin to distrust reason even as a conception. ‘Reason’ makes demands upon me that I might not be able to meet.’ Reason’ is what the boss gives me, why I’m even working at all. ‘Reason’ is a political paradiddle more promise than premise. ‘Reason’ forces me to ‘be reasonable’, ignore my feelings, put my own experience aside and consider others. I’m only human, we might respond with some bitterness. Just so, it is authentic reason which is, in part, guiding our affective reactions to these genuinely unreasonable articles of daily life. They are so because, for the most part, they themselves are unreasoned reactions to whatever is occurring in the moment, in people’s lives, within the social context at hand. Biography, at once an individuated history – we are as a microcosm, rewriting our own existence moving forward – as well as an anti-history – in this rewriting we confront history as it has been written – exerts an inordinate effect upon our reason, casting it down, as it were, and committing it to actions it would, by itself, never sanction. It is not truly a case of a contrast or yet conflict between ‘emotion’ and ‘reason’, but rather a self-misrecognition that these casually oppositional aspects of the human character exist only because our consciousness, in its very character, presents their union. We are beings with reasoned emotions, with emotive reason, and through this confluence, a third form emerges; that of rationality.

            Rationality is the agentive aspect of thought itself. If reason is radical, thinking is revolutionary insofar as action in the world changes that very world, and in a novel fashion. The profoundly radical exists, and can exist, only in our imaginations. Once we set to work in the world, we find that such a conception rapidly adjusts itself to the demands of the day. There is no shame in this as long as no sycophantic posture is inclined toward the tradition or the customary. The world worlds itself, once again, and we are thus placed in a dialogue with it, as well as with others-to-self. Nevertheless, what change we biographically promote carries its own weight into that collective, that which is exerted by a ‘spirit of the age’, the very one in which I myself exist, a child of my own time and no other. The aggregate of human action in the world is what we call history. Its source, at its best, is rationality; reason enacted, thought made work, presence becoming present. That this process is abnormative only exemplifies that at once history is a task as well as a gift; it is never automatic that we know how to think about this or, indeed, that knowing ‘what’ to do is, simply due to its mimesis of what has been done, is more easily accessed. Even so, thinking is human through and through. We cannot avoid it; we cannot lose it. If it seems that we are often in denial of this essential basis upon which our history and our persons rest, it is because there is a weakness in our ethical characters, and not in those existential.

            Rationality too is not bereft of emotion. It eases the discomfort of authentic action in the world. It makes our agency, in its most intimate motives, understandable to others, who may thence even share it. And though the customary carries undue weight, history undoes its burden, even casts it bodily aside. And history is only possible because of the action of reasoned emotion in the world. We never act ‘against the world’, but rather through our care, even love, of that world. Sometimes we may find ourselves mistaken; the world worlds itself after all. These are the moments when others can be unmistakably correct, and the sobriety of reason as well as the relief of emotion will help us recognize this. Ultimately, this contrasting dynamic, held within the chalice of reason becoming rationality, will allow us to equally become other than we have been, for we cannot expect the world to change if we are not first willing to change ourselves.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 57 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Moralist and the Moralizer

The Moralist and the Moralizer

            …no expedient could be more sophistical than that into which theodicy, in its desperate straits, has sometimes been driven, of trying to justify as conditions for ideal achievement the very conditions which make ideal achievement impossible. (Santayana, 1954:308 [1906]).

                To the unerring question, ‘why is there evil in a world created by the ultimate good?’, the moralist responds not so much by questioning the good in itself but rather the goodness of the good as a consistent and unerring force. To this same question the moralizer calls into question the goodness of the questioner herself. The odyssey of theodicy has these Scyllae bordering its passage and in the responses it receives these other Charybdes through which it must book and negotiate such passage. Today, we might adjust the assumptions that originally undertook to pose the problem of theodicy as a problem and do so in a number of ways at which both the antique moralist and moralizer alike would have trembled. But in so doing, we neither expunge the fact of evil ‘in’ the world nor do we solve the problem this elephantine presence continues to pose for us as a species.

