Examining Rousseau’s Thoughts on the Significance of Children’s Tears

Crying is an infant’s native language, and tears are the syntax by which he first learns to articulate himself to the world.  At least, so much is true for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his groundbreaking thought experiment, Emile, attempts to give insight to the proper way of rearing a child to adulthood.  The significance of an infant’s tears is held to be most seminal in their early occurrences, as they will serve to determine the infant’s initial experience with a secondary person.  And, even more importantly, the reaction of the caretaker to these first cries will be the formative influence on the child’s future relations and expectations within society.

Infants are naturally subjective thinkers; having to learn about external objects and secondary persons through their repeated interactions with them.  The method by which all children eventually achieve an understanding of the other is through movement, or as Rousseau puts it, “It is only by movement that we learn that there are things which are not us, and it is only by our own movement that we acquire the idea of extension.”[1]  Nonetheless, this ability to use motion as a means to relate to our surroundings is a learned trait, hence the newborn infant suffers a great discomfort as he experiences a need to know and grasp the objects around him, but has to rely on others—constituting more exteriors he is also quite ignorant of—to satisfy this need.  The child is conflicted between the highly personal world he experiences, and the dependence he has for others to satisfy his needs; and “this is the source of children’s screams.”[2]  Tears are the words by which children make their needs intelligible to the world.  But because the infant is much closer to the nature of man, than the grown and corrupted adult, the language utilized is simple and basic, where all ills and discomforts are vocalized as pain.[3]  Although, Rousseau’s philosophy adamantly insists that man is a solitary being, self-sufficient by nature, here he does admit that in the earliest stages of life a person is in need of others for survival.  However, this apparent contradiction can be rectified by emphasizing the role self-preservation plays in Rousseau’s natural man.  An infant cries when he is in need of something, experiencing a specific discomfort, never to arbitrarily bond with his caretaker; his tears are an indication of a matter that he needs taken care of, not a want for pampered attention.  For if the latter was true it would stifle the solitary disposition of the newborn man.  A gross impossibility, since freedom is Rousseau’s man’s primary need.  Hence, it is not the cries of a child calling to satisfy his basic needs that set him on the path to social degradation, but the improper response rendered on to them by his misguided caretakers.

It is a natural phenomenon of modern childrearing to zealously fret over a child in order to prevent any harm from coming to him, only to cause him the greatest long-term harm conceivable in the process; a dependence on servitude, and an unnatural yearning for domination.  “As long as children find resistance only in things and never in wills, they will become neither rebellious nor irascible and will preserve their health better.”[4]  Unfortunately, this lesson is easily ignored, and children are nagged over under the false impression that providing for children’s needs entails accommodating their whims as a servant.  Rousseau urges on parents and caretakers to recognize the ills of this trend as a primary cause for the softening of societal children, in comparison to their more rural counterparts, and recognize how with every pampering, coddling, and needless fussing, a further step is taken to rob the child from becoming a wholly well-adjusted adult.  Tears originate as a means for children to communicate some legitimate distress they may have, but, “if one is not careful they soon become orders.”[5]  This is where man’s fall from the natural order starts.  Man has no need for the concept of servitude, either to serve or to be served, thus any implication to the contrary (including a constant yielding to his arbitrary wishes during infancy) immediately acts to take man away from his natural disposition.  Thus, it can be said that our entire notion of social relations is perverted because our caretaker’s lacked the patience to distinguish between our inherent needs for preservation and our acquired wants for dependence.

As stated previously, a child learns about his surroundings through movement, implying that he must be given the upmost freedom to roam and experience the environment around him.  Rousseau insists that exploration is natural for an infant, and gives the example of a child stretching out his hand to reach a far off object (page 66).  However, because he is incapable of estimating the distance of the object, his attempts to reach the object fail.  Now, the child will cry and scream in anger, not because he does not understand his own external relation to the distant object, but because he wants to will it to him through sheer force.  When such a situation arises the proper response is to ignore the child’s tears for obedience, as it will teach him immediately that he is not the master of those around him, nor can he command inanimate objects to obey him.  This sort of disciplining is also important as it will eventually lead to a general decrease in the amount of tears as children become “accustomed to shed them only when pain forces them to do so.”[6]

Although tears are clearly a natural mode of communication for children, the ease by which they are misused, and the potential dangers this leads to if the behavior is left uncorrected, is the formative cause of society’s degradation.  Rousseau argues that children’s dependency on other’s to satisfy their needs is a weakness, aggravated by the servile response of their caretakers, and that in this weakness “is subsequently born the idea of empire and domination.”[7]  When children learn from early on that their every whim can be satisfied through fury, rage, and temper tantrums, a dangerous precedent is set for how they will interact with the world as adults; they will grow accustomed to the servitude bestowed on them in infancy and through it develop an unrelenting demand for submission from their fellow man, who may or may not reciprocate kindly to the demand.  A struggle for power is thereby established amongst individual persons, each vying for dominance over the other, which will reflect in the despotic mores of society.  And man’s natural solitary state will be lost to the vices of anger, conceit, control, and power; otherwise known as the despicable world we are living in.

Emile is not meant by Rousseau to be a serious manual on how to rear a child from infancy to healthy adulthood, it is a philosophical reflection on how man has fallen to the state he is in, and how this fall begins with the first sounds we make.  Like man, the tears of children start out innocent, used to satisfy a natural need, but excess indulgence leads to the corruption of this natural feature, thus allowing man’s ominous passions to arise from it.  These passions corrupt precisely because they are unnatural, and due to the fact that society is built on these unnatural responses, the degradation is further agitated by each subsequent generation that is nurtured in the civilized fronts of existence.  And if the dilemma is to be remedied, then it must begin at the first whimpering made.


[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile, translated by Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1979), p. 64.

[2] Rousseau, p. 64.

[3] Rousseau, p. 65.

[4] Rousseau, p. 66.

[5] Rousseau, p. 66.

[6] Rousseau, p. 69.

[7] Rousseau, p. 66.

Synod of Whitby, and the History of Dating Easter in Western Christianity

In the 7th century, British Christianity was defined by two differing models of the same religion:  The Church of Iona, founded by St. Columba on the distinctly Irish traditions of Celtic Christianity, and the Church of Canterbury, which followed the guidance of Rome.  Despite being confined to separate regions of the British Isles, the two churches came into direct conflict in a highly unstable region that was prone to usurpation and political strive, called Northumbria.  The issue was a simple one, but immensely divisive for the competing churches, as it concerned the most important Christian traditions: how to properly date Easter.  Both had come up with their own methods to date the feast, and the Christian church in Britain was heading towards crises as the Celtic churches in Northumbria refused to concede to Roman customs.  The dispute ran deeper than a mere quarrel over when it was proper to feast or fast in celebration of the Christian faith, beneath this was a persistent social divide between the conservative mores of a dwindling generation being challenged by a relentless call for modernity from the evermore increasing youth.

Fearing a schism, and perhaps sensing a political opportunity, King Oswiu of Northumbria called a synod (a church council) at Whitby to resolve the conflict.  Both sides were to present their case for Oswiu to consider before passing the final judgment on which practice would be observed in the kingdom.  The Synod of Whitby was a defining moment in the history of British Christianity; its inception lies in a combination of religious and political factors that must be examined in order to gain a concrete understanding of the historical significant, and its role in creating a unified church, and more importantly a unified people.

 

Before the Conflict: the End and Reinstitution of Roman Christianity in Britain

The first decade of the 5th century was the last for the Western half of the Roman Empire.  In Britain this meant that roughly 470 years of Roman authoritative control was over, taking with it any established Romano-British identity that may have been formed by the native inhabitants of the British Isle.  What followed is a remarkable abandonment of Roman customs and traditions, as the native Britons no longer viewed themselves as being part of the Empire.

Amongst the discarded traditions was Christianity, which had been imported to Britain from Rome in the early 3rd century but apparently—outside of the higher Romanized sectors of society—never became fully integrated into the daily lives of the common villagers (hence how the Latin word for villager, paganus, eventually came to mean the pejorative pagan).

The exact process of how Christianity disappeared on the island is a mystery, no doubt a combination of social apathy and Anglo-Saxon raids played a role, but ultimately this period in history is one devoid of concrete records or narrative chronicles and largely left to speculations.  What is known is that from the 5th to 6th century, Britain underwent a drastic process of exogenesis, where its people willingly started to identify with the warrior rulers of the invading Germanic (mostly Saxon and Angle) tribes, who came from across the English Channel, settled, refashioned and integrated the native Britons under their own customs.  Immersed within these customs was the adherence to Germanic tribal religions, their native Heathenism (again a term referencing the uncooperative country villagers that will make its way into the Christian lexicon), which was readily adopted by the British people who dwelled under Anglo-Saxon rule.

The story of Britain’s rechristening under the Roman faith traces back to continental Europe, where in 596 Pope Gregory I saw it as his Christian duty to send missionaries to the island and save the souls of the nonbelievers.  The man he sent was Augustine, a prior of the Church—equivalent to an office administrator—who along with a handful of monks, headed north to make claims in the name of Christ.  The journey was a daunting one. What sort of barbaric peoples awaited the missionaries?  Have these unbaptized Anglo-Saxon any idea of civility?  Will they be able to communicate God’s word to the pagans in their foreign tongue?  Such questions must have been heavy on Augustine’s mind as he crossed the English Channel, making landfall in the Isle of Thanet, and headed towards Canterbury.  Unknowingly to the administrator, his first steps on the British coast would turn out to be the defining moment of English ecclesiastical history.

Upon his arrival, Augustine set up his congregational base in Canterbury within the Kingdom of Kent, where he restored several abandoned churches from the Roman era to conduct services and conversions.  Conversions were slow as the mission was constantly plagued by Augustine’s infuriating habit of getting bogged down in administrative jargon.  Throughout his time in Canterbury, Augustine had regular correspondences with Pope Gregory in which he shows a pattern of indecisiveness in dealing with issues (mostly concerning theft and marriage practices) that even for the most blase of theologians would have seemed palpable.  Gregory himself grew irate with this habit and often responded to Augustine in a patronizing tone, “You know your Bible well enough, just use common sense.”  However much of a nuisance it may have been for the Pope, Augustine’s lack of confidence would be of great consequence for the British Church, and eventually Western Europe:  Setting the precedent of always looking to Rome for guidance.  But any such significance was arcane to the early Christians involved in the mission, as the church itself could have easily fallen into oblivion were it not for the support and protection received from the King of Kent, Aethelberht.

Aethelberht was a pagan, but through possible persuasion by his Christian wife Bertha, he allowed Augustine to preach the Christian faith from Canterbury.  And although he resisted at first, by 601 the heathen king is known to have converted to Christianity (either out of sincere conviction or political motive to establish closer ties with Europe, or both).  Upon the fateful conversion of their king, the people of Kent followed suit and gave the young church the success needed to cement it as a legitimate institution of the land.  Pope Gregory was so pleased by the progresses of the mission that he had Augustine ordained a Bishop, with full authority over all British churches.  The intention was to create a lineage for the church to ensure its lasting presence in the region for generations thereafter, but what it did was undermine the authority of a possible ally Pope Gregory didn’t even know existed, namely that of the forgotten British Christians who had survived the Anglo-Saxon raids.

Unlike that of continental Europe, the existing British church had not had its development influenced by the turbulent political circumstances which had arisen in Europe after the Roman Empire fell.  Instead, the remaining few Christians moved West, away from the invading Germanic tribes settling into the island, and closer towards the influence of the growing Irish Church, whose practices in this era of early Christianity would not have been very dissimilar to their own.  Both sides underwent a process wherein Christian ideology begin to define itself within the context of the individual society of its practitioners, and more and more separate traditions formed in the two churches, completely independent from one another until Pope Gregory I sent his missionaries to the island to introduce Christianity to what he thought was solely a heathen land.  Once contact was established through Augustine’s presence in England, it became clear that the two sides had different views on what constituted true Christianity.  For one thing, the British church made no attempt to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons, and instead chose to retreat away from social life in England altogether; a move Pope Gregory saw as counter to his evangelization efforts.  The original goal of the mission was to take the island for Christianity, but once the existence of the British Church was found out a pressing concern for Gregory and Augustine became to gain the trust of these rogue Christians in order to bring them in line with the Roman style of the faith.  Unfortunately, Augustine himself ruined any such hopes from the first meeting he had with the British priests.

The story goes that prior to the meeting, the British priests decided to test the Roman: “If he stands to greet us, then he is of sound moral character, but if he sits then he is too arrogant in demeanor.” When the meeting came Augustine remained seated throughout, and negotiations between the two churches broke down immediately as a consequence.  Even though the scenario is keeping in character with Augustine’s questionable competence for initiative, there is also a more divisive reason for the growing tension between the two Christian authorities.

