Saturday, June 06, 2020

Roger Scruton, Notes from Underground


Opening Passage:

The police must have been in our apartment for at least an hour when I arrived. Mother was standing in the kitchen, a large policeman blocking her passage to the room where we lived. Everything was in disarray: the drawers open, the beds unmade and pulled away from the wall, our few possessions piled on the table or pushed in little heaps into the corners. Two more policemen filled the living space. One was thumbing through our samizdat library with slow, patulous fingers. His face was sharp and white, with wisps of soft beard on his chin. The other, who was taking notes in an official-looking notebook with a black plastic cover, looked up as I entered, and I recognized the smooth-shaven officer who had taken my identity card on the bus. He took the card from his pocket, and handed it to me with a sarcastic curl of the lip.

"We don't need this now," he said. (p. 1)

Summary: Jan Reichl is a bright young man who is shut out of having a university education because his father's love of books led him into conflict with the Czechoslovakian state; his father died in a prison camp, leaving Jan and his mother in poverty with no prospects. Jan's mother starts a samizdat press, and through that Jan publishes a book about the people he sees on the Prague Metro. Unfortunately, Jan accidentally leaves a copy on the bus, and the police trace it back; Jan's mother is put in jail for her samizdat publishing. At this time, a beautiful girl, Betka, who claims to be returning a borrowed copy of Jan's book to his mother, bursts into his life. She will be Jan's door to a world he would never have known otherwise, the 'parallel polis' of the underground, and help him set in motion the wheels by which his mother's case might become known in the West. This is a major matter; Jan and his mother are too low on the rungs of the ladder even to be dissidents. A dissident is someone whose profile is so high that the state gets more value from not coming down too hard on them -- doing so might cause the state, and even more seriously the state's real masters, the Soviet Union, a diplomatic embarrassment, so it's more useful to surveil them and keep their dissidence within limited bounds.

Betka is a mystery for all of the book, even as we learn more about her. Her love for Jan -- "my mistake", she calls him -- is real and obvious enough, but there is always more to her than she shows. If a beautiful girl suddenly popping into an isolated young man's life and taking an interest in him, right at the moment he has become a person of interest to the state police, sounds suspicious, that is because it is, as is likewise the fact that she seems to know everyone and yet to move freely. But in the regime of the Lie that is imposed by the Communist state, being honest is difficult at best, and being wholly open is a good way to get yourself and others killed.

The book is heavily melancholic and nostalgic (Jan is reflecting on these events long afterward), but it occasionally shifts to biting satire, particularly when dealing with the West, which is full of people who, not being under a Communist regime, don't really understand what life under one is like. The most satirical chapter is when Martin Gunther, an American professor who is an expert in 'human rights', comes to the underground philosophy seminar that Jan and Betka had been attending to talk about human rights and the Czechs don't understand what he's talking about -- he exegetes political philosophers they've never heard of, provides an account of human rights that sounds indistinguishable from the standard justifications given by the Communist regime for its most atrocious actions, gives a vigorous defense of the right to abortion in a country in which being too obviously pro-life is a hazard and being too obviously Catholic could get you jailed, and comes into a landing: "And so, with a friendly gesture of shared triumph, he concluded his talk, arguing that, however much we Czechs may suffer from the unjust restriction of our human rights, so too did women suffer in America" (p. 172). We get another satirizing of American academic culture in Dr. Lopes, the head of the department at which Jan gets a job after leaving the country, who is one of those academics who is always at the forefront of the political fashion of the day, even if it is the opposite of the political fashion he was at the forefront of yesterday, going from defending the Soviet Union to collecting its victims as part of his CV, as if it were the smoothest transition in the world:

And of course Dr. Lopes is a liberal, because only liberals can advance to the top of the academic pyramid in America. This does not mean that he subscribes to some liberal philosophy. He subscribes to no philosophy at all. A great statue of Liberty stands above the open harbor of his mind, ushering every idea that might arrive into the riotous cavern of his body, where it disappears without trace. (pp. 242-243)