            For moderns, theodicy presents the problem of evil in the world as part of that selfsame world rather than as an import, so to speak, from a specific source otherworldly and also maleficent. Evil, in a word, is possessed of no ulterior or exterior intentionality. One finds today the expression which defines evil as wholly human. Animals, by contrast, are incapable of it just as they know not the good. The moral animal which I am, however, finds the world divided but the more so an imbricated and puzzling mélange of good and evil, a chiaroscuro of light and dark. Indeed, ever since Aristotle attempted both the coinage of ethics and thus its separation from metaphysics, we have been aware of a discourse that works within this odd mix of passion and compassion. Not that the former is always given over to evil nor the latter immediately predisposed toward the good. No, the passions are by their own nature aloof to ethical entreaty, and where and when they are called to account by my existential conscience they are already transmuted into compassions. That we can feel both umbrage and empathy with the evildoer is pressing evidence which compels us to reconsider our own relationship with morality at large.

            That we are ourselves part of this ever-changing admixture of purposeless evil irrupting onto the calculated landscape of ordered goods may be cause for a gnawing despair. How then might we be trusted to confront evil? How then would we be sure we are capable of identifying the good, let alone acting upon it or toward it? In pre-modern echelons of morality, to be noble, to be honorable, to have integrity or even to be ‘holy’ would, by one’s essential character, orient oneself towards the good, while knowing that both the devil and death rode alongside us, the one casting us ever downward to eventually be greeted by the other. In my desperation I might well be tempted to regress in the direction of the older understanding of theodicy. I might wash my hands of the source of evil, implanted in the human soul as it was from without, while resolving to combat it nonetheless and to the best of my still only human abilities. This kind of old-world auto-assuagement actually has no authentic autochthony to it. Instead, it gratifies the ego by suggesting that I am in reality sourced at the least in a value-neutral nature, at best fully in the contrasting good, a flash of light marking the far end of the tunnel of mortal life. For morality, in one of its most specifically historical guises, is meant to assuage nothing less than mortality itself.

            The premodern sensibility calls also into question the idea of the ‘good death’. We do not see emblems of light and the good tarrying with those which threaten at every turn the uncoiled mortality of human beings in action, living in the world. Today, by contrast, we undertake to be the willing vehicles by which a good death can transpire. Assisted suicide for those whose quality of life has waned beyond the pale transform of both doing good in the world and feeling good about being alive, as well as celebrating life in wakeful wakes rather than morosely musing about death in the memorial, are two contemporary examples of how we have adjusted our relationship to both morality and mortality. Death is itself no longer to be seen as either an evil by its own nature nor as the end result of some evil originally unrelated to such an outcome. No, death is instead the completion of being, as in Heidegger, or the closing of a circle, or the utterly natural result of the breakdown of organicity and thus also its miraculous Gestalt of consciousness. And just as is nature neither good nor evil, so too cannot be its confines.

            So far so neutered. Hamlet, in his oft self-aggrandizing soliloquies, was prescient of both the later idea of youth in general – his character is a liminal one more suited to a Goethe perhaps than a Shakespeare – and the yet deeper insight that death in fact has no ‘sting’ to it. For the premodern audience at the Globe we might suggest that this absence was implying salvation, that Hamlet, for all his scheming, was essentially in the good, in the right, and even if his character was half-formed, it was yet forming in the right direction. But today we would offer a different reading: death has no sting because it inherently has no meaning beyond itself. The sting which might have singed the soul of the premodern personage has been dislocated, removed from the weft of essential Being and ported over to the warp of historical beings; for it is the living person who dies in our witness and thus death not only is dispossessed of its patent force, it also loses its own persona as a form of ultimate Being.

            This is one of modernity’s essential ironies: that a living death trumps any possible end, that the afterlife is a mere after-image of life as we know it and can know it. Furthermore, that living-on expresses the will to life, yes, but also speaks against immortality as a manner of degrading both the present and the future, the one as transient and the other as specious. At once mortality, having lost its edge and perhaps also a good bit of its edginess, commits immortality to a belated grave. And through all this once ran the skein of morality expressed in the active ethics of both the imagination enamored by the world of forms and the intellect equally harnessed to that of norms. In short, morality was understood to be as external as was both evil and also death. In altering the essence of the source material from the gold of the gods to the leaden leadership of human history we have practiced a kind of transmutation in reverse. A yet further irony, the Greek melancholia is thus preserved – the antique ages were more heroic and closer to divinity than are our own – but without any sense that this is a ‘bad thing’. To have preserved this other evaluation, which is more truly to be named a judgment, is to cast oneself as a mere moralizer. ‘The whole world’s going to hell’, when in reality certain regions are simply suffering from a momentous demographic shift for which they were ill-prepared. It is a long way, perhaps, from metaphysics to population pyramids, but even so, all of the noise one encounters whilst making the journey from one to the other, from the widest if oft imaginative sensibility to a specifically narrow moment in modern history, betrays the more essential movement away from identifying morality with not only the metaphysical – its sources, its motives, its telos – but as well betrays ourselves to the ‘world game’, which has already and always ‘blended us in’. Indeed, for the modern, to discover the means by which I am so blended is a goodly part of the process which Selbstverstandnis requires of each of us.

