Your Dreams May Vary from Those of the Employees of the Globex Corporation and Its Shareholders and Subsidiaries
The strongest traces of historical memory, as well as the manner in which these embers of the past are extinguished, can be found when one compares the dreams of successive generations. What one aspires to after all is shaped by the beliefs and expectations of those who came before us, and the reality of how one lives up to or fails to live up to those aspirations is what one bequeaths to the next generation. This question is particularly interesting to consider when one explores discusses generations that are divided by some kind of cataclysmic break, such as war or revolution, as borne out by a passage from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
“… one must remember well that people who destroy an aristocracy have lived under its laws; they have seen its splendors and they have allowed themselves, without knowing it, to be pervaded with the sentiments and ideas that it had conceived. Therefore, at the moment when an aristocracy is dissolved, its spirit still drifts over the mass, and its instincts are preserved long after it has been defeated.”
An earlier passage backs up this point when Tocqueville refers to how the French, even with all the turbulence and disruption caused by the revolution, found the courage and fortitude to fight off the united militaries of the European monarchies during the War of the First Coalition. But how long is it before the aristocratic spirit – and the pursuit of glory it inspires – dissipates and dreams of battlefield renown become viewed as a primitive and atavistic yearning, or the desire to create a work of art for the ages appears as quixotic as tilting at a windmill? The novels of Stendhal and Flaubert provide an interesting point of comparison for how drastically dreams and ambitions can contract from one generation to the next.
The Red and the Black is set during the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830), which brought the Bourbon dynasty back on the throne after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and his exile to St. Helena. Its protagonist, Julien Sorel, is the son of a carpenter in the provinces. But he is obsessed with visions of Napoleonic glory and dreams of achieving fame in battle. His favorite reading is The Bulletins of the Grand Army, which reported on the actions of Napoleon’s forces and their enemies. Although he never fights in a single battle, Julien continually turns to military metaphors (conquest, siege, feint) when reflecting on his ambitions and the obstacles he encounters in fulfilling them. Although Julien wins a prized commission in the army from his future father-in-law, the shrewd and perspicacious Marquis de la Mole, as Allan Bloom notes, the novel portrays Julien as a bedroom warrior, defying injury and death to sneak around the houses of his lovers, rather than as an officer of the hussars.
Sentimental Education takes place in the years leading up to and following the revolution of 1848. The protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, is young enough to be the son of Julien Sorel. But the differences between the two young men are dramatic. Where Julien is passionate, ambitious, and driven, never taking his eyes off his visions of glory or acting (or even thinking) in a manner contrary to his passions, Moreau is something of a schemer and dilettante. In the event that his passions run up against obstacles, he makes back-up plans, which also fail because of his inability to commit himself. When he finds himself rebuffed by Mme. Arnoux, the object of his passion, he initiates a relationship with the prostitute Rosannette. But the life he has with her provides no outlet for his ambition, so he becomes the lover of the cold and unscrupulous Mme. Dambreuse, who has a wealthy husband and whose support he hopes will catapult him to a position of fame and prestige. His ventures in politics prove just as fruitless and abortive. Attempting to gauge public opinion during a period of erratic political shifts, he gives speeches in which he attacks the rich and terrifies his wealthy sponsor. When Moreau presents himself as an earnest republican, voicing his support for a speech that calls for the state to seize the banks, abolish legacies, and create a fund for workers, the person giving the speech blasts him for having refused to fund a democratic newspaper in the past. The distracted and desultory nature of his personality, moreover, makes its impact felt on the level of narrative construction, which appears increasingly fractured, incomplete, and unresolved.
One of key differences between the two novels is that Moreau does not ever compare himself to historical models, whereas Julien is highly conscious of how the heroes he admires would look upon his actions. It is not only the image of Bonaparte that has evaporated by the time Moreau arrives in Paris from the provinces, but also that historical consciousness as such, which would have served as a vessel for the feelings, values, and thoughts of the old aristocracy, has largely dissipated. As René Girard puts it,
“Julien Sorel is followed by a whole crowd of young men who come, like him, to ‘conquer’ the capital. They are less talented but more greedy. Chances of success are not wanting but everybody wants the most ‘conspicuous’ position, and the front row can never be stretched far since it owes its position purely to the inevitably limited attention of the crowd. The number of those who are called increases constantly but the number of the elect does not. Flaubert’s ambitious man never attains the object of his desires. He knows neither the real misery nor the real despair caused by possession and disillusionment. He is doomed to bitterness, malice, and petty rivalries. Flaubert’s novel confirms Stendhal’s dire predictions on the future of the bourgeois” (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 136).
As it stands, what Julien achieves in his short life far outweighs what Moreau accomplishes in his much longer one. Julien, after many hardships, wins the hand of the proud Mathilde de la Mole and a landed title, which he then hurls away to return to his hometown to shoot his former lover, Mme. de Rênal. In prison, Julien rediscovers his love for Mme. de Rênal and, as Girard has argued, arrives at a full understanding of his life and the lives of others. Even execution does not appear to be a terrible fate: “Death did not seem to him, in and of itself, horrible. His whole life had been nothing but a long preparation for misfortunes, and he had made sure never to neglect that which passes for the greatest of them all” (475). At the end of Sentimental Education, by contrast, Moreau also reunites with his true love, but then sends her on her way. Experience has worn out his ambitions and drained his hopes, rendering him apathetic. When he sees Mme. Arnoux, the problem of having to get rid of her later on, after sleeping with her, extinguishes the feeble remnants of his passion.
One of the key causes of the discrepancy between their levels of passion, vitality, and freedom, I think lies in their dreams. Julien has Napoleon and his Marshals towering over him. While he does not match their feats on the battlefield, their unparalleled example serves as a source of strength for his meteoric rise from the provinces to the exclusive circle of the Marquis de la Mole. Moreau has no such figures to spur him on, and while it is common in our age to explain his failures according to a lack of role models rather than to a deficiency of character, it is clear that the Moreau has grown up in the different age. Whereas Sorel and his kin were social climbers dreaming of military glory, Moreau and his generation have as their “ideals” the social climbers themselves. They do not mistake dreams for reality, rather they fail to understand that the reality rests on a dream, and is nourished by the dream.
Thinking about the rapid rise of South Korea from dire poverty of the postwar years to the wealth and affluence of the present brings me back to the works of these French novelists. I wonder whether we will see a similar dynamic playing out in the coming years. The generation that built the South Korean economy and won its freedom from military dictatorship has been called Korea’s “greatest generation.” But what does the future hold for their children? Will they become the Frédéric Moreaus to the elder generation’s Julien Sorels? I think in times of hardship and poverty, many Korean people found in themselves the determination and strength of purpose to overcome their circumstances and build a modern industrial economy. Of course, some failed, but many more reached deep within themselves to accomplish a goal that must have appeared impossibly remote a few decades ago. But when people have choices, and grow up in conditions of comfort, a large number of them, larger than those who did not survive the transition, fail or fall short in the occupations they’ve chosen. Necessity strengthens the will and fixes the mind, while choice weakens the will and distracts the mind, because failure becomes an option. This shift is perhaps no more than the movement of a historical cycle, and perhaps it is too risky to act pre-emptively to forestall changes that are probably inevitable. But one does have the obligation to speak before the thought itself is swept up into oblivion, when something otherwise can exist at least in the mind.
