News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Fragments and Disruptive Reflections on Machiavelli, Kierkegaard, and Apocalyptic Confessions

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fragments and Disruptive Reflections on Machiavelli, Kierkegaard, and Apocalyptic Confessions

There’s a darker side to my personality that I attempt to mostly keep at bay. This aspect of my personality looks at the world and news of events with a longing for chaos and anarchy. I want to see things apart. I don’t know whether others share this dark side to their personalities or not—I guess I shouldn’t really care.

In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak describes a short discussion between Yuri Zhivago and an anarchist. For the anarchist, the new society that must be brought to birth can only be done so after complete and utter leveling of the old. Nothing of the old must stand for the new world to rise like a phoenix from its ashes.

I might interpret see these thoughts and emotions that I have as a sign of great boredom with the world. I once wrote that it is this deep-seated ennui that gives way to playing with variations on a theme. The nihilistic attempt to clear away the rubbish of the past and start anew is believe in what context, however? ...

I find a bit of solace when I remember that others whom I consider geniuses as sharing such views. Some of Wittgenstein’s remarks exhibit just such a desire to see western civilization leveled to the ground. He shared Oswald Spengler’s view that modern scientistic culture is a corrupt and ultimately debased civilization. This from a man who once served as a private in the Austrian army in WWI and a nurse during WWII.

Camus once noted that the Russian nihilists and Camus’ archetypal rebel respond to the overwhelming injustice that they see in the world by tracing its roots to basic human instincts and institutions that are corrupt at the core. To extirpate this corruption a complete renewal of human nature must take place. Since you could argue that human nature itself is an artificial construct and merely reflects the society that forms it, then that nature is ultimately as malleable as any animal’s.

The Marxists I read these days are a sad lot in this regard. They are waiting for a theory of community that will allow them to once again proselytize the world. There is something prudent about this waiting: it enables an assessment of where the political and related goals of the last attempt at revolutionary renewal. Beyond prudence, however, this waiting does seem somewhat comical and gives one license to view their standing on the street corner of history from the perspective of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

The strand within this school of thought that I can most easily identify with is the one put forward by Hardt and Negri. That thesis looks to a sort of riding the back of neoliberal empire as it lays waste the globe. In the wake of this desolation, possibilities will open up for revolutionary action that are opposed to reigning neoliberal regime and might finally give birth to a blueprint for future revolutionary communities. I am attracted to this game plan since it accords with some things I have found in my other readings, especially of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.

Then there’s Kierkegaard. I have written about his remarks on the plague. Pessimistically perhaps, Kierkegaard’s views are unstinting in their awareness that any rationalized regimen—while socially and ethically prudent—will not provide the type of radical undermining of lifeways that have given rise to a, for him, a Christendom that was eminently antithetical to everything Christian that Christ revealed. Any such renewal, again for him at least, required something so monumentally shattering to those lifeways that anything short of it would leave vestiges of the old in place that would ultimately engender the same types of corruption as the original that it had replaced.

The little that I have read of Slavoj Zizek’s work seems strangely Kierkegaardian in this regard. An avowed atheist, Zizek nonetheless demythologizes early Christian though to gain insight into its essentially revolutionary character. For Zizek, even an apparent accomodationist as Paul can be seen to be preaching a message that was radical in its undermining of naturalistic and imperial ideologies.

There are several ways to read Kierkegaard’s political thought. Many take the only outright political document he wrote, The Present Age, and go with its somewhat conservative message. They read this understanding of his thought forward into such documents as his later attacks on Christendom. Others, however, are beginning to see that The Present Age was just a way station on the road to a much more radical ethico-religious critique of modern society.

Be that as it may—since it’s the province of numerous egg-heads and specialists whose work I adore but whose application must be earned rather than assumed—there’s a somewhat strange affinity between Kierkegaard’s thought and that of the republican Machiavellians. Now this will seem strange to say—though it perhaps clarifies some posting that I’ve made on Machiavelli at this blog—since it goes against both received interpretations of Kierkegaard and Machiavelli.

Since I believe the scholarship has clearly shown that Kierkegaard was a thinker neither irrationalist nor apolitical, I’ll dispense with that misperception without further remark. The received understanding of Machiavelli’s thought is harder to dispense with, but I concur with Pocock and Quentin Skinner in seeing Machiavelli’s political philosophy as one that is eminently amenable to revolutionary agendas.