The West is in fact an ambiguous character throughout the novel; it is free and comfortable and sympathetic, but what the West offers the Czechs is not a free Czech society based on Czech experience, but a provincial status as a sort of country-sized strip mall selling Western wares and values. The end road is not really the parallel polis made free and unoppressed to enjoy the riches of their Czech heritage, but rather fast-food franchises and American-style pop music. Martin Gunther doesn't provide a means to join an intellectual society as an equal; he shows them an intellectual society in which they could never be more than an outlying colony. Which is not to say that the West's support is not well-intended (although sometimes one wonders how much of it is benevolence and how much of it is vanity), nor that it is not helpful. But the West is not above having its own agendas, and its sympathies are necessarily abstract, filed away under labels like 'violation of human rights' and not under labels like 'my father died in a labor camp because of his love of books', or labels like 'collaboration with the oppressive regime' rather than labels like, 'the love of my love sold out people she knew to the state in order to get her sickly daughter medical treatment'.

One of the things the novel does well is capture the sense in which one has to be generous and not judgmental under oppressive conditions like those the Czechs endured. Almost everyone is complicit with something, and you know this by the fact that they are not in jail or dead. What decent people try to do is not be too deliberately culpable and hold up ideals. They gather, out of the solidarity of the shattered, in a parallel polis of underground institutions, to be with other people trying to do the same. Judgment has to be generous. It's a melancholic generosity, though, because there always hangs over it the question, "What could things have been if conditions had been different?" But conditions were not different, and those things never were.

Favorite Passage:

"Oh," she replied, "I work in the evenings sometimes. In a hospital for sick children in Hradčany."

"And what do you do there?"

"Medical things. I qualified as a nurse."

"But you are studying, too?"

"It's my hobby," she replied, "the unofficial culture. One day I'll write a book about it."

"So I'm a hobby of yours."

"Oh, Honzo," she said, taking my hand. "You are a mistake of mine. A big mistake." (pp. 69-70)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended

Roger Scruton, Notes from Underground, Beauford Books (New York: 2014).

Friday, June 05, 2020

Evening Note for Friday, June 5

Thought for the Evening: Rosmini on the Proximate End of Civil Society

Rosmini argues that civil society is a late conception, one that can only arise (but will inevitably tend to do so) once the conditions for a considerable degree of political abstraction arises. The natural societies are households, either families and what pertains to them or religious societies (theocratic, as Rosmini calls them); the latter are effectively domestic societies in which the heads of household are the gods or (in the case of the Church) God. These domestic societies expand naturally; as they get bigger, they become the extensive domestic societies that we often call 'tribes'. In all of this right and order are maintained by the head of household.* However, it can happen that events force together different households. This can be handled in different ways, but sometimes finding a peaceful solution to problems that come up requires that the households be considered in an abstract point of view, so that all the heads of households come together in a consensual agreement to work together under a common authority. Thus civil society is born.

Two things follow from this. (1) Civil society is primarily structured in such a way as to handle households; individuals it can reach, but this is indirect.** What civil society, as such, sees is the public face that comes from family interacting with family. (2) Civil society is the direct source of no rights; it presupposes the rights of the domestic societies that it includes. These rights arise by way of households pursuing good, both for themselves and for their members, and recognizing that there are requirements that have to be fulfilled if this pursuit is to be successful. Civil society, not being the source of these rights, and in fact being created in order to protect them, can only be geared to one thing: guaranteeing that their exercise occurs in such a way (mode) that one household's exercise of its rights does not, whether by accident or carelessness or immoderation, harm another household's ability to exercise its rights.