The postmodern age is defined by the disintegration of symbolic efficacy, a condition characterized by the weakening of social norms, the withering of social bonds, and the inability of human beings to undertake and complete social mandates, such as large-scale political projects. While many have attributed the breakdown of belief in collective structures and institutions, as well as in the actions that create and maintain them, to the collapse of state socialism, Jean Baudrillard in Symbolic Exchange and Death instead probes the transformations on the level of the symbolic that have given rise to the unprecedented social reality of the affluent society. In this work, Baudrillard thinks through with thorough-going rigor the defining features of post-industrial society and produces not only an important work of post-structuralist theory but also an indispensable contribution to Christian theology.
Here are some of the main insights of this work:
1. Power consists not of the capacity to put another to death, but rather of the privilege of allowing the other to live (40). What the master denies the slave is not the right to live, but rather the right to die. Marx, in Baudrillard’s view, had it backwards. What the master “confiscates” from the slave is his death, while retaining exclusively for himself the right to risk his life: “Whoever works has not been put to death, he is refused this honour” (39). For the irrefutable mark of the superiority of the master is his readiness to give up his life to die a glorious and heroic death. Labor is accordingly revealed as the enslavement to a “non-deferred death,” whereby the reality of domination is secured by the denial of exchange: “If, through labour, the exploited attempts to give his life to the exploiter, the latter wards off this restitution by means of wages” (41). Domination hinges on this basic asymmetrical relation, in which the master guards the unilateral nature of the gift of death – in other words, he refuses by means of the wage the death that the slave might give him by ceasing to labor and by attempting to become himself a master.
2. The breakdown of symbolic efficacy is bound up with the loss of immortality as a social and cultural value. The problem for us is that the “dead cease to exist,” that is to say, we have “thrown” them out of “symbolic circulation” (126). The liquidation of tradition consists of the “obliteration” of the dead, so that they no longer exert any influence on our day-to-day doings. G. K. Chesterton once defined tradition as the “extension of the franchise” to “our ancestors,” in order to prevent the despotism of the “small and arrogant oligarchy” of those whose sole claim to rule rests on the mere fact that they happen to be alive and breathing (Orthodoxy). But today, “it is not normal to be dead, and this is new.” Our society has become a tyranny of the living, in which dead are banished from the symbolic positions they held in previous societies as objects of reverence, scorn, admiration, fear, emulation, and dread. Indeed, it is our symbolic exchange with the dead that produces distinct human types, as it is the limitation of death that solidifies one into a character. The cult of limitless choice in late democratic capitalism on the other hand stifles the emergence of distinct types, producing instead the hesitant and unsettled personality that is always anxious to withhold himself for the sake of keeping all his options open. The aim of a society that is sealed up in its present can only be a pacified and repressive “socialisation,” and cannot raise its concerns beyond the short-term survivals of its distractions.
3. The pleasure of poetry arises from the fact that poetry recreates the form of symbolic gift-exchange enjoyed by primitive societies. Whereas our economic system is based on endless accumulation and thus on endless waste, in a good poem, every meaning is “consumed in a rigorous reciprocity” and every word finds its “corresponding term” (200). Baudrillard argues that poetry is not merely the commemoration of the god or hero, but the very return of the god or hero to his death, and thus constitutes the playing out of his death, which is reenacted in the ritual of sacrifice. For we moderns are “naïve” to believe that “savages” tremble in superstitious fear of their gods. Rather, their rites enact their “ambivalence” toward their deities, “perhaps they only ever roused them in order to put them to death” (209).
Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage, 1993.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.html.
From “René Girard’s Lesson of Shadows” by Pierre Manent
While preparing a talk for the upcoming meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, which is dedicated to the study of the ideas of René Girard, I translated the final paragraphs of Manent’s article on Girard. It was published in Commentaire Vol. 5, No. 19 (Autumn 1982), pp. 457-463.
But more than that of Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche, the theory of Girard attaches itself to that of the greatest master of suspicion: Machiavelli. Machiavelli also affirms that the foundation and preservation of cities are essentially violent, and that men live out continually the beneficial effects of this violence which they are not willing to look in the face. But Machiavelli himself knows what he says: if that which we call humanity is founded on violence, then it is necessary to maintain the active power of violence and prevent men from falling under the influence of a misguided non-violence – that of Christianity – which tends to destroy the very conditions of its humanity.
For Machiavelli, the cultural differences in the interior of the cities – and first the difference between virtue and vice, between good and evil – differences which he does not contest as such but admits are conditioned by, and subordinated to, an amoral violence which circumscribes the space – the city, precisely – in which moral differences can have a meaning. The question is the following: does the Machiavellian gesture, which places before the eyes of men the role of violence in the constitution of the human world, reveal a truth that their hypocrisy or their blindness keeps buried? Or, to the contrary, does the scandalous revelation of Machiavelli blind men about themselves far more gravely than does their hypocrisy? Do men not have good reasons to “stem” the violence? In fact, their hypocrisy is founded on this: they sense obscurely that the end of social life is irreducible to its violent origin; the sacralization of the origin, which effaces or transfigures the violent aspects of this origin, is the expression of this intuition. The founding myths are more clever than realist science. The mythic transfiguration of the foundation guarantees that, in the pursuit of their end, the citizens do not stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin. The origins of any city cannot be absolutely justified in conscience; it is for this very reason that men have had to hide from themselves this origin if they are to live according to their conscience. That this conscience is inseparable from a certain “false consciousness” which is a “good conscience” indicates only that the realization of the humanity of man in the social world is subject to constraints and limitations, but not that it is radically dishonest, or mystified, or alienated. The scandal of Machiavelli which sets the limits of the city – the constraints which weigh on the birth of the city – the nature of the city blinds men to their proper nature far more seriously than does mythic hypocrisy.
The Machiavellian path is made possible by the Christian revelation which desacralizes the human city; it desacralizes it, not in revealing that it is essentially violence, but in announcing another city in the composition of which violence has no place at all. The Christian revelation announces a more total accomplishment of the human, incomparably, than that which is possible in the bounds of nature. Grace does not destroy nature. Assuredly, earthly cities being necessarily bound to a certain violence, both foundational and preservative, the Christian revelation tends to underscore the illegitimacy of all earthly cities. And to reconquer the legitimacy of terrestrial cities, Machiavelli must affirm that the nature of cities is essentially violent. Thus he turns Christian revelation against itself in unveiling that it is against nature. Machiavelli reinterprets political life as violence in reinterpreting the Christian revelation as essentially non-violent, thus as essentially fallacious, thus as productive of a violence worse than “natural” violence (cf. what Machiavelli calls the “pious cruelty” of Ferdinand of Aragon, The Prince, XXI).
