I’ve tried and failed to write several essays (one on ethics, one on consequentialism specifically, and one on adaptive traits in religion) at this point. I needed certain tools to explain my point of view, ones in books that I haven’t written about.
I tried to write the essays without referencing these writings. They became incomprehensible. Worse: they were boring.
It’s time, then, to clear the ground.
The next [number] of posts will be about four books. Theoretically, there should be five posts – one per book and then a conclusion – but things don’t always go according to plan.
These four books represent the external side of modernity. This is not an authoritative account of the books themselves, nor of “politics”, nor of “human beings.” It’s an attempt to establish a baseline of communication. In that sense, they do make up something like an “ideology”, with two notable differences: 1) I take all four of them to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. 2) None of them examine the underlying causes, the internal structures, whatever those are (whether metaphysical or theological or psychological).
So far as I know, none of the works explicitly draws on another. One can take that in several ways: It’s possible that they managed to arrive at similar conclusions, which I take to be a strong indication of some truth. But it’s also possible that I’m contorting their meanings to fit together. I don’t much mind either way – the reader is advised to read the books themselves regardless.
The four books which present the political or ethical aspects of nihilism are these:
This list (and the accompanying introduction) will, of course, become a table of contents in the future.
About the “similar conclusions”: The World as Will and Representation is a truly systematic philosophy, divided into four sections. One might imagine that each section builds on the other, which is to say, there is a clear beginning or axiom in Part I, which is developed throughout Parts II and III, before the author completes it in Part IV. This is, indeed, how normal non-fiction is written. And yet Schopenhauer describes his work not as a process of developing a system, but rather of the system hacking up a unity. His work is one single thought viewed from four angles. The same “thing” underlies each section, but it’s impossible to communicate it all at once. In Schopenhauer’s terms: a book must have a first line and a last line.
My project is not nearly as systematic as Schopenhauer’s, but I do adopt his stance. The four works selected are (in my view) attempts to communicate one central problem, although they only do so from a political and an ethical perspective. It’s not that I deny the metaphysical, the ontological, or the epistemological, but they aren’t nearly as likely to persuade at the moment. I do mean to persuade you to act in a certain way, which means I need to speak in a certain “pragmatic” language. Also: the metaphysical is much harder.
The problem, that which they all get at, is nihilism. I’m somewhat hesitant to adopt the word – like all words it has baggage – but not to do defeats the project. Bear in mind, though, that what I call “nihilism” is much broader than it’s normally considered: anti-natalism, Lovecraft, materialism, etc. are symptoms of it, not its standard-bearers. Nihilism is the default of society, not a theory adopted by its outcasts. Indeed: many of those outcasts who most loudly proclaim their nihilism are, in the final analysis, reactions against it.
How and why I use that word will become apparent as this series progresses into its second stage, which will be much more focused on actual philosophy.
None of what I say here is original, nor is it limited to these works. It’s not even limited to writing. Studying the paintings and etchings of Francisco Goya should have the same effect, provided you take them seriously.
“So why are you writing this?” Because I can, and someone has to.
“No, but I mean: what’re your politics?” The first question on everyone’s mind. Scott is a left-anarchist (sympathizer, at least). Polanyi was a socialist. Hoffer was a conservative. Lasch was… either a paleoconservative or a communist, depending on who you ask.
“But which do you agree with the most?” All of them. They’re saying the same thing.
“That’s not possible.” It is, I promise you.
“I mean, are you on the right or the left?” Why does it matter? What would you do with that information if I provided it?
“Is there a TL;DR so I know if you say something I like?” Yes.
Charles Baudelaire invented the word modernity. He wrote extensively (exclusively?) about it. One thing he wrote, a prose poem, serves as a nice little TL;DR to my politics. Be careful: it’s a koan, not a treatise. Interpret it not as you will, but as you should.
It’s titled Assommons les pauvres, or – “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!”
Assommons les Pauvres! (trans. Edward Kaplan)
“For two weeks I had shut myself up in my room, and I had surrounded myself with the books fashionable at that time (sixteen or seventeen years ago); I speak of books dealing with the art of making nations happy, wise, and rich, in twenty-four hours. I had thus digested — swallowed, I mean — all the ramblings of all those managers of public happiness — of those who advise all the poor to become slaves, and those who persuade them that they are all dethroned kings. — It will not be considered surprising that I was then in a state of mind bordering on vertigo or idiocy.
Yet I thought that I sensed, shut deep within my intellect, the dim seed of an idea better than all the old wives’ formulas I had recently perused in the encyclopedia. But it was only the idea of an idea, something infinitely hazy.
Then I went out quite thirsty. For a passionate craving for shoddy books begets a proportional need for the open air and refreshments.
As I was about to enter a tavern, a beggar held out his hat, with one of those unforgettable looks that would topple thrones, if mind could move matter, and if a hypnotist’s eyes could ripen grapes.
At the same time, I heard a voice whispering in my ear, a voice I knew well; the voice of a good Angel, or of a good Demon, who accompanies me everywhere. Since Socrates had his good Demon, why shouldn’t I have my good Angel, why shouldn’t I have the honor, like Socrates, of acquiring my certificate of insanity, signed by the insightful Lelut and the sagacious Baillarger?
The difference between the Demon of Socrates and my own is that his would appear to him only to forbid, warn, suggest, and persuade. That poor Socrates had only a prohibitive demon; mine is a great approver, mine is a Demon of action, or Demon of combat.
This is what its voice whispered to me: “He alone is equal to another, if he proves it, and he alone is worthy of freedom, if he can conquer it.”
Immediately, I pounced on the beggar. With a single punch, I shut one eye, which became, in a second, as big as a ball. I broke one of my nails smashing two of his teeth, and since I didn’t feel strong enough to beat up the old man quickly, having been born fragile and not well trained in boxing, with one hand I grabbed him by the collar of his outfit, and I gripped his throat with the other, and I began vigorously to bounce his head against a wall. I should admit that beforehand I had examined the surroundings with a glance, and I had ascertained that in that deserted suburb, for a long enough time, I was beyond the reach of any policeman.
Having next, with a kick directed to his back, forceful enough to break his shoulder blades, floored that weakened sexagenarian, I grabbed a big tree branch lying on the ground, and I beat him with the obstinate energy of cooks trying to tenderize a beefsteak.
Suddenly, — Oh miracle! Oh delight of the philosopher who verifies the excellence of his theory! — I saw that antique carcass turn over, straighten up with a force I would never have suspected in a machine so peculiarly unhinged. And, with a look of hatred that seemed to me a good omen, the decrepit bandit flung himself on me, blackened both my eyes, broke four of my teeth, and, with the same tree branch beat me to a pulp. — By my forceful medication, I had thus restored his pride and his life.
Then, I made a mighty number of signs to make him understand that I considered the debate settled, and getting up with the self-satisfaction of a Stoic sophist, I told him, “Sir, you are my equal! Please do me the honor of sharing my purse. And remember, if you are a true philanthropist, you must apply to all your colleagues, when they seek alms, the theory I had the pain to test upon your back.”
He indeed swore that he had understood my theory, and that he would comply with my advice.”
top image: Goya’s The Dog