The celebration of Easter, the most important feast in the Christian calendar as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, was the issue that grew to be most discordant for the early church.  During the two centuries that the British and Roman Christians existed independently of one another, both sides develop their own method by which to date the feast.  By any means, determining on which day Christians are supposed to observe Easter is a complex matter.  The general system agreed upon by Christian authorities is that it had to fall on a Sunday, on the third week of the first lunar month of the year, but the first full moon could not fall before vernal equinox.  In the early-mid 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus came up with a system that became widely promoted by Rome, and carried by Augustine to Britain in 596.  Although Dionysius’ Easter table was not immediately adopted in Europe (the concept of Papal authority was not yet established), Pope Gregory was determined that the heathen converts adopt the traditions he considered most true to the Christian faith; a move that conflicted with the already present British Church, which dated Easter based on the system established by the Irish Christians, independent of Rome.  When the British refused to abandon their traditional observation of the feast, Gregory grew discontent, and deemed the practices of Celtic Christianity as heretical in nature, and in need of correction.  Unfortunately for Gregory, the British did not submit to his will, and their Irish counterparts were even embarking on an evangelical mission of their own just north of Augustine’s base.

 

Celtic Christianity:  Faith in Isolation

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire, yet due to the close proximity between Roman Britain and the Irish island cultural influences were inevitable.  How exactly the Irish became Christianized is another of the vast mysteries surrounding this period.  St. Patrick writes in his narrative how he converted to the faith after being kidnapped into slavery, thereby providing one possible means of transmission by which ideas (and religious conversions) could have spread during this time.  Whatever the exact details are the fact remains that after the fall of the Roman Empire Ireland’s spiritual life developed in isolation from the rest of Europe, spawning a seperate form of practices and traditions that can be described as uniquely Celtic in character.

By 600, the Irish church has developed a level of academic scholarship unseen by the European continent at the time.  In isolation Irish monks attained a mastery of Latin grammar, biblical exegesis and the indispensable discipline of chronological computation (a mathematical system by which to determine important dates on the Christian calendar), and revitalized monasticism as the functional structure of the early church.  These achievements gave Irish scholarship a high reputation and soon gave rise to the practice of Peregrinatio, where Irish monks went into self-imposed exile to Britain and Europe, thereby bringing their learning to these regions.  In the context of these cultures, which valued the protection of tribal and clan allegiances, exiles were deemed the worst punishment one could receive short of death because it placed the individual outside the protection of his clan.  Peregrinatio was a way for monks to show devotion to God by taking on the worst punishment for themselves and suffer as Christ had done.  A leading example of this sort of devotion would be personified in the person of St. Columba.

The details of St. Columba’s life and actions are often muddled in hagiography—literally the study of saints, but largely a term used to describe a form of hero worship—by his earliest biographers (as churches held a monopoly on literacy, and thereby history).  What is known is that he was born in Ireland to the powerful Ui Neill clan (often anglicized as O’Neill), and entered the monastery at a young age where he became a monk and subsequently was ordained a priest.  Circa 560, Columba was caught in a scandal over the ownership of a Psalter (Book of Psalms).  Columba had made a copy of the scripture from a manuscript belonging to St. Finnian, with the intent to keep the Psalter for himself.  Finnian charged that allowing Columba to keep the copy devalues the book, and as the source of the original material Finnian should be given ownership of Columba’s copy.  Formal judgment ruled in favor of Finnian but Columba refused to relinquish his book to Finnian, and got his family to defend him on the issue.  In 561, the dispute came to a devastating finish at the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, where Columba’s side emerged victorious.  Although his side had won, the death toll of the battle was so high that a council of clerics threatened to excommunicate Columba for having caused and taken part in the battle.  Columba suggested he would put himself in self-imposed exile (Peregrinatio) as penance, to bring as many souls to heaven as have died from the consequence of his actions.

In 563, Columba founded his monastery in Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  He would spend the next three decades as a scholar, diplomat, and spiritual authority in the region.  From his base in Iona, he established missionaries in North Britain with the sole goal of evangelizing Christianity to the heathen populace and their rulers.  Consequentially, as a member of the ruling Ui Neill clan in Ireland, he served as a vital political liaison between the two islands, even mediating a territorial dispute in 575 between his home clan and the Scottish Kingdom (then known as the Kingdom of Dál Riata).  But, by far, Columba’s greatest significant lies in the legacy he set up in North Britain by founding a system of monasticism with the strictest intention of seeking conversion and spreading Christianity.  The turning point into true dominance for his church will come in the early 7th century, after his death, upon the conversion of the Northumbrian dynasty, thereby providing a political means by which to expend the influence of Iona into mainland Britain.  St. Columba died in Iona in 597, and was buried in the monastery he founded.

 

The Council: Confrontation between Two Ideologies

Throughout the early to mid-7th century, both Iona and Canterbury continued to seek converts to their faith and establish spiritual supremacy over the British people.  Augustine’s church went through some turbulent times after his death in 604, as his successors struggled to keep the Anglo-Saxon rulers and their subjects from reverting to their native Heathenism.  But, after several setbacks in the 610s-630s, the situation stabilized as many incoming rulers saw the political advantages of embracing Christianity in terms of legitimizing their sovereignty to Christian Europe. By 663, Canterbury was an integrate part of Britain’s political scene.  Iona, on its part, embedded itself firmly within the Northumbrian Dynasty, important in maintaining its stronghold over northern Britain.  Although the Roman Church of Canterbury was exercising its authority over a larger population than the Celtic Church of Iona, Iona held sway over the Bretwalda (overlord) of Britain at the time.  Thus, causing the unresolved strives between the two sides over their traditional disagreements, primarily concerning the dating of Easter, to remain at a tense stalemate.

While all these events were occurring, it is important to note there was no such thing as a unified British state.  Britain was composed of various kingdoms, each ruled over by individual kings, where usurpations were common and borders were never decisively established.  Policies were dictated by the most dominate power (a very unstable pattern of governance). In Northumbria, King Oswiu—who ruled as close to a British overlord as would be possible for the times—saw Christianity as an important factor of commonality for his subjects, and took great interest in the development of the church.

King Oswiu was an observer of the Celtic Easter, but was married to Queen Eanfled who feasted according to the Roman tradition.  He found it odd that he feasted while she fasted, and saw the unresolved disparity as a dispute that would prove catastrophic to Britain political/spiritual structure.  He sought to end the debate between the two Churches, and referred that each side present its case to him at Whitby, so he could decide on which resolution would be the best for Britain to follow.

In 664, the Synod of Whitby met, with Bishop Colman of Northumbria defended the Ionan position, while Abbott Wilfrid argued in favor of the Roman practice.  Colman maintained that the Celtic system was the one advocated by St. Columba, who himself was following the tradition of St. John, and as holy men their judgment should not be questioned.  Wilfrid retorted by appealing to St. Peter as the founder of the Roman Church and gatekeeper to heaven.  With respect to St. Columba, it would be of the utmost folly to act counter to the will of St. Peter, and that in light of everything it was only Iona which was resisting Roman custom (Ireland itself had recently accepted the Roman Easter tables).  After the cases were made, Oswiu rose and asked both sides as to whether or not they agreed that St. Peter was pronounced by Christ as the rock on whose model the Church would be built, as both sides affirmed the truth of what he said, King Oswiu proclaimed that between St. Columba and St. Peter he is obliged to side with St. Peter as the ultimate authority of the Christian Church.

Along with settling the dispute over how to date Easter, the decision reached at Whitby also enabled the English Church to become unified, and unite the British wholly back to the European continent (a political move Oswiu must have been aware of prior to making his choice).  The influence of Celtic Christianity did not disappear altogether, instead its imagery and scholarship blended with the English Church, and gave it a uniquely British individuality.  By the end of the 7th century the English Church, presiding from Canterbury, became all about ecclesiastical order and unity, which allowed it to rise and become an indispensable factor in defining the future British state.

 

Further Readings:

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Adamnan. The Life of St. Columba

St. Patrick. The Confession of St. Patrick

The Euthyphro Dilemma, and Socrates’ Guilt

Socrates holds a special place in the ranks of philosophy for having enough wisdom to declare how he can only claim to know that he knows nothing.  This statement reflects how the purpose of the Socrates-character throughout Plato’s dialogues serves as an inquisitor to those around him, proposing questions for the sake of establishing clear and concise definitions from his contemporaries, rather than issuing ethical proclamations of his own.

However, it is apparent that through his inquisitive prose, Plato does in fact have Socrates indirectly pronounce several positive decrees on ethical and spiritual matters.  The importance of this is best seen in Euthyphro, where just before standing to defend himself against charges of corrupting Athenian youths through impious teachings, Socrates questions the piously motivated actions of Euthyphro by boldly asking whether he knows that a matter is indeed pious because the gods command it, or do the gods deem a matter pious because they recognize it to be pious in its own right.  Unbeknownst to Euthyphro, Socrates has really planted a trap, in which any answer given will be unsatisfactory to truly define the origin of piety, dispelling the notion of divine commandments, and indirectly giving credence to the impiety charges that have been raised against him in the dialogue.

The central argument of Socrates’ exchange with Euthyphro is made when Socrates asks of his contemporary, “Consider the following: is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious?  Or is it pious because it’s loved?”(Plato, Euthyphro, 10a).  Here, Socrates is raising a valid distinction between something that is loved, and something that is loving; the former being defined by the will of a secondary participant, while the letter being defined by its own essence that is merely recognized to be so by a secondary participants.  In terms of what is being discussed by Socrates and Euthyphro—is piety loved by the gods because they recognize the nature of what is pious, or because they themselves decide on what is to be considered pious—attention must be given to define what in fact piety is.  Namely, do the gods decide what is pious, making their will the defining quality of piety, or do the gods just recognize something to be objectively pious, placing the defining quality of piety independent of the gods’ will?  Euthyphro immediately dismisses the first interpretation (10d) on account that it would render piety as an arbitrary impulse of the gods (who often disagree over what is to be considered pious, and occasionally even change their minds on what they previously considered to be pious), which means that piety does not exist as an independent component; nor can a concise definition of piety be established, if it is warrant to change through the whims of volatile and capricious deities.  Thus, the only option remaining for Euthyphro is to insist that if a matter is to be called pious it must be universally so (accepted by all the gods), meaning that it must be an essence that stands independent of the gods’ will.  Leaving the philosopher with the second option, that the gods recognize something to be pious not because they have deemed it so, but because they are recognizing the independent of nature of piety.

The dialogue continues with Euthyphro ceding that something that is pious is loved because it is pious and not pious because it is loved (10d).  Once again, Socrates has cornered Euthyphro, as this explanation is no better than the first in defining what truly piety is.  The issue here is that if the gods merely love something pious because they are recognizing its piety, then one must grant the conclusion that there is a standard of piety completely separate–and possibly even above that–of the gods.  Therefore to define piety as that which is loved by the gods, serves as no definition at all of what is objectively pious, or as Socrates puts it:

If the god-loved and the pious were really the same thing, my dear Euthyphro, then, if the pious were loved because it’s pious, what’s god-loved would in turn be loved because it’s god-loving; and if what’s god-loved were god-loved because it was loved by the gods, the pious would in turn be pious because it was loved by them.  But, as it is, you can see that the two are related in the opposite way, as things entirely different from one another (11a).

The dialogue ends soon after with Euthyphro leaving Socrates without looking to resolve the dilemma.  The whole exchange between the two philosophers is more than just a practice in analytics, as Socrates likes to portray his mode of reasoning, but implies something much deeper than Plato is willing to blatantly say in his writings: i.e. the gods cannot be the source of piety.

It is no accident that just as Plato’s Socrates-character is scheduled to defend himself against impiety charges he gets involved in a discussion concerning the definition of what is pious.  Although Plato’s other dialogue, Apology, depicts the details of Socrates’ trial, Euthyphro serves as a superb piece of insight for what sort of reasoning might have lead up to the accusations being levied against the philosopher.  In Euthyphro, Socrates strongly implies that any divine origins that are likely to be attributed towards piety are unsatisfactory to tell one the actual definition of what it means to be pious, and where this meaning comes from—for the various reasons mentioned earlier.  While Socrates does not attempt to positively state what the true essence of piety is, he does successfully conclude what it cannot be.  Before the main argument of Euthyphro is presented, Socrates asks, “Could this be the reason / I face indictment, that when people say such things about the gods, I find them somehow hard to accept?”(6b).  Hence, from the beginning, Plato seems to be giving little concern to deny the charges made against Socrates.  Socrates freely admits that the orthodox characterization of the gods appears to him beyond belief, and hints that they may very well be the workings of poets and painters (6c).  This sort of bold heresy spoken by Socrates serves to convey to the reader the amount of seriousness (or lack thereof) that Socrates is giving to his accusers.

After the main crux of the argument between Socrates and Euthyphro has abated, Socrates steps out of character for a moment and tries to define piety as something that is part of what is just (12d). This definition is not meant to be conclusive, or even adequate, but simply a means by which to further engage Euthyphro into the problems of the earlier discussion.  However, it is telling that Socrates’ sole attempt at defining piety would have him label it as a subset of something else; deeming it dependent on a greater concept.