Girard abides strictly within the terms of Machiavellianism. To put it simply, he gives a positive sign where Machiavelli gave a negative one, and vice-versa. But this reversal is absurd. If the political nature of man is violence or founded on violence, then the non-violence of Christianity is what Machiavelli calls violence against nature, the violence of the second degree, or “pious cruelty.” If human culture is founded essentially on violence, then Christianity cannot bring anything else other than the destruction of humanity under the fallacious appearance of non-violence.
Christianity According to René Girard: The Lesson of Shadows
The Christianity of René Girard is a strange revelation. It reveals to men not their supernatural destination, but the truth of their nature or their “culture.” It is a sort of Interdisciplinary Super-Institute of Social Sciences. It tells them what they can know without Revelation. The proof: Girard, who at least does not pretend to any supernatural revelation, knows what Christianity is better than generations of believers, theologians, and saints who have followed the faith for two millennia. At the same time, Christianity reveals to men that their nature is essentially evil, because essentially violent. The revelation reveals that creation is evil. But this creation is “evil” not on account of sin but simply because it is violent: men only become men by means of sacrificial violence. The properly Christian consideration of sin can give way to the “scientific” point of view formulated perfectly by Hobbes: “The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin.” Reducing sin to violence, making violence the principle of the humanization of man, Girard makes sin into a principle that does not index the fallenness of humanity. An innocent and powerless God reveals to men that they are sinners without being guilty of sin, hence they are not sinners at all in the sense that part of their being partakes of sin. It is a manichaeism without good or evil, a manichaeism equipped with the “axiological neutrality” of the human sciences. “Christianity” reveals to men the shadows which surround them, and that the “light of nature” of which they avail themselves is founded on the shadows of violence. The light of grace serves only to humiliate the weak glimmers of nature. Grace destroys nature. Machiavelli’s satire against Christianity becomes the truth of Christianity by the ministry of a “theory of culture.”
The Florentine believed himself to have humiliated Christianity irretrievably. He was mistaken: in its humiliated humility, a perverted Christianity finds a motif of elevation, of an elevation not at all religious, to be sure, but “scientific.” One is never wicked enough: when the “humble” have no more plays to offer, they can still produce a theory.
False in its own genre as a theory of culture, false in its own class as a work of demystification, false in what is proper to it as an interpretation of Christianity, the theory of Girard is also as false as a theory could be.
There is for me always something elusive about the films of Bong Joon-ho. They are well-crafted, but do not draw attention to their virtuosity. They immerse the viewer in a lively and multifarious milieu, but so much so that it is easy for the viewer to take for granted the sophisticated nature of his visual compositions. Bong makes films that improve with each viewing, which is high praise indeed but also the feature of an arduous task, because it is only with repeated viewings that the subtleties of his style, as well as the complex manner in which he develops his themes, come more fully into notice. Bong’s form of understatement rewards repetition and rewinding.
Memories of Murder (2003) is based on a real-life series of killings of women that took place in a mostly rural part of Gyeonggi province between 1986 and 1991. Known as the Hwaseong serial murders, the crimes that took the lives of ten women aged between 14 and 71 remain unsolved to this day. The first-known case of serial murder in South Korea took place against the backdrop of radical social and political transformation, as it was in 1987 that massive demonstrations forced the military regime to hold free elections, and in 1988 the Seoul Olympics announced the successful modernization of South Korea and heralded its arrival to the international stage as an industrial economy. Bong’s film is not specifically “about” these upheavals and changes, nor does it indulge in nostalgic yearnings for a simpler time. But Memories of Murder, in patiently and meticulously depicting the conflicts, habits, and fears of a society on the very edge of dramatic transformations, creates a haunting and wholly convincing figure of social change in the form of a perpetrator who is never brought to justice. What is most surprising about the film is not the lack of closure that stuns and haunts the viewer and detectives alike, but the unexpected scale of its ambitions. Memories of Murder, while our eyes are elsewhere as it were, succeeds in capturing the turning-point of modern South Korean history and binding it to the most unexpected and the most dreadful of modern human types, the serial murderer.
In her article on Bong’s films, Christina Klein notes that Memories of Murder uses a familiar narrative convention for Hollywood crime thrillers, in which the investigation of a “surface crime” makes visible a “deep crime,” a “pervasive wrongdoing that lies beneath the surface of everyday life” (Klein, 881). The effort by the local detective Park and an investigator sent from Seoul, detective Seo, to solve the murders brings to light the everyday violence and oppression inflicted on the Korean people by the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan. Park and his assistant Cho, carry out brutal interrogations of suspects, planting evidence and torturing two of them to the point where both are ready to make false confessions of their guilt. Cho is also seen taking part in a crackdown of student protesters, dragging a female student by the hair out of the crowd to kick her before having her taken away. But the crude methods of the police are more than matched in their destructive impact by the military government in its neglect for the safety of its citizens. On a night on which the detectives receive information that a murder will take place, no soldiers are available to man checkpoints and stake-outs across the town, as they have been called up to crush a demonstration in a nearby city. Because the police do not receive help, the murderer gets away with another crime. Shots of power blackouts and defense drills at a junior high school also underscore the burdensome restrictions imposed by the military government on everyday life.
The “deep crime” film, in exposing the injustices that structure social life and go both unchallenged and often unnoticed, can take on mythic resonances. Perhaps the most notable example of a film in which the “realism” of the police investigation unveils and is overwhelmed by the “mythic” nature of the crime is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Screenwriter Robert Towne stated that the film illustrates the idea that crimes that are too big to punish instead become celebrated as monumental achievements. The investigation of the murder of the water commissioner by the disreputable private detective Jake Gittes comes up against a conspiracy headed by the wealthiest men of Los Angeles to drive farmers off their properties and incorporate their land into the city in order to gain access to its reservoirs. The rise of a great city is made possible by murder, extortion, and theft on a grand scale, all of which go unpunished. As with Thebes and Rome, violence and crime lay the foundation for a fearful and glorious destiny. Chinatown closes with the triumph of its antagonist, a primal father figure who not only succeeds in multiplying his already vast fortune, but gets away with rape and incest as well.