            If the moralist may now object that this is at best a sociology of selfhood with neither tendency nor intent at anything more profound, one can immediately agree but with the caveat that such an analytic device is still necessary to self understanding. Now the question arises whether or not it is as well sufficient for the fullest comprehension of what I am. In a world bereft not of morals per se but rather their deeper purpose – if anything, morality is in the way of modernity, a holdover from another age, much as communism theoretically seeks to expose capital as a direct and even auto-mimetic precursor to itself, differing only in its stubborn and staid grip on premodern symbolic forms – mine ownmost being as Dasein need not submit to any final judgment. No Horus awaits me, I must not balance my inexistent soul upon his scales, I need pass through no pearly gates, I need submit no vouchsafe against my sins, and I need no free pass to have lived with such sins in an earthly life so that I might continue to exist indefinitely by vindicated virtue of that unearthly. No, instead, morality is a mere means to a normative end, since ethics, by its own active essence, cannot be counted upon to shore up this or that rule. Oddly, ethics has become more ethereal, by and through its constant jurisprudence, than morality ever could claim to have been.

            Let us now return to the problem of theodicy, but recast in the pragmatism of what we take to be our own history and the more so our own time. Primordially, if there were religions at all, they were without Godhead of any kind. Animism is the most democratic of beliefs. All things contain spirit, the world is a spiritual vessel and thus by definition cannot be divorced from the soulful realm of the ether and of the immortal. In the Agrarian epochs, Gods appeared, invited, as were the Near Eastern mascots, Yahweh included, or uninvited, as in the Eastern pantheisms. The former held an historical, even human interest, while the latter maintained their divine aloofness to all things passing in this world and even the world itself. For the Easterner, the entire teleology of morals was to transcend the ego, so the Gods were understood as much abstracted role models, acting as forces of nature and of time, personified as beings which could not be, if taken as living entities. But in the West, the essential purpose was rather to preserve and ultimately exalt the ego, so our Gods took on the mantle of much more direct and anthropomorphic role models. The egotism of the West conquered the world but it also ended up subjugating itself to its own munificence. We are, in our latter-day modernity, slaves not to mortality as such but rather to all that which compels us to dwell in the cage of iron, velvet-gloved as our keepers may be.

            And would not the transcendentalist of the ‘orient’ murmur in his patent wisdom that such could be the only outcome of the exaltation of the ego? The flexible but yet unbreakable latticework with which we surround ourselves admits neither morals nor ethics, exudes neither good nor evil, and is overcome not by self-understanding alone nor yet by the non-rational. Indeed, it is this last which has entangled us, making us ripe for imprisonment by wholly rational means. The fear of mortality compels an overstatement of experience as vulgar Erlebnis; I must ‘pack in’ to my life as much as possible in the time allotted me. But such a fear, once assuaged and thence overcome by non-rational beliefs, can today be only irrational; it can accept no premodern succor nor can it be overcome, as yet, by hypermodern device. If morality attempted an ill-advised bulwark against history, its better selfhood was indeed historical, for through this interested presence, projected and extrapolated into Godhead in the West, experiential ethics was uplifted into a way of life. Erlebnis thus attained its more noble meaning: as experience in the service of self-understanding rather than as a series of happenstance adventures and misadventures. It is through morality alone that both the Quixotic and quotidian alike become principled and disciplined, and today we have no further need nor indeed justification in making our experience somehow ‘more’ than either, as if ‘packing it in’ could itself be extended to a yet other form of existence, shorn of mortality and morality the both.