This raises another possible quandary in the prose, though albeit an unspoken one: just how much value does Socrates hold for piety as a virtue?  It is never explicitly addressed by Plato, but it is a question that might very well be a key factor driving the narrative.  After proclaiming doubt in the various stories about the gods, he subtly rejects Euthyphro’s invitation to discuss the veracity of these tales (5d).  He effortlessly picks apart the idea of paying devotion to the gods as ultimately incoherent (13a-14a).  And he never fails to (patronizingly) point out the inadequacy of Euthyphro’s responses to his questions, “You see, when you were just now on the point of answering you turned away.  If you had given the answer, I’d already have been adequately instructed by you about piety” (14c).  All of these points converge to form the image in the readers mind that Socrates’ interest in wanting to find a suitable definition for piety is not his sole motive in his discussion with Euthyphro.  That perhaps he is also eager to dismantle the notion that piety has any knowable definition, and therefore, can have little practical use as a claimed virtue.

Nietzsche Contra Socrates

NvS

Friedrich Nietzsche was by all accounts an admirer of the Hellenic aesthetic tradition, and would often refer to the ancient myths and tragedies to frame his own philosophy.  In the philosopher’s first—and self-admittedly flawed—book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche presents his views on the development of the ancient Greek dramas, characterizing its growth as an artistic desire to thwart the emergence of pessimism in human expression.[1]  He framed this artistic development in terms of the philosophical dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian elements.  Much can be written (and has been written) about these two elements as literary concepts, but the simplified idea is that there exists a delicate balance between the human striving for orderliness (the Apollonian element) in light of our innate attraction to chaotic irrationalities (the Dionysian element), in which the two sides are contingent on one another to create an essential harmony of human expression.[2]  Nietzsche considered the ancient Athenian dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles to be the epitome of this dynamic in aesthetic form; i.e. their works signal the birth of tragedy, in human art.[3]  To Nietzsche this development was the zenith of artistic creation, a perfect balance between opposing drives of the human instinct, whose blending satisfied the artist in man as a whole.  Since this time in antiquity, however, we have experienced a decline—a devolution—in the aesthetic development of man.  A loss that Nietzsche traces to one fundamental source: Socrates.

Unlike the tragic writings of Aeschylus and Sophocles—which (according to Nietzsche) took care to appeal to the spirit of man’s inner struggle with the pessimism of life—the writings of later authors (and even Socratic contemporary like Euripides) abandoned the emphasis on tragedy and the imaginative aspects of art, in favor of dry epistemological musings.  For Nietzsche, the influence of Socrates serves as the catalyst for this change—loss—in artistic focus:

Might not this very Socratism be a sign of decline, of weariness, of infection, of the anarchical dissolution of the instincts?  And the “Greek cheerfulness” of the later Greeks—merely the afterglow of the sunset.[4]

With Socrates came the appeal of approaching inquiries dialectically: reasoning through dialogue, in which opposing premises are examined, and cross-examined, to determine the merits of an argument by sifting out its contradictions and inconsistencies.  Nietzsche’s aversion to this style is its innate reductionism, which to him meant a deterioration of expression, rather than a progression.  Throughout much of his later philosophical career, Nietzsche chastises his contemporary philosophers for pointing out the faults of ancient and modern institutions (be they religious or secular), without bothering to erect alternative models in their place (as Nietzsche himself attempts to do with his analysis and critique of modern moral values in On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil).  Nietzsche identifies the Socratic Method as the inspiration for this deterioration in human creativity:

There is the understanding of Socratism:  Socrates is recognized for the first time as an instrument of Greek disintegration, as a typical decadent.  “Rationality” against instinct.  “Rationality” at any price as a dangerous force that undermines life.[5]

The obvious oddity readers see in the above quote is Nietzsche’s apparent disdain for “rationality”, and the implication that too much of it undermines life.  The reason for this is that Nietzsche recognizes mankind’s irrationalities as an essential part of its humanity.  Thus, to seek to annihilate irrationality, or ignore its presence in human consciousness, is to work against an instinctive part of human existence.  One needs to remember that, all in all, Nietzsche’s philosophy does not advocate for greater rationality, as much as it seeks to overturn the decadent value systems human beings readily accept as good without challenge.  In this regard, Nietzsche isn’t so much anti-irrationality, as he is anti-dependency.  In his eyes, despite his staunch godlessness, even the creation of myths to serve as the foundation upon which to build a greater human consciousness would not be unacceptable (albeit as long as the individuals who create the myth do not allow themselves to forget that their myths are fictitious frameworks, and therefore do not become servants to the beings they create):

Without myth every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity:  only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement.  Myth alone saves all the powers of the imagination and of the Apollinian dream from their aimless wanderings.[6]

Nietzsche’s primary interest is in reigniting the creative spark humanity has lost.  In many ways, the philosopher’s critiques of religion, politics, and social values, stems from this underlying desire to awake a nobler spirit in man, that recognizes the power of his imaginative capabilities as a basic part of reality, and not something that needs to either be granted dominance over the person (“faith”) or sought to be exorcised (“rationalism”).  This is where the need for the Dionysian element in aesthetic expression comes in, to sooth the pangs of the monotonous and orderly; to overcome pessimism as the pre-Socratic Athenians had done, and provide a pleasant melody of Dionysian ecstasy and chaos in concurrence with Apollonian realism for the human form to sway to carelessly (in other words, turn the one-man play called life into an enchanting opera).

For Nietzsche it is a matter of principle—wanting to elevate the human psyche to the pinnacle of life affirmation—in contrast to the philosophy of someone like Socrates, whose method Nietzsche equates with doubt and disintegration:  “Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths — a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life.”[7]  Socrates does not, in Nietzsche’s view, contribute to the betterment of the individuals he engages, but only seeks to tear them down; treating their values as symptoms of a faulty mind, but then refusing to erect a sturdier value model by hiding under the garb of self-righteous ignorance:

For a philosopher to object to putting a value on life is an objection others make against him, a question mark concerning his wisdom, an un-wisdom. Indeed? All these great wise men — they were not only decadents but not wise at all.[8]

Nietzsche proposes that the reason Socrates never issued any moral values of his own, wasn’t because he was too wise to know better, but because he was too incompetent to even attempt it.  Thus, his oft-heralded ignorance is not, in Nietzsche’s view, a modest form of wisdom; it is a result of his lowly plebeian mentality.[9]  Nietzsche’s master-slave morality is relevant in his denunciation of Socrates, due to the philosopher’s belief that the Athenian was a vital influence that set the stage for the slave-revolt in morality to occur, which set a trend wherein the decadent and impotent of society decreed terms of moral conduct to the nobler value-creators, in order to morally elevate themselves above their creative superiors[10]:  “With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of logical argument. What really happened there? Above all, a noble taste is vanquished; with dialectics the plebs come to the top.”[11]  [Nietzsche would also argue that this set the stage in the ancient world for the rise and dominance of, what he would call, the greatest of slave-moralities in human history: Abrahamic monotheism, as best characterized by the Christian faith.]

Nietzsche takes a great deal of issue with Socrates’ dialectic mode of argumentation.  As mentioned, he sees it as solely a means of placing the burden of constructing something of substance on one’s opponent, while the dialectician—i.e. Socrates—can indolently wallow around, without offering anything concrete to replace or correct the identified inconsistencies and irrationalities that have just been debunked.  The logical arguments derived from the Socratic Method are thereby equally valueless for Nietzsche:

Nothing is easier to nullify than a logical argument: the tedium of long speeches proves this. It is a kind of self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons. Unless one has to insist on what is already one’s right, there is no use for it.[12]

I personally feel that Nietzsche is overreaching the faults with the Socratic Method, due to the fact that pointing out the flaws in someone else’s premises does not immediately commit a person to constructing a better alternative to replace the insufficient proposition; simply saying “I don’t know the right answer in lieu of insufficient data, but the inconsistencies in your argument are too great for me to ignore” is not an invalid response to a dubious claim.  For example, 2400 years ago there existed two competing hypothesis in ancient Greece about the cause of bodily ailments.  One proposed that it was due to supernatural forces (i.e. curses) plaguing the soul of the victim, the other proposed it was due to a naturalistic unbalance between the four humors that make up the human body; both hypothesis are now discredited, and disease is treated as having nothing to do with curses or “humors”, hence the individual who refrained from constructing an alternative but nevertheless logically deduced both explanation as inconsistent and irrational, would still (in my opinion) hold the more respectable position.

However, Nietzsche’s disdain for depending on logical analysis to define reality does have some merit, especially if one applies it to the philosophical traditions that emerged out of the Socratic influence.  Nietzsche makes the bold statement that “Nothing is easier to nullify than a logical argument”, which is certainly true considering that in order for any logical argument to work (in particular syllogisms) the participants have to agree on the terms and definitions, and their usage, lest a philosophical deadlock occurs (as it usually does with two competing philosophical positions).  As a point of example, Aristotle logically proved that the earth is stationary and the sun rotates around it; he was still wrong, no matter how rational or consistent his premises were at the time.  Aristotle also logically proved that heavier objects fall to the ground faster than lighter objects; he was wrong about this, too, for the same reasons he was wrong about almost everything he wrote about the physical world.  Nietzsche probably considered the viability of Socrates’ dialectical method similarly flawed, in that Socrates is setting the terms of the discussion, while never committing to any concrete ideas.  The reason for this, Nietzsche proposes, is that Socrates had no other means by which to engage the intellectuals around him, other than by reducing their values to mere whims and fancies, while elevating his own in the name of “reason” and “rationality”.  And he could do this solely because he set up every argument with the premise that his approach was by default the proper way to reason:

I have explained how Socrates fascinated his audience: he seemed to be a physician, a savior. Is it necessary to go on to demonstrate the error in his faith in “rationality at any price”? It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence by waging war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change the form of decadence, but they do not get rid of decadence itself.[13]

For Nietzsche, Socrates sought to ostracize man’s instinctive attraction to the aesthetic virtues in life, causing them to be deemed as mere irrationalities.  The problem with this is that it ignores a vital component of the human experience, in that our species is not primarily an agent of rationality—which can be sifted out through dialectical reasoning—and to define our intrinsic irrational tendencies as inconsequential hurdles in any given discussion prevents one from reaching a true point of higher awareness, as it assumes that man will ideally arrive at a rational conclusion if he only removes his aesthetic subjectivity from the equation.  Nietzsche sees this as not only false, but crippling, because it forces man to turn against a powerful force that composes his humanity—his instinct:

All this was a kind of disease, merely a disease, and by no means a return to “virtue,” to “health,” to happiness. To have to fight the instincts — that is the definition of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct.[14]

Nietzsche wishes to uplift the human spirit to a higher plane of life affirmation, to nurture his rational side and satisfy his irrational instincts, just as he envisions the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles to have done to soothe the pessimism apparent in their surroundings.  Although taking the fact that man is more a reasoning rather than a reasonable animal into account is, in itself, a worthy consideration when constructing a value system, one needs to also take great care not to get subdued by one’s passions when evaluating realty, since our passions are far more intoxicating to our senses and egos than the uncompromising facts encompassing the apathetic world around us.  But perhaps that’s where the Apollonian element comes in to check its Dionysian counterpart; making order amidst chaos, and using chaos to create order.


[1] Nietzsche’s characterization of the ancient Athenians as being innately pessimistic was at complete odds with the viewpoint of his contemporaries in academia, the majority of which denounced The Birth of Tragedy shortly after its initial publication. In 1886, Nietzsche republished the work with a scathing self-critique about the prose’s immaturity and hasty generalizations, but doubled-down on his original characterization of the ancient Greek dramatists as pessimists by adding the subtitle, “Hellenism and Pessimism,” to the republished edition.

[2] It needs to be remembered that, for the sake of brevity, this is a very simplified descriptions of a very complex philosophical concept.  I will not be dwelling too much on the Apollonian & Dionysian dynamic here, because it is tangential to the main premise of this essay, not to mention it is a literary device Nietzsche himself largely abandoned fairly soon after publishing The Birth of Tragedy; therefore, the various intricacies have little influence on Nietzsche primary philosophical contributions.

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  The Birth of Tragedy (1872), section 19.

[4] Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, “Attempt at Self-Criticism” (1886), section 1.

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Ecce Homo, “The Birth of Tragedy” (written 1888, published 1908), section 1.

[6] Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy (1872), section 23.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Twilight of the Idols, “The Problem With Socrates” (1888), section 1.

[8] Ibid, section 2.

[9] Ibid, section 3.

[10] Saintevic, Sascha.  No Fear Nietzsche: A layman’s guide from Amor Fati to Zarathustra (2015), Part Five: “Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Moralities”.

[11] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “The Problem With Socrates” section 5.

[12] Ibid, section 6.

[13] Ibid, section 11.

[14] Ibid.

The Social Contract Theories of Hobbes and Rousseau: A Critique

[This post makes references to two previous analyses on the social theories of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which can be found here, and here, respectively.]

Social contract theorists, like Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, aim to systematically establish the basic components that warrant the formation of human communities, giving rise to the creation of governing entities, all through an initial set of covenants a people agree to enter into, in order to strengthen their prospects for individual self-preservation by being members of a greater society; this is the social contract.

Although, Hobbes and Rousseau diverge greatly about the framework and mode of governance that is to ensue from the social contract, both agree that absent of such a pact, the individual is transported back into what can be called the state of natureTo Hobbes, this is an anarchic, cruel, savage, existence where no law or peace can exist, and a perpetual state of war is the norm (hence, giving man, as a rational animal, the incentive to enter into covenants with his fellow as a means to avoid such a dire reality).  Rousseau, on the other hand, takes a much gentler view of the state of nature.  He agrees with Hobbes that in this state man is left to a solitary existence, but instead of viewing this as a savage realm, he sees it as peaceful and ideal, where the general will of the individual was not subverted to the will of any other persons.

