Sine qua non: No shortcuts

This past summer at language school a young man invited me to a party, which I had to refuse since there was a major exam coming up. In response he said, “But you’re smart, why do you have to study?” He was genuinely astonished at the idea that intelligent people have to study; for him, intelligence meant that one was spared the bother of having to work to master a skill or a subject. His bewildered reaction made me start thinking about the nature of the work surrounding achievement and how it is perceived.

Bluntly put, achievement is very hard work and requires tremendous sacrifice. Last weekend, Oxford had its matriculation ceremony, after which the individual colleges arranged group photoshoots. While waiting for one shoot, I overheard two young women discussing a celebratory evening party. One said that she couldn’t go because she had to finish the reading for the next day, but the other said that she had risen at five o’clock that morning in order to finish her reading so that she could attend the party. Neither one was bothered by the choices she had to make, and they were united in their agreement that study came first. Missing a party or missing sleep were simply prices for achievement.

There is an ancient Egyptian legend about a couple who stole the Book of Thoth, which contained all the wisdom of the natural and supernatural worlds, copied it down on a stone writing tablet, washed the stone, and then drank the runoff water; in doing so they acquired all that knowledge without having to read the book. (For those who are interested, the story doesn’t end well, mostly because Thoth is annoyed that his book is gone, but also because, having not genuinely learned the material, the couple can’t control their new-found powers.) In the Folger Museum in Washington DC, there is a medieval manuscript (MS V.b.26 (1)) that contains a spell to compel the spirits to do your writing for you, though as a friend of mine drily pointed out, there’s nothing promised about the quality of writing delivered. What is interesting about myths and spells concerning shortcuts to knowledge and accomplishment is that they are all focused on bypassing the sacrificial process, while still being crowned with the laurels.

The ancient/medieval view was that the spiritual sphere, being responsible in the first place, could help create a world where everyone could achieve without the bother of the foundational work. Now, in a post-Frankfurt School, Utilitarianist world, society speaks in terms of “talent,” as if it is a supernatural thing that requires no cultivation, existing fully formed in a vacuum. We have come from Thomas Jefferson arguing that every person should be free to pursue his own interests according to his endowments to John Rawls’ yowling about the “injustice” of modern society and a world where smart, talented people appear to “have it all.” In order for the Rawlsian vision of the world to work out in completely equitable justice, the work put in by achievers in pursuit of their goals must be negated.

On a personal note, I remember one chillingly funny episode when, during a seminar, a classmate informed a group of us that our coming in prepared, having done the readings and written up commentary, was an act of oppression against her. Her basic argument was that we were too smart, and it wouldn’t cost us anything to show up unprepared once in a while in order to let her shine. We finished on time; I ran into her three days before all MA theses were due for submission and she hadn’t started writing yet. I’m willing to bet, though, that in her movie she’s a victim and we’re all oppressors.

In a way, the romaticization and mythicization of people of genius has been very unhelpful to society, especially since the popular conception of these people appears to support Rawls and Co.’s complaints. Let us take the example of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, partially because his myth is a perfect example and partially because this is a topic I would be happy to discuss for days on end. The popular myth is fairly well established: genius infant who miraculously taught himself everything and created beautiful music as a three-year-old, before dying tragically young, in keeping with the romantic tradition of great geniuses.

The reality, while hardly prosaic, is much less romantic. W.A. Mozart’s parents, Leopold and Anna Maria, were superbly well-educated for the standards of their time. Their familial letters, written in a mix of German, French, Italian, Latin, some English, and mathematical substitution ciphers are a jumble of thoughts and observations on literature, music, art, history, political events, social commentary, and professional talk, along with some infantile humor. Musicologist Nicholas Till wrote a wonderful book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Beauty and Virtue in Mozart’s Operas, that covers exactly how having an Enlightenment-era (possessing an unbound belief in the benefits of education and faith in the individual), Renaissance man (good at everything) for a father affected Mozart and his sister.

Due to the extensive concertizing tours undertaken throughout Wolfgang and Marianne Mozart’s childhood,[1]music history tends to treat their father as the epitome of a deranged stage parent. But one of Leopold’s primary reasons for the tours was to procure music lessons for his son with the best musicians in the world. On the infamous “Grand Tour,” where the Mozart family travelled across Europe, from 1763 to 1766, the family spent over a year in England, on stretched financial means, so Wolfgang could study composition with Johann Christian Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s surviving sons and a much-sought after composer and teacher. Leopold was absolutely determined that his son would study with a Bach and the family had first spent time in the Netherlands in an unsuccessful effort to contact Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, J.C.’s brother. Mozart senior also applied the same strategy to obtaining private instrumental and voice lessons for Wolfgang. So much for the spontaneous aspect of the child genius story; during his boyhood, the composer had lessons with masters for whom he had to prepare work and have it judged. Genius might exist, but it had to be formed and cultivated, a process that the Mozart myth has completely and deceptively lost.