            If then there could be a modern morality, its buttresses spring from Dasein’s experience of the world at large and larger than my ownmost being, rather than a self-absorbed contemplation of ‘why I exist’, or even why does the ‘I’ exist. For us, history and morality must come to trust one another without entirely ceding to ethics alone the adjudication of human experience. Morality and history generate knowledge from this Humean wellspring, while allowing ethics to convene and reconvene alongside and in front of their combined presence. Theoditical issues can only be confronted in such terms as these; neither good nor evil are ‘experiences’ that can be passed over without both subsequent analysis and evaluation. That they tinge the everyday without being irruptive to it is both disturbing on the one side – is evil truly normative and thus as structurally likely as is good? – and liberating on the other – good and evil are in fact wholly within my control and that of others like myself. For the modern West, inflated ego packed with mere experience is the greatest evil, history and morality transmuted into discourse, art and science, the greatest good. It remains to be seen if we can, as a culture and as Mitsein, come to terms with this jarring and unsettling contrast of both motive and outcome. That this challenge must be met brings morality, history, and ethics together in novel fashion. Perhaps the very lack of experience we ourselves bring to this opened space of thought and action will be propitious of a new understanding; one that recognizes the truer relations between nature, selfhood, lived time and judgment, all held within a world that is itself an impassive and impartial movement surpassing any and all human history and eschewing any universe of morality. What humanity is, over against this world beyond good and evil, can then be understood not as a countervailing force ranged in confrontation with nature but rather as a practice within that selfsame nature, and I a practitioner, replete with reason as the epitome of what that nature has proclaimed as its highest force.

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

Is Wholly Rational Action Realizable?

Is Wholly Rational Action Realizable?

This to you, who lives beyond my reach and ken

                        Yet I love thee as I would the one who strains for me alone

                        I cannot breast such love as my heart now and then

                        Breaks itself upon the shore that also crushes bone

                        No wonder you exult the air above, the night that is beyond men

                        And women both, and all those in between that set in stone

                        No longer will love be known as ever that

                        Extant between the fair and fairer seen

                        And I am but the herald of this wider, longer matte

                        Laying underneath all two-souled color been

                        These souls have given up their claim, their pat

                        Clamor against which I have plugged by ears atween

                        Enter thus! I both command and commend to thee

                        So that we may port your soul and souled asunder

                        Split as is the heavens by the lighted scree

                        Split as were my eyes and ears and lips by thunder

                        Such storms as these will ever question me

                        So I shall ne’er accept the loot of blunder

                        Enter thus, I beg you in loving supplication

                        With my tears, my sweat, my mucus, juice and blood alike

                        Even my offal, but not awful urination

                        Meant no disrespect but only that with I would strike

                        Down all who overlook our human situation

                        And to this I call you to return to us your endless Reich.

            In the quotidian of my life, I long for transcendence. Such are the days that have been that the days that will be are resented. But what of the days that might be? What of the moments that seem to uplift our consciousness into another kind of day altogether? What are their source? Can we conjure the magical from the mundane, the sacred from the profane, the very order of nature from the historic disorder of culture?

            In the verse, the speaker ‘begs’, calls attention to her ‘loving supplication’ which is surpliced over with all manner of bodily disjecta membra, not in the service of a guttural paean but rather to state that every aspect of her being is involved in the orison. But at first we are called to attend the place of the one who is called and is to be called. She herself is so distant, so removed from the day to day that her very reality is doubted. She is ‘beyond’ both my reach, my experience, and as such it is also implied that such a beyond is separated from the doings of both men and women alike. This object of desire must be a creature of the night air, a being who is thus never at risk of shipwreck, as the speaker tells of herself. And how then to bridge that chasm? Give birth to a higher form of love, a love hitherto unknown and even unknowable. This novel love will no longer hold ‘between the fair and fairer’, and within its embrace those whose souls were separate give over their patent claim to be mere individuals. No, here they are to be only one thing, and yet this is not yet real, which is why the speaker casts herself as merely a ‘herald’ and one who has had to ‘plug her ears’ against the divisive character of previous human relations. The speaker vows to not be either distracted by a base show of emotions, ‘split as were my eyes and ears and lips’, nor by even nature’s display of forces which seem as well to lie beyond the mundane sphere. She also cannot be bought by illusion, the ‘loot of blunder’. Finally, she returns to her own humanity and realizes that this higher love is in fact part of our shared birthright that in turn cannot be ‘overlooked’ and to which she commands the return of that eternal birthright and its ‘endless Reich’.