These fundamental disparities proposed by the two philosophers are of secondary concern to this critique, since my focus will be to show that both thinkers have failed to account for the exact means by which modern communities exist in relation to the state of nature they present as their starting premise, and therefore, have failed to give credence to intellectual integrity of social contract theory.

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes proposes a social system build on covenants between individuals, which subsequently form what he calls the commonwealth (i.e. society).  In this model, justice is defined as performing the agreed on covenants, thus injustice is naturally that which is counter to the established covenants of the commonwealth.  And this is to be enforced by an authoritarian sovereign, acting as proprietor of the said social contract.  Hobbes maintains that the incentive individuals have to hold to the laws of the covenants, is their desire to avoid the savage state of nature that they are bound to be banished to, in case they fail to live up to the social contract.  However, there is a problem here that Hobbes fails to demonstrate; namely, what grants the premise that a failure to perform the social covenants will automatically place one back to the state of nature, at all?

For example, in all social communities possessing established laws (i.e. covenants), there more than likely exist individuals who, at times, break these laws (i.e. fail to perform their covenants), but are not definitively banished from the community itself (i.e. the commonwealth).  Almost always, perimeters exist within the community itself that deal with the criminal perpetrators, and still allow them to retain their citizenship status within the society.  In fact, the judicial systems of much of modern society operate on the basis of punishment, yes, but also rehabilitation; Hobbes’ social contract does not give measure to this latter, important, aspect of criminal justice.  Instead, he wishes to place all breaches of social covenants on an equal plane of offense, which ultimately renders his social contract as impractical by definition, because it will be unable to adapt as issues and concerns that are bound to arise as society progresses.  Unavoidable technological, social, and political advancements will mean that with each passing generation, individuals will be born into covenants that they did not consent to, whose decrees do not pertain to their cultural orientations, but are nevertheless judged by the merits of an archaic framework with little relevance to their modern lives.  Thus, for any political model to survive the test of time, a means of amending the initial covenants must be put into place from the start.

Furthermore, Hobbes’ insistence that the enforcement of the covenants is to reside with an authoritative sovereign also fails to take into account the ever-changing demographic that occurs within the parameters of a populace, and does not give a proper account of why individuals born after the initial covenants were made–and therefore did not consent to empower the ruling sovereign as the proprietor of their commonwealth–ought to be subjected to decrees authorized prior to their existence.  As already stated, the next generation will not necessary agree with the initial pact that created the social contract, thus new covenants will be required every few decades, but this by definition subverts the entire point of Hobbes’ authoritarian system.  Hobbes’ social program is innately static, but—unfortunately for Hobbes—society and life are not.  If one was to take Hobbes’ account of the state of nature, and incorporate it into his proposed social system, the end result would be a constant calamity of communal covenants, being erected and floundering with the passing of time.  And, perhaps, such a view of society is historically defensible, but it not the sort of stable commonwealth Hobbes was arguing for.

In The Social Contract,Rousseau’s argument rests on even flimsier premises than Hobbes’.  The state of nature Rousseau depicts—peaceful, harmonious with nature, man’s ideal state of being—renders his entire proposal for setting up a proper society and government (even a popularly democratic one) redundant, since if one was to accept his account of the state of nature, the philosopher’s real task ought to be to argue for the dissolution of government and society as a whole.

Rousseau proposes that man entered into the social contract, because the conditions of his solitary state (though peaceful, and ideal) were insufficient in ensuring the individuals self-preservation; therefore, he formed into communities to strengthen his chances against the forces of nature within the safety of the group, while still retaining his general will (and without subverting the will of others).  But Rousseau’s entire basis for this premise sounds like a case of special pleading; why did man have to form a pact with other men, if his existence prior to the advent of communities was peaceful, and fruitful?  If he has already enjoyed the greatest freedom possible absent of an established society, what reason is there to argue in favor of keeping any social order, whatsoever (even one that is largely run as a direct democracy)?  Also of note, Rousseau mentions that any individual who wishes to leave the social contract is free to do so at his/her discretion.  Hence, if we follow the reasoning Rousseau outlines for us, these individuals leaving the social contract would be returning to the state of nature, where they will have peace and be free.  So, once again, what was the purpose of entering the social contract, where one’s general will is capable of being conformed to the will of the community?  The philosopher’s failure to address these questions concerning the most fundamental aspects of his argument makes his entire prose suffer as a result, and gives no good reasons as to why his proposals should be taken seriously.

Rousseau’s entire program would be much more coherent if he had given a more thorough rationale as to why man actually benefits from societal life, in contrast to a solitary one.  But to do so would, of course, undermine all the previous work in his Discourse, where he affirms that man is innately a solitary being.  (That, however, is a critique for another post, on another day.)

The problems with social contract theory, in general, is that it places too much emphasis on man’s conscious entrance into communal life, when in reality, a much more cohesive account can be made for the idea that we–by large–do not actively consent to any covenants, or social contracts, but are instead born into them.  Rather than forging social communities, we extend and modify those that we have.  Hence, the relatively slow (millennia long) progression of human civilizations.  No clear account can be given of what the initial spark was that caused sophisticated communities to emerge, but there is no reason to speculate that it must have involved a great deal of conscious sophistication on behalf of the individuals involved; remember, the original purpose of the most mundane of habits can be forgotten, and transformed into the most innate and sacred of customs within a stretch of only a generation, or two.  Thus, to attribute too much forethought to the habits of our ancestors, would be a grave submission of reasoning.  Time erodes all matters, but along the way it can also modify and sharpen things into something more pragmatic and tasteful, than how they initially began.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and the Will of the People

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract may very well be the most fervently democratic work of all the early political treatises.  Rousseau follows in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes, and postulated a variant of the social contract theory; including a unique version of man’s early origin that sets out to negate Hobbes’s savage state of nature, and redefine the whole of political theory to align with his belief in populist governance—where true legislative power resides solely with the masses.

The Genevese philosopher opens his famous discourse with the words, “Men was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”[1]  The diction used in this opening sentence is very important to understanding Rousseau’s entire philosophical position.  “Man was born free,” specifically stated in the past tense to indicate a contrast from mankind’s present state of existence.  This is then followed by the second part of the sentence, “and everywhere he is in chains.”  Notice now the switch to the present tense, is meant to describe our current condition.  To thoroughly explain the motivation behind Rousseau’s word choice here, one must dwell a little deeper into the man’s personal philosophy.

Rousseau, like Hobbes, believed that prior to the advent of social communities, man had resided on a plane that can be called the state of nature.  However, unlike Hobbes, Rousseau envisioned this state to have been one of harmony and peace, rather than cruelty and war, where each individual led a solitary life, with no infringement on his will by any other person [this is discussed in greater detail in his Discourse on Inequality, 1754]; hence the reference to man having been born free in the past.  Furthermore, he believes that it was mankind’s removal from this tranquil existence, through the forming of cities and nations, that has caused humanity to spiral into a perpetual mode of degradation, a trend that can only worsen as civilization progresses (since all progressions will only take humanity farther away from his ideal state of being); this degradation serves as our chains.

Yet, despite these claims of mankind having had once enjoyed a serene peace in his solitary state, Rousseau does acknowledge that at some point in the development of the human species the obstacles to men’s self-preservation became too great for the single individual to overcome.  Therefore, “the original state can then subsist no longer, and the human race would perish if it did not change its mode of existence.”[2]  The result was the implementation of the social contract, in which originally each individual puts his power in the common good under the supreme direction of the general will, but no single individual is put into a situation in which their person is subjugated by the will of another.[3]  Rousseau’s reasoning here is to establish the basis that any form of executive that seems to undermine the will of the public is by definition unlawful, because “those to whom the executive power is committed are not the masters of the people, but its officers.”[4]  Thus, the objective of all government ought to be to yield power to the people, whose collective will serves as the true sovereign of the state.

It’s not difficult to see problems with Rousseau’s logic, even if one agrees with his reasoning and conclusion.  Firstly, if mankind started out solitary, and this was his ideal state of existence, is it not more reasonable to propose that humanity ought to abandon communities altogether, rather than argue for a populist democratic rule?

The answer one can imagine Rousseau giving to such an objection is to maintain that man has been removed from the state of nature for too long to return, thus establishing popular democratic rule is a means to bring modern man as close to his perfect form as possible.  In fact, the sort of state that Rousseau is proposing seems to not be much of a formal state at all.  Instead, it can more aptly be understood as a social gathering, “The state which is thus governed needs very few laws; and when it becomes necessary to promulgate new ones, the necessity for them is universally understood.”[5]  Rousseau is convinced that as long as the general will of man is not stifled by authority, his naturally peaceful nature will create a symbiotic unity with the will of his fellow man:  “There is never any question of vote-catching or speech-making in order to make it a law to do what everyone has already resolved that he will do himself, once he is sure that others will do the same.”[6]  But again, the question can be raised why a people ought to bother having a state at all, if they can so readily reach a consensus simply by the merit of having everyone’s general will consulted, and made clear?[7]  Why bother with having a any sort of government?

Once again it is important to try and understanding the program Rousseau is presenting from the philosopher’s point of view.  Earlier he mentioned that conditions of life are so that man could not subsist in his state of nature forever, thus his consenting to the social pact to ensure preservation.  It is the nature of this contract that must be explored to understand Rousseau’s reasoning.  He states that, “there is one sole law that by its nature demands unanimous consent:  it is the social pact.”[8]  Therefore, the social contract (or “pact”) is the only obligation that any individual is sworn to, but is never subjugated by:  “If therefore when the social pact is agreed there are those who oppose it, their opposition does not invalidate the contract, but merely prevents it from being applied to them:  they are foreigners among citizens.”[9]  This is in stark contrast to Hobbes’s covenants, whose obligations are to be enforced authoritatively, if necessary; any person in Rousseau’s society can simply opt out of the community, if he so determines.

Now, one major point still remains to be addressed by Rousseau, what happens if someone who freely reside within the community, and has consented to the social contract, finds himself in the minority opinion of a particular issue?  Rousseau approaches the question by first stating, “a majority vote is always binding on all the others; that is a direct consequence of the contract.”[10]  However, this statement seems to be irreconcilable with Rousseau’s stance on the inability to subvert someone’s general will to that of another.  The philosopher tries to rationalize this objection away by replying, “The citizen consents to every law, even those that are passed against his opposition,”[11] because, “the constant will of all the citizens of the state is the general will:  it is through the general will that they are citizens and have freedom.”[12]  But this is now starting to sound an awful lot like Hobbes’ position that the sovereign, acting as the proprietor of the social contract, gets to enforce the rules of the covenants on the citizenry, except that in Rousseau’s system the masses collectively occupy the role of the sovereign, instead of just one ruler.  Moreover, the outcome will still involve the undermining of an individual’s will by another (in this case the majority).

Rousseau is not ignorant of this disparity, and attempts to sooth it by clarifying, “When an opinion contrary to mine prevails, therefore, it proves only that I had been mistaken, and that the general will was not what I had believed it to be.”[13]  But in what way is this not an example of one individual having to subvert their will to the will of others?  Saying that because you find yourself in opposition to the general will of the majority the only conclusion is that you’re mistaken on the issue, does not negate the fact that you are then being forced to undermine your solitary will to that of the community (lest you be deemed to have forfeited your citizenship [see footnote 9]).

The main problem Rousseau fails to consider in The Social Contract, is that in such an environment, there is no reason to believe that it will be the solidarity of the people’s general will that will govern the community, rather than fear induced conformity.  And in an environment like that, the difference between a system governed by a unified majority, and a system corrupted by the whim of an influential minority, is not as readily noticeable as one might think.  In fact, in cunning hands, the will of the people, can easily be swayed to serve the will of the few; and the people might be none the wiser about it.

[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. “Book I: Chapter 1,” Oxford University Press (New York: 1994), p. 45.

[2] Rousseau, p. 54.

[3] Rousseau, p. 55.

[4] Rousseau, p. 132.

[5] Rousseau, p. 134.

[6] Rousseau, p. 134.

[7] Rousseau, p. 135.

[8] Rousseau, p. 137.

[9] Rousseau, p. 137.

[10] Rousseau, p. 137.

[11] Rousseau, p. 137.

[12] Rousseau, p. 137-138.

[13] Rousseau, p. 138.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: Justice, and the Social Contract

Frontispiece of The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes Drawing by Abraham Bosse

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is arguably one the most influential works of political philosophy since Plato’s Republic.  In the book, Hobbes sets out to demonstrate how, and why, man has come to create social and political structures, in concurrence with other men, and thereby buildup the pillars of civilization and modes of governance.