This gives us the proximate end of civil society: to regulate the modality of rights in such a way as to preserve their worth. The same right can be expressed in different ways; civil society regulates these expressions so that conflicts can be avoided and peace maintained among the households that allows them to seek the good appropriate to them:

Civil society, far from being able to appropriate or encroach upon the rights of other individuals or societies, is intended to protect them, not to destroy or weaken them, nor tie them down or harm them in any other way. This would be the very opposite of protection. It is a society based entirely on respect for others' rights, whatever they may be. Such respect is its primary, essential and universal obligation; all its other special duties stem from this. Its only right is to observe these duties. It is a society which, to protect rights, also modifies their form, and co-ordinates them so that they co-exist peacefully without impeding one another reciprocally, but develop and prosper. (About the Author's Studies, p. 28)

This is obscured somewhat by the fact that the states in actual existence are virtually never pure civil societies. Due to history, all states, including modern European states even when they have a fairly robust notion of civil society, treat themselves as not merely civil authorities but also as owners and lords; they treat their citizens not merely as citizens but also as subjects. This is in great measure because they in fact grew out of the union of expanded households that had both extensive ownership and servants (who are people who have become members of household by extension), and so it was natural to think of authority along those lines, with civil society as a sort of metaphorical family, the king's household and those under the king's protection, for instance. In any case, this lordship-element, if it is inherited rightfully, can be reasonable, but the authority of a state insofar as it is acting as lord and the authority of a state insofar as it is a state organizing a civil society are quite distinct, and the rights and responsibilities of people qua citizens are not the same as their rights and responsibilities qua subjects. Thus as civil society develops, it needs to begin clearly distinguishing the pure civil function of regulation of the modality of rights.

This regulation of the modality of rights without harming their worth in practice involves four parts:

The four parts of what we call the regulation of the modality of rights are therefore: 1. to defend one's rights; 2.settle disputes; 3. modify the exercise of the rights of individuals either to prevent the harm threatened without such modification, or 4. to obtain a benefit which would be impossible if everyone exercised their rights without regard for the rights of others. (Rights in Civil Socierty, p. 238)

The first of these is the foundation of the state's authority in matters of diplomacy, war, etc, and also of its policing and penalizing powers; the second of its judicial and mediating authority; the third of much of its legislative power, by which it directs how rights can be exercised on the principle of maximizing the freedom of all; and the fourth of its institution-making and administrative powers. The third and fourth are also the foundation of the one sense in which civil society can be considered a source of rights: it can clothe prior rights in a particular form or typical expression, and it can create specialized 'cocktails' in which multiple different rights are capable of being exercised together in various combinations (such as in property rights or privacy rights) that are suitable for handling the problems with which the society must deal. The result is an interesting paradox; by restricting itself to regulating the modality of rights, and working out what that means, a civil society grows in the scope and range of its authority, without at any point intruding on the rights that pre-exist it.

Naturally, Rosmini thinks that one of the great errors in modern times is the failure to keep civil society within its proper bounds. In particular, legislatures regularly attribute omnipotence to 'the People' as a fiction to justify doing whatever they want to do, with the inevitable result that injustice is done. Societies that are corrupted in this way cannot preserve rights in a way appropriate to their proper worth.

Antonio Rosmini, About the Author's Studies, Introduction to Philosophy, Volume 1, Murphy, tr., Durham House (Durham: 2004).
Antonio Rosmini, Rights in Civil Society, The Philosophy of Right, Volume 6, Cleary & Watson, trs., Durham House (Durham: 1996).

* Rosmini of course calls 'heads' of households 'fathers', but he is also explicit that it is a function that can be and often has been fulfilled by women -- nothing about domestic society in general prevents such a society from being set in order by a matriarch.

** For instance, it could do so either insofar as it is required to facilitate cooperation of households or by treating individuals as (in a sense) households of their own. The latter, I suspect, has been a significant influence on the development of modern individualism. One could perhaps also argue that minimizing the family or household proper but treating individuals as if they were households of one is also the source of a common problem in many systems of political philosophy, namely, their difficulty in including individuals whose condition and character causes problems for thinking of them as if they were the head of a household of one: the unborn, children, prisoners, the seriously disabled, the very sick, the comatose, the elderly, the dying, in short, those who by their very condition are reliant on someone caring for them, and thus cannot fully exercise head-of-household functions for themselves, even as a matter of usable legal fiction.