            Weber reminds us that any interpretation of human action in the world must call itself to attend to the fact that in each action there is a representation of something (‘The Nature of Social Action, 1922). And thus in each, there is also a herald, if you will, of the judgment of others upon not only how well I have represented this or that normative or superlative value but whether or not the value is itself worthy of my representation rather than one better, one lesser, or yet none at all. In calling across the ages to the thing that is most desired, be it a deity, a beloved friend, a kindred spirit long deceased, a work of art, we must first be more or less certain that how we value this ‘object’ is how we might imagine it valuing itself. What is the self-valuation of the object of desire? How does it, in other words, desire itself to be desired?

            The most common example of the disjunction of such a calling occurs when we fall in love with one who cannot love us in return, or will not. Though this seems an extremity of social action or perhaps better, a moment of social inaction or even non-action, it is nevertheless not an extramundane experience in any sense. Its very lack sabotages any sense that it could become ‘something’ more than a distant desire, or at best, the ‘one that got away’. What Weber refers to as a ‘binding normative force’ in this instance and like others acts to prevent action, places a limit upon our desires – they must be shared and specifically must be shared by the object in question – and brings into play a quasi-discursive challenge to the day to day sociality of human relations. This challenge is issued from ethics.

            The more amorphous the object – the divine, the natural, the cosmic, the aesthetic – the easier it is to overlook the ethical angle. Less vague are the dead. They were persons as we now are and yet are, but they are now not subject to personal desires. We might yet imagine they can respond to us through their works, of course. We are not, after all, impinging upon another person who is currently like ourselves or ever will be so again in the future. If we do so impinge upon him, he is more than likely long dead, far beyond our desire in any manner that would suggest an unethical stance. We might even ‘speak ill’ of him, in his unresponsive ‘state’ of being, and still do him no harm at all. This is one reason why a motion toward the transcendent is characterized by non-rational inclinations. In our impersonal ardor, we are ourselves removed from any responsibility towards a known ‘other’ who also lives and thus has her own life to live.

            Calling upon the non-human, the past, nature, deity or cosmos as itself a bastion of Being which is non-being, remits any obligation on our parts to take care of the other, to be concerned for her status or her being in the world-as-it-is. This apparently non-ethical distanciation is convenient for anyone who seeks to convince living others that his intentions are pure, noble, and untainted by personal or even personalist agenda. ‘God is on our side’ feels inclusive and even oddly warm. It is non-threatening, at least at first, because someone has issued forth a demand that entails both myself and a transcendental being, of whom I know next to nothing, and can know at best that its non-human character is also not subject to human desires. This too is reassuring, for then I might well imagine that judgment could only emanate from a human or at worst, an historical source. ‘Religion is society worshipping itself’, yes, I may quote to myself, but what of belief? What of spirit? What of that ‘two-souled colour’ that has been the case prior to the novel call for an unheard of union of souls?

            What the call to Being limits is our concernfulness for the living other. In its halcyon heraldry, transcendentally oriented orison cleaves the existential fabric that weaves beings together, in favor of contriving an ontological uplink that connects Being and beings in a manner that does vital disservice to both. Yet even in a ‘secularistic’ age, we have need of Being, and not only on our own terms. Being yet has a service to perform, and one about which there are several aspects; 1. It provides the model for rationality bereft of history; it is the ideal type upon which historical types are in counterpoint. 2. It is also a ‘role model’ for persons who are beings but who also occupy social roles which often conflict or are at best regularly strained in the face of one another; Being is unburdened of all roles and yet appears to possess a singular role, it is a form of imagination that owns its vocation rather than being owned by its labour. 3. It is a goal to which beings strive forward; it represents thus an ‘absolute value’ towards which rational action may be generally directed, and 4. Being retains its value as a manner in which to access, cross-culturally and across time, all of the human works, the works of beings, which have attempted to emulate it.