Losing sight of the work, sacrifice, and constructive elements of achievement has, I believe, provided valuable fuel to the social resentment industry. It is easier to envy the accomplishments and standing of others if one believes that they are unearned endowments because the person holding them is “gifted.” In my own path and work that I do, I’ve seen many people of envious or resentful inclination become devastated emotionally and psychologically when they come into close contact with high-achievers and see the amount of work, time, investment, and sacrifice that being one requires.

In my experience, these people either develop personal persecution narratives, such as the girl from my class, or flounce out proclaiming that they “have a life.” My personal experience has made me doubt the efficacy of Charles Murray’s solution, proposed at the end of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010, that the best cure for the culture of resentment and anger is for the top twenty percent, representative of the high-achieving, to become visible to the bottom eighty and in doing so to allow the bottom sectors to see how hard the top actually works. Historically, the argument is probably justified; returning to the example of the Mozart family, their close association with the aristocracy, both hereditary and professional, certainly provided impetus for the children to set themselves new challenges as part of winning respect and recognition. But that family had an openness to self-improvement, a belief in the possibility of it that as a larger cultural force was, as Nicholas Till repeatedly pointed out, unique to the Enlightenment.

The people of contemporary society not only lack such a belief, they are closed even to the possibility that there is room for improvement. This is not new; Nietzsche observed and decried the culture of ressentiment– defined by the OED as “a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be satisfied.” Only now there is no suppression. Achievement through self-improvement is replaced with cries for equality of outcome. People are no longer willing to work for achievement, instead they want is for what they have done, no matter how small, no matter how inadequate, to be recognized as achievements, citing that they did invest time, energy, and money it their banalities. Since the investment aspect is very important, I’ll close here and we’ll look at it next.

[1]Marianne Mozart was, according to the entire family, the better musician and performer of the two siblings. By the time of her early teens, she had surpassed her father and brother as a violinist and pianist to such an extent that her brother gradually ceased playing seriously himself in order to concentrate on composing for her. However, her parents had her retire from the stage once she turned seventeen in order to leave her open for an aristocratic marriage, which she eventually made. After she was widowed, she became a very successful teacher and was able to support single-handedly her children, step-children, and nephews and leave behind a massive fortune.

Another Liberty Canon: Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French writer on various but related topics of power, knowledge, discourse, history of thought, ethics, politics, and so on. His name to some summons negative associations of French intellectual fashion, incomprehensibility, and refinements of Marxist anti-liberty positions.

However, his influence in various fields has become too lasting, and too much taken up by people who do not fit into the categories just mentioned, for such reactions to be considered adequate. Foucault himself resisted and mocked labels, which was a serious issue for him because in his work he tried to question the absolute authority of any one system of knowledge and the  authority of isolated great thinkers.

He said that once he had written something it was no longer what he thought, which is in part a playful attempt to resist labelling, but also a rather serious point deeply embedded in his thought, about the nature of subjectivity, how it is always more than what we say or more than the identity that power relations impose on us.

It seems to me that any ethics of subjectivity has pro-liberty implications, and despite the image some might have of Foucault as morally irresponsible or indifferent, he increasing developed the idea of  self-invented subjectivity, based on care of the self, the art of existence, and related terms.

The self-invention does not mean that Foucault thought we can arbitrarily will our self to be anything, it does mean that he thought we have possibilities to cultivate ourselves to live in a way that relates to, and challenges our existing strengths and goals.

Despite the image for some of intellectual fashion round Foucault, these ideas were partly developed through study of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about ethics and style of living, which included interaction with scholars in the field.

Another theme he developed through his interests in antique knowledge and culture was that of ‘parrhesia’, Greek word that refers to free speaking, which in the context of ancient city states, particularly the Athenian democracy, had strong overtones of courage in truth telling before the city assembly, a prince of any other source of power.

The ethic of truth telling relates to Foucault’s own work on the language of knowledge and the history of science, as well his political ideas. He did not believe in absolute final systems of knowledge, autonomous of context, but he did believe that trying to find truths within whatever perspectives was an ethical enterprise connected with the kind of self cultivation he advocated.

Foucault’s own father had been a doctor and on at least one occasion Foucault suggested his own work was a continuation of the doctors work that evidently combines ethical and scientific aspects. It must also be said that Foucault was a great critic of the authority of experts, including doctors, so he might also be seen as struggling with the memory of his father.

