Category Archives: Books

Nietzsche: modern people hate pain more than their ancestors did

From before there was penicillin.

The many centuries before there was penicillin.

One of the defining achievements of the modern age has been a vast improvement in the physical well-being of the members of modern societies. People are far less at risk to disease and illness than those of premodern generations, and life expectancies have risen while infant mortality has fallen. While the accomplishments of modern medicine are unparalleled in human history, no less remarkable has been the softening of manners and the condemnation of various social practices for their harshness and cruelty. But such achievements do not appear to foster a greater feeling of spiritual well-being or stimulate great artistic breakthroughs. What gratitude we might feel in having been released from the agonies and afflictions of the past is overshadowed by an ever increasing sensitivity to the pains we encounter in our daily lives, pains which would hardly have bothered those of past generations. Moreover, we discover ceaselessly new areas of vulnerability and new occasions for distress. Even the cessation of pleasures becomes a source of intolerable anguish. Pessimism becomes widespread not only among intellectuals but also in the general public, so that health and the love of life come to take on the appearance of loot acquired by theft or some other underhanded means.

In paragraph 48 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche reflects on how the spread of well-being and comfort goes hand in hand with the rising popularity of pessimistic philosophies:

“Knowledge of distress. – Perhaps nothing separates human beings or ages from each other more than the different degrees of their knowledge of distress – distress of the soul as well as of the body. Regarding the latter we moderns may well, in spite of our frailties and fragilities, be bunglers and dreamers owing to lack of ample first-hand experience, compared with an age of fear, the longest of all ages, when individuals had to protect themselves against violence and to that end had themselves to become men of violence. In those days, a man received ample training in bodily torments and deprivations and understood that even a certain cruelty towards himself, as a voluntary exercise in pain, was a necessary means of his preservation; in those days, one trained one’s surroundings to endure pain; in those days, one gladly inflicted pain and saw the most terrible things of this kind happen to others without any other feeling than that of one’s own safety. As regards the distress of the soul, however, I look at each person today to see whether he knows it through experience or description; whether he still considers it necessary to fake this knowledge, say, as a sign of refined cultivation, or whether at the bottom of his soul he no longer believes in great pains of the soul and reacts to its mention in much the same way as to the mention of great bodily sufferings, which make him think of his toothaches and stomachaches. But that is how most people seem to me to be these days. The general inexperience with both sorts of pain and the relative rarity of the sight of suffering individuals have an important consequence: pain is hated much more now than formerly; one speaks much worse of it; indeed, one can hardly endure the presence of pain as a thought and makes it a matter of conscience and a reproach against the whole of existence. The emergence of pessimistic philosophers is in no way the sign of great, terrible states of distress; rather, these question marks about the value of all life are made in times when the refinement and ease of existence make even the inevitable mosquito bites of the soul and the body seem much too bloody and malicious, and the poverty of real experiences of pain makes one tend to consider painful general ideas as already suffering of the highest rank. There is a recipe against pessimistic philosophies and excessive sensitivity, things which seem to me to be the real ‘distress of the present’ – but this recipe may sound too cruel and would itself be counted among the signs that lead people to judge, ‘existence is something evil.’ Well, the recipe against this ‘distress’ is: distress.”

While acts of physical violence were more common in past ages and individuals were more prepared to bear them, it is clear that Nietzsche is more interested in the suffering of the soul, which, he implies, is doubly endangered in an age where people have become more sensitive to the pains of the flesh. Such people who associate pain with a physical discomfort (“toothaches and stomachaches”) would be incapable of even conceiving of the spiritual anguish necessary for thought. Indeed, to believe that all pains are ultimately physical calls out for merely physical remedies, whether in the form of political institutions or technological advances. Our age is an aberration not only in its conquest of pain but also in its hypersensitivity, which could the very path by which the pendulum swings back into history and back toward life. Or in the case that the pendulum has broken down, then we may have to contend with euthanasiasts who nevertheless cling stubbornly to an eccentric interpretation of the golden rule.