Various Links of Interest

* James Wilson, The Trolley Problem Problem

* Landon Elkind, Tracing the symbol for disjunction

* Bower, McLeish, et al., A medieval multiverse?: Mathematical modelling of the thirteenth century universe of Robert Grosseteste: attempts to rough out what a mathematical model of Grosseteste's cosmology might look like

* Rita Koganzon, Reasonable Education

* Peter Kwasniewski, Correlations Between the Sacraments and the Readings for the Octave of Pentecost

* Peter Lemarque & Nigel Walter, The application of narrative to the conservation of historic buildings (PDF)

* Laeti Harris, Louise Moody, and Pam Thompson, On Sex and Gender Identity: Perspectives from Biology, Neuroscience and Philosophy

* Faye Ginsburg, Mara Mills and Rayna Rapp, From Quality of Life to Disability Justice: Imagining a Post-Covid Future

* Quote Investigator chases down the origin of the quotation, "Paradox is truth standing on its head" (Chesterton is the reason why so many people know it, of course, but he makes clear he did not originate it).

* Livia Gershon, The Surprising History of Homework Reform

* J. E. H. Smith, The History of Philosophy in Global Context: Three Case Studies

* Mary Grabar, Howard Zinn’s Assault on Historians and American Principles

* Gladden Pippin, The Return of the Church's Repressed Boundary Problem

* Aditya Mani Jha, One Hundred Years of Hercule Poirot

Currently Reading

Jan Patočka, Body, Community, Language, World
Jan Patočka, The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem
Daria Spezzano, The Glory of God's Grace
Roger Scruton, Notes from Underground

Police Reform

I'm increasingly of the view that the current protests are unlikely to have any lasting effect, which I think is unfortunate. There are several reasons why, but the single most significant is the lack of a clear proposal. Protests are not magic; they do not accomplish anything except as part of the proposal of a practical plan for solving what is being protested. This is why most effective protests are protests for or against very specific laws or policies; it just goes with the nature of such a protest that everybody knows what could be done to solve the problem being protested, and the protest raises the incentive for actually using that solution. But it's clear, if you look around, that there is no general association of the protests with specific solutions. And protests not generally associated with specific solutions don't get much done in the long run, because they aren't in fact incentivizing anything but looking like you are responding to the problem -- which is a dangerous thing to incentivize in politics.

This is not inevitable. There are proposed solutions in the air that could be brought down to earth -- the two obvious cases are eliminating qualified immunity and restricting police unions. As I've said before, I think the animus against police unions is misguided (and, if translated into results, will probably in fact be detrimental in the long run), but it is a popular animus and would certainly have resonance. And elimination of qualified immunity, while a limited response (qualified immunity only affects civil cases, not criminal ones -- the primary value of eliminating it is indirect, in that, since cities are the ones who would be paying out in the civil cases, cities with especially bad police departments would have much stronger incentive to do something about them), is also popular, and seems to have some traction already. But neither of these are particularly well-developed yet, nor do they seem on their own to be adequate to the effort and sacrifice being put into the protest.

There is one organization that has been doing some serious work to tie the protests to specific legal proposals, namely, the NAACP, which is the best organization to lead this kind of charge, because it has been advocating specific police reform proposals for years now, and thus has a lot of the groundwork already done. But almost of the actual effort in making this visible is being done at the level of local chapters; the national organization is doing remarkably little to point out the specific suggestions that it already has in hand. Part of the problem may just be that the website of the national organization, which would provide the obvious location for such information, is a slick-looking but poorly designed website that isn't useful for informing people about anything except the existence of the NAACP. And while its social media presence is somewhat better, most of that is devoted simply to calling attention to symbolic gestures of support. Part of the problem, too, may just be that national organizations are increasingly sloppy and not doing enough to talk with actual institutions dealing with the subject.

But local news organizations often are, and local chapters of the NAACP are often going out of their way to try to connect the protests to specifics. The best example I've seen so far is that of the Buffalo chapter:

According to Blue, the NAACP has established a list of needed police reforms.