Hobbes’ central premise is that, absent of social structures, humans occupy a realm called the state of nature.  Such a state is a lawless, cruel, savage plain of existence, in which the primary instinct of all living creatures (including man) is solely to survive.  However, man—being a rational animal—realizes that the greatest method to satisfy the survival instinct is to try to avoid the brutal pangs of the state of nature altogether, and the only natural means by which he can do so is by seeking security and protection in greater numbers; since the strength of a group will always be immensely more powerful than the strength of the individual.  Furthermore, to ensure stability and efficiency of such a system, the members of the forged society must agree to a certain set of covenants–the social contract that is to be followed by all individuals within the group–that are to be followed by all persons who wish to remain within the protection of the greater community, or risk being exiled back into the savagery of the state of nature.

A reasonable challenge to Hobbes’ program is to inquire about the exact means by which a society (or, commonwealth, as he calls it) is to enforce the covenants of the community; namely, how justice is to be established and ensured.  Hobbes, himself, acknowledges the importance, “that man perform their covenants made:  without which covenants are in vain, and but empty words.”[1]  For Hobbes, the issue of justice is rather simple, if there exists no covenant between individuals, then, “no right has been transferred, and every man has right to every thing [i.e. the state of nature]; and consequently no action can be unjust.”[2]  On the other hand, “when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust:  and the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of covenant.”[3]  The agreed upon social contract is the foundation upon which Hobbes rests his political theory.  In absents of such covenants, lawlessness reigns supreme, and justice is an incoherent premise.  But, once covenants are made among individuals, and a commonwealth is formed, the perimeters of what is to be just, and what is to be unjust, are established, and a failure to follow the decree of the covenant, renders one’s actions unjust by definition.  However, that also leaves open the question of how, exactly, the consequences of the individual’s actions are to be determined by the commonwealth.  Hobbes’s answer is unapologetically authoritarian:

Therefore before the names of just, and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power, to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their consent.[4]

A proprietor is needed to maintain the covenant, without which justice cannot exist in a commonwealth.  As far as Hobbes is concerned, all these components are dependent entities, and inseparable of the existence of a functioning commonwealth (i.e. a society).  For, it is by agreement of their covenants (the entering into the social contract) that the individuals grant the establishment of the commonwealth, and from there, also consents to the power of a proprietor, to employ social cohesion on the members of the community and give legitimacy to the rules of the covenant.  “So that the nature of justice, consisteth in keeping of valid covenants:  but the validity of covenants begins not but with the constitution of a civil power, sufficient to compel men to keep them:  and then it is also that propriety begins.”[5]  Thus, the establishment of a powerful sovereign, of a centralized governing body, is the natural extension of social covenants, and communal living in general.

Although Hobbes’ reasoning is not difficult to follow, one more issue still remains: what about those who reject the seriousness of the covenants?  Is it not imaginable that certain individuals, acting in their self-interest, will enter and break covenants as the mood strikes them; undermining the basis of justice?  And if enough individuals in the commonwealth follow this example, will not the entire social structure become flimsy, and the administration of justice become unmanageable for the proprietor (i.e. the sovereign) to perform?  Hobbes has a harsh reply to this mode of questioning, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no such thing as justice.”[6]  For those who do not take the covenants of the commonwealth seriously, Hobbes does not take seriously.  He argues that such individuals—the fools—have no difficulty seeing the benefit of covenants when it serves their immediate interest, but only refuse to oblige by them when it seems that the rules will refuse them a particular instance of gratification.  Yet, it is by this very admission of the need for covenants to give legitimacy to issues of justice, “He [the fool] does not therein deny, that there be covenants; and that such breach of them may be called injustice, and the observation of the justice.”[7]

Seeing as how Hobbes maintains that absent covenants, men stand alone in the realm of nature, where just and unjust do not exist, the conclusion he derives for those who break covenants is that they forfeit any reference to justice itself.  Therefore, this individual, who steps out of the covenant has lost the protection of the commonwealth, which is still governed by the merits of the social contract they have agreed to uphold, “therefore he which declares he thinks it reason to deceive those that help him, can in reason expect no other means of safety, then what can be had from his own single power.”[8]  And, since no man can truly know the depth of the dangers that may lie ahead of his solitary existence, Hobbes would ask the fool, is it not more reasonable to follow the decrees of the covenant in favor of momentary self-interest, because the greater strength and security of the commonwealth in comparison to the individual is guaranteed to offer a higher rate of survivability for all its subjects?  Because, given the savagery of the state of nature, the fool, “if he be left, or cast out of society, he perisheth.”[9]

Having settled the issue of how to define justice, Hobbes turns to the question of morality.  Namely, even if the stipulations of the covenants a commonwealth is governed under are legitimately just, how does one determine whether they are moral?  Hobbes approaches the matter by first defining what is meant by moral, “moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good, and evil, in the conversation, and society of mankind.  Good, and evil, are names that signify our appetites, and aversions.”[10]  In other words, morality does not exist independent of human desires and inclinations.  In this sense, Hobbes is rejecting the notion of an absolute morality as unfounded in human nature.  Whatever public consciousness might persuade man to think of his morals, the historic reality shows that convergences on moral issues are not self-evident across customs, or across times, “Nay, the same man, in divers times, differs from himself; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth good, what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth evil.”[11]  Hobbes argues that since one individual’s opinion on what is moral rests equally against another individual’s opinion of what is moral, the state of nature, being devoid of justice (as argued above), will never allow for a peace on the matter, hence war will be the natural consequence.  However, man does not want war, as it runs counter to his instinct for security and preservation; thus, man can agree that the opposite of war, peace (even if not absolute), is objectively good; as are the means of achieving peace.[12]  To Hobbes, performing covenants is the best means to escape the state of nature, the consequence of war, and establish a coherent concept of justice.  Therefore, the question of what is to be deemed moral, is inherently correlated with what is considered just: obliging to the covenants of one’s commonwealth is the greatest good that can be done for oneself, hence (granting Hobbes’ premises) it is morally sound.

[1] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ch. 15, “Of the Laws of Nature,” Touchstone (New York: 1997), p.113.

[2] Hobbes, p. 113.

[3] Hobbes, p. 113.

[4] Hobbes, p. 113.

[5] Hobbes, p. 114.

[6] Hobbes, p. 114.

[7] Hobbes, p. 114.

[8] Hobbes, p. 115.

[9] Hobbes, p. 115.

[10] Hobbes, p. 123.

[11] Hobbes, p. 123.

[12]Hobbes, p. 124.

Nietzsche’s Views on Women

nietzmom

Part I

If you are a woman, and you hold Friedrich Nietzsche in high esteem as one of the great enlightened thinkers of modern philosophy, there is a decent chance you might be unfamiliar with the full extent of the man’s musings about the fairer sex.

Since his own lifetime, the philosopher has been accused of promoting misogynistic ideas in his writings, due to his tendency of abrasively referring to women—and femininity as a whole—in largely hostile terms (as we shall explore shortly).  However, it should be stated for the sake of objectivity, that this sentiment is not universally accepted amongst prominent female authors and thinkers, as some of these individuals interpret Nietzsche’s apparently sexist aphorisms as a rhetorical strategy, used to illustrate the vain construct men have of women, and the potential to possibly move beyond this simplistic sentiment.[1]  Whether any of these more favorable interpretations are viable positions in light of Nietzsche’s own words, or simply attempts to exonerate the philosopher of the charge of misogyny, is the focus of the analysis that follows.

Although Nietzsche never wrote a single cumulative work on the topic of womanhood, his books are nevertheless filled with countless critiques and examinations of the female psyche, thereby making it possible for the reader to gather a coherent impression of the philosopher’s views on women, and gender relations in general.

Before looking into anything else, let us first give some background on Nietzsche’s personal experiences with the opposite sex.  After his father died when he was only five, Nietzsche was left to be raised in a household solely occupied by women (his mother, his sister, and two maiden aunts).  How much this affected the young man’s lifelong attitudes towards women is impossible to tell, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss it as a triviality.

Throughout his life, Nietzsche had few companions (of either gender), and virtually no real romantic relationships (nothing that would qualify as reciprocal love, anyway).  In his younger years, he would comment on his determination to remain a lifelong bachelor, because “on the whole, I hate the limitations and obligations of the whole civilized order of things so very much that it would be difficult to find a woman free-spirited enough to follow my lead.”[2]

This remark is noteworthy for two reasons: first, his expectation that a woman (even a “free-spirited” one) is to follow his lead, indicates a base level of chauvinism in Nietzsche’s mentality towards women.  And second, the philosopher seems to think his personal views are much too radical for any woman to either accept, or be capable of following.

The letter also serves to illustrate the divergent tones the philosopher adopts, depending on who he is corresponding with at any given time.  This is most evident from a later correspondence (this time with a woman), where Nietzsche uncharacteristically expresses a deep longing for a romantic partner:

Do you know that no woman’s voice has ever made a deep impression on me, although I have met all kinds of famous women? But I firmly believe there is a voice for me somewhere on earth, and I am seeking it. Where on earth is it?[3]

One can argue that—like so many men—Nietzsche perhaps feels more comfortable expressing his romantic desires to a woman, than to one of his masculine peers.  However, it is easily just as likely that this could simply be a case of Nietzsche minding his audience, and that (for all we know) he has some ulterior motive for the divergent viewpoints he expresses in the two correspondences.

Whichever the case, the fact that the philosopher is overall quite open in relating his apprehension about not wanting to settle down with any woman, is by all accounts a consistent theme in his communications:

I have not yet found a woman who would be suited to associate with me, and whose presence would not bore me and make me nervous / Moreover I know the women folk of half Europe, and wherever I have observed the influence of women on men, I have noticed a sort of gradual decline as the result.[4]

The use of “yet” in the first sentence of the above statement seems to imply that despite his unyielding mindset on the matter, Nietzsche is still interested in possibly pursuing a romantic relationship with the right woman Yet, the assertion that follows soon thereafter, indicates that Nietzsche holds a certain level of distrust in the effect women have on the character of men—whether it is a fear of being distracted from one’s work, or a deeper psychological fear of having his thinking negatively influenced, is not completely clear from the cavalier statement.

One cannot help but take note how once again Nietzsche hints that his rather heterodox social views lie as a barrier to the possibility of finding romantic companionship.  Indeed, at times, Nietzsche appears to dismiss the idea of getting married simply because he considered his personal character (and views) as too bombastic for any woman to have to deal with:

Certainly it would do me good to have something so graceful about me—but would it do her good? Would my views not make her unhappy, and would it not break my heart (provided that I loved her) to make such a delightful creature suffer? No, let us not speak of marrying![5]

Such an unexpected display of concern for the feelings of a potential spouse would almost make one believe that Nietzsche’s aloofness towards the opposite sex stems not from disdain, but from a strange sense of responsibility in not wanting to torment any woman with the eccentricities of his person.  Unfortunately, the rest of this very same letter makes such a claim nearly impossible to defend:

You can take my word for it, that for men like me, a marriage after the type of Goethe’s would be the best of all—that is to say, a marriage with a good housekeeper! But even this idea is repellent to me. A young and cheerful daughter to whom I would be an object of reverence would be much more to the point.[6]

What Nietzsche seems to want at this point in his life [1888; one year before his mental breakdown] is a spouse who will serve the role of a maid, rather than an intellectual partner.  A sharp contrast to the free-spirited woman he claimed to be incapable of finding in the first reference above [dated to 1876].

Whatever the case for Nietzsche’s obvious lack of romantic engagements, the fact remains that one can see a longstanding sentiment of distrust and ridicule towards female intelligence and character within the philosopher’s private correspondences.  A sentiment that is only amplified in Nietzsche’s published work.

Part II

In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche gives us a number of witty aphorisms, which according to him shed light on the deeper layers and vanities of female psychology.  He states:

Woman learns to hate to the extent to which her charms—decrease.[7]

The same affects in man and woman are yet different in tempo:  therefore man and woman do not cease to misunderstand each other.[8]

Woman themselves always still have in the background of all personal vanity an impersonal contempt for “woman.”[9]

The second statement is probably the least damning amongst 21st Century egalitarians, as it simply suggests that men and women develop differing perspectives from equivocal external stimuli.  Although this is highly debatable, it is not altogether condemnable, since few would take the position that men and women absolutely cannot react differently in overlapping situations, and that the difference could not possibly stem from our differing biology.  Thus, the second part of the statement, asserting that this difference in perception creates a communication barrier between the two sexes, is also not controversial.  The problems arise, however, when such ideas are examined in line with Nietzsche’s statements as a whole.

For instance, the first aphorism draws on Nietzsche’s observation that the central source of power that is available to a woman is in her charismatic and sexual persuasion over men.  This leads the philosopher to purport that as a woman approaches the zenith of her ability to wield this power of persuasion (i.e. as she ages, and becomes less desirable to men), she begins to develop an ever-increasing level of discontent against the world; the rate at which this tradeoff occurs is, according to Nietzsche, moderated by the rate at which the woman feels her feminine charm to be decreasing.  Combined with the third aphorism in the quote, a reader can conclude that the overall sentiment Nietzsche is promoting is that women exist in a constant state of vanity, which causes them to occupy a perpetual state of antagonism against both men and other women.  If one accepts Nietzsche’s rationale as valid, than what follows is a natural inclination to associate femininity as an exclusively restrictive manifestation, whose existence lies squarely with its innate desire to control the emotive (and sexual) aspect of human psychology; or as Nietzsche says it, “where neither love nor hatred is in the game, a woman’s game is mediocre.”[10]

Of course, the most obvious counterargument one could raise against Nietzsche in his critique of womanhood is to point out that most—if not all—of the criticisms he makes against the opposite sex here, is equally present in the behavior of the masculine gender.

