Necessary lies

19 01 2011

Continuing with my man crush of Zizek:

In one of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks Putin and Medvedev are compared to Batman and Robin. It’s a useful analogy: isn’t Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s organiser, a real-life counterpart to the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight? In the film, the district attorney, Harvey Dent, an obsessive vigilante who is corrupted and himself commits murders, is killed by Batman. Batman and his friend police commissioner Gordon realise that the city’s morale would suffer if Dent’s murders were made public, so plot to preserve his image by holding Batman responsible for the killings. The film’s take-home message is that lying is necessary to sustain public morale: only a lie can redeem us. No wonder the only figure of truth in the film is the Joker, its supreme villain. He makes it clear that his attacks on Gotham City will stop when Batman takes off his mask and reveals his true identity; to prevent this disclosure and protect Batman, Dent tells the press that he is Batman – another lie. In order to entrap the Joker, Gordon fakes his own death – yet another lie.

The Joker wants to disclose the truth beneath the mask, convinced that this will destroy the social order. What shall we call him? A terrorist? The Dark Knight is effectively a new version of those classic westerns Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which show that, in order to civilise the Wild West, the lie has to be elevated into truth: civilisation, in other words, must be grounded on a lie. The film has been extraordinarily popular. The question is why, at this precise moment, is there this renewed need for a lie to maintain the social system?

Consider too the renewed popularity of Leo Strauss: the aspect of his political thought that is so relevant today is his elitist notion of democracy, the idea of the ‘necessary lie’. Elites should rule, aware of the actual state of things (the materialist logic of power), and feed the people fables to keep them happy in their blessed ignorance. For Strauss, Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. Questioning the gods and the ethos of the city undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of human endeavours. The solution proposed was that philosophers keep their teachings secret, as in fact they did, passing them on by writing ‘between the lines’. The true, hidden message contained in the ‘great tradition’ of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke is that there are no gods, that morality is merely prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.

Read the rest here

Found via Titusonenine

P.S. I thought that Dark Night movie sucked.

George Balanchine’s Jewels

7 10 2010

As mentioned yesterday, AG and I went to Houston to see that city’s ballet perform the work Jewels by George Balanchine. If there was any doubt that Houston has a world-class ballet company, it was dispelled by this performance. For the most part, their presentation was crisp and faithful, having been well coached by the gatekeepers of the Balanchine Trust. The experience was a veritable joy, and probably one of the best live ballet experiences I have ever had (okay, I am still a neophyte by some standards). But in this presentation, one was able to witness what is the essence of Balanchine’s genius: his choreography allows you to see the music.
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On superstition – pt. I

19 09 2010

After these follow the remaining kinds of divine frenzy, which Plato considers are twofold. One is centered in the mysteries, and the other, which he calls prophecy, concerns future events. The first, he says, is a powerful stirring of the soul, in perfecting what relates to the worship of the gods, religious observance, purification and sacred ceremonies. But the tendency of the mind that falsely imitates this frenzy he calls superstition. He considers the last kind of frenzy in which he includes prophecy, to be nothing other than foreknowledge inspired by the divine spirit, which we properly call divination and prophecy. If the soul is fired in the act of divination he calls it frenzy; that is, when the mind, withdrawn from the body, is moved by divine rapture. But if someone foresees future events by human ingenuity rather than by divine inspiration, he thinks that this should be named forsight or inference. From all this it is now clear that there are four kinds of divine frenzy: love, poetry; the mysteries, and prophecy. The common and complete insane love is a false copy of divine love; superficial music, of poetry; superstition, of the mysteries; and prediction, of prophecy. According to Plato, Socrates attributes the first kind of frenzy to Venus, the second to the Muses, the third to Dionysius, and the last to Apollo.

-Marsilio Ficino, found in Meditations on the Soul

The “usefulness” of metaphysics

8 09 2010

It is frightening to think of the extent to which people are now being encouraged to banish from the minds of their children great questions as devoid of all meaning; to dispel the wonder which is a young mind’s birthright; to confine their spirit to petty problems that can be answered once and for all to the satisfaction of reasoners incapable of raising a question to begin with. We now have a philosophy to show that there are no problems but those which it has shown to be no problem; and to decree that there is no philosophy other than one that is a denial of philosophy. Under the twinkle of a fading star, Hollow Men rejoice at a hollow world of their own making.

-Charles de Koninck, The Hollow Universe

I am very sympathetic to this type of comment. For one thing, I think one of the problems with anti-abortion advocates is that they fail to understand how anti-metaphysical our thinking and the thinking of democracy is. The inability of many good intentioned people to see the usefulness of metaphysical first principles prevents any real discourse on morality whatsoever.

On the other hand, you can’t eat metaphysics. We live in a profoundly anti-metaphysical world, and to pretend that these questions mean exactly the same thing as when Aquinas or other scholastics posed them would be the same as saying that a costume ball constitutes an exact re-inactment of the customs of the past. I was struck by this most in my own readings of Aquinas, before I started blogging, in which I concluded that one could not pretend to understand Aquinas unless one begins to try to grasp what kind of world he lived in. What was the “metaphysical atmosphere” in which he thought, how did he envision the cosmos working, how did social and economic factors influence how he approached questions, and so forth. I feel that I need to emphasize that his vision of the cosmos as run by cosmic hierarchies and according to the traditional rhythms of the seasons and the heavens is a much different place from our coldly measured mechanistic universe.