            So far we have enumerated the facets of the ultimate object of human desire and also have seen how this ‘customary’ dynamic informs both a commonplace call to another to perform a function for us as well as the uncommon calling to the Other. This one has found herself distant and distanciated not merely from myself but from the world and thus must be called to return. She returns though in altered form and one in which is likened to a selfsame other who in turn cannot exist without my presence; ‘yet I love thee as the one who strains for me alone’. The much vaunted ‘death of God’ as a mere prelude as well as a foreshadowing of the end of mankind is a rootsy manner of expressing the problem of the loss of Being in beings-as-they-are. For a phenomenology, this existentiality insists upon only existing and not therefore being at all. Not that our historical beings must instead possess a profound essentiality about them, as if only those of our own kind and time have realized their spiritual potential, their ethical apogee, or their aesthetic will. It is neither a question of placing existence ‘before’ essence as if the Cartesian ghost in the Mandevillian machine had been awakened by the gnawing patter of the mechanisms at hand. For historical beings, existence is in fact our essential state. Dasein only ‘completes itself’ in its ownmost death.

            I would thus suggest that any call to consciousness as either the modern gloss of deity or the post-modern guise of nature is premature. It not only presumes that what we know or what we can know of our own history is complete enough to have a stable and stamina-laden understanding of said consciousness, it also assumes that whatever is left over that we do not know or have yet to fully understand, including that of the collected works of many of our own recent thinkers, is all that is left to consciousness and therefore we have at least sketched its limits. I think we are mistaken on both points. Being as constructed from the history of consciousness alone forsakes the daily desires of myself and others which are never uplifted into either rational discourse or the ‘arational’ archive of human achievement. For we are mostly and daily kindred with the unknown soldiers of histories unwritten. We are beings without Being and yet we must be counted, and counted upon, in order for a history of consciousness to have taken shape and thence continually to redefine itself.

            Therefore within this limited context wholly rational action too is not only implausible, it may well be impossible. One, if Being has represented to itself an ideal rationality, then history has seen all such transient representation come and go. Belief in the abstract is not enough for a deity to exist upon. Two, Divinity is itself, as a characteristic of transcendental Being, a Parousia of Being-not, for it cannot claim to be the ideal if it itself sets upon any singular circumstance that history affords it, from the human perspective. Only its radical alien quality may make such a claim; one without history and without a history. And how much value could such a Being have? Similarly, and three, we as beings cannot be beholden to the singular, either in our transient selfhood to which accrues not only differing social roles but also serial and ongoing phases of life which too are quite different from one another. In this sense, Being is but the idealization of a human life once lived and, in the completion of Dasein’s existence alongside that life, an idealized hindsight that connects us once again with the ‘sidereal circle in which the gathering of souls commences’.

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

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

The Impersonal is not the Apolitical

            One could thus say that history is action in the realm of the imaginary, or even the spectacle that one gives oneself of an action. Conversely, action consults history, which teaches us, says Weber, certainly not what must be willed, but the true meaning of our volitions. (Merleau-Ponty, 1955:11).

                Recently the activist slogan ‘the personal is the political’ has become well known to anyone who has attempted to identify themselves and thus their actions with a cause. This ‘volition’, this being-for-something, has a number of meanings as well as manifestations. And it is to its own history – the act that has been and not the action which will be – that we must look to find the pedigree of interconnected meanings which have accrued to this or that sensibility regarding our actions in the present. Weber is the first to thoroughly understand this relationship, which originates as an horizon of expectations and associated historical lenses in Vico by 1725. For it is in the distinction between finite goals and absolute values that we discover both action and act in tandem and as mutually imbricated.

            Let us first examine our sense of what constitutes ‘the personal’. For the Greeks, the purely private person was termed the ‘idiot’, the one who turns his back upon not only his civic duties but sociality in general. We could, with perhaps a mere footnote, continue such a use of this term today. But other Greek terms are more expansive and collide more forcefully with our modern horizon of meaningful expectation. The person who flouts social custom and morality is the ‘moron’. Such a term is in scant use today, at least in polite circles, but its general meaning is well taken. Of course, yet more obscure now is the Greek’s term for the one who flouts the fates themselves; he is nothing less than the ‘hypermoron’. But we can safely dismiss this bold individual given the altered meaning of destiny in modernity. We do, however, still understand those who simply don’t seem to ‘get it’, whether the scene is civility, sociality, citizenship or yet domesticity or the work life, as being not merely abnormative culturally but also somehow beyond the social succor of mutual aid. ‘They don’t want to fit in’, is something we hear of such fellowmen, with the heavy ellipsis that we should, in our turn, feel no sympathy for them since, in their ‘moronic’ action they add to the stress and strain felt by the remainder of us who continue to labor for a sane society and a healthy humanity.

