Belonging Again (Part 38)
Is it possible for Nietzsche's Children to create anything but "values?"
“Longing for the Dead,” “The Meaninglessness of Character,” “The Tragic-Comedy of Character” — Dr. Hunter’s book could have gone by many titles. I fear “death” might not capture what he was going for, seeing as character doesn’t exist enough anymore to even die. I also don’t know if Hunter would agree that, thanks to EAF, character is still possible (or at least not in a way that resembles anything like character in the past). Yes, something like character, community, and ethics is still around, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. On this point, something Kierkegaard argued comes to mind:
‘If the despairing self is active, then really it is constantly relating to itself only experimentally, no matter what it undertakes, however great, however amazing and with whatever perseverance. It recognizes no power over itself; therefore in the final instance it lacks seriousness and can only conjure forth an appearance of seriousness, even when it bestows upon its experiments its greatest possible attention. That is a specious seriousness. As with Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods, this is stealing from God the thought — which is seriousness — that God takes notice of one, in place of which the despairing self is content with taking notice of itself, which is meant to bestow infinite interest and significance on its enterprises, and which is exactly what makes them experiments. For even if this self does not go so far in its despair as to become an experimental god, no derived self, by taking notice of itself, can make itself more than it already is; it remains itself from first to last, in its self-duplication it still becomes neither more nor less than the self. In so far as the self, in the despairing endeavour of its wish to be itself, works its way into the exact opposite, it really becomes no self. In the whole dialectic in which it acts there is nothing firm; at no moment does what the self amounts to stand firm, that is eternally firm. The negative form of the self exerts the loosening as much as the binding power; it can, at any moment, start quite arbitrarily all over again and, however far an idea is pursued in practice, the entire action is contained within a hypothesis. So, far from the self succeeding increasingly in being itself, it becomes increasingly obvious that it is a hypothetical self. The self is its own master, absolutely (as one says) its own master; and exactly this is the despair, but also what it regards as its pleasure and joy. But it is easy on closer examination to see that this absolute ruler is a king without a country, that really he rules over nothing; his position, his kingdom, his sovereignty, are subject to the dialectic that rebellion is legitimate at any moment. Ultimately it is arbitrarily based upon the self itself.’¹
Philosophy has along attempted to establish and ground ethics without religion, to produce a secular and authoritative morality. Kant is a shining fighter for this cause who Kierkegaard thought failed. Ethics has never “translated over” the imperative to be moral from religions, which achieved this imperative thanks to belief in God, Hell, and the like (real or not). Kierkegaard didn’t think ethical imperatives could be secularized, even though people could secularize Ethics, and he would not think that EAF could provide the “seriousness” necessary for self-denial and hence actual character, community, and ethics (which I will refer to from this point as CCE). As I will argue, EAF provides us with something like CCE until what a person wants or thinks comes in conflict with EAF, and at this point (the source of EAF being the will) EAF and CCE tend to lose their authority over the individual and practically fail in comparison to CCE of the past. On this notion, let us back to Hunter.
‘Character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed’ — Hunter opens his book leaving no doubt about his position.² If we are doomed without character, then Hunter’s work suggests we are doomed. Hunter acknowledged there will be displays of character ‘in individual cases and within particular communities […] hidden from public attention. Even so, a restoration of character as a common feature within American society […] will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present[…]’³ ‘As Alasdair MacIntyre once put it, every moral philosophy has a corresponding sociology,’ and for Hunter, the sociology EAF has beget is one in which “values” are possible, but not CCE (though others may dispute this distinction).⁴ To explain:
‘Character is formed in relation to convictions and is manifested in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation. This being so, the demise of character begins with the destruction of creeds, the convictions, and the ‘god-terms’ that made those creeds sacred to us and inviolable within us.’⁵
‘This destruction occurs simultaneously with the rise of ‘values’. Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. They are substitutes for revelation, imperatives that have dissolved into a range of possibilities. The very word ‘values’ signifies this reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable. Both values and ‘lifestyle’ […] bespeak a world in which nothing is sacred.’⁶
‘Formed against a symbolic order make up of ‘values’ and differing ‘lifestyles’ is the Self — malleable, endlessly, developing, consuming, realizing, actualizing, perfecting — but again, something less than character. / The implications are simultaneously liberating and disturbing.’⁷
It seems Hunter would argue that EAF can produce values but not CCE. Yes, thanks to EAF, character, community, and ethics are still with us in a way, but that “way” lacks so much power and gravity in comparison to past CCES that calling it a CCE is hard to square. “Values” is perhaps a better term, for while CCE can “bind the will,” under values ‘there is nothing to which the will is bound to submit.’8 This point is key for understanding Hunter’s argument: there is still good and evil in our age beyond them; the difference is that our will is more authoritative. As warned by Berger and Rieff, there are ‘no inhibiting truths’ — only senses of justice and expressions of “the will for justice,” as embodied by modern activists (which lacking authoritative truth claims, struggle to convince others to change without resorting to State power).9 In the past, will bowed to good and evil; today, good and evil bow to will. Will has not erased good and evil but made them servants. Nietzsche was right again.