Men, too, indulge in vain interests, and have a tendency to become bitter and sensitive as age starts to diminish their charm and virility (not to mention their hairlines).  When it comes to the issue of competition—which Nietzsche characterizes as a vanity—it is only fair to say that if the philosopher wants to state that the highest contempt against women comes from other women, then one has to also acknowledge how (in light of all of human history) the greatest focus of contempt against men, has been other men.  Does it not allow itself to conclude then that Nietzsche’s criticisms of femininity are more accurately understood as criticisms against humanity, in general?

I doubt that Nietzsche would even object to any of the counterpoints made, and would probably add that they are entirely compatible with his views.  Furthermore, I suspect that the philosopher would make the counter-counter claim that such attempts at refuting his views on women, arises largely from my superficial interpretation of his words[11] (i.e. An eagerness to refute his ideas, because one has already decided his views are wrong long before one has even started reading his book).

A common approach on this topic is to make the argument that Nietzsche’s misogynistic attitude doesn’t stem from a feeling of superiority over women, but a deeply set suspicion of them:

The sexes deceive themselves about each other—because at bottom they honor and love only themselves (or their own ideals, to put it more pleasantly).  Thus man likes woman peaceful—but woman is essentially unpeaceful, like a cat, however well she may have trained herself to seem peaceable.[12]

Nietzsche doesn’t deny that men are vain and deceptive (much of his life’s work attests to that), but he apparently sees a dramatic difference in the way the two sexes express their individual vanity and deceptive qualities.  This difference can be put very simply: men—according to Nietzsche—seek to deceive themselves first, and external factors only by extension of wanting to maintain this first self-deception.  In contrast, women seek to deceive solely the external world about their persons, thereby having no need to engage in the same sort of initial self-deception men are foolish enough to fall prey to.  This is why in the quote above Nietzsche states that man projects his ideal of woman as peaceful, and then goes on to construct societal norms to uphold the illusion that this is her natural state.

( The issue that many readers will notice is the last line of the quote, in which Nietzsche implies that women allow men to continue believing this lie by virtue of having “trained” themselves to appear more docile than they really are.  Yet, if men are making the external world fit their ideal of women as peaceful, in what sense can it be said that it is women themselves who have taken on this deceptive characteristic?—Doesn’t it follow more readily to say that, for those who grant the validity of the premise, this falsity has been imposed on womanhood, rather than concocted by it?)

When discussing Nietzsche’s views on women, it is important to remember that the philosopher wholeheartedly rejects the notion that women occupy the more oppressed role in society.  The rationale he gives for this view is directly tied in with his conspiratorial-like assessment of feminine attributes.  This leads Nietzsche to argue that a woman’s perceived secondary status is self-inflicted, presumably as a means to insure a better venture point for her instinctive interests:

Compare man and woman on the whole, one may say: woman would not have the genius for finery if she did not have an instinct for a secondary role.[13]

Having a genius for finery can be understood as having a talent for showy ornamentation; in other words, knowing how to distract others to frivolous adorations.  Nietzsche attributes this as a method by which women maintain their womanliness, and “charm” society into not taking their persons seriously enough to analyze their deceptive nature (for which their assumed secondary role serves as a perfect clout) and the full extent of their cunning influence.

Despite his chauvinism, Nietzsche staunchly believes that woman is the cleverer sex, and thereby also the more evil one.[14]  This belief in the diabolical cleverness of women leads the philosopher to conclude that the overconfidence men have in their so-called domestication of the female sex, is nothing more than a facade, promoted by women themselves:

Woman, the more she is woman, resists rights in general hand and foot: after all the state of nature, the eternal war between the sexes, gives her by far the first rank.[15]

It can be hard to follow Nietzsche’s reasoning for believing that women are inherently opposed to their own emancipation from traditional gender roles, because to do so would somehow rob them of their natural rank over men.  His justification for this seemingly incoherent viewpoint appears to be the woman’s power over birth and her subsequent control of her status as the sole vessel of life—which is a woman’s idealized state:

Has my answer been heard to the question of how one cures a woman—“redeems” her?  One gives her a child.  Woman needs children, a man is for her always only a means: thus spoke Zarathustra.

“Emancipation of women”—that is the instinctive hatred of the abortive woman, who is incapable of giving birth, against the woman who is turned out well—the fight against the “man” is always a mere means, pretext, tactic.  By raising themselves higher, as “woman in herself,” as the “higher woman,” as a female “idealist,” they want to lower the level of the general rank of woman; and there is no surer means for that than the higher education, slacks, and political voting-cattle rights.  At bottom, the emancipation are anarchists in the world of the “eternally feminine,” the underprivileged whose most fundamental instinct is revenge.[16]

Nietzsche states that a woman’s true source of power lies in her ability to bear children (essentially the power to grant life), and that this trait serves as her underlying motivation for dealing with men (who are dependent on women for the propagation of their bloodline—their physical immortality, so to speak).  Because of man’s dependence on woman in this regard, the masculine gender will readily deify womanhood (i.e. motherhood), to a higher realm of existence, a sentiment women will shrewdly use to “raise themselves higher,” to a plane of virtue that is beyond reproach.  By this logic, Nietzsche reaches the conclusion that the emergence of the Woman’s Rights Movement, championing the “emancipation of women,” is the result of the resentful infertile female, who is incapable of attaining this higher plane due to her defect in drawing strength from the source of womanly power (childbirth).  Thus, she must seek to lift herself higher by other means; namely by lowering the existing rank of the fertile woman and focusing her mind away from the ready-made “sanctity” of motherhood, towards non-feminine—i.e. infertile—interests.

There is much that can be said against Nietzsche’s reasoning here, but by far the most devastating is the fact that a woman’s control over her reproductive rights is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history (so recent that it still hasn’t permeated to many sects of the human population).  While the case can be made that historically (both in modern times and in antiquity) men have shown an abstract, philosophical reverence for the feminine form (for her ability to create life), this abstract idealization has very rarely gone far beyond a sparse collection of poetic musings.

In practice, women, and their reproductive capabilities, have historically been subject to the control and regulation of their male counterparts (mostly husbands, or other male relatives), for various reasons that range from basic chauvinism, to the outright superstitious.  This is a fact that Nietzsche fails to address in his above philosophizing about “women” and their “idealized elevation by men”, despite it being an indispensable part in any thorough narrative about femininity, and history thereof.  (I cannot personally see how to reconcile this fact with the picture Nietzsche has presented thus far, and I refuse to hypothesize on how the philosopher could have possibly countered the objection, for fear of infusing undue thoughts into the man’s philosophy.)

But even if, for the sake of argument, the reader grants Nietzsche’s narrative above as valid, there is still a simple discrepancy that stands out when looking at the philosopher’s views on the subject as a whole.  If Nietzsche’s criticism against women lies in their vain control over men to further consolidate their fertile power as the “higher” being (the creators of life, “the eternally feminine”), why is he so staunchly dismissive of the women (the “infertile” breed) who, in his view, are working to overturn this sentiment?  I suppose the answer lies in Nietzsche’s conviction that a woman’s mindset is unfailingly tuned to propagating deception about her feminine nature, thus no matter which side she happens to fall in the gender equity debate, her motive is to be viewed with suspicion:

So far enlightenment of this sort was fortunately man’s affair, man’s lot—we remained “among ourselves” in this; and whatever women write and “woman,” we may in the end reserve a healthy suspicion whether woman really wants enlightenment about herself—whether she can will it[17]

To Nietzsche, women are incapable of separating the search for objective truth, from their own subjective interests.  Thus, in women’s hands, truth reduces to nothing more than a whimsical dictum, to be discarded with if found inconvenient; making truth antithetical to femininity:

From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth—her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty.[18]

There is no seriousness in a woman’s thought, according to Nietzsche, and any profundity a man ascribes to her stems from his inability to see past her vain shallowness.[19]  Playing perfectly into the cunning woman’s hands, as it frees her from having to indulge in the petty seriousness men are foolish enough to pursue:

Let us men confess it:  we honor and love precisely this art and this instinct in woman—we who have a hard time and for our relief like to associate with beings under whose hands, eyes, and tender follies our seriousness, our gravity and profundity almost appear to us like folly.[20]

I imagine how we who hold a certain degree of admiration for Nietzsche’s usually sharp analytic mind are by now feeling a clear sense of embarrassment for the philosopher’s strenuous desire to convince us of this simplistic and one-dimensional portrait he is drawing of female psychology.  Some Nietzscheans might try to soften the impression by pointing to the quasi-preface Nietzsche himself provides before stating his case against the feminine sex, where he seems to claim that his musings on womanhood are to be primarily understood as just his subjective opinion on the matter:

After this abundant civility that I have just evidenced in relation to myself I shall perhaps be permitted more readily to state a few truths about “woman as such”—assuming that it is now known from the outset how very much these are after all only—my truths.[21]

This is a noteworthy admission by the philosopher, indicating his possible awareness that the analysis he is providing on women is more of a personal assessment, and shouldn’t be regarded as the final word on the topic.

This is all well and good, but the problem is that Nietzsche’s words on the subject of womanhood are stated in absolutist terms (a practice the man himself spent much of his active life criticizing in others), which makes it near impossible to approach from a rational standpoint.  Not to mention, the not-so-subtle undertone of suspicion and conspiracy that emits from the spiteful prose, causes the reader to instinctively view Nietzsche’s own words with a layer of suspicion, unable to shake the feeling that perhaps this fight stems more from the philosopher’s desire to settle an inscrutable personal score (though I’m inclined to find such seemingly handy conclusions much too convenient to be of any real use).

Acknowledging his subjectivity on the subject or not, it is clear that Nietzsche does not see woman as being naturally inclined towards intellectual matters, because he identifies such matters as fundamental about a want to seek truth, which is barred to women because to face the truth of their deceitful character is too shameful—and ultimately harmful—to their person:  “Among women: ‘Truth? Oh, you don’t know truth! Is it not an attempt to kill our modesty?’”[22]

This defensiveness, according to Nietzsche, serves simply as a crafty cover to distract lurkers and probers from inquiring too deeply into the shallowness at the core of the female psyche:

Woman has much reason for shame; so much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmarmishness, petty presumption, petty licentiousness and immodesty lies concealed in woman.[23]

Feminist Nietzscheans have proposed the idea that Nietzsche’s over the top misogyny in his writings is his unique way of demonstrating the absurdly chauvinistic sentiment exhibited by the domineering males of his days[24]; not to mention, accentuate the superficiality of the traditional gender roles, many women themselves refused to deviate from in his time.[25]  Although, at the face of it, one might be generous enough to consider that Nietzsche’s sexist prose might be a rhetorical tool he uses to point to a deeper level in the intricacy of human behavior—which most of us are just not capable of grasping—I personally find such rationalizations highly dubious.

This is most evident by the fact that Nietzsche does not extend to women the ability to take part in the intellectual project the philosopher has spent his entire career championing; the transvaluation of all values.  And central to this project is the discarding of religious thought, a theme that Nietzsche repeats so often in his writings that it has become synonymous with his name.

While Nietzsche maintains that all men ought to move beyond the superficiality of deities and the supernatural, and embrace godlessness as the only viable stance for the thinking person, the philosopher flatly refuses to even consider the attempt to have women, too, take part in this intellectual reevaluation—and ridicules those men who do:

Here and there they even want to turn women into freethinkers and scribblers—as if a woman without piety would not seem utterly obnoxious and ridiculous to a profound and godless man.[26]

If nothing else, this alone (in my opinion) negates any attempt to reconcile Nietzsche’s views on woman with our modern understanding of gender equality.  Nietzsche simply does not see intellect as a “natural” characteristic of the opposite sex.

As I said before, I don’t think it would be accurate to wholly ascribe to Nietzsche the label of having a superiority complex towards women.  His views are better characterizes as hierarchical, placing women in a natural role, which in his unique view actually places her in firm control over the masculine gender.  To Nietzsche, woman is most powerful in her “natural state,” and that state is one of deceit and suspicion towards the external world, with no other interest but the propagation of her own image as the ideal of virtue, desirability, and (overall) the symbol of fertility itself.

The extent to which Nietzsche’s premise in all of this fails is best demonstrated by the superficiality and paranoia-like generalizations his argument takes against the supposed superficiality and paranoia of femininity:

What inspires respect for woman, and often enough even fear, is her nature, which is more “natural” than man’s, the genuine, cunning suppleness of a beast of prey, the tiger’s claw under the glove, the naiveté of her egoism, her uneducability and inner wildness, the incomprehensibility, scope, and movement of her desires and virtues.[27]

[1] Nietzsche’s onetime companion, and possible love interest, Lou Andreas-Salomé [see Nietzsche in His Work (1894)] & feminist author Frances Nesbitt Oppel [see “Nietzsche on Gender” (University of Virginia Press: 2005)] are probably the two most well-known proponents of this viewpoint.