            At the same time, we are aware of the tension between the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, the person and the polis. It seems to us a perennial one but in fact it is scarcely three centuries old. The ‘sovereign’ individual of the Enlightenment remains a Western ideal, even though personal rights are either questioned or yet limited in many places globally. But even in the West, we are shy of declaring the fullest range of human rights to the singular self simply because no society could exist without some certain set of limitations placed upon that same selfhood. These boundaries are under constant scrutiny and have been found to be most mutable, for better or for worse. And since the individual cannot ever be entirely free of obligation to the group, another modern distinction has come to the fore; that between public and private.

            It is in Arendt that we find the deepest exposition of the relationships between the public life of a member of the polis and the privacy of that same person’s alternate domain. Mirroring in a kind of ‘material’ manner the much more ancient distinction between the life of contemplation and the life of action, the one today understood as personalist and even private – though not in the utter disregard for either the public life or its ‘action’ – and the other observed in the shared sphere of the ‘open space’ of the public. It is this further division between how others may or may not interact with the person who has committed her thoughts to the private sphere and equally been committed to her actions in the collective realm that gives us the impression that we have inevitably and necessarily divided ourselves into two patently differing parts. Psyche and Anthropos, soul and form, mind and body, person and persona and so on, all cleave to this contemporary sense – and is it not also a sensation? – that I am not one thing entire but rather two relatively discreet entities; my ‘truer’ self and what I show to the world.

            Certainly at this point it can be gainsaid that both such conceptions of the self are ‘true’ in that they have both validity – a conceptual forcefulness and sensibility that includes both fact and value – and veridicity – that it is convincing enough to generate a portion of our worldview or social reality. When we casually, but regularly, tell someone that ‘this is a personal matter’, we are speaking over the divide that tells between these two major aspects of modern selfhood. In due course, much of what may have been occluded comes to wider light, whether in politics or in biography. This tells us that the personal is time sensitive. Something overfull with meaning at one point in our lives may even become devoid of relevant meaning later on. Each of us, having lived long enough, will experience many such transitions, which in turn tell us that the apparently discreet division between private and public, personal and impersonal, is at the least quite mobile and its discretions are liquid. Both of these characteristics impinge on any sense that in principle, ‘the personal is the political’, that is, always is so.

            Clearly, in fact, it is not. Indeed, as vouchsafed by the vast majority of social media posts, what people take to be personal and yet are avidly interested in sharing with certain others is hardly political in nature and never will become so. Now one may argue, with Baudrillard for instance, that the oft perverse simulacra constructed by and through digital life is after all representative of a kind of politics, the oddly but fittingly also perverse ‘politics of the apolitical’, shall we say. This suggestion is not without merit, but it remains a distortion of the widely shared social meaning of that which the polis consists: the collective identity and obligation of a culture as made manifest by the members thereof. Insofar as digital pedantry documenting the innumerable and seemingly interminable quotidia of the daily round is neither collectively identified with – witness the digital cliques often in conflict with one another – nor is anyone obligated to pay any attention thereto, these ‘persona of personalism’ remain outside meaningful political thought and action alike.

            The same cannot be said for the impersonal. Let us now turn to this obverse concept. If the ‘personal’ cannot be either ‘idiocy’ or ‘publicity’, and we have suggested it cannot in principle and by definition as well be the political, the ‘impersonal’ appears to escape all of these limitations in one stroke. One, the impersonal is manifest not in individuals at all but rather in social institutions, such as the church, the state, and the modern state’s minions; the education system, the various governmental ministries, the civil service, and the military. This is not to say that the effects of the presence of such sets of institutions might not be personally felt by individuals, it is merely to state that the institutions themselves can never be thought of as either personal or private. The so-called ‘private sector’ remains public and impersonal no matter whether or not the state invests in it, and indeed in our time, most such organizations are ‘public/private’ hybrids, leading to a host of other conflicts, the most scandalous of which in any democracy is the two-tiered education system. In any case, the impersonal now appears to be larger than life, if such is only defined biographically or from the perspective of a smaller community of shared interest and action.