For that reason, I understand why the idea of both Maritain and de Koninick that modern science and human knowledge in general suffer because of a lack of a metaphysical component often falls on deaf ears. Modern science, as a quantitative tool, has no need of anything beyond the physical to explain its object. And quite frankly, it has proven far better than religion or metaphysical thought at feeding and caring for the people who employ it. Perhaps we are missing something even in the neo-Thomist advocacy of metaphysics. Perhaps there is a whole aspect of these propositions, a whole approach to the logos of things that we are missing. If that is the case, we may need to go beyond even the books by chairs of the philosophy programs at Catholic universities.

On Platonic ideas

18 08 2010

Thence, Mr. Kirk glides into that singular theory of savage metaphysics which somewhat resembles the Platonic doctrine of Ideas. All things, in Red Indian belief, have somewhere their ideal counterpart, or “Father”. Thus, a donkey, when first seen, was regarded as “the Father” or archetype. “of rabbits”. Now, the second-sighted behold the “Double-man,” “Doppelganger”, “Astral Body”,” “Wraith,” or what you will, of a living person, and that is merely his counterpart in the abstruse world… From personal experience, and the experience of friends, I am constrained to believe that we may think we see a person who is not really present to the view – who may be in the next room or downstairs, or a hundred miles off. This experience has occured to the sane, the unimaginative, the healthy, the free of superstition, and in circumstances by no means mystic… All things universally have their types, their reflex: a man’s type, or reflex, or “co-walker” may be seen at a distance from or near him during his life – nay, may be seen after his death.

-Andrew Lang, in the introduction to Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies

A politics of virtue?

3 06 2010

It is clear from this view that the best form of government is self-government, and that such government involves the citizen in taking command of his or her own inner life, developing the personal strength to control, direct and restrain their own appetites while bringing their soul under the rule of wisdom or reason…

For Plato, democracy as described by him is a dangerous and delicate form of government amounting at its worst to little more than mob rule based on the primacy of pleasure-loving appetites in the souls of the citizens. When this becomes dominant in the majority of citizens, the very foundations of participatory forms of government are destroyed as fewer and fewer people develop in themselves the virtues necessary for the governments of themselves or of states.

-Ian Mason, in When Philosophers Rule: Ficino on Plato’s Republic, Laws, & Epinomis

As the fate of the political-economic world becomes more and more uncertain, I can stand talk of politics less and less. At least in more prosperous times, people can feign pretending to care about virtue. Now, all political talk has descended into absolute demagoguery. While pundits tend to speak about the future of the modern republic, they care little if that future is just or not. As long as the masses have what they feel is entitled to them, they could care less about other people, even if they are citizens who live in the same city or even next door.

Which is why I have said in the past that that politics is the obsession of weak minds. It is an addiction just as Internet porn or gambling is an addiction. It gives one the feeling of interaction and control where there is none; it gives one the sense of involvement even though one is merely stewing in one’s own juices, or spinning wheels in a mire of corruption. All the while, a man can barely govern his own life; he can barely navigate his way through the complexities of modern society. He makes up for this by pretending to determine the fate of the nation.

The genius of the thought cited at the beginning of this reflection is that the divine Plato forces us to turn our forces inward, to the very soul that transcends even the state in its splendor. Corruption in the state is merely a reflection of corruption in the heart: the malaise of the soul. If only people would speak of that, instead of spewing selfish rhetoric that is on par with a three year old’s cry of “gimme!” We can pretend that being selfish is the best way to take care of our neighbor, as if Adam Smith’s invisible hand was the hand of God. But that does nothing to help us in the struggle for virtue.

So I will say again with Borges that democracy is a curious abuse of statistics, and since we are stuck with it, we have to do the best we can.

Some parting words from Gomez Davila:

Democratic parliaments are not places where debate occurs but where popular absolutism registers its edicts.

An individual declares himself a member of some group or other with the goal of demanding in its name what he is ashamed to claim in his own name.

The more serious its problems, the greater the number of inept men democracy calls forth to solve them.

Found here and here


13 05 2009


Image source

Found thanks to the wedgewords blog

I just thought this too funny not to post. “Platonic” is thrown around as an overused epithet in Christian circles . Gilson thought it akin to saying that your mother wears combat boots. Many Orthodox theologians are scared to death that any ideas of the Fathers of the Church might be contaminated by the “Platonic plague”. Any hint of liking Plotinus or Proclus is akin to denying the Trinity, affirming the transmigration of souls, and embracing the idea that all things emanated from the One, having descended in the cosmic cataclysm of falling into matter. Most of these people take these Platonic myths more seriously than the Platonists.

Indeed, maybe these people fear the inautheticity of their own thinking, in the spirit of all Western thought being, according to Whitehead, footnotes to Plato. Maybe what they fear in Platonic thought is not the “lack of clarity” or the “etherealness” of the Platonic school, but rather the radical idea of Otherness that intrudes into the daily lives of men. If this world is merely a play of shadows in a larger game of spiritual ideas, nothing for them would matter. But that is when things precisely begin to matter. Only in glimmers of the immaterial beauty do we find any meaning in this life. The beauty of form is not something bound to matter, but something trying to escape it. The Incarnation is not the proclamation of the sanctity of material, but of its inadequacy