Thursday, January 22, 2009

Our world-soul

What Spengler neglects to say is that Obama's themes (inclusion without identity, pragmatism as a value, hope without reason, emotion without experience and so on) are deeply reflective of contemporary culture. The way he embodies our softly-nihilistic age is so remarkable it makes you think of that famous letter by Hegel after he saw Napoleon on his horse.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Obama is a nihilist? Well, I gather you didn't vote for him, but it is a far stretch to say he is somehow an empty nihilist who owes his success largely to white guilt and misplaced black loyalty (why did we not have President Jackson or Sharpton, then? Did our guilt only recently become too acute?)

I believe people voted for Obama, in part, because he believes that preventive war is not the way to peace. Obama believes that we cannot stand up for human rights elsewhere if we endorse torture and 'disappearing' people without due process here. I believe that Obama rightly believes that insisting on American exceptionalism is not consistent with believing that all men and women are created equal. As Obama said in his Inaugural speech, he believes in the market, but a market regulated for the common good. I could go on, but I doubt you'd care.

By the way, Washington was 44 years old the winter he spent at Valley Forge. He got by on 'hope without reason' and 'emotion without experience', I suppose.

Siger of Brabant

Carlo said...

What the post said is that our age is nihilistic. I think that you and I are using the word in a very different sense.

Dcn Scott Dodge said...

I, too, have been put in mind of Hegel by the rise of Obama and his appeal to content-free hope. That being said, how does Obama's repeal of the Mexico City policy represent a roll back of American exceptionalism? It is a prime example of the assertion of this exceptionalism, which has become secularism and is inconsistent with the values of the cultures this objectively wrong decision will impact.

Anonymous said...

Carlo,

What do you mean by 'nihilism', then? Isn't any pluralistic, democratic society going to be 'nihilistic' by your lights? Once we hit modernity, its all nihilism for you, right?


Siger

Carlo said...

That is a hard question for this medium.

I would say that any democratic society is going to reflect the philosophy and values of the demos, i.e. the people in it. If the mentality is nihilistic, the society will be nihilistic, if not, it won't. But I will quickly add that a nihilistic society will not stay democratic for long (a few generations maybe?) because democracy presupposes a certain education of the people that a nihilistic culture cannot sustain. I personally see ample signs of this problem in western societies, which in my opinion will become less and less democratic because they are losing the "human material" that made democracy possible during the last few centuries.

As for a definition of nihilism, I think Nietsche's figured it out just fine. We create reality with the strength of our will, our hope, our work. We give meaning to our life. If we will it we can do it. Since the only objective form of knowledge is empirical science, in the human field we are not constrained by obedience to any metaphysics, but we are the creators of our human and ethical values. At the end of the day, though, all these things have NO REALITY (hence the word nihilism) separate from the power (ours) that creates them.

On this topic I strongly recommend "The end of the Modern World" by Romano Guardini.

Carlo said...

I just remembered a brilliant formula by Augusto Del Noce that explains nihilism very well:

There is no authority, only power

Note that this does not exclude at all that the people who have power will often intend to use it to do wonderful things for humanity. The obligatory reference here is J.R.R. Tolkien...

Anonymous said...

Carlo,

Thanks for the pointer to Guardini. I had not heard of him before.

Since you've called me, my family, and lots of Catholics and people of good will 'nihilists' and 'narcissists' for voting for Obama, I feel I still need to respond.

One of the reasons that people celebrated inauguration day was precisely because they felt that the country had returned to accepting legitimate authority (the will of the people, the Constitution, treaties we have bound ourselves to, such as the Geneva Conventions) and the rule of law, where the Bush years had indeed embodied a nihilistic equation of power with authority. We saw this in the Bush policy of pursuing preventive (not preemptive or defensive) war against countries it did not like, and we saw that in the administration's claim that it could detain even US citizens (starting with Jose Padilla) indefinitely without charge and without any recourse to due process. The American people wised up about what they were being sold and rejected it.

However, you will probably say that the authority of the people, the Constitution and lawful conventions is nothing since it is only based on the will of humans.

On the one hand, what alternative, in a pluralistic age where we agree that reasonable people can disagree about the proper ends of human life, can there be? The only other existent regimes, where their authority is based on something higher, are the Islamic republics based on the Koran, and they are hardly an attractive option.

Secondly, John Rawls has shown that a just society can be based on nothing more than a thoroughgoing rational application of the Golden Rule, through his thought experiment of the Veil of Ignorance, wherein one imagines how deliberants would order society if they didn't know what role they would play in society (i.e. if you didn't know you were going to have mainstream or fringe religious views, if you didn't know whether you'd be black or white, male or female, slave nor free).

The result is a system of governance that can achieve buy-in without demanding allegiance to anything higher, like a common Scripture. Of course, Rawls is not without his critics. I don't know if Ratzinger and Habermas discuss him in their book.

As for the narcissism of Obama voters, as opposed to McCain voters, I can't imagine what you have in mind.

Siger

Carlo said...

You are putting in my mouth many things I never said. All I said was that Obama's speech reflected very well the implicit nihilism of our culture (which, of course, affects us all, not especially you and your family or even democrats). Then I tried my best to explain what I mean by nihilism.

I honestly don't see how your latest comments address that.

I think that the truth is that we are talking at cross-purposes here. I am trying to do some cultural criticism, while you seem much more interested in political analysis.

Anonymous said...

'Narcissist' and 'nihilist' one-liners are neither cultural criticism or political commentary. They are simply name-calling.

Siger

Carlo said...

To me they describe something quite precise and observable. If you come by NY next year let's go out for pizza and I will try again to make my case.