But another type of film about the foundations of society, or the establishment of a new society, focuses on the figure of what Fredric Jameson calls the vanishing mediator. This film portrays the rise of civilization through the selfless sacrifice of a noble hero who makes possible a social order in which he himself will no longer be needed. But the selflessness of the hero proves to be excessive, as he is forced to give up not only his personal happiness in bringing about a peaceful world, but is also denied public recognition for his deed. I am thinking here primarily of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which the frontiersman Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne), kills the eponymous gunslinger, enabling Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) to bring order and rule of law to a lawless town, where individuals settled differences with force. But circumstances result in Stoddard being publicly acclaimed as the hero who personally vanquished the cruel and violent outlaw who embodies the forces of disorder. Doniphon chooses not to reveal the truth about the killing, and even gives up the woman he loves so that she can marry Stoddard, and dies in obscurity, a broken and forgotten man. Although Stoddard is a courageous and intelligent character, a sort of Moses bearing the tablets of the law to an uncivilized land, nevertheless Ford portrays him as the pawn of forces beyond his control, the forces which domesticate the violent freedom of the uncivilized Old West in order to allow those people to flourish whose concerns are mundane and materialistic. Indeed, the demise of authentic liberty in a commercial society is conveyed by the name of Doniphon’s black farmhand, Pompey. Pompey was of course one of the last defenders of the Roman Republic, ultimately defeated by Julius Caesar. Stoddard’s first name, on the other hand, serves as an allusion to Caesar himself, who, when kidnapped by pirates at a young age, forced them to raise the ransom they had set on him.
Deep crime and the vanishing mediator: Bong’s film contains both, but give them an unexpected twist. While Memories of Murder presents a scathing depiction of everyday life under an authoritarian regime, the serial murders, while they take advantage of the conflicts wracking South Korea (the detectives at one point are prevented from saving the life of a witness because they are attacked by enraged students), nevertheless open the way to the future. It marks the beginning of the future not only because the suspect gets away from the police at the end, but also because serial murder is the paradigmatic crime of modern industrial society. What is most shocking about serial murder is the apparent absence of any purpose, other than the inhuman and predatory enjoyment of killing. In traditional societies, violence is typically regarded as a means to an end. Serial murder is an extreme manifestation of the social purposelessness made possible by the modern industrial economy. The serial killer is normally inconspicuous, blending in so well with his environment that people are often taken by surprise whenever one of their acquaintances is found to have committed grisly and horrifying crimes.
Without explicitly stating its ambitions, Bong’s film is a profound exploration of the transformation of South Korean society from military dictatorship to a liberal democracy and affluent consumer society. The scandal of the film, however, is the fact that it does not focus on figures that would be considered the agents and representatives of these dramatic political changes: the martyred labor activist, the radical student protester, or the penitent police officer. Rather, Memories of Murder introduces the figure of the vanishing perpetrator, who may not even appear physically in the film with the exception of a single point of view shot in which he chooses his victim, as the bearer of historical transition. And yet this innovation points to a grim and inexorable truth: we cannot be certain that we have entered a new society until we have something genuinely new to fear. No longer will the strongest object of social fear be the secret policemen dragging away citizens to torture and humiliate in government dungeons. What will cause dread in people in the new liberal, urbanized society will be the unknowability of one’s neighbor, the anxiety that his appetites might be limitless and his desires unappeasable.
The lack of closure in the film may mirror the lack of reconciliation and harmony in South Korean society, especially about its past, yet the crimes of the vanishing perpetrator haunts us in a different way than the crimes of the founders. For Bong, the unsolved crime provides a more powerful mode of commemoration than the unpunished crime of the founders. It occupies the gap between past and present that memory, always vainly, strives to overcome. It makes the protagonist yearn for the past, but without nostalgia.
Christina Klein, “Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho,” American Quarterly 60.4 (December 2008), 871-898.
Fredric Jameson, “The Vanishing Mediator, or Max Weber as Storyteller,” Ideologies of Theory, Volume 2: Essays 1971-1986 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
Korean Americans, along with Asian Americans, voted overwhelmingly for Obama this past election. KA voters have in the past leaned toward the GOP, but Elaine Howard Ecklund’s important book, Korean American Evangelicals, provides a vital explanation for this shift.
Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life by Elaine Howard Ecklund, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, viii+211p.
Elaine Howard Ecklund’s study of Korean American evangelicals represents a significant contribution to the scholarship on ethnicity and religion in the United States. Based on interviews and surveys carried out at two churches in a small city on the east coast, Ecklund’s findings about the religious commitments of second-generation Korean Americans are certain to take many readers by surprise.
Evangelical Protestantism has achieved astonishing success in South Korea over the past century, while Korean Americans have become recognized in the United States as one of the most successful immigrant groups. The church has been a center of social life and a provider of vital services for the first generation of Korean immigrants, but what has it meant for the second generation, who have grown up in the United States and have had to contend with expectations from their parents that conflict with the values of mainstream American society? How does the practice of religion change as Korean Americans become more integrated into American ways?
The answers that Ecklund gives are quite fascinating. She makes the vital point, easily forgotten in the age of identity politics, that religion can be a means of transcending one’s ethnic identity and one’s cultural roots. Moreover, newcomers to a diverse society can act in ways to build bridges between groups that did not exist before. Indeed, the spiritual tendencies that she sees as becoming dominant among second-generation Korean Americans create a sense of cohesion among them, even as they distance themselves from their elders and become more open to influences from American society. But Ecklund emphasizes that religion for Korean Americans leads them to become critical of mainstream society as well, so that they create instead a new, third space between the culture of their parents and the dominant culture of white America.
The two churches that are the focus of Ecklund’s study are given the names “Grace” and “Manna.” The congregation of Grace is made up of second-generation Korean Americans, while Manna is a multiethnic church with a significant number of Korean American members. Grace grew out of the English language ministry of a first-generation church that invited a second-generation Korean American seminary student to organize a separate service for young people. Manna, by contrast, is a multiethnic church founded by the merging of a Chinese American congregation and a Korean American congregation. The membership of Manna includes a wide range of Asian Americans – Cambodians, Indians, Vietnamese, and Filipino in addition to Koreans and Chinese, but a quarter of the church is made up of whites, blacks, and Latinos. The membership of both churches is composed primarily of young professionals and post-secondary students.
While Grace serves a predominantly Korean American congregation, Manna has made the deliberate choice to become a multiethnic congregation. Ecklund notes that this choice came about not from demographic changes or from a shift in denominational priorities. Rather, the pastors leading the merged congregations decided that building a multiethnic church was a “calling from God” (p. 41). Ecklund argues that multiethnic congregations like Manna enable their members to “negotiate” multiple and malleable identities” and “connect an appreciation of ethnic diversity to religious morality” (p. 143). The members of Manna church uphold diversity and inclusion as key values of Christianity, leading them to criticize and oppose discrimination and exclusion in American society at large. The goal of many second-generation Korean American evangelicals is not to assimilate into the dominant white culture, nor is it to retreat into their own heritage either. Rather, what their faith enables them to do is to maintain a critical distance from the hegemonic mainstream while overcoming the limitations of a narrow ethnic perspective. Such a possibility often goes overlooked the standard academic accounts of ethnic or racial identity formation, and Ecklund provides a much-needed corrective to the narrow understanding of identity politics that still prevails in many scholarly circles.
