The existentialist origins of postmodernism

In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”

Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.

It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”

This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.

Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.

Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.

Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.

In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aristotle

Apparently  some people have enjoyed the posts on ‘Another Liberty Canon’, so I will keep going on that tack, but with a revision to the heading as I ‘ll be covering some thinkers already accepted into the liberty canon, or at least some of the various canons. I’ll continue to discuss what I think should be brought into the canon, and push the boundaries a bit on those already generally accepted into the canon. I’ll be giving coverage to major figures, with regard to their work as a whole, but at some point I’ll start doing some relatively detailed readings of individual classic works.

I’ll start at the beginning, more of less with Aristotle. I’m sure there are texts and thinkers within the Greek tradition, and certainly in the Near East, southern and eastern Asia, and so on worthy of attention, but for substantial books clearly devoted to the nature of politics, and which have a focus on some idea of liberty, Aristotle seems as a good a place as any to start.

There is maybe a case for starting with Aristotle’s teacher Plato, or even Plato’s teacher. I think Plato should be rescued from the persistent image, never popular with Plato scholars, of forerunner of twentieth century totalitarianism, because just to start off the counter-arguments, Plato’s arguments refer to a reinforcement, albeit radical and selective, of existing customs rather than the imposition of a new state imposed ideology, and certainly do to suggest that arbitrary state power should rise above law.

However,  on the liberty side, Plato’s teacher Socrates was the promoter in his own life style of a kind of individualist strength and critical spirit who fell foul of public hysteria. We know very little about Socrates apart from the ways Plato represents him, but the evidence suggests Socrates was more concerned with a kind of absolutism about correct customs, laws and philosophical claims, in his particular critical individualistic attitude than what we would now recognise as a critical individualistic attitude.

It looks like Socrates was an advocate of the laws and constitutions in Greek states, like Sparta that were less respectful of individuality, liberty and innovation than Athens. Though Aristotle does not look like the ideal advocate of liberty by our standards, he was critical of Plato (often referring to him though Socrates, though it looks like he is reacting to Plato’s texts rather than any acquaintance with Socratic views different to those mentioned by Plato) for subordinating the individual to the state and abandoning private property, presumably referring to the Republic which does seem to suggest that for Plato, ideally the ruling class of philosopher-guardians should not own property, and that the lower classes composed of all those who accumulate money through physical effort, a special craft,  or trade, should be completely guided by those guardians.

It is not clear that Plato ever meant the imaginary ideal state of the Republic to be implemented, but it is clear that it reflects the preference Plato had for what he sees as the changeless pious hierarchies and laws of the Greek states of Crete and Sparta, and the already ancient kingdom of Egypt, in which power goes to those who at least superficially have detached themselves from the world of material gain in some military, political, or religious devotion to some apparently higher common good.

Plato and (maybe) Socrates had some difficulties in accepting the benefits of the liberties and democracy associated with fifth and fourth century BCE Athens that fostered commercial life, great art, great literature, and great philosophy. I will discuss the explanation and promotion of the values of Athens in a future post on the most distinguished leader of democratic Athens, Pericles, so I will not say more about it here.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) came from outside Athens, he was born in monarchist Macedon which lacked the republican institutions of participatory government in the city states of Greece. Aristotle’s family was linked with the monarchy which turned Macedon into the hegemon of Greece, destroying the autonomy of Athens and the other republics. Aristotle even spent time as the tutor of Alexander the Great, who turned the Madedonian-Greek monarchical state into an empire stretching to India and Libya.

Aristotle was however not the advocate of such empires, but had already studied with Plato in Athens, where he acquired a preference for the self-governing city state participatory model of politics . His links with the Macedonian state sometimes made it difficult to spend time in Athens where most resented the domination from the north, so he spend time in Anatolia (apparently marrying the daughter of a west Anatolian king), the Aegean islands and the island of Euboea off Athens, dying in the latter place.

Despite these difficulties, Aristotle was so much in favour of the values of republican Athens that he even endorsed the idea that foreigners, or those born of one foreign parent could not be citizens, in case of a dilution of the solidarity and friendship between citizens. This issue brings us onto the ways in which Aristotle does not appeal to the best modern ideas of liberty. He was attached to the idea of a self-enclosed citizen body, along with slavery, the secondary status of women, the inferior nature of non-Greeks, restrictions on commerce, and the inferiority of those who labour for a living or create new wealth.

Nevertheless, given the times he lived in, his attitudes were no worse than you would expect and often better. Despite his disdain for non-Greeks, he recognised that the north African city of Carthage had institutions of political freedom  worth examining. His teacher Plato was perhaps better on one issue, the education of women, which appeared to have no interest to Aristotle.

Still unlike Plato, he did not imagine a ‘perfect’ city state where everything he found distasteful had been abolished and did not dream of excluding free born males at least from the government of their own community. Aristotle disdained labourer as people close to slavery in their dependence on unskilled work to survive, but assumed that such people would be part of a citizens’ assembly in any state where there was freedom.

His ideal was the law following virtuous  king, and then a law following virtuous aristocracy (that is those who inherited wealth), but even where the government was dominated by king or aristocracy, he thought the people as a whole would play some part in the system, and that state power would still rest on the wishes of the majority.

All Greeks deserved to Iive with freedom, which for Aristotle meant a state  where laws (which he thought of as mainly customary reflecting the realities of ancient Greece) restrained rulers and rulers had the welfare of all free members of the community as the object of government. In this way rulers developed friendship with the ruled, an aspect of virtue, which for Aristotle is the same as the happy life, and justice.

Friendship is justice according to Aristotle in its more concrete aspects, and ideally would replace the more formal parts of justice. Nevertheless Aristotle did discuss justice in its more formal aspects with regard to recompense for harms and distribution of both political power and wealth.

Like just about every writer  in the   ancient world, Aristotle found the pursuit of unlimited wealth or just wealth beyond the minimum to sustain aristocratic status discomforting, and that applies to writers who were very rich. Given that widespread assumption Aristotle makes as much allowance for exchange and trade as is possible, and recognised the benefits of moving from a life of mere survival in pre-city societies to the material development possible in a larger community where trade was possible under common rules of justice.

As mentioned, Aristotle preferred aristocratic or monarchical government, but as also mentioned he assumed that any government of free individuals would include some form of broad citizen participation . We should therefore be careful about interpreting his criticisms of democracy, which have little to do with modern representative democracy, but are directed at states where he thought citizens assemblies had become so strong, and the very temporary opinions of the majority so powerful that rule of law had broken down. He still found this preferable to rule by one person or a group lacking in virtue, which he called tyranny and oligarchy.

He suggested that the most durable form of government for free people was a something he just called a ‘state’ (politea) so indicating its dominant normality, where the people between the rich and the poor dominated political office, and the democratic element was very strong though with some place for aristocratic influence. It’s a way of thinking about as close as possible to modern ideas of division or separation of powers in a representative political system, given the historical differences, most obviously the assumption of citizens’ assemblies in very small cities  as the central part of political participation rather than elections for national assemblies.

Relevant texts by Aristotle

There is no clear distinction between politics and ethics in Aristotle, so his major text in each area should be studied, that is the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics. Other relevant texts include the Poetics (which discussed the role of kings in tragedy), the Constitution of Athens, the Eudemian Ethics, and the Rhetoric (the art of speaking was central to political life in the ancient world).  Aristotle of course wrote numerous other books on various aspects of philosophy and science.