What makes me think that could be any relationship at all between Kierkegaard and Machiavelli? Consider the following description of Machiavelli’s thought as formulated by JGA Pocock at then of his Machiavellian Moment:

Forms of property were seen to arise which conveyed the notion of inherent dependence: salaried office, reliance on private or political patronage, on public credit. For these the appropriate term in the republican lexicon was corruption—the substitution of private dependencies for public authority—and the threat to individual interests and self-knowledge which corruption has always implied was reinforced by the rise of forms of property seeming to rest in fantasy and false consciousness. Once property was seen to have a symbolic value, expressed in coin or in credit, the foundations of personality themselves appeared imaginary or at best consensual: the individual could exist, even in his own sight, only at the fluctuating value imposed upon him by his fellows, and these evaluations, though constant and public, were too irrationally performed to be seen as acts of political decision or virtue. The threat posed by corruption cut deep … [Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, p. 464]
For anyone familiar with Kierkegaard’s Present Age, as well as numerous journal entries and Practice in Christianity, will discern, these themes of public, individual, false consciousness, money, and so on become paramount themes for the later Kierkegaard.

There’s an easy way to find roads between the thought of Kierkegaard and Machiavelli. Kierkegaard’s humanistic educational training in the classical authors is perhaps the best road. As Pocock maintains, Machiavelli was adapting an Aristotelian political model to his day in Italian politics. Kierkegaard’s reliance on several key Aristotelian notions is well-known. (Indeed, the Aristotelian framework that Kierkegaard sometimes borrows led the German philosopher Heidegger to call Kierkegaard’s philosophy medieval in spirit.)

There is another correlation between Kierkegaard and Machiavelli that I’d like to suggest. It applies as well to why I think that Hardt and Negri’s idea are amenable to Kierkegaard. This has to do with the view that history is cyclical and exhibits an evolutionary quality that runs from birth to growth to decline. The last phase of decline is simply prologue to rebirth.

It is this aspect that correlates with Kierkegaard’s notion that secularization and decline in western society should not be opposed. Instead the leveling processes should be allowed to proceed since they are preparatory to something new and revolutionary. In some ways—perhaps superficially—this idea of allowing a corrupt process to runs its course parallels what I understand of Hardt Negri’s analysis of neoliberal imperial designs.

If I am right, Kierkegaard modified this view of evolutionary change which he no doubt hoped to mimic Hegel in using. Instead, he becomes more radical in his awareness of how deeply the root of corruption runs. This is where he might ways with Machiavelli, wrestling with the problem of corruption never did seem to get resolved. Unable to accept theological concepts, he was perhaps blind to how closely his meditations on corruption mirror the Christian notion of original sin. (This no doubt is due to the misconceived formulation of that concept anyway, a reformulation of which we are in dent to Kierkegaard for BTW.)

If I am right, then, Kierkegaard still saw the process of corruption as inevitable, yet its healing would come in a far deeper crisis than anything socio-political could marshal to the table. Instead, the complete undermining of the ways and means of corruption would require something on the scale of plague and the consequent existential and socio-cultural disruptions that such an event creates.

Some politically conservative theologians and pundits seem to have glommed on to Kierkegaard’s critique of Christendom as a justification for their own contributions to the so-called culture war in America. This is understandable since a prevailing understanding of Kierkegaard’s life has come from fideistic-minded Lutheran translators and interpreters. Recent translations of his work, however, paint a much less fideist, not to mention quietist, portrait of Kierkegaard’s writings. Indeed, these recent translators and commentators put a decidedly leftist slant on these works.

That is, in plumbing the depths of western culture’s spiritual decline, Kierkegaard creates not only a critique of all ideology—as Merold Westphal calls it—but a more radical and comprehensive destruction of the very foundations upon which western society bases itself. The more astonishing aspect of his critique is that, contrary to the prevalent views, this spiritual plumbing work is just as much done in recognition of the economic aspects of that decline as it is in the psychological or simply religious aspects. In other words, Kierkegaard, in a work like The Sickness Unto Death for example, creates a spiritual typology of personality disorders that capitalist economies and their politico-theologico ideologies generate.

With these apocalyptic confessions off my chest, I can now go back to my job, living room, favorite TV shows, Chihuahua in my lap, uneasy concerns over children’s futures, and the unending desire to feel more worthwhile than the world seems willing to grant.

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