Work cited:

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Paradox as an Aid to the Discovery of Reality: Lefort on Tocqueville

Claude Lefort credits Tocqueville with an “astonishingly free speech,” which arises from his readiness to move behind the “circle of his theses” (35). Tocqueville is not afraid to “overturn his own affirmations,” and “gladly heads down paths that make him lose sight of the guideposts he had set in place.” His style is lucid and direct, yet it is very the clarity of his writing that lends itself to rendering a portrait of social reality as complex and dynamic. But as Lefort points out, the movement of Tocqueville’s thought verges precariously on self-contradiction. The well-known section in Democracy in America decrying the dangers posed by the tyranny of the majority in the United States is followed by a chapter dedicated to the legal profession, where the reader comes across the beliefs and habits that constrain and combat the drift toward the despotism of mass opinion. The profession of the law in the United States fosters admiration for competence and expertise and instills a “sense of permanency” that was formerly provided by the aristocratic hierarchy. The practice of trial by a jury of one’s peers diffuses and reinforces the belief in the rule of law, even among the “lowest classes,” so that the entire population becomes accustomed to thinking and deliberating on matters like a “judicial magistrate” (41). Thus, in contrast to the fear of the power of democracy to bring the citizen down to a lower level of thought and feeling, Tocqueville gives striking account of how American citizens raise themselves to a higher level of thinking by their judicial institutions.

A more striking example of how Tocqueville qualifies, complicates, and then reconciles with a previous assertion is found in The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, where he at first describes the selfishness, short-sighted ambition, and venality of the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie on the eve of the French Revolution, but then in a characteristic reversal, praises them for the virtues that they were able to demonstrate, and not in an insubstantial measure either. “The nobles, we learn, ‘retained even in the loss of their old power [to the monarchy], something of their ancestors’ pride, as opposed to servitude as to law.’” The clergy “has shone so brilliantly by its courage and its independence,” that Tocqueville asks if “there has ever been a clergy… more enlightened, more national, less confined purely to the private virtues, better provided with public virtues, and at the same time, more faith.” To the rising middle class Tocqueville ascribes a “spirit of independence,” and although the bourgeois was driven by vanity and eager to protect his newfound privileges, the “pseudo-aristocracy” he formed with his compatriots was able to produce some of the virtues of a “real aristocracy” (62).

Tocqueville’s method can be called realist, in that he is not concerned with championing any particular political or ideological outlook, but is instead devoted to doing justice to depicting the main features of an age that has arisen in the wake of unprecedented social and political upheavals and that is still caught up in the process of transformation. One could also call his approach “charitable,” in the sense that he strives to find something positive and admirable in developments which fill him with dismay and dread. It enacts perhaps the very sort of intellectual freedom that Tocqueville views as vitally necessary to check the power of mass opinion in a democratic age. One may have no choice but to accept democratic equality, but without intellectual freedom, democracy becomes deprived of its self-correcting mechanisms. Tocqueville’s method, with its attentiveness to paradox, moreover gives his work a novelistic quality, in which the idea of democracy, or aristocracy, emerges with the degree of concreteness and ambiguity that we would associate with a character in a nineteenth-century realist novel. But this ambiguity of course does not hinder knowledge, as it emerges from the nuanced analysis which he devotes to his themes. Democracy in America and Ancien Regime, which rely on the outlook and values of the vanquished aristocracy to give flesh to the democratic age, anticipate in striking ways the essayism of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, his great unfinished novel about the collapse of the Habsburg Austria.

Text cited:

Claude Lefort, “Tocqueville: Democracy and the Art of Writing,” Writing: The Political Text, trans. David Ames Curtis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

The Lesson of Nicias, Prisoner of His Virtues


Recently, it has been revealed that the Obama administration consistently and deliberately underestimated the strength of ISIS and its program of aiding Syrian rebels has been a colossal waste of money. Obama’s policies in the Middle East policy, far from stabilizing the region, have set in motion a massive crisis that has now spread to Europe. Obama won the presidency in large part because he promised a change from the reckless aggression of George W. Bush, yet his determination to break with Bush’s policies has not prevented conditions from getting worse. The worsening situation in the Middle East calls to mind the career of the Athenian general and statesman Nicias.

Nicias, a leader of the oligarchic faction in Athens, was known for being cautious, generous, and virtuous. He spoke out against the plan proposed by Alcibiades to send an expedition to Sicily to conquer Syracuse, the wealthiest and most powerful city on the island. Nicias had negotiated a peace treaty with Sparta, and argued that Athens should take advantage of the suspension of hostilities to recover from a decade of constant warfare. But Alcibiades, who painted the Syracusans as a weak and fickle people, given to making frequent changes in their form of government, insisted that they would be easy pickings for the battle-hardened Athenians.