"We would like a ban on the use of knee-holds and chokeholds as an acceptable practice for police officers."

Better de-escalation training also needs to be expanded for police, Blue says. Proponents argue such training would help officers calm tense confrontations involving the public.

"We also want the state to open up records of officers that have had misconducts and disciplinary history," Blue said. The proposal was also aired recently Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"We want recertification of credentials...(to be)...denied for police officers if determined their use of deadly force was unwarranted by federal guidelines."

This is not a message specific to the Buffalo chapter; these are some of the major NAACP proposals. It's just hard to find statements of them that are as clear as this and that can be found without already knowing that they are there.

On the particular proposals, the banning of certain holds is entirely reasonable in light of recent events. I am skeptical of de-escalation training having much of an effect on its own, but it is probably the proposal that is most assured of being put into effect, and would at least be an extra point on which police departments could be held accountable. Opening up records and denying recertification are obvious proposals that could easily be done and stand a reasonable chance of improving matters.

Regardless of one's view of the proposals, for protests to have any lasting effect requires that they be tied in people's minds with specific responsive actions. Without that, I suspect we'll be repeating this bit of history.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Three Poem Drafts and a Poem Re-Draft


Lightning writes on paper sky,
grassblades tremble with a song,
the rain is a storm of letters,
the wind is a breath of words;
thunder shakes the universe,
seizing all things from inside.


In the night wind I hear calling
the whispers of angels falling,
and I know not how
I will get on now,
but I will find a way.

When the gray clouds darkly glower
and we all in thunder cower,
just remember time
has an end sublime
and night will turn to day.

Woods of Silence

In woods of silence waters dream
in darkness deep with scarce a gleam
of sun and moon and shining star;
all things are still, or so they seem.
The path is lost and where we are
is known to those who wander far
in sleepy realms and lands of dream
where rules a single shining star.
On high we glimpse that shining star;
its subtle light no night can mar.
Our lives are blessed beneath its beam
in woods of silence where we dream.


Lift up your father, Aeneas;
wrath on the temples is burning.
Stir up your blood, Aeneas;
your road courses West unreturning.
Step by step paths you will travel,
seas will be crossed ere the end;
pyres will burn to bright heaven;
down shall your highway descend.
Great is your name, Aeneas,
mighty the call that you hear.
Troy shall be joined to the wolf cubs,
nations shall tremble with fear.
Lupa pepercit their motto,
eagles on high guide their way;
slaughter shall be their true genius;
God's very Son they shall slay.
Hold not your hand from the matter,
sword of all ages now wield.
Ever by fate are you favored,
never to fate shall you yield.
Lift up your father, Aeneas,
destiny seize, keep it pure.
Turn yourself homeward, Aeneas:
good comes to those who endure.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Scruton on Metaphorical Perception

The Soul of the World:

In describing the music, you are not describing sounds heard in a sequence; you are describing a kind of action in musical space, in which things move up and down in response to each other and against resisting fields of force. These fields of force order the one-dimensional space of music, in something like the way gravity orders the spatiotemporal continuum. In describing pitched sounds as music, we are situating them in another order of events than the order of nature. (pp. 37-38)

German Idealism and the Philosophy of Music (there is a very similar passage in The Soul of the World, p. 147):

I argue that nothing literally moves in musical space, but that in some way the idea of space cannot be eliminated from our experience of music. We are dealing with an entrenched metaphor – but not a metaphor of words, exactly, for we are not talking about how people describe music; we are talking about how they experience it. It is as though there is a metaphor of space and movement embedded within our experience and cognition of music. This metaphor cannot be ‘translated away’, and what it says cannot be said in the language of physics – for example, by talking instead of the pitches and timbre of sounds in physical space. Yet what it describes, the musical movement, is a real presence – and not just for me: for anyone with a musical ear.


[Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 2014).]