[2] “Letter to Freiherr Karl von Gersdorff,” Bâle, May 26, 1876.

[3] “Letter to Madame Louise O.”, Rosenlauibad, August 29, 1877.

[4] “Letter to His Sister [Elisabeth Nietzsche]”, Nice, Wednesday, March 23, 1887.

[5] “Letter to His Sister”, Nice, January 25, 1888.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil, Part Four “Epigrams and Interludes” (1886), section 84.

[8] Ibid, section 85.

[9] Ibid, section 86.

[10] Ibid, section 115.

[11] He practically says so much in section 238 of the previously quoted book, when he refers to those males who reject his analysis of the shallowness of womanhood as “incapable of attaining any depth.”

[12] Ibid, section 131.

[13] Ibid, section 145.

[14] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Ecce Homo, “Why I Write Such Good Books” (1908), section 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows” (1888), section 27.

[20] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[21] Ibid, section 231.

[22] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows,” section 16.

[23] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 232.

[24] See footnote 1, above.

[25] Nietzsche’s reference to woman as occupying the place of “work-slaves and prisoners” in society has been cited as evidence of his understanding of the cultural subjugation of women (Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, section 18).

[26] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 239.

[27] Ibid.

Differentiating between the Objective and the Absolute

For something to be an absolute it must by definition be consistently changeless and impervious to new data–it always remains the same, in every situation, under every condition.  Thus, if someone claims to be taking an absolutist position he is essentially proclaiming that said position is immune to refinement and scrutiny, and will never need to be even slightly reexamined or amended, ever.  This is a mindset that I thoroughly reject, and I do so by necessity.  No idea, no proposal, no hypothesis, no theory, no fact, has ever, or will ever, be barred from the scrutiny of newly emergent data.  It is through a process of rigorous examination and reexamination that existing data about reality is reaffirmed, refined, or displaced by a better working model.  The introduction of absolutes does nothing to further our knowledge or our understanding of reality; in fact, it negates both with its inflexibility to change.  This is what I mean when I say that I reject all absolutes, and this is where some people falsely conclude that this must mean that I think all facts and claims about reality are just subjective opinions.

For something to be objectively true it must be verified to exist independent of any subject’s perception, feeling, or thought on the matter.  There are schools in philosophy which deny the possibility of objective facts on the basis that everything we perceive to exist does so solely through our subjective human perception of it, therefore what we call objective facts can never be anything more but our subjective human perception.  I am definitely not an adherent to such a mindset, and I’ll tell you why:  1,000 years ago various strains of viral and bacterial infections made plague and disease a common occurrence in people’s life.  The fact that these people had no knowledge of the viruses and bacteria that were causing their ailments (and no knowledge of germ theory, in general) made no difference to the reality of their existence, because the viruses and bacteria did not care whether or not they were perceived or known by the organisms they were infecting, maiming, and killing–that is to say, they existed independent of the subject’s perception, feeling, or thought on the matter; their existence was an objective fact whether anyone perceived it or not, as was their affect whether anyone understood it or not.  Likewise, prior to Newton people were largely unaware of the fact that the force of gravity was pulling down on them (and everything else) at 9.8 m/s^2, regardless of their subjective feeling or thought on the matter.  And similar things can be said about a number of other things, where subjective perception are irrelevant to objective data: heliocentric solar system, age of the earth, shape of the planet, and so on and so forth.

But I can already hear a faint cry of protestation here, “Wait a minute,” someone might be inclined to say, “doesn’t the fact that gravity is acting on us right now, and has always done so, mean that it is an objective fact, and an absolute, which contradicts your previous rejection of absolutes?”  In short, no.  The theory of gravity is accepted as the most reliable conclusion about the various relationships we see between matter on earth, the solar system, and the universe, and, thus far, has survived all measures of scientific scrutiny–but this by definition means that it is open to scrutiny, hence it is open to being overturned if (and that’s a big if) future observable, testable, verifiable, falsifiable, empirical data was to demand such a verdict.  If, hypothetically, extensive research was to demonstrate that what we think of as gravity is really the affect of three different, yet-unnamed, forces working together to produce what we have mistakenly been calling gravity, there isn’t a competent physicist in the world who would in defiance of all evidence dogmatically cling to the previous gravitational model–this is what keeps scientific theories from being absolutes, while still remaining objective facts; namely, that objective facts don’t need to be impervious to future revisions to remain objective, they just need to be independently verifiable from a subject’s perception, feeling, or thought on the matter.

A point of contention that arises from this is the claim that due to our fallible human perception, what we deem to be objective facts will always be dictated by our subjective observations, thus facts about reality cannot be verified fully independent of a subject’s perception, feeling, or thought on any matter.  Proponents of this philosophical position would agree with me about rejecting absolutes, but would also insist that my attempt to defend objective facts is dubious, because our interpretations of available data is unavoidably limited, and biased,  on account of our flawed human conception.  I accept the fact that our sub-Saharan, anthropocentric, primate brains are very good at concocting a flawed image of reality; hence, the once held belief that the earth is stationary and the center of the universe.  However, doesn’t the fact that, no matter what people might have thought on the subject, the earth was still rotating around the sun, in the corner of one tiny galaxy, indicate that verifiable objective facts still exist despite what our subjection perception tells us?  If we subjectively perceive the sun to be moving across the sky, but objectively know that it is the earth that is actually moving around the sun, does that not serve as a viable demonstration that despite all our flawed human thinking, we can still differentiate between the subjective and the objective?  After all, it is not our flawed human perception that is telling us that we live in a heliocentric solar system (our perception says the opposite), it is the accumulation of observable, testable, falsifiable, empirical data.

For one to continuously try and challenge this by claiming that, “But you can’t fully know if you’re interpreting the data accurately,” dwells into the realm of what I would call absolutist subjectivism–where one’s insistence that all physical facts are subjective starts to very much resemble the opposing view that facts are absolute (and I have already explained why I reject absolutist positions).  Such a dedication to deem all facts as merely the subjective perceptions of the mind ignores the reality that our perceptions are not solely the product of internal factors, but are also largely dependent and shaped by factors and circumstances of the external world.  The sun isn’t bright simply because we internally perceive it to be so, we perceive it to be bright because we are responding to external stimuli telling us it is so (the sun’s objective brightness couldn’t care less what we perceived one way or the other).

The pure solipsist would not be satisfied with any of this, because (according to solipsism) only one’s mind can be sure to exist, all else (including physical observations and personal perceptions) are liable to be illusions (such as hallucinations or dreams) created by said mind.  Generally, I consider solipsism to be too unfalsifiable of a position (which is a point to its detriment, not its favor) to spend time arguing against.  I’m skeptical as to why, if reality is wholly an illusion of my mind, I’m imagining myself to be nearsighted?  I have had bad vision since I was about 11 years old, and to this date never have I had one dream in which my dream self was afflicted with myopia.  The reason for this doesn’t seem all that mysterious to me, my brain doesn’t need my eyes to create images while I’m asleep; it works with the images registered in my conscious memory.  But if solipsism is true, and my mind was the only thing that truly existed, why does my imaginary self need eyes and glasses to perceive a world that is essentially a hallucination?  Why am I imagining myself to be dependent on physically external factors (my glasses, my contacts, my optometrist), in a reality that is essentially a product of my own conscious creation?  Yes, I know that solipsists will probably come up with some long-winded philosophical musing about how solipsism does not suppose that the content produced my the sole existence of the mind, necessitates any sort of control over said content; which does nothing to explain why I need my physical, material eyes and glasses to perceive an immaterial reality.  But it doesn’t matter, because it would be a waste of time to bother refuting the specifics of solipsism.

For the sake of argument, let us accept what the solipsist says, and mine is the only mind that exist (or, at least, the only one that is verifiable to me), and the physical world I perceive is a creation of my mind.  How would one actually go about differentiating a solipsistic reality from a non-solipsistic reality?  Even if solipsism is true [which I highly doubt], am I still not bound and limited by the parameters set up within this reality my conscious self is inhabiting?  Even if the force of gravity is something that my solipsistic mind has created, isn’t my inability to levitate off of the ground (even if just an imaginary perception) a fact within the reality I am inhabiting?  And doesn’t the fact that, despite what my mindful feelings, thoughts, or desires are on the matter, I am incapable of imagining myself defying gravity by levitating off of the ground make gravity an objective fact, at least within the conscious reality I am inhabiting?  Even if I turn out to just be dreaming all of this through some mind-only, brain-in-a-jar kind of state, if the parameters of this reality operate independent of my subjective perception, I am still bound by the physical world that I am apparently hallucinating myself in.  And if I have no means by which to escape from this dream world, I ask again, how is a solipsistic reality different from a non-solipsistic reality?  What exactly does solipsism offer to the discussion, besides a bunch of useless, baseless, non-consequential propositions?  Nothing, nothing at all.  (And if you happen to be a solipsist, and you disagree with what I’ve said, you should keep in mind that by disagreeing with me, you are essentially disagreeing with yourself on account that I–and this blog–are just a creation of your mind.)

Now, a fair point to all of this would be to stop me right here and mention how when people in the modern world are discussing absolute and objective facts what they are usually debating over isn’t the cold, mechanical, facts of scientific inquiry on physical reality, which hold no direct consequence on their personal values in life (though this is a debatable point, depending on the particular scientific inquiry in question).  What people really are asking is whether or not there exists such a thing as absolute moral judgments, or objective moral judgments.  This, to me, is a much more intricate question to ponder.  Personally, I am still inclined to say that absolutes do not exist even when it comes to moral judgments.  For instance, do I think that lying is morally reprehensible?  Yes.  Can I think of instances when lying would not be morally reprehensible?  Yes.  I cannot see how an absolutist moral framework allows for such a disparity on a single moral judgment to occur, since something that is absolutely right or wrong demands for it to be applicable equally to all circumstances, lest one admits to the circumstantial (non-absolute) nature of moral principles.

Ayn Rand’s Atlass Shrugged: Analysis and Critique

Part One:  Analysis

Exposing the means by which the looters of a nation are able to exploit the abilities of the productive members of society lies at the heart of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.  The plot of the novel makes a clear distinction between the two factions through the values each side exhibits for their worldview, and more importantly the imagery by which they express such ideals.  This is best illustrated in a dialogue that occurs halfway through the novel, in which the pirate character Ragner Danneskjöld—speaking to industrialist Hank Rearden—declares his intent to destroy the person of Robin Hood from human consciousness.  To him, Robin Hood is the embodiment of the misplaced mentality modern society has come to embrace.  He claims that it s through the legacy surrounding his exploits that the looters of today are offered a convenient excuse to promote their detrimental moral superiority, which encourages that the need of one man justifies the sacrifice of another.  Ragner Danneskjöld’s aim to eradicate the ideals, legend, and righteousness of Robin Hood, as a means to free mankind from his own self-imposed deprecation and provide him with the independent morale necessary to survive, stands as a perfect metaphorical expression to illustrate Rand’s philosophical stance for the virtue of self-interest over the misguided value of self-sacrifice.

Right from the start Ragner Danneskjöld makes it abundantly clear how his worldviews contrasts that of the man he is out to destroy, Robin Hood, and why these differences create an odious contempt against the man, and the ideals which are embodied by him.  He explains that where Robin Hood sought to take from the rich and give to the poor, he in turn is “the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich” (page 532).  Here, Danneskjöld is careful with his diction, as not to give a misconstrued representation of his words.  He uses thieving to describe the needy underprivileged poor and illustrate his belief that a group who seeks compensation, without the intent of earning their imbursements, is in fact robbing from those who have accumulated their wealth through relentless labor and resourcefulness (the productive rich).  The idea of Robin Hood, Danneskjöld states, creates a false warrant of merit where it is the inept who are justified in demanding aid from the skilled, a logic which holds little ground against objective reasoning, based on the notion that strength and intellect are factors of dominance not servitude.  Danneskjöld’s views differ in that he sees each man responsible for his own wellbeing, but realizes that this is challenged by the faux guilt hanging over the conscience of the productive few, and the widespread assurance that those with manufacturing ability have a responsibility to provide for the survival of others with lesser capabilities.  He encapsulates this partiality as, “the need of some men is the knife of a guillotine hanging over others—that all of us must live with our work, our hopes, our plans, our efforts, at the mercy of the moment when that knife will descend upon us” (p.532).  Such a grim depiction further serves to emphasize the intense abhorrence Danneskjöld feels for the looter’s ideology.  He sees the admiration of men like Robin Hood as a prime factor society has become to delude itself of the supposed inherent justice of altruism that is being offered as the only humane quality necessary for people to posses.  By encouraging these sentiments, the looters render any counterargument as nonsensical simply through the public impression that all other takes on the matter are immoral by definition.  Hence, leaving the producers and providers of society to be drained and deposed of as the needy masses see fit.