Ecklund’s study opens up a dynamic perspective on Korean American life. Religion brings second-generation Korean Americans into close contact with the members of other ethnic and racial groups, including the white majority. Through the civic engagement encouraged by the churches, Korean Americans, in Ecklund’s view, will take on an important role in building bridges between evangelicals of all backgrounds. Her study of Grace church also illuminates the divides that have arisen between first and second generation Korean Americans. The second-generation Korean Americans at Grace take issue with what they see as the tendency of the older generation to view the church in culturally narrow terms. Instead, they seek to distinguish themselves from their elders by moving more strongly in the direction of a purer Christianity, one that is less conditioned by cultural factors. Also, the second-generation Korean Americans in her study, although most of them fit the image of the affluent and successful model minority, increasingly take the view that wealth is not earned but is a blessing from God. The members of Grace church and other congregations thereby challenge the ideals of material success that have played such a strong role in the lives of those who emigrated from Korea.
Korean American Evangelicals raises the point that Korean Americans in multiethnic congregations are more likely to look to African American churches as models for civic engagement, but Ecklund does not develop this intriguing point with adequate detail. Her study observes that individualism is a crucial element in the civic engagement of Korean American evangelicals, but the opposition Ecklund draws between individualism and social justice requires more precision and clarity. These are crucial questions which one hopes she and others will explore in the future. As it stands, Korean American Evangelicals is an important work that deserves wide readership not only among specialists in Asian American culture but also among those interested in understanding the increasing prominence of religious faith, especially its potential for renewing community life, in multiethnic and pluralistic societies.
(This review appeared in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Korean Religions).
The recent spate of news stories about how we are growing less intelligent because we no longer have to contend with a hostile environment reminds of Belgian-born poet Henri Michaux’s description of an imaginary people, the Hacs:
“The Hacs make sure every year to raise a small number of child-martyrs, whom they subject to harsh treatment and blatant injustices, inventing alibis and deceptions and forcing them to grow up in an atmosphere of terror and mystery.
Charged with this task are hard-hearted men, brutes under the command of cruel and malicious leaders.
In this way they have formed great artists and poets, but unfortunately also assassins and especially reformers, fanatics ready to die for their causes.
If a change is made to their customs or social regime, it’s because of them. If, in spite of their small army, the Hacs have nothing to fear, again, they owe it to them. If anger streaks like lightning in their precise and lucid tongue, beside which the saccharine wisecracks of foreign writers is only so much insipid gruel, it is again because of them, these few ragged, wretched, hopeless kids.”
In one of the most interesting passages in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville lays out the hard distinctions between aristocracy and democracy. In considering what separates the old order from the new, he sounds a bit like an author setting out to create a science-fiction universe, or least as a philosopher giving advice to a fiction writer about the creating coherent and credible alternate universes. Here is the section in which Tocqueville describes the defining traits of aristocratic societies:
“What are you requiring of society and its government? One must be clear about that. Do you wish to raise the human mind to a certain lofty and generous manner of viewing things of this world? Do you wish to inspire in men a kind of scorn for material possessions? Is it your desire to engender or foster deep convictions and to prepare the way for acts of deep devotion? Is your main concern to refine manners, to raise behavior, to cause the arts to blossom? Do you crave poetry, reputation, glory?
Are you intending to organize a nation so that it will exercise strength of purpose over all others? Are you giving it the aim of undertaking mighty projects and leaving an impressive mark upon history, however its efforts may turn out?
If, in your estimation, that should be the main objective of government, do not choose a democratic government because it would not steer you to that goal with any certainty” (286).
As for democracy, its merits and limitations are of an almost entirely different order:
“But, if it seems useful to you to divert man’s intellectual and moral activity upon the necessities of physical life and to use it to foster prosperity; if you think that reason is more use to men than genius; if you aim to create not heroic virtues but peaceful habits; if you prefer to witness vice rather than crime and to find fewer splendid deeds provided you have fewer transgressions; if, instead of moving through a brilliant society, you are satisfied to live in a prosperous one; if, finally, in your view, the main objective for a government is not to give the whole nation as much strength or glory as possible but to obtain for each of the individuals who make it up as much well-being as possible, while avoiding as much suffering as one can, then make social conditions equal and set up a democratic government” (286-287).
These passages are indicative of what I consider to be Tocqueville’s realism, in which he not only reflects on the respective advantages of the two forms of society, but also specifies their respective shortcomings and how these deficiencies are at the same time bound to what he finds meritorious in each system. Aristocracy is by far the more extreme arrangement: tremendous injustices side-by-side with glittering achievements, in which intense devotion, unconditional commitment, and deep piety are balanced out, as it were, by debauchery and transgression. Democracy, on the other hand, seeks to look after the good of the many, which yields a milder and more relaxed society, where virtue can be joined to happiness through good habits and reasonable and moderate aspirations. Tocqueville is clear about the trade-off involved in building a society in which the majority can enjoy well-being and prosperity: democratic culture will be far less brilliant and much more materialistic than those produced by aristocracies. The fact that aristocrats are prone to dissipation and excess also make them capable of demonstrating a “haughty scorn” for material comforts and therefore of displaying “unusual powers of endurance when ultimately deprived of them” (616).
For Tocqueville, what matters most in an aristocracy is a “lofty idea” of man it raises up for itself. It is not any artist or general but Blaise Pascal, demystifier of the superiority of the nobility by asserting its basis on convention, who for Tocqueville exemplifies the highest fulfillment of the aristocratic drive for splendor and greatness. Democratic societies, on the other hand, exist within a materialistic horizon, in which lofty ambitions and tyrannical injustices alike have become alien. In a sense, Tocqueville is saying that if one lives in a democracy, one cannot hope for more than a wide distribution of well-being. One must make peace with the reality that great and outstanding works of human genius, like the political revolutions that produce democracies, will become rare.
The value of Tocqueville’s thought for contemporary politics consists in how it may shake us free of the currently accepted constellation of designations and values that structure the oppositions between left and right, Republican and Democrat. Perhaps environmentalism, which seeks, if not to “inspire scorn” for consumer goods, at least attempts to make us more open to the idea of living with less, contains a strong aristocratic dimension, which is not surprising if we consider that it is generally the well-off who espouse environmentalism as a kind of lifestyle choice. Perhaps it makes more sense to view socialism, which entails imposing limitations on the aspirations of those seeking to increase their wealth, in certain vital respects being much closer to aristocracy than to democracy. Democracy itself is hostile to the principle of authority as such, with the consequence that democratic peoples, by their nature, cannot allow “any innovator to gain and exercise great power over the mind” (745). Whereas it is authority that allowed for the abuses of the aristocracy, its erosion under democracy is what, Tocqueville predicts, will serve to immobilize political life in democracy. It is hard not to regard Tocqueville as a prophet when surveying the current political landscape:
“It is generally believed that new societies will change shape day by day but my fear is that they will end up by being too unalterably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same customs, with the result that the human race may stop moving forward and grind to a halt, that the mind of man may forever swing backwards and forwards without fostering new ideas, that man will wear himself out in lonely, futile triviality and that humanity will cease to progress despite its ceaseless motion” (750).