Tuesday, June 02, 2020


Let's start with a few basic points, all of which are a matter of public record and none of which have been controversial until recently. In the 1931 Weimar Republic, a radical right-wing group, Harzburg Front, was formed in order to oppose the chancellorship of Christian democrat Heinrich Brüning, a member of the Center Party (or Centre Party, depending on how you English it). The Harzburg people were essentially Nazis and people broadly sympathetic to Nazi goals. In response to what they saw as an expansive threat (the Nazis already had a paramilitary wing, and now it seemed like it was expanding), the Social Democrats and the trade unions formed a group called Eiserne Front, Iron Front. It was immediately popular, with lots of youth support. All these aggressive Nazis and Communists will no longer bully everyone else, because now center-left liberals were no longer going to put up with it! It's exactly the sort of thing that attracts young people interested in politics. The young people started picking fights with Nazis and Communists in the streets. The Communist Party, alarmed at the success of Iron Front, created their own group to fight Iron Front, Antifaschistische Aktion, in 1932. You see, it was a standard Communist position in the day that fascism is the late stage of capitalism, so all political positions that are in any way supportive of capitalism against communism, they called 'fascist'; and the center-left, liberal Iron Front was what they called a "social fascist" organization. So Antifascist Action was formed originally to fight social democrats and Nazis.

The collapse of Brüning's government, however, led to a major shift; the Nazis under Hitler outmaneuvered their opponents, and both Antifascist Action and Iron Front were banned. But other groups imitating Antifascist Action, what we call the Antifa movement, sprang up, originally associated with various anarchist groups and Communist organizations, although as time went on, many of the Communist parties found Antifa groups to be more trouble than they were worth and started keeping them at an arm's distance. Especially in the United States, what exists of Antifa is very, very mixed; some groups are little more than leftist boys trying to impress leftist girls (usually identifiable by the fact that they use not only the symbols of Antifascist Action but also the Three Arrows of Antifascist Action's enemies, the Iron Front), whereas others are much more serious. They all share at least a nominal commitment to politics by violent provocation. And it is indeed still a common view among modern Antifa that the liberal democracies of the West are in fact at least crypto-fascist, although how central this is varies quite a bit, especially with regard to American groups.

Such are the basics. Antifa groups have never been an important component in real opposition to fascism, for much the same reason why many Communist parties started discouraging them: they tend to attract stupid people who are more interested in fighting than winning, and they have a disturbing tendency actually to conform to the stereotypes fascist propaganda claims the opponents of fascism fit. The Allies, particularly the French, did use them a bit against the Nazis in World War II and its aftermath, for much the same reason the Allies used the Mafia against the Fascists: they were there, they had (among others) the same enemies, and manpower and resources were really, really needed. And nothing about being anti-fascist has ever, ever had any necessary connection to Antifa.

So now we come to the modern United States, which is apparently interested in becoming the reincarnation of the Weimar Republic. I used to think that the rules for 'being American' were quite simple: respect the Constitution, uphold the principles of republican government, oppose slavery, oppose Nazism, oppose Communism, and that covers most of it. But one thing that seems clear these days is that there are lots of people who would certainly fail this test, and even suggesting that this is the heart of being American seems a bit naive and quixotic. Nonetheless, quixotic though it might be, I still very much think these are worthwhile guidelines, and that American citizens have reasons of honor to uphold them, so to say that I start boiling when people try to demand support for Antifa is an understatement. But what really gets to me is the childishness of the arguments.

"'Antifa' stands for 'anti-fascist'; so if you oppose Antifa, you support fascism." "The United States in World War II was anti-Fascist; so they were Antifa." I have heard multiple variations of these arguments over the past several days, and I am getting sick and tired of them. I have heard intelligent people say things like these, with apparently nary a brain cell raising the obvious critical questions in their heads, with not a single thought devoted to making sure that equivocation is avoided. To draw conclusions purely on the basis of words, and to assume that people are what they claim to be, are things you would expect of toddlers. But apparently our political habits have degraded so far that otherwise intelligent people propose literally infantile arguments as if they were conclusive. How much Antifa is actually involved in recent riots -- that's a matter for the evidence. There are, as I said, a lot of different kinds of Antifa groups, and they are not evenly diffused. But I will not be herded into support for Antifa by anyone, and especially not because other people have lost the ability to think like an adult.