The ambiguity and the personal involvement in ideas suggested there is very much at work throughout Foucault’s writing, in its tension and energy. It is part of his ‘difficulty’, which also comes from the philosophical and literary interests he had, which relate to the creative possibilities of linguistic disruption. We can see that in the most obvious way when he quotes literary texts of Borges, Beckett and so on.

The existential commitments in Foucault’s work is clear if we think about the book that made him famous, History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), and his personal experience of mental ill health and psychiatric treatment, particularly in his student years.

We can also think about his constant critique of power and his individual  willingness to physically confront power, as in the beatings he received from the police at demonstrations for rights in both France and in Tunisia (where he taught for a few years just after becoming a celebrity public intellectual in France).

Returning to the topic of experts and power, one of Foucault’s most pervasive ideas now is of ‘biopolitics’, that is the way that power expresses itself through prolongation of life. As the state has moved from a basis in the power of death over criminals and other supposed enemies, to a promotion of population, public health, and prolongation of life, it has demanded corresponding powers of intervention and control.

At the extreme this means the ‘racial hygiene’ ideas that German National Socialists used to justify the Holocaust, and in a more routine way means expanding state activity justified by public health goals. We can readily see the contemporary significance of Foucault’s ideas here in relation to ever expanding state and ‘expert’ attempts to limit smoking, drinking alcohol and supersized fizzy drinks, eating sugary and fatty foods, and so on.

The ideas about biopolitics builds on the discussion of modern power in maybe his most widely read book, Discipline and Punish, which deals with the way that the prison becomes the central means of punishment after the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and suggests the dangers of Enlightenment becoming a controlling form of rationalism.

The way the prison works, around observation, or surveillance, of prisoners to ensure adherence to prison routine was the model of modern power for Foucault including factories, schools, and armies, in a model of ‘disciplinarily’. Again Foucault’s intellectual interests correspond with life commitments, as he was a prominent campaigner for prisoner rights, under the inspiration of the man with whom he shared his life, the academic sociologist Daniel Defert.

Foucault’s analyses in Discipline and Punish, and related material, draw on the ‘classical sociology’ of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber with regard to norms and authority, as his views on the emergence of the modern state draw heavily on the ‘pre-sociology’ to be found in the historical and social work of the classical liberal thinkers Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Brède and Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville.

There is some drawing on Marx, but one should be wary of those left socialist inclined advocates of Foucault who emphasise this strongly, since they don’t mention the other points of orientation so much. The same applies to remarks Foucault made about the importance of the twentieth century Marxist theory of the Frankfurt School, as those who emphasise such remarks ignore accompanying remarks about the importance of Max Weber and ‘Neoliberalism’ (i.e. classical liberal and libertarian thought since the Austrian Liberal school of Menger, Hayek, Mises etc).

Strange as it might seem, Foucault suggests we take Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School, and Neoliberalism together as attempts to explore liberty and power. Maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange, however awful the consequences of Marxist ideas coming in power have been, that does not mean we should ignore Marx and Marxism, which starts by drawing heavily on classical liberalism and does have some noteworthy things to say about constraints on liberty in a capitalist society, even if offering bad solutions.

Certainly Foucault is not your man if you think a pro-liberty position means uncritical embrace of the links between private enterprise and state power, but since the liberty tradition has in a very significant way been concerned with criticism of rent seeking and crony capitalism, of the drives within capitalism to betray itself, then I don’t think we need to reject Foucault in this area. Indeed it is even a part of the liberty tradition to reject ‘capitalism’ as tied to the state and concentrations of power and argue for markets, property, and association rights liberated from state alliances with economic power.

This is the core of left-libertarianism, and even Foucault’s most Marxist leaning fans would find it hard to deny that left-libertarian is an appropriate label for Foucault. Clearly he was a natural maverick and critic of all power, including state socialist power. I suggest his life, his activism, and his writing, can be taken as an inspiration for all liberty-inclined people. Even on the more conservative side, Foucault’s thoughts about self-cultivation are a version of virtue theory, of an emphasis on cultivating virtue, so Foucault has a lot to offer to all streams of liberty thought.

Those Foucault texts most relevant to political thought about liberty


History of Madness (also published as Madness and Civilisation)

Discipline and Punish

History of Sexuality (3 volumes: Will to Knowledge, The Uses of PleasureThe Care of the Self)

Collected lectures

(Foucault’s rather early death means that much of his work was in lectures that would have been later revised into published material. The task of bringing those lectures into print is still underway).

Fearless Speech

The Government of Self and Others

The Birth of Biopolitics 

Security, Territory, Population 

Hermeneutics of the Subject 

Society Must be Defended