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Our book group is discussing Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve, which traces modern secularism back to the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius. Among the chief teachings of Epicureanism are that there is no afterlife and that the most important goal of human life is the gratification of the body. It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I am an opponent of Epicureanism. But I object to it not so much on traditional Christian grounds, on the basis that it denies the immortality of the soul. Rather, I criticize Epicureanism because, in both its ancient and modern varieties, it rejects the idea that human experience has a historical dimension.
In the West, there are broadly speaking two paths to defeating the onslaught of time and overcoming the oblivion of mortality. The Christian doctrine of the immortal soul teaches that to be saved is not only to be given the blessings of an eternal life but also to have one’s mortal existence be stamped with a divine and infallible meaning by the providence of the Creator. The Homeric view, by contrast, holds that the only way for human beings to conquer time is to achieve glory and renown. The only immortality, and the only significance, comes from writing one’s name into history by means of extraordinary acts of valor.
The Homeric path was not cast aside with the triumph of Christianity over pagan antiquity, rather it was preserved by Christianity as it widened the scope of acts that could be crowned with glory: the spiritual warfare carried out by ascetic discipline and acts of extraordinary charity and renunciation, in addition to acts of military valor. This desire for glory later became ensconced in the realm of culture in the figure of the great artist, whose works, though misunderstood by his or her contemporaries, would pass the test of time and receive the renown due to them by future generations.
It is striking to me the extent to which the idea of any work having some kind of trans-temporal significance is bound up with the Christian idea of immortality. Hardly anyone declares today the need to write for future generations, or expresses with confidence, natural to earlier periods, that a certain work of art would increase in importance with the passing of time. Could it be that in losing the Christian idea of immortal soul, we lose the confidence to imagine the future, let alone a future populated by people whose beliefs and practices might be wholly different from our own? Even our term expressing the capacity to maintain significance and weight over the course of time, “trans-temporal,” is redolent of feebleness and hesitation.
Do we need a belief in an immortal soul in order to be able to view ourselves acting in history, or to trust that there are certain actions that are worthy of being commemorated (I exclude the contemporary cult of victimization, if only for the fact that it does not honors people for anything that they actually did)? It negates the view prizes the active life, that human initiative and the unfolding of human powers are noble and laudable things. Instead, we seem stuck within a never-ending and empty present, filled with self-recrimination over the past and nameless dread over a blank future.
In a way, it could be said that my criticism of modern secularism is that it is insufficiently pagan, that is to say, modern secularism of the type espoused by Greenblatt and the American liberal establishment is still Christian, all too Christian, without the sobriety and discernment that Christianity was able to provide by preserving the vital elements of pagan antiquity. It could be said that our problem is that negating Christianity does not bring us back to the vitality and lively innocence of Homer, but rather enchains us in the morbid guilt of a post-Christian world that has not killed God but merely closed off memory and sterilized passion.
I am posting a review of Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) by John Hall. It is scheduled appear in The Sociological Review later this summer.
John R. Hall’s Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity is an ambitious work that interprets major historical movements and events from the standpoint of eschatological expectation. The book performs the vital service of reminding us that the yearning for apocalyptic redemption serves both as a crucial motive for those undertaking world-transforming projects and as the medium through which persons caught up in momentous events understood their significance. Hall traces the category of the apocalyptic back to its earliest known manifestations, in the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, and then devotes a section of his study to points of historical transition at which the narrative of apocalypse undergoes a significant mutation. In examining apocalypticism in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the secular revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally the contemporary era of globalization, Hall reveals the stubborn persistence of the apocalyptic tropes of destruction and rebirth in the history of West. His study forcefully makes the case that the narrative of apocalypse stands solidly in the mainstream of Western civilization, and raises the question of whether it is possible to understand historical experience apart from the categories it provides.
The sections of Hall’s book that are dedicated to the Crusades and the sectarian movements of the Middle Ages will no doubt call to mind Norman Cohn’s classic study, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957). Hall’s study builds on Cohn’s work, especially in his discussion of the Crusades, but unlike Cohn, Hall lays his emphasis on the fate of the apocalyptic within the forms of belief that gained official legitimacy within European society, rather than on its expressions on the sectarian fringes. Thus, Hall’s account of the Reformation accords greater weight to the efforts of Martin Luther and John Calvin to regiment and rationalize apocalyptic energies by channeling them into institutionalized forms acceptable to worldly rulers than on Thomas Müntzer’s dramatic and doomed attempt to create a messianic kingdom on the earth. But as Hall observes, the subjection of life to the rational discipline of work and the displacement of sacred time by the objective time of the clock and calendar do not trigger the waning of the apocalyptic and the sacred violence it incites, but rather displaces this violence into the practice of secular politics. Thus, the Jacobins are revealed to be fundamentalist zealots wielding a violence that has an indelibly “sacred” character for the sake of establishing the “quasi-religious utopia” of the republic of virtue (111). Hall’s discussion of the apocalyptic element in modern radical politics proves to be quite refreshing and salutary. He goes beyond the analysis of Soviet and Chinese communism, the religious dimensions of which have long been established by earlier scholars, to consider the exercise of sacred violence in anti-colonial struggles, including black liberation, Zionism, Palestinian resistance, as well as the Taiping rebellion and the American Indian Ghost Dance movement.
The conceptual maneuver that reveals the essentially religious character of political institutions and ideological movements which are understood to be secular is a gesture that readers of the work of Denis de Rougemont, Eric Voegelin, and John Milbank are bound to find familiar. Most academic readers will find the absence of polemic in Hall’s study to be one of its principal merits, as his thesis regarding the ubiquity of the apocalyptic in the history of West does not come weighted with the anti-liberal and anti-secular baggage that mars for many the insights of the aforementioned thinkers. In Hall’s book one does not find sweeping attacks on modernity and its cult of self-fashioning, nor calls to revive orthodox forms of Christianity, nor a defense of a platonic conception of philosophy as the only form of thought that can resist sectarian delirium. Hall’s disinterestedness and evenhandedness, as well as his attentiveness to the irreducibly heterogeneous and hybrid nature of radical politics, serve him well in tracking the manner in which the apocalyptic has infiltrated the dominant narratives of secular politics. But these virtues do not work to his advantage in confronting the crises of the global present.
