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Dreaming of truth in America

Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that America is “one of the countries where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and are best applied”. He finds explanation in the peculiarities of democracy. Philosophy is for aristocrats. America is egalitarian. Yet egalitarianism encourages also intellectual self-reliance. So it is that doubting authority comes rather naturally to Americans.

I will argue that the philosopher whose precepts are “best applied” in America is not Descartes but Nietzsche. What distinguishes the latter is the concept that mind is a battlefield rather than a serene throne. I will quote from aphorism 333 in Gay Science.

What does Knowing Mean? “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari (do not laugh, do not mourn, nor to curse), sed intelligere!” (but understand) says Spinoza, so simply and sublimely, as is his wont. Nevertheless, what else is this “intelligere” ultimately, but just the form in which the three other things become perceptible to us all at once? A result of the diverging and opposite impulses of desiring to deride, lament and execrate? Before knowledge is possible each of these impulses must first have brought forward its one-sided view of the object or event. The struggle of these one-sided views occurs afterwards, and out of it there occasionally arises a compromise, a pacification, a recognition of rights on all three sides, a sort of justice and agreement: for in virtue of the justice and agreement all those impulses can maintain themselves in existence and retain their mutual rights. We, to whose consciousness only the closing reconciliation scenes and final settling of accounts of these long processes manifest themselves, think on that account that “intelligere” is something conciliating, just and good, something essentially antithetical to the impulses; whereas it is only a certain relation of the impulses to one another.

Nietzsche was the first to realise the abyssal origin of our thoughts. Descartes’ thinking self is the triple product of instinctual vectors rather than a metaphysical substance. It is something reminiscent of a Western movie, where three gunslingers confront one another in Mexican standoff. The finale truel in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the classic example. The camera moves back and forth between the contenders, capturing the mounting tension. The graves of Civil War soldiers flung all around, reminding the viewer that the world is a deadly battlefield. The soundtrack plays a sinister note, disrupted occasionally by the croaking ravens.This is exactly the kind of situation that, according to  Nietzsche, takes place in our unconscious, as laughing, mourning and coursing keep one another in Mexican standoff. Rational knowledge breaks the deadlock by a truce.

More than elsewhere, in America the game is played through socio-political proxies. It is what Michel Foucault has called the “external history of truth”.

The hypothesis I would like to put forward is that there are two histories of truth. The first is a kind of internal history of truth, the history of a truth that rectifies itself in terms of its own principles of regulation: it’s the history of truth as it is constructed in or on the basis of the history of the sciences. On the other hand, it seems to me that there are in society (or at least in our societies) other places where truth is formed, where a certain number of games are defined—games through which one sees certain forms of subjectivity, certain object domains, certain types of knowledge come into being—and that, consequently, one can on that basis construct an external, exterior history of truth.

The American “external history of truth” involves such games and places as the court of justice, the cinema, the media, the pulpit, the political discourse, the street protest, the talk-show, the blogosphere. It is here that “the precepts of Descartes… are best applied”. America has offered the best opportunity for the truth-seeker by letting everything happen and clash in those places.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The ultimate meaning of Emma Lazarus’ lines, graven on pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, is the promise that truth will make us free. Or is it?

Says Tocqueville:

In the United States… Christianity itself is an established and irresistible fact, which no one undertakes either to attack or to defend. The Americans, having admitted the principal doctrines of the Christian religion without inquiry… the activity of individual analysis is restrained within narrow limits, and many of the most important of human opinions are removed from its influence… In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.

Religion has become less powerful in our day. Yet expert opinion has become as much an “established and irresistible fact”, as Christianity was when the French writer travelled to America. The assertions of  doctors, psychiatrists, behavioral scientists, and so on, assume the guise of what Kant has called “the public use of reason”. Their lack of self-restraint betrays rather “the private use of reason”, wherein the Enlightenment has confined religion. What distinguishes each other is exactly what Tocqueville called “the precepts of Descartes, i.e. the exercise of philosophical doubt. An assumption that refuses to be questioned does not belong to the public square.

One might subsume political correctness under the same category. The difference from outspoken faith lies in the absence of the “wall of separation”. As such, it not only influences the public to raise “formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion “, but informs policy making as well. The perverse reversion of this invasion of the public space by expert opinion is the privatization of truth. The history of Galileo’s trial is repeating itself in gag orders and government/corporate restrictions of public information. Going public with common-interest knowledge might throw one into a Kafkaesque maze of legal problems.

In this context, the untutored Cartesianism mentioned by Tocqueville manifests itself as common-sense doubt regarding expert opinion, and  blasphemy against political correctness. It is a new form of the proverbial impiety of the common people. And it is, ironically, the left which is trying to suppress these heresies from its alleged base.

Hegel anticipated the postmodern sterilization of thought as he wrote about the “customary tenderness for things, whose only care is that they shall not contradict one another”. Of which Lenin comments: “This irony is exquisite! ‘Tenderness’ for nature and history (among the philistines)—the endeavor to cleanse them from contradictions and struggle”. What Hegel and Lenin called philistine and reactionary, the cleansing of society from contradictions and struggles, has come to be called “progressive”.

Tocqueville’s “formidable barriers” surrounding  liberty of opinion, are not truly barriers, but tectonic fault lines of the “external history of truth”. They are places where the instincts predating knowledge, recast as social tectonics, clash and unwind, shaping the ever-changing landscape of truth. Volcanoes and earthquakes are deadly phenomenon, but they make possible for a planet to be alive by recycling the elements of life. Similarly, ideas are alive on a dynamic infrastructure and are energized by eruptions of political passion. Logical truth comes only as a final compromise.