            For Weber, modern rational organizations were anonymous, both in that very sense of ‘being impersonal’ and in their freedom from individual suasion and thus also obligation. Such an institution was part of his ‘ideal types’ analysis, wherein absolute values were shunned and finite goals structured all action. The very notion of the ’act’, as both historical and visionary, the one providing a kind of testament to the other’s cosmogonical birth, could not be part of any rationally self-defining organization, whether ‘public’ or ‘private’ sector. Just so, the modern rational individual – who is both private and public and participates almost equally in both self-defining ‘sectors’ in the more base sense of where the money comes from and who has sanctioned access to it – finds herself possessed by finite goals and is placed at a fair distance from any vision of an absolute value. Peter Berger, following upon Weber, has reiterated that what used to be understood as cosmic in both scope and import has oddly become what is most intimate and personal for us today; the religious vision is perhaps only the most obvious example of this transfiguration of ideals. Today, one can hang one’s hat upon a personalist religious sensibility and this makes one all the more unique, the singular soldier of a Christianity that is about your soul and no other, for instance. In no other historically known period could this make any sense.

            Similarly, the impersonality of modern institutions, however they may depart from Weber’s ideal rationality and impunity from private interest, declaim their symbolic frontages as capable only within the realm of the cultural imaginary. That is, a state governs a people only insofar as it can convince the latter that it does not truly exist without them. In reality, modern government appears to exist in precisely this fashion, giving those who labor within it, elected or hired or appointed, the equally distanciated sense that though they are ‘public servants’, neither such a public, nor hence their service to it, in actuality exists.

            So if we take the personal to be the space wherein action is contemplated in the privacy of one’s own individual musings, wherein ‘projects of action’ are worked out in a speculative, ‘phantasmatic’ fashion, and within which one can decline any real social responsibility – thoughts are yet ‘free’, as is said – at once we must deny the activist’s ideal. Instead, the personal is not necessarily, not yet, or yet never, the political. But we have seen it is otherwise with the impersonal. Though it strives, in its most rational and ideal form, to be apolitical, in reality and in history it is ever cleaving to this or that politics of the day. This is especially the case in nations where the civil service occupies a great proportion of institutional roles, such as in education or governmentality or health care. Only in the judiciary may we expect a strenuous public disavowal of the political, even though, once again, we know that the laws of today and indeed, on the ground, how any such set of laws is actually enforced and upon whom, are very much political in their origin.

            What advantage does this discussion hold out for the individual who, on the one hand, must balance her private selfhood, her desires, her anxieties, her prostrate fears and visionary hopes, with her public persona and its singular ambitions, collective responsibilities, reciprocal obligations and loyalist duties, and on the other hand, that same person’s efforts to translate thought into action without ever the sense that such ensuing action be either complete or yet completely fulfilled in its intended meaning? I think first of all that a clarification of what is meant by the term ‘personal’ is to our advantage. One, we no longer need guard it with such stentorian status; the personal is mostly just that, undeserving of much consideration from others, and so mutable as to dislocate our too-pious loyalty thereto. At the same time, two, the impersonal is laid more open to a general critique, some of which must emanate from a personalist perspective – in that I am affected sometimes intimately by anonymous actions originating in impersonal spaces; the stock market is perhaps the most obvious but also egregious day-to-day example – and the remainder of which must hail from the hallows of history and as well advance from the actions of the culture at large. Three, if there is a dialectic at hand, it can only be envisioned not as some ‘life/work balance’, some other ‘financial freedom’, or yet an ‘holistic health’, to name a few casual catchphrases which likely construe a vulgar politics of their own. No, such an apex, such a synthesis, will only be achieved through the constant and consistent critical stance applied by an effective ethical consciousness that in itself has already understood itself as being neither personal nor political but rather historical through and through. For history is the answer to morality, the saboteur of ideology, the humanity in the organization, the humaneness in the individual. We are in our essence nothing other than historical beings, and our local divisions, our divided selfhoods, are within it once again united in concert within its deontological embrace.

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