Sunday, March 05, 2017
On The Reckless Mind: Tyranny and Freedom
I have been reading Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind (New York Review of Books, 2016), which is an insightful portrait of six intellectuals in Politics. Lilla's broad point is that seeking the purity of ideas in the messy practicum of the political world is a hazardous enterprise. This has led - whether inspired by enlightenment reason or by religious passions for a new beginning - to tyranny, or philosophies in the service of tyranny, which Lilla calls 'philotyranny'. In Lilla's vision, the love of ideas, the pure passion, more often than not, turn to ideologies, sacrificing freedom in the quest of a perfection that is both unknowable and unattainable. In this, his ideas are not too far from those of the American pragmatists, John Dewey in particular, for whom ideas turning into ideologies was the cardinal sin of our time.
I came away, however, with another thought: That tyranny is somewhat our original condition, basis of our moral thought. Whether we think in terms of Freudian super-ego, or Darwin's ideas of the evolution of human consciousness, at the core of our moral being is our extended childhood, uniquely long for a human, reigned over by parents, loving or cruel, but always tyrannical. In parenting, Carl Schmitt's 'decisionism' is normal: A sovereign sphere where the lines of good and bad is clearly drawn, and arbitrariness is the usual condition. At the centre of our moral experience, therefore, is this overlordship, benign and benevolent in most cases.
And, this moral thinking is codified in the various institutions we have created. They stand both for the power - it is the powerful who design them - and the consent that legitimises that power - our acceptance. Indeed, democracy itself is one such institution, a system of proxies that abrogates people's power into a state or a constitution. The object of such sovereignty is to rule - to create a world of limits within which we must live safely ensconced - and not freedom. Lack of democracy does not automatically mean the gulag - though it sometimes did - and democratic institutions do not automatically guarantee freedom.
Freedom, in this reading, is not a human condition, but an aspiration. Like the desire of the child to steal a little inattention in the middle of parental disciplining, a moment of play, we seek to be free. But freedom is lonely, messy and even dangerous, our frail physique and emotive minds are hardly prepared for it: It is a limit-experience for human existence. We codify this in human institutions too: We endow them with transcendental goals, we seem them as new beginnings and we celebrate progress in them. But what they give, and are designed to give, is safety and not liberty, and this dialectic is at the centre of all our aspiring and failings.
In this book, Plato's observation that Eros, passions, are at the centre of all human ideas - of philosophy as well as the impulse to rule - and so his idea of a philosophical life is an engaged indifference. The philosopher must remain engaged in conversation with the world - academic philosophy and disciplinary language achieved the opposite, at least since the nineteenth century - but indifferent to the passions of the human mind, particularly those of public acclaim. Without the philosopher, the tyranny of morality is unchecked and the aspiration of freedom is a mere rhetoric, as it is in our time.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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