"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, And Let It Be - No Lives Matter All That Much

In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Callaway claims that he is morally and philosophically neutral
I am inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me…Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.
Yet as much as he tried, he cannot help pass judgment.  While Daisy and Gatsby have two sides – attractive, sensuous, alluring ones and duplicitous, unspoken ones – and Nick understands that to have one he must accept the other.  Judgments seem vain and frail when considering such complex human beings; but Nick’s moral equanimity is tested by Tom, Daisy’s arrogant, abusive, mean and cruel husband.  There are now two sides to this man of wealth and privilege who uses both in venal, self-serving ways; a man with no rectitude, no compassion, and certainly no love.   No matter how morally objective he considers himself, he cannot help but dislike and condemn Tom.

Jordan Baker is a more morally and philosophically interesting person.  She has her bad side – an inveterate, shameless cheat – and her good side, a muscular confidence and self control; but it is that intermediate side that attracts Nick
It was dark now, and as we dipped under a little bridge, I put my arm around Jordan’s golden shoulder and drew her toward me and asked her to diner. Suddenly I wasn’t thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more but of this clean, hard, limited person who dealt in universal skepticism and who leaned back jauntily just within the circle of my arm. A phrase began to beat in my ears with a sort of heady excitement: “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired”
Nick is attracted to Jordan not for her beauty, her charms, or her poise but for this great indifference.  He can no longer wear two hats.  He cannot presume moral distance while jumping to dismiss Tom for his arrogant callousness.  Jordan’s ‘universal skepticism’ – her nihilism – is what finally undoes Nick’s disingenuous objectivity. Life is not to be judged or not judged but an amoral affair where there are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired – a world without purpose where not even will can raise one above its routine ordinariness.

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Cormac McCarthy felt the same moral distance but without the bored indifference of Jordan Baker.
Yet even so there is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale… So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted...Of the telling there is no end." (The Crossing)
Image result for images cormac mccarthy the crossing
McCarthy’s philosophy is similar to, but at the same quite different from Dostoevsky whose character, Ivan Dostoevsky, said “Without God, everything is permitted” – i.e. without a divine moral code there can be no moral, ethical, or religious boundaries for human behavior.  What will be, will be – unjudged, indefinable, but certain.  McCarthy said that everything that is imaginable is necessary – a statement which both acknowledges the relativity of human expression and values, but gives it a special human uniqueness. 

Kierkegaard was far less human and sanguine than McCarthy, and for whom the question of divine morality and judgment had no relevance.
Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one's own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless. One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this levelling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being levelled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this levelling, but it is an abstract process, and levelling is abstraction conquering individuality.
Nietzsche was even more explicit:
“A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos – at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.”
The expression of pure will is the only way – to validate individual human experience.
Sartre like Nietzsche admitted that  the world has no meaning, but like Nietzsche and Tolstoy (Konstantin Levin wonders at God’s indifference but decides that doing good, even in a questionably moral world is worth doing) believed that there was someway out – individual expression.
Bishop Berkeley went even further – the world only exists if there is an observer, and that observer’s vision is distorted by personal interest, vanity, and pride.

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The American world of today seems to have totally lost its moorings.  Every philosopher in the Western and Eastern worlds has struggled with individual meaning within an amoral, insignificant, repetitive universe, and come up with only back-door answers – a belief in God, the conquest of will, a realization of ‘levelling’; and despite their tortuous justification for human existence come up half-full.  Tolstoy himself after decades of intellectual inquiry about the meaning of life, capitulated.  If billions of people before him, he concluded, had believed in God and a moral, God-directed universe, why shouldn’t he?

Even religion has admitted the vanity of purpose and meaning.  “Man does not live by bread alone”, said Jesus to the Devil in the desert, promising spiritual salvation to all those who believed in Him.  Hindus see the world as maya, illusion, and a distraction from the only possible meaningful gesture in a meaningless world – spiritual evolution.

For millennia slavery was considered reasonable, right, and economically rewarding; and  for every society from the Ancient Greeks and Romans to the American South to African tribal traders , slavery was routine and commonplace.   In Europe the divine right of kings was accepted, honored, and revered for centuries as were the aristocratic courts that supported it – until the revolutions of the 18th century which claimed a new moral reality.  Colonial rule was considered a fair and reasonable contract – extracted wealth for the colonizers, Western civilization for the colonized.  Enlightenment democracy has been the rule of law since the French and American revolutions, but given the ragged, dismembered, fragmented, and wholly unworkable ‘democratic’ systems of today, they, at least in their present forms, are things of the past.

Wars have been fought for higher purpose since the first human settlements.  Crusaders marched on Jerusalem to rid the Holy Land of the apostate invader.  Charlemagne and Roland fought at Roncesvalles to keep the heathen Muslims out of Europe thus saving the continent from infamy and barbarity.  Territories have been acquired, ceded, and re-acquired to no higher purpose other than resources and security.

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Socialist reformers challenged American capitalism in the early Twentieth Century, gained a measure of respect for the American worker, then lost ground to globalization, free markets, and right-to-work.  American workers are as at the mercy of money as they ever were.  Climate Change activists have alerted the public to changing temperature patterns, but changes in economic activities have been too late and too few to make a difference if the predictions of global warming are in fact correct.  If they are, life will go on as accommodatingly as before – cities on the coasts will become more like Venice with canals or the Florida and Louisiana wetlands; crop patterns will change, Northern Canada and Siberia will become breadbaskets, while Southern producers will turn to other crops.

Nihilism works many ways.  On a personal, individual level, it stabilizes human desire, provides equanimity and perspective.  On a larger national and global scale it encourages accommodation, reserve, and patience.  As Buddhists have always said, ‘There is no change but change’.

So why the fuss over Black Lives Matter? They matter no more or less than any other lives when considered within a broader perspective than the narrow, angry, political one shouted on the streets.  Why the revisionist hysteria, the toppling of statues, removal of paintings, and expunging of historical texts when only a cursory look at history shows that there is no such thing as absolute morality?

Feeble, attempts to airbrush the past will never work; for as much as advocates hope through such erasure to promote a better world, history will repeat itself no matter what.

The nihilists and stoics among us are calm in all the current racial hysteria in the United States.  The elementals of history – wealth and power, and the human nature that demands and desires both – will not disappear. Racial equality, despite the clamorous demands of black activists and their progressive supporters, will only occur when the market and history says it is time; i.e. when majority norms, values, and principles are embraced; when minorities have subscribed to middle class aspirations; and when they have willingly joined the mainstream.  The laws of history have not changed since the first Paleolithic settlements – the Other will not become the Included until it assimilates; and no amount of social activism will change that.

Nihilism is not a Que Sera, Sera ,cultura de la hamaca – a live and let live sybaritic ignorance.  It is an intellectually-derived survival attitude, however antithetical to the social activism of the times it may be. 

Of course, one understands completely the anarchistic demands of BLM today.  The black community is still a desperate underclass, responsible for the vast majority of violent crimes, rates of incarceration, low levels of academic performance and social mobility. Of course Black Lives Matter to both black and white demonstrators, far less to politically conservative objectors.  Nihilists hold the historical high ground.  This too will pass, morph into something else equally inflammatory, cool to embers and ashes, and be forgotten.

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