While the Athenians were eager to plunder the wealth of Syracuse and to expand westward their sphere of influence, they took seriously the warnings of Nicias about the riskiness of the venture. So they heeded Nicias’ advice to send a larger number of troops than requested by Alcibiades (Nicias had tried to dissuade the Athenians from undertaking the invasion by exaggerating the number of troops he considered necessary for its successful completion). And they voted to make Nicias into one of the three commanders of the expedition, along with Alcibiades. Shortly before the fleet was to set sail, Alcibiades was accused of sacrilege, and instead of returning to face charges, he defected to Sparta. The Athenians defeated the Syracusans in their first battle, but the third commander, Lamachus, was killed in a skirmish. Nicias was then left in sole charge of a massive campaign: the moderate politician suddenly found himself having to execute an immoderate policy that he had opposed from the very beginning as hubristic overstretch. 

Nicias could have called off the invasion and returned to Athens, which might have spelled the end of his political career (the Athenians, unlike the Romans, were not forgiving of failure), or he could have pursued aggressively as possible the objective he had earlier defined as imprudent and reckless. Instead, he decided against doing anything risky, which gave the Syracusans time to construct a series of protective walls around their city. His dithering squandered the advantages secured by the Athenians in their early victories against the Syracusan forces. Moreover, when a small group of ships appeared on the horizon, Nicias did nothing to prevent them from entering the harbor of Syracuse, thinking that such a small fleet could make little difference to the outcome of the conflict. Unfortunately for the Athenians, on board one of the ships was the Spartan general Gylippus, whose strategy and tactics would spell doom for the Athenian expedition. 

Finally, suffering from illness and at wits’ end, Nicias wrote a letter to Athens giving a bleak picture of the army’s situation, as many of the soldiers had fallen sick. The city responded by sending a second army, similar in size to the first, but by then the advantage had swung over definitively to Syracuse and its allies. The Athenian forces mounted one final assault, a desperate attack at night, which failed to break through the lines of Boeotian infantry. The surviving Athenians then made preparations to retreat, but delayed their withdrawal because of an appearance of a lunar eclipse – the soothsayers proclaimed that they needed to wait 27 days before departing. The Syracusans thereupon surrounded the Athenians and massacred them. The survivors were taken as slaves and many died of exposure in the quarries of Syracuse. 

History may not repeat itself, but the study of human error reveals distinctive patterns. What happens when someone who is against a certain policy is then placed in charge of dealing with its consequences? Nicias did not wish to be blamed for a bad decision for which he was not responsible. But his own sense of rectitude undermined his capacity to extricate the Athenians from a dangerous predicament or to lead them to victory over the Syracusans. The only way he could have managed the consequences of the reckless endeavor of Alcibiades was to have assumed Alcibiades’ wrong decision fully as his own. Instead, the steadfastness of Nicias’ character, his prudence and moderation, ensured that the Athenians would suffer the greatest military disaster in the history of the Greeks. Perhaps the lesson of Nicias and his command of the Sicilian expedition is that it is possible to be excessively attached to our own best qualities. There is no question that Nicias was a better human being than the scheming and conniving Alcibiades, who betrayed the Spartans and returned to the Athenian side. He promised the Athenians military and financial aid from the Persian Empire if they would overthrow their democracy and install an oligarchy, exacerbating the political divisions in the city that would culminate in a series of oligarchic coups. But the attachment of Nicias to his own integrity ultimately proved more calamitous to Athens than the arrogance and duplicity of Alcibiades himself.

Plato and Thucydides on changes in the meanings of words


He wrote of ungovernable passions.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Socrates decries what he regards as the corruption of speech in democracy. The democratic individual has no compunctions about altering the meaning of basic human qualities. He dismisses “reverence” as “foolishness,” despises “moderation” as “cowardice,” and calls “insolence” “good breeding.” (560c-e). He exalts “anarchy” as “freedom,” “extravagance” as “magnificence,” and “shamelessness” as “courage.” Is this a case of the individual wishing to cast his vices as virtues, or is it a reflection of the slippery nature of linguistic signs, according to the doctrine whereby meaning is socially constructed, and for that reason elusive and unstable?

This passage brings to mind the famous lines from the History of Thucydides, where he describes how the contagion of civil strife debased and corrupted the civic life of the polis:

“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened in previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration on the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime” (242-243).