Like two rivers that merge and part before merging again, when will and EAF don’t conflict, the CCE of EAF is indistinguishable from classical CCEs; when will and EAF do conflict, the CCE of EAF is distinguishable from classical CCEs as “values” (to use Hunter’s language here). But in what meaningful sense is the CCE of EAF a CCE at all if it doesn’t hold up when the will conflicts with them, for are not these times the only times that matter? When CCE of EAF doesn’t conflict with will, is it not indistinguishable from will? Is it not just an expression of the will? Hence, there is little if ever time when the CCE of EAF is meaningfully and distinctly a CCE at all, which isn’t to say it’s bad or doesn’t result in CCE-like practices, but it is to say that there is never a time when the CCE of EAF is certainly a CCE: the milk and dye of will and CCE are always mixed. What remains constant is the will and what the will values: when will and CCE of EAF don’t conflict, will keeps willing what it wills; when will and CCE of EAF do conflict, the will keeps willing what it wills. It is the CCE of EAF that comes and goes; the will remains. Considering this, I think it is fair to say that EAF cannot provide our civilization with what we could meaningfully call character, community, and ethics. It can only provide us with something like CCE: values (what the will wants/values). Hunter’s criticism is sound (we will use his terms hence) though it should be noted that those ascribing to CCE of EAF will necessarily experience their values as CCE, for their will shall remain constant, and in experience “will” and “CCE of EAF” merge, making it seem CCE remains constant and hence that the distinction of “values” is Conservative propaganda. But are those who believe in God any less blind? Hard to say.
Is “the banality of evil” still possible with values like it was with CCE? If values don’t have the same authority as did CCE, then perhaps we are better off in our world of values? Indeed, perhaps we can still trade Bonhoeffer for Hitler. Well, as I’ve already argued, “the banality of evil” is still possible today: it is possible both where there are values and where there is CCE. But surely there is a better chance of avoiding “the banality of evil” where there are only values? It would seem so, as has been acknowledged earlier in the world; at the same time, in the midst of the psychological anxiety resulting from the replacement of CCE with values, won’t authoritarianism be deeply appealing, yes? Perhaps. If it is the case that in order for Cosmopolitans to “rest” we require not values but CCE, “belonging again” may prove forever impossible. But if with the loss of “rest” so too we have made it practically impossible for “the banality of evil” to happen again (or at least incredibly unlikely) perhaps this tragic trade is worth it? This is a question we cannot avoid circling back to, time and time again.
Is it possible for Nietzsche’s Children to create anything but “values?” Can an “Absolute Knower” lack “givens” and yet live according to a CCE that is distinctly and meaningfully a CCE? Can a “Deleuzian Individual” fare any better? Is it somehow possible for these three to gain the benefits of a CCE and yet not at the same time restore the probability of “the banality of evil” occurring? Why or why not? Indeed, why or why not.
¹Allusion to Sickness Unto Death by Kierkegaard.
²Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiii.
³Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiii.
⁴Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xi.
⁵Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiii.
⁶Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiii.
⁷Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiv.
⁸Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiv.
⁹Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiv.
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