Here and there I try to summon some patience by recognizing that we are all to some extent limited by our language; this is why you have apparently educated people like Neil Levy who think 'virtue-signaling' means 'signaling virtue' rather than 'treating virtue-signals as if they were virtue', despite the fact that most people have no problem recognizing this -- it's a way you could take the words. It's a juvenile way to reason, no matter how much tap-dancing you do in order to make it look sophisticated, but it shows the tyranny of words. But this, I think, makes me more impatient rather than less; it actually doesn't help in dealing with infantile arguments to remind myself that professional philosophers can engage in juvenile ones. The fact of the matter is that this is not some marginal failure but a lot of people trying to propagandize for a morally atrocious movement that regularly violates the rights of others, and doing so on the sole ground that it self-identifies as a good thing. And perhaps I should stop being patient with it, and just accept that impatience is the right response here.

The Solidarity of the Shaken

One of the recurring ideas in Scruton's Notes from Underground is that of 'the solidarity of the shaken', an idea derived from the phenomenology of Jan Patočka. Patočka was a student of Husserl. He was banned from teaching by the Communist regime in 1972, and most of his later works circulated only as samizdat, typed up on carbon copies and circulated a dozen or so copies at a time. In 1976, a number of dissident intellectuals put together a criticism of Czechoslovakia's failure to implement the human rights conventions that it had signed; this criticism was published the next year and became known as Charter 77 (a term that was sometimes also applied metonymically to its signatories). Patočka was one of the signatories, and, indeed, a major spokesperson for the group. The state came down hard on everyone involved; Patočka was subjected to an extended interrogation and, being almost seventy years old at the time, died about a week and a half later.

'The solidarity of the shaken' is primarily discussed in his Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, published as samizdat in 1975. The work, which is quite dark, is a reflection in six essays on nihilism and war, and could be regarded as an extending of the Heraclitean saying, "War (Polemos) is father of all." We find ourselves going about our lives in the comfort of the familiar, the habitual everyday, and this prereflective attitude is one that becomes severely disrupted by major events. In the face of a truly major event, one such that we can no longer trust to the familiar categories and ordinary ways, we are stimulated to a higher reflection -- our assumptions about reality are ripped by reality itself, we are shaken from our everyday, and we are forced to find a way to continue in the face of this shaking. Patočka posits this as a significant driver of history. Polemos is the father of all; polemos gives us the polis and philosophy. In the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, for instance, Athens undergoes a transformation, and the transformation is that of an awareness of itself as a city, and a city of a certain kind.

Perhaps the most important of Patočka's examples are taken from the twentieth century, which is in a very preeminent way a century of war. And Patočka points to an experience not uncommonly had in the trenches on the front, of all the assumed meanings of the world vanishing away, but this being experienced not merely as a loss but also as a liberation. You are faced with the fact that you were sent there as a sacrifice but this also brings to the fore a sense of one's freedom for self-sacrifice, not for this or that particular cause, but as such, as a free and living being; and one also is faced with something so immense that it puts everything in a new perspective -- the enemy is not merely the enemy, but someone enduring the same hellish situation. It is a situation in which one might expect nihilism but instead in which openness to this reality becomes a new kind of meaning, and a result of it is the solidarity of the shaken, "the solidarity of those who are capable of understanding what life and death are all about, and so what history is about" (p. 134). This solidarity is not so much deliberately formed as called forth by the experience of the shaking itself; it is a sense of 'we are all in this together', where this is something terrible -- but also terrible enough to bring a sort of clarity of mind with it.