Acts of brutal violence, including those that claimed innocent lives, became regarded as expressions of courage, while anyone who counseled restraint was denounced as a coward. The passage is preceded by a hair-raising account of a massacre on the island of Corcyra, in which the democratic faction, emboldened by the imminent arrival of their allies from Athens, turned on the members of the oligarchic faction, who had sought sanctuary in the temple of Hera. Cut off from any possibility of escape, many of the suppliants committed suicide or killed each other to be avoided being slaughtered by their fellow citizens. Some were dragged out of the temples and butchered over the altars, their killers possessed by a cruelty and brutality that violated the most sacred of bonds and shattered elementary human restraints, as even fathers turned against their own sons and slew them. But Thucydides notes that not everyone who took part in the bloodbath was driven by political motives: debtors liquidated their debts by assassinating their creditors and those with vendettas took advantage of the lawlessness to kill the objects of their personal hatred.

Thucydides concludes that there was as “general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world,” as the “simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist” (244). One could regard the readiness to think and expect the worst of others, and even to take pre-emptive action against them, as the logical consequence of civil war breaking out within the city-state. “Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.” Yet, for Plato, the shift in the meanings of qualities and attributes indicates that there is a psychic dimension behind this corruption. The decline of what Thucydides calls the “ancient simplicity,” in which human beings are capable of calling virtue virtue, instead of trying to pass off a negative quality as a positive one, is from this standpoint the result of a shift in values and outlook as much as it is the response of individuals to external events taking place in the polis.

The democratic soul in the Republic is defined by the refusal to draw any distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. In a sort of anticipation of modern relativism, Socrates claims that democratic man is open to all experiences and desires, but is dogmatic on one score, which is that all yearnings and aspirations are to be considered equal to each other in value, and thus that none can be valued above another. The belief that one should honor all desires on an equal basis follows from the denial that there is any kind of hierarchy of values toward which one should orient one’s life or according to which a people should organize the terms of their communal existence. We thus encounter an aporia in which all values are equally correct, except for the belief that one value is superior to another.

The belief in the equality of all desires does not emerge in the dialogue as a concession to human fallibility, nor is it an expression of humility, epistemological or otherwise, as borne out by the inescapably hostile and antagonistic attitude of democratic man toward the idea that some desires are superior to others. Relativism then and now masquerades as a kind of truthful individualism, a sober recognition of the limits of human capacities and a hard-headed skepticism toward the delusions into which so many fall. But the sliding of moderation into cowardice, courage into shamelessness, and other terms into their opposites reveals that the belief that all desires should be honored equally is a mechanism for trying to place oneself beyond the judgment of others. What the equality of all desires, coupled with the readiness to manipulate language so that vice becomes virtue and defect becomes merit, aims at is to make the individual immune to criticism and reproach. It appears that one cannot make all desires equal without converting vanity into an entitlement.

The corruption of language returns us to a definition of justice enunciated at the opening of the dialogue by Polemarchus, who calls justice “doing good to one’s friends and doing harm to one’s enemies” (332d). The perversion of words into their opposites not only flatters the democratic individual by placing him beyond criticism, but they also enable him to define social reality in self-serving and instrumental ways. Thus, when one’s friends act impulsively, it is “courage,” but when your enemies do the exact same thing, it is “shamelessness.” But the violence that is done to language is a shadow of the actual violence being committed by factions against each other. The willingness to use language in a self-serving way amounts to a declaration of war, but one could also say that it impairs the ability to wage war, because by means of it the individual gives himself permission to see the world as he wants to see it, not as it actually is. Indeed, to persist in calling a courageous enemy “cowardly” is to underestimate him and thus to invite disaster. Tragic realism would compel us to be as honest as possible in how we regard our enemies, and make us realize that it is necessary to acknowledge the virtues of the enemy if one is to improve one’s chances of victory or achieving a satisfactory peace.

The disintegration of the Greek world took place in large measure because men were “swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions” (245). The “ungovernable passions” are the straightest path toward the war of all against all.

Works cited:

Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1988.

My other blog

I have started another blog, “The Worldly Ascetic,” on which I will post my thoughts and reflections about the experience of South Korean modernity. The first post focuses on a lecture given by Emanuel Pastreich at the Seoul Museum of History on Neo-Confucianism and the work of the philosopher and fiction writer, Park Jiwon.

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 braving enemy fire 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 come to grief 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 a very 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 their perspective 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. 

Baudrillard on Domination and Immortality

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).

Texts cited:

Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant.  London: Sage, 1993.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

Review: Korean American Evangelicals

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).

Losing our brains to security

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.”

Tocqueville and the Either-Or of World-Creation

Time flies when you’re constructing a new universe.

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).

Text cited:

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald Bevan.  New York: Penguin, 2003.