Hall provides an excellent overview of the emergence of militant Islam, identifying the points of linkage between al-Qaida and the earlier generation of radical thinkers who redefined jihad for the modern, postcolonial age, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Though he makes a convincing case for regarding al-Qaida’s struggle against liberal modernity as apocalyptic in its scale, Hall chooses to map this conflict in a disappointingly schematic way, as a face-off between the “Empire of Modernity” (a term borrowed from Martin Coward), with its techniques of surveillance and modes of governmentality, and apocalypse itself. The key task is for the Empire of Modernity to continue a policing strategy against apocalyptic extremists while preventing the escalation of its violence onto an apocalyptic scale, which would only work to the benefit of al-Qaida and other militant groups. Hall would update George Kennan’s theory of containment for an age of borderless religious warfare, as he singles out overreaction and excessive force on one’s own side as the leading hazard in a lengthy and uncertain struggle on multiple fronts. The only way to avoid apocalyptic calamities is to “undermine the plausibility structures of apocalypse” (197).
Hall studiously avoids falling into the trap of materialist reductionism when it comes to the religious struggles of the past, i.e. he is able to regard their partisans in the manner in which they regarded themselves, rather than exposing their clashes over doctrine as disguised battles over wealth, political and economic status, etc. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his analysis of the contemporary crisis. Hall opposes the apocalyptic temporality of crisis and judgment with the category of diachronic time, which corresponds to the everyday continuity that fosters economic activity. The project of modernity unfolds in a diachronic conception of time, yet Hall does not explore the possibility that apocalyptic calamity might actually arrive through this mode of temporal experience. For one could argue that the very attachment to affluence among people living in capitalist democracy undermines their ability to engage in large-scale collective action, which would invariably disrupt the routines and practices making possible the pursuit and accumulation of wealth. The more their existence is immersed within the patterns of the diachronic, the more difficult it becomes for them to act collectively to avoid catastrophe.
One sees evidence of such incapacity in the way in which the US has chosen to conduct its so-called war on terror. Although the US has resorted to excessive and inhuman measures against those suspected of terrorism, such as the inmates held at Guantanamo, this brutality has coexisted with a strange half-heartedness in how the US has engaged in a struggle against an ostensibly dire enemy. Although neo-conservatives have declared the struggle against militant Islam to be no less significant that the fight against Bolshevism and fascism, the US has from the outset acquiesced to rigid economic constraints in waging war. Thus, it has not sent troops in adequate numbers to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, because it is too politically costly to revive the draft or to displace, however temporarily, economic growth from its position as the highest national priority. Even the most ardent supporters of the war in Iraq never called for significant changes to life at the home front for the sake of gaining victory in a lengthy and protected conflict, even though they are quick to characterize the enemy as fanatics seeking nothing less than the total destruction of the way of life Americans hold dear. The Iraqis have suffered the devastating brunt of these unyielding limitations, as the speedy victory gave way to the disintegration of state security through inter-ethnic strife as well as a bloody insurgency, which have claimed the lives of between 106,000 to 116,000 Iraqi civilians, according to Iraqbodycount.org), or over 654,965, according to Lancet.
It is the juxtaposition between the characterization of Islamist militants as an enemy seeking to inflict catastrophic destruction and the state of consumerist inertia intensified by this enmity that constitutes the representative apocalyptic of our time. For our satiety rules out the possibility of reciprocity between enemies and delegates the duty of sustaining an untenable status quo to those who benefit from it the least. In this respect it is telling that Hall chooses a rather dated nightmare to illustrate the danger of the dissolution of the public sphere: the stifling conformity of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. It would be more fruitful to look instead to the novels of Michel Houellebecq and J. G. Ballard, who track the pathologies bred by radical individualism and consumerist satisfaction. In their narratives, apocalypse erupts from the combustion triggered by the collision of incommensurable ways of life – sex tourism and radical Islam – while a new generation of Stalins and Hitlers arise from the torpor of shopping malls and resort communities. As these novelists demonstrate, our problem is that the apocalypse will only be televised, at least until the power runs out.
John Hall, Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.
What is religion in the postmodern world? Religion has been widely regarded as a source of oppressive authority, a body of outmoded superstitions that constrain the capacity of individuals to utilize their freedom and thrive in a liberal, pluralistic society. This view has been moderated in recent years, as a number of secular thinkers have credited religion as being the source of the moral values that are indispensable for the stability and well-being of liberal democracy, such as the golden rule or compassion for the poor. But I find that the predominant approach to religion taken by secular intellectuals is one of attempting to domesticate and rein in an unruly and potentially destructive force. The most urgent question for them is how to make faith, as it were, housebroken – i.e. how to harness its altruistic and humanitarian impulses for socially beneficent ends while curbing its powers elsewhere, so that it would not seek to impose constraints on individual liberty or otherwise stifle the ceaseless pursuit of novelty in consumer society.
Such a project necessarily assumes that religion can be divided between its enlightened varieties, those manifestations of spirituality that are accepting of other beliefs and take a relaxed attitude towards social mores and practices, and its strident and menacing forms, usually fundamentalist, which are bent on burdening non-believers with their oppressive values and irrational restrictions. Enlightened religion has made its peace with the modern world, and obeys the principle of “this far, and no further.” Reactionary fundamentalist religion is so unsettled by the relentless erosion of taboos in modernity that it appears ready to pay the price of economic competitiveness to restore the discarded and abandoned social and sexual norms.
On closer inspection, however, the task of making religion safe for secular democracy (as well as, one might add, capitalism) appears more daunting than one might expect, since it requires arriving at the correct balance whereby religion is strong enough to supply crucial moral intuitions (be kind to others, help the less fortunate, defer gratification) that cannot be generated by a purely secular rationality, but yet is left weak enough so that it is in no position to threaten to curb the untrammeled freedom which has come to define liberal individualism. One must contend furthermore with the concern that the “good,” pluralistic expressions of religious belief usually represent diluted forms of faith and practice. Such a spirituality, which has become so harmonized with modern life so as to become interchangeable with it, is incapable of supplying a corrective to the corrosive forces of the age and is fated to disappear with the passing of the present epoch and its values.
For Alexis de Tocqueville, it only makes sense to speak of the salutary effects of Christianity inasmuch as the religion and its values exist at a distance from the commercial preoccupations of democratic society. Democracy gives rise to a bustling society given over to commerce, in which men almost always meet others who are like themselves and in which their material success give them scant incentive to recognize and fathom the forbidding ideas and arduous experiences that were essential to the formation of their world. Only religion could preserve a dimension of otherness in a society defined by commerce and dominated by affluence.
In Tocqueville’s view, the emergence of democracy itself is a theological mystery. As such, he gives a definition of religion that can be understood as thoroughly atheistic: “When, therefore, any religion has put down deep roots in a democracy, be careful not to shake them; rather, take care to preserve them as the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times” (Democracy in America, 632-633). Like many contemporary social theorists, Tocqueville’s view of religion is oriented toward its social consequences, its social and economic utility, yet he underscores here that it is not primarily its moral or ethical dimension which is to be valued, but rather the historical consciousness it provides. Religion is what prevents the democratic and capitalist subject from being fully enclosed in the social and cultural horizon created by its activity. Religion, specifically Christianity, gives democratic men and women access to a radically different perspective that runs counter to the restless pursuit of material goods and worldly success.