Everydayness is what leads to war; we go about our plans for peace, and strife grows from the conflict of plans that we are assuming. The solidarity of the shaken raises us out of that:

The solidarity of the shaken is built up in persecution and uncertainty: that is its front line, quiet, without fanfare or sensation even there where this aspect of the ruling Force seeks to seize it. It does not fear being unpopular but rather seeks it out and calls out quietly, wordlessly. Humankind will not attain peace by devoting and surrendering itself to the criteria of everydayness and of its promises. All who betray this solidarity must realize that they are sustaining war and are the parasites on the sidelines who live off the blood of others. (p. 135)

This solidarity, in other words, can be communicated; the shaking is not ineffable. But notice also that the solidarity can be betrayed. There is a sense in which this solidarity is fragile. It is hard for us all to be in this together if this ceases to be; we can slip easily back into the everyday. This is an aspect Scruton explores in his novel at some length.


Jan Patočka, Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, Kohák, tr., Dodd, ed., Open Court (Chicago, IL: 1996).

Monday, June 01, 2020

Mater Ecclesiae

Today is also the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother,
and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas,
and Mary Magdalene.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her,
he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”
Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”
And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
[John 19:25-27 (NRSV).]

One of the literary functions of the references to the beloved disciple, never given a proper name in the Gospel, is that it makes it possible for readers to 'occupy', as readers, the beloved disciple's place in the story and see it from that perspective. Despite emphasis on reading Scripture, we often don't really consider the ways in which Scripture teaches precisely by being read, drawing us into the narrative as readers in such a way that we are taught as readers. This is true throughout Holy Writ; this is just a particularly good example of it.

The Latest, Loveliest Jest

by Clive Bell

They say you are the latest, loveliest jest
Of some transmigratory ghost,
The last embodiment, and best,
Of some small being—tell me, are you most
Yourself when most
A squirrel or jerboa?
Or rather,
Since you are tender, humorous, and wise,
Is yours the spirit of some steadier goer,
A grave, precautious donkey, whose wide eyes
See, far away, the thin ambiguous towers,
Nor miss the pebbly road nor truant flowers—
See farther,
And less painfully, than ours?
Or, as I think,
Have you, like some
Too curious spirit peering from the East,
O'erleant the ramparts or your little town
In Fairyland; and from the brink
Of The Impossible tumbled down
To where we now uneasily surmise
Your vagrant figure, trailing Sirenwise—
Strayed reveller, from some fairy banquet come
To sow sedition at our sober feast?


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Iustinus Martyr

Tomorrow, June 1, is the feast of St. Justin Martyr, who could perhaps be considered the patron saint of this blog, both because he is a patron saint of philosophers and because I first decided to do a blog on St. Justin's Day in 2004. What follows is a somewhat modified version of a post from 2016.


Over the years, I've noted St. Justin's Middle Platonism, his quotation of Plato's Timaeus, his account of philosophical disagreements, the irony of his martyrdom under Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher, by accusations from Crescens, the Cynic philosopher. But it might perhaps be worthwhile to consider martyrdom itself. Justin is fittingly remembered under the name 'Martyr', for more reasons than just the fact that he was one. Justin's Second Apology can be itself read as an account of the rationality of martyrdom.

The Stoics and Cynics, you might recall, seem to have taken the Christians to be zealots eager to die because they had excited their imaginations with fantastic stories. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that Justin responds by emphasizing the ways in which both Stoic philosophers and their philosophical heroes insisted on dying when the matter was forced upon them:

And those of the Stoic school--since, so far as their moral teaching went, they were admirable, as were also the poets in some particulars, on account of the seed of reason [the Logos] implanted in every race of men-- were, we know, hated and put to death,--Heraclitus for instance, and, among those of our own time, Musonius and others. For, as we intimated, the devils have always effected, that all those who anyhow live a reasonable and earnest life and shun vice, be hated.

Contrary to the Cynic accusation, he argues, Christians do not rush toward their deaths; but death is a debt every human being must pay, and Christians, understanding the true nature of the world, give thanks when they pay that debt. This fearlessness in the face of death shows forth the true value of virtue, and, Justin notes, led to his own conversion:

For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate man, or who that counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments, and would not rather continue always the present life, and attempt to escape the observation of the rulers; and much less would he denounce himself when the consequence would be death?...For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself, and at popular opinion; and I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians.

Who does not have the faith of the martyrs, does not have the faith.