One cannot help noticing how old Europe is becoming more and more like Mars with its dead geology. No plate tectonics, no earthquakes, no fire from the depth, no life. Dreaming of truth is still possible in America.

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Open sea

Friedrich Nietzsche defined modernity in one short sentence: God is dead. Widely misunderstood as a profession of atheism, what the German philosopher meant was a mere statement of fact that “ belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable”. What makes belief unbelievable?

We should note that what has become unglaubwürdig – unbelievable, is not the Christian God as such, but rather “belief in the Christian God”. Nietzsche is too good a theologian to assume that God needs to be believable. Faith has never depended on reason. It is reason that used to depend on faith. From classical Greece through the Age of Enlightenment, one could not trust human reason without believing in a rational God that makes reason believable.

This relationship was first stated by Plato and reaffirmed, in a different form, at the beginning of modernity, by Descartes. Put shortly, it purports that timeless truth dwells in a timeless mind. God is implied here as an ontological axiom for both.

It is exactly this alleged timelessness of either mind or truth that had become unbelievable when Nietzsche wrote that God was dead. Take for instance Darwin’s comment on Plato:

Plato says in Phaedo that our ‘imaginary ideas’ arise from the preexistence of the soul, and are not derivable from experience—read monkeys for preexistence.

The most severe implication of evolution here is not its rebuttal of Genesis literalism – liberal theology has already done it – but its redefinition of mind as a mere biological adaptation. Moreover, if our “imaginary ideas” are biological, the “real” ones are historical. Transcendental truth is an illusion.

Thus the Gordian Knot of metaphysics was cut, and the ontological argument was rendered obsolete. The God who died was the God of philosophers.

Personal faith is, of course, hardly affected by this, because personal faith does not have to be believable. Therefore: “ the event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension”. What has to be believable is only belief as the foundation of sociopolitical institutions “for example, the whole of our European morality”. It is here that Nietzsche anticipates the chill of the “eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth”. Mankind will have to navigate through the night without stars. There will be no more eternal verities and moral absolutes to guide our sociopolitical institutions.

Yet Nietzsche is not in a gloomy mode. He salutes the dead of God as mankind’s ultimate adventure in knowledge. It is because the illusion of eternal truth obfuscates perennial truth – science versus metaphysics, experience versus Platonic contemplation, that th dead of God opens such an unprecedented opportunity:

At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.

The question is if we truly want to navigate these dangerous waters, to inhabit such a meaningless universe, to dare into most fantastic science and heart-stopping growth without God, any god to turn our eyes on? The content of the last two centuries has been that of desperately searching for a new god.

American freedom: Plato or Hegel?

The Declaration of Independence is a revolutionary manifesto framed in Platonic language.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The argument begs the question of “why are these truths self-evident” and the answer is “because they looked self-evident to the Founding Fathers”. Then the question arises “what else looked self-evident to them”? The answer would be: “that the Rights women, children and non-Europeans are not as ‘unalienable’ as those of ‘all men’”.

The revolutionary shows up in the next paragraph.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

Should the Founding Fathers be viewed as philosophers in Plato’s Republic, leading by their ability to discern timeless Truth from the shadows of history?  Or they rather be Hegelian heroes, leading in change by their ability to discern the Zeitgeist and seize historical momentum?

Two examples, one from the civil war, the other from the civil-rights movement, will help define the question. “Reverend Devereux Jarrati, an Anglican priest, represented the widespread view that slaves… were born to a certain station and role in life by God’s design”1. Devereux’ God was the God of the Declaration of Independence, because he was “the God of nature”2 who gave all men the Right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Slavery was the natural state of blacks, just as liberty was the natural state of “all men”. It was their own way in the pursuit of happiness.

Moreover, as the “God of nature” was the watchmaker of Newton and Paley, and nature itself was understood as an intricately perfect mechanism, any change in the natural order, slavery included, was harmful to humanity and rebellious toward the Creator.

Lincoln, on the other hand, issued the Proclamation of Emancipation with a note at the God of history. “God has decided this question in favor of the slave”3. He did not infer timeless truth from the unchanging ways of nature. His was the argument of the prophets in Israel: God speaks through war. History was to Lincoln what nature had been to Jefferson: the milieu of truth. Yet this time truth was not self-evident unless brought home by canons and blood.

It is noteworthy that Charles Darwin published his findings about the same time. He put an end not only to the concept of timeless nature, but also to that of timeless truth. “Read monkey for preexistence” was his answer to Plato. Lincoln did not probably have time to read the Origins of Species, but he certainly captured the Zeitgeist.

The conflicting views will persist through the civil rights movement, one century later. Reverend Jerry Falwell brought the constitutional separation of Church and State as an argument against the clergy being involved in the civil rights movement4. His entering the political fray in the post Roe era was not a matter of inconsistency. In both cases, Falwell abode by the letter of the Constitution, which he deemed as inerrant and timeless as that of the King James Bible. On the other hand, Martin Luther King, who followed Hegel and Gandhi rather than the Bible, turned to the “God (read the dialectics) of history”5 for new truths and rights, not embedded in the old letter. There was no self-evident truth about voting rights to the Founding Fathers. Moreover, there’s no Platonic truth about minimum wage. Yet King’s universe was no longer the perfect clock of the pre-Darwinian era. He wanted to change the world.

1Mecham 124

2ibid. 74

3ibid. 117

4 ibid. 199

5ibid. 203

6Wilson 5

7ibid. 15-23

Works cited

“The Declaration of Independence”. The Charters of Freedom. Apr 10, 2013. Web.

Mechan, John. American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the making of a nation. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Mechan, John. American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the making of a nation. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

Wilson, William Julius. More than a race: being black and poor in the inner city. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.