What is accordingly truly other to capitalist democracy is not a vision of its possible improvements and modifications, such as socialism or communism, but rather aristocracy. Religion is an artifact of aristocratic centuries, in which hierarchy was a constant, harsh and unavoidable presence in everyday life. But what does a sociopolitical order, founded on rigid social divisions and irrational codes of privilege, have to offer than democracy does not? As Pierre Manent observes in his study of Tocqueville:
“Aristocratic society, which is founded on a false idea of freedom, on bizarre notions of honor, which particularizes men, causes them by the same token to live together and exalt the higher parts of the soul. Democratic society, which is founded on the just idea of liberty, whose notions of honor increasingly approximate universal notions of good and evil, which ‘generalize’ men, separates and weakens the higher parts of the soul. The false idea of nature elevates the nature of man and stimulates exalted achievements – in thought and politics, above all. The true idea of nature dulls the nature of man and makes him incapable of exalted enterprises that are proper to his nature – elevated thought in particular” (Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 74, emphases mine).
Aristocratic society has hierarchy as its guiding principle, but this means that the “power of one man to govern others” extends to realms beyond considerations of political rank. The lack of egalitarianism in aristocracy has its noblest and most splendid consequences in the realm of thought. The habit in aristocracies of commanding and obeying is conducive for the realization of philosophic and artistic genius. Democratic society, by contrast, strives incessantly to suppress the awareness of inequalities and looks only to money as the only indisputable measure of distinction. Manent locates the incommensurable difference between aristocracy and democracy in the idea of influence: “Because [aristocratic societies] are extremely inegalitarian, great personal influences can make themselves felt… The social convention that recognizes great individual influences opens space in which great natural influences, owing to strictly personal talents and merits of individuals, can be exercised” (Tocqueville, 77). In aristocracies, the law of superiority means that people take it for granted that men ought to influence one another, including those who may lack the distinction of birth but who rise to exert authority by cultivating their abilities and gifts. Democracy, on the other hand, holds that no man is superior to any other, and so “tends to impose a real equality of men that it does not uphold in theory” (Tocqueville, 79). Democracy thus tends to “stultify” human nature, as democratic society is “constantly preoccupied with organizing men so that they are unconscious” of their inequalities, a necessarily “endless” task which compels individuals to “veil in themselves and ignore in another all sentiments, qualities, actions that tend to contradict this equality” (Tocqueville, 79).
While the Christian belief in the inviolable dignity of every human being is often regarded as the source of the modern concept of equality, the Christian view of the soul cannot be described as democratic. In Christianity, it is aristocracy (or monarchy) in Plato’s sense that provides the pattern for the right order of the soul, whereby the believer is called to recognize the love of God as the supreme authority that rules over his or her desires and capacities. The democratic soul in the Republic, by contrast, is defined by the absence of a single ruling power and by its insistence that all desires must be “honored on an equal basis” (561c). It could therefore hardly be called Christian at all. In Plato’s dialogue, the form of the soul corresponds to the regime that shares its name, i.e. the citizens of an aristocracy possess aristocratic souls, the citizens of an oligarchy oligarchic souls, the citizens of a democracy democratic souls, etc. For Tocqueville, the inward, spiritualized hierarchy of Christianity makes possible the coexistence of democracy with the aristocratic soul. Indeed, Tocqueville contends that it is best for a democracy to be populated by citizens who have aristocratic souls.
But an aristocratic soul that inhabits a democracy will necessarily exist in tension with this political regime. For it is the will of the human spirit to “harmonize the earth and heaven” (Tocqueville, 107). Religion accordingly serves as a force that restrains and moderates the corrosive effects of individualism and materialism, but it can do no more than hold back overwhelming powers that are bent on vanquishing it, subjugating, colonizing and manipulating it for its own indifference to higher purposes. The power of democratic society over religion sterilizes religion and deprives it of its capacity to serve as the repository of historical consciousness, as a body of ideas from which it is possible to reconstruct the perspectives and values of the aristocratic past. For Nietzsche, the nascent liberal Christianity of his time had lost sight of the “dread” and the “belief in human unworthiness” that drove Pascal, who was central influence on Tocqueville, to formulate his wager, and instead justified itself according to the “great benefit,” “enjoyment,” and “soothing effects” it offered. Such a religion, which sought its proof in “pleasure” and not “force,” was in Nietzsche’s view a “symptom of decline,” leading to an “opiate Christianity” that has “no need of that dreadful solution, ‘a God on the cross’” (Late Notebooks, 89-90).
The old saying that politics creates strange bedfellows must surely apply to the history of ideas – shifts in social values can reveal alignments and affinities between ostensible adversaries or between critics and the targets of their critiques. Thus, the more distant Christianity grows from beliefs that in the eyes of the present age are irrational, arduous, and strenuous, the better this unapologetic defender of aristocratic values can fulfill the unlikely role of the defender of an uncomfortable and troubling orthodoxy. It is instructive in this respect to look to Eric Voegelin’s commentary on Nietzsche, in which the latter emerges as a mystic of historical immanentism, for whom the union with God is replaced by union with distinct historical personalities: Schopenhauer, Wagner, Bismarck, Goethe, and perhaps most importantly, Pascal (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 271). Nietzsche is not so much a historicist as a mystic who seeks to “transform himself into an epitome of the experiences of humanity to the point that the historically unfolding spirit becomes incarnate for its actual present in his person; his person must become the medium of transition of the spirit into the future of humanity” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 265). By “living through” the experiences of the past, the individual will “learn best where humanity in future should or should not go.”
Voegelin’s reservations about Nietzsche’s historical mysticism not surprisingly have to do with the possibility of misinterpretation, which is exacerbated by the thinker’s own “weakness in drawing empirical images of the actions of the immoralist” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 296-297). Moreover, Nietzsche’s mysticism is ultimately a defective one, because he “was incapable of the transcendental experiences” which are infused by the Christian idea of grace (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 257). Yet, Nietzsche, in developing an array of “countersymbols” of the Christian religion, maps out in the movements of his this-worldly mysticism the “transfigured reality” of the soul once it has overcome “the world in which man lusts for life” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 258). The most profound apologist for Christianity, Pascal, thus emerges as the thinker he followed most closely.
Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. John Waggoner. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, trans. Kate Sturge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Eric Voegelin, “Nietzsche and Pascal,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 25: The History of Political Ideas, Volume VII: The New Order and the Last Orientation, ed. Jürgen Gebhardt and Thomas A. Hollweck. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999.