Ragner Danneskjöld’s vehement reproach towards Robin Hood stems not so much from the actual reality of the man, but the pretense which has come to symbolize him.  On page 532 he says, “It is said that he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived.”  Clearly, Danneskjöld is able to differentiate between the folk hero image Robin Hood represented as someone who stood against an abusive ruling authority—and even accept the gallantry associated with it—from what he sees as a prevarication created by those seeking to use his actions to elevate their own ideology amongst the populace.  His contempt is not so much aimed at eradicating the man, but the myth of him that has come to serve the plunderers of society.  Nonetheless, Danneskjöld also understands that in order to free the world from the self-deprecation brought on by the legend, no distinction can be made between man and myth.  The reason being that as long as a man like Robin Hood exists to serve as a guiding example for the looters, it is necessary to deal with the two entities as one and the same, due to the extend the myth has come to overtake every aspect of the man’s personhood.  Danneskjöld explains his rationale plainly when he gives his assessment of what Robin Hood has become, “He is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity” (p.532).  It is through his selfless servitude that Robin Hood’s legacy evolved into the defender of the poor, rather than the robbed.  Such an image caused the distortion which Danneskjöld hopes to destroy; the idea that the true nature of mankind involves the demand for self-sacrifice.  And, although, Danneskjöld considers it complete folly, he understands the depth to which man is capable of falling if such nonsensical sentiment continues to be valued as morally correct.

The righteousness of Robin Hood is the ultimate goal Ragner Danneskjöld wishes to remove from human consciousness.  Considering it a personal duty to relieve man of the foul virtues he has accepted through centuries of fanciful tales, which have caused the discarding of realistic sensibility.  Danneskjöld argues against an ideology that considers the preservation of the self immoral, yet praises the believe that, “in order to be placed above rights, above principles, above morality, placed where anything is permitted to him, even plunder and murder, all a man has to do is to be in need” (p.533).  The championing of need is in Danneskjöld eyes the greatest depravity luring mankind away from realizing the importance of personal interest.  A world where all men are held accountable to provide for themselves, Danneskjöld argues, is a world where every member of society will labor to achieve highest proficiency, rather than depend on someone else’s productive output.  He sees the preservation of egotism not just as a necessity for his own values to survive, but the existence of mankind as a whole.  This is best summarized by Danneskjöld in his closing words, “Until men learn that of all human symbols, Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible, there will be no justice on earth and no way for mankind to survive” (p.533).  To remove Robin Hood from the moral pedestal society has set him on, would deprive the looters of a functioning symbol to hold over the head of men striving to earn their wealth instead of waiting for free hand-outs.  As long as the idolization of someone like Robin Hood persists amongst the general public, no hope lies for the true providers of society—working not to serve another man’s needs, but solely their own interest.

The fundamental plot of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged exhibits the struggle between those few in society who have rejected the moral superiority of altruistic self-sacrifice, and the looters who use the concept of need to subjugate any trace of personal interest and basic individuality.  The character of Ragner Danneskjöld serves to illustrate the idea of what man should strive to be; resourceful, fearless, and nondependent on other men’s capabilities.  He declares Robin Hood as the one man he is out to destroy as his personal mission to rid the world of its unyielding thirst for need.  He views the ideals, legend, and righteousness of the Sherwood Forest archer as the primary symbol serving the looters false ethical cause.  Ragner Danneskjöld reasons that the fatal blow necessary for man to see through the gilded façade the looters have erected to cover their noxious ideology is the death of their idol, the original offender against the nature of man, Robin Hood.

Part Two:  Critique

Although the brief exchange between Hank Rearden and Ragner Danneskjöld is meant by Ayn Rand to logically outline her philosophical position concerning the destitute nature of altruism, a number of apparent logical faults can be found right in the midst of the impassioned dialogue.  On page 532, Ragner Danneskjöld explains how he has never robbed a single private or military vessel during his pirate campaigns against the looters of society.  The reason for the first is self-evident by the stance of Rand’s ideals on capitalism, as to why military vessels are not to be attacked, Danneskjöld notes, “because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it, which is the proper function of a government” (p.532).  However, on the same page, the pirate names his ideological foe as “the idea that need is a sacred idol requiring human sacrifice.”  The problem with this line is that it seemingly negates the point he has made about the necessity of preserving the military, since the military is a prime example of an institution that operates primarily on the notion of self-sacrifice for the sake of a particular society/country/community as a whole.  Danneskjöld’s acceptance of the need for such an establishment runs counter to his vehement promotion of individual self-interest.

Rand might argue that this is irrelevant, on account that Ragner Danneskjöld specifically mentions that the military is supposed to protect those who “paid for it,” but such a rationalization does not solve the philosophical dilemma at hand, and even leads to a number of more conundrums.  Namely, it does not address the fact that in a world where self-interest is heralded as the ideal standard of behavior, the fundamental principles of military combatants will be eradicated, because it is universally understood that a soldier is expected to give his life for his brothers in arms, and for his country, if the situation calls for it; the interests of the individual are secondary to the interest of the unit as a whole.  And, on the point of the military serving those who paid for it, one is left bemused by what exactly Danneskjöld means by this.  He mentions that such is the proper function of government, thus it implies he does support the notion that the government is to be the arbitrator of the armed forces.  However, further on in the text, Danneskjöld firmly rejects taxation as a form of robbery (p.534), suggesting that the method by which citizens are to pay for their military protection must come from some other means—more than likely, what is implied is a direct payment of some sort.  This leads to a major problem that is left ignored by Rand throughout the dialogue; the possibility that if the military is privatized to protect those who have paid for their service, the result will be unmanageable disparity that can lead to losses amongst all economical sectors of society.

As a thought experiment, say, for example, that the East Coast of the U.S. is the more affluent part of the country (let us assume it is due to it having more entrepreneurs investing into a growing industrial economy) and uses its affluence to thoroughly protect its shores from any possible threats that might harm its source of wealth; while the West Coast is significantly less affluent, and, as a result, cannot afford as much military protection for its shores.  Let’s also set that the material resources the industrial centers on the East Coast use to produce their wealth is located on the uncultivated areas of the West Coast.  Since, presumably, the entrepreneurs of the East Coast would have a vested interest in keeping the West Coast as nonindustrial as possible, so as to keep the production costs of their products lower than the selling price.  But, because the West Coast cannot afford to properly protect its shores, their material resources (which are used by the East Coast) lie more vulnerable to external threats of theft.  Should the East Coast pay for the needed military protection of the West Coast?  And, if so, in whose individual self-interest is it to cover the cost?  Ideally, the West Coast should be expected to cover the cost itself, but in order for it to produce the wealth necessary to properly protect its shore it will need to increase prices on its material goods; at the expense of the East Coast.  Thus, it would appear, the East Coast is left picking up the bill no matter the angle one chooses to lock at this dilemma.

Now, since the government is the arbitrator of the military (as implied by Danneskjöld), one would be justified in proposing that it should also bear the responsibility of paying for the expenses that go into deploying its forces.  But where would the government get the revenue to make such payments?  Presumably taxes, but Danneskjöld has already established that taxation is equivalent to robbery, therefore for the government to tax its citizens would be criminal in nature.  It is true that the average worker has some interest in keeping the resources of their employer protected, lest they risk losing their place of employment.  However, to what degree should a menial employee be expected to pay for the protection of resources, whose total revenue potential he will only receive a fraction of (in comparison to the individuals who run the company)?  Perhaps, the wealthy entrepreneurs and industrialists, who have the greatest interest in protecting the West Coast, can be expected to provide the greatest payment to the government in order to finance the needed military protection (and, yes, it would have to be given through the government, since Danneskjöld has already acknowledged that the government’s function is to be in charge of the military).  Thus, the burden to pay falls on those who earn the most from the protected resources.  This seems like a viable position, but the question then becomes, how, in practice, is this any different from taxation?  It would appear that the only difference would be a lack of coercion on behalf of the wealthy, and maybe that’s the underlying point, but if the end result is still the same as before, what sense is there in pretending that the current system is a form of tyranny since the solution will essentially be the exact same thing only promoted by the tenets of a different ideological principle?

Another major point of contention arises through the message Ayn Rand is trying to present through Ragner Danneskjöld’s condemnation of Robin Hood (and altruism in general).  In his dialogue with Hank Rearden, Ragner Danneskjöld makes the case that wealth is an inherent indication of productivity.  Implying that due to the competitive nature of the market those who are wealthiest will also be those who possess the greater intellect and talent, and, thereby, are by definition the most deserving of all the riches and power they can accumulate; while those who occupy the lower ranks of society do so by the merits of their own failures.  However, this is clearly not as absolute as Danneskjöld is making it sound, and as the Robin Hood fables are meant to convey.  The rich Robin Hood stole from were corrupt monarchs who demanded servitude from the lower classes of society, not because they had gained their wealth by the merit of their work, but due to an arbitrary right of birth.  In this scenario, the most productive members of society were the underprivileged poor, the looters as Ragner Danneskjöld would call them, but who had no means to benefit from their productivity due solely to the fact that they were born in poor households.  Hence, in such a system, it would be fundamentally disingenuous to claim that the lower-classes lack of economic motility is the result of a lack of productivity, just as it would be insincere to proclaim that wealth to be a representations of intellect or work ethic.

The question of inherited vs. earned wealth is an issue that Ayn Rand never dwells into in Atlas Shrugged, even though any defense of her philosophy demands a clarification on this point; especially if one branches out to the greater narrative of the novel.  For example, two of the main characters in the novel, Dagney Taggert and Francisco d’Anconia (both of whom are presented throughout the prose as the epitome of the productive capitalist) lay claim to their fortune strictly by an accident of birth.  Both have inherited their wealth through the work of their productive ancestors, not through, shall we say, the sweat of their brow.  It is true that they are shown to be ardent entrepreneurs (although, for the aristocratic d’Anconia, this is more a matter that the reader is just suppose to grant as a given for the sake of the narrative; he is never actually shown creating anything industrially successful throughout the plot), but the question of how these characters would have succeeded if they had not been born in such a privileged position remains open to question.  This is particularly noteworthy, since the majority of the named antagonists in the novel (who seek to undermine all the values the Rand’s protagonists hold dear) are also wealthy industrialists, thus, the plot subtly acknowledges the point that the possession of wealth is not an ideal indicator of productivity.

The pivotal event Atlas Shrugged is leading up to is the point at which the productive few of society unanimously go on strike, and allow the looters of society to fully see the catastrophic fate that their self-sacrificing policies will inevitably lead to; i.e. the complete collapse of civilization.  Although the novel ends at this point, in his dialogue with Rearden, Danneskjöld gives the reader a glimpse of what is to follow thereafter.  He states, “When we are free and have to start rebuilding from out of the ruins, I want to see the world reborn as fast as possible” (p.535).  Here, he is giving justification for his work as a pirate, he is simply collecting the money that has been looted away from the productive to be utilized by them to remold society after the coming collapse (ironically drawing parallels with the criminal aspects of Robin Hood).  He continues, “If there is, then, some working capital in the right hands—in the hands of our best, our most productive—it will save years for the rest of us and, incidentally centuries for the history of the country” (p.535).  Thereby, those productive few who currently are held down by the looting majority will be well compensated in the imminent future.  However, this once again brings up the topic of earned vs. inherited wealth.  While those who Danneskjöld sees worthy today are bound to continue accumulating their wealth in this approaching utopia, what exactly will happen to those who might possess the potential to be entrepreneurs, but were unfortunate enough to have been born amongst the looting majority?  The narrative seems to imply that once the virtue of self-sacrifice has been thoroughly annihilated in favor of self-interest, those who deserve to rise through the social ladder will be able to do so.  However, it goes without saying that, whether or not the potential advancement exists, few will be able to actually occupy the ranks of the rich, simply because the number of available spots will always pale in comparison to the number of lower-ranking poor.  Therefore, most people will have to be content with the lower position they occupy in society, and these will be the ones upon whom the fortunes of the rich few will be founded on; meaning that, once more, the social reality that is to arise from the coming collapse will not be much different from the society that exists today.

Furthermore, the question is still open as to how someone such as the aristocratic Francisco d’Anconia, who has never been shown to produce anything of worth, whose entire fortune is based on the merits of his last name, deserves to be amongst the ranks of the productive few, other than strictly through his association with the other protagonists in the narrative?  How is someone born poor in this post-looter society, expected to compete with the generations worth of wealth that d’Anconia has inherited from his ancestors? (This point still stands even if one takes into account the fact that d’Anconia’s mission is to undermine the current social order by wasting the wealth he has, because Danneskjöld’s words to Rearden clearly imply that he will be reimbursing all the productive rich in the coming era for their present losses.)  While a reader can speculate one scenario after another, the truth is that all of these points remain unaddressed by the plot itself.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is meant to convince the reader of the superiority of promoting strict capitalism in all aspects of a person’s life.  It is a simple philosophy, best articulated by the pirate character Ragner Danneskjöld, in his dialogue against the legend of Robin Hood, and the virtue of self-sacrifice the looting masses have accepted as morally viable.  Although there are times in which Danneskjöld seems to be conveying a deeper truth pertinent to the advancement of an industrial society, upon scrutiny, much of the foundation that he sets to build this new ideology of self-interest on is based on flimsy premises that leaves too many factors unexamined (two of which, the proper function of government and the dilemma of inherited vs. earned wealth, are pointed out here).  As such this simple philosophy comes across as overly simplistic to hold any practical application.

Bibliography

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. Signet Book (New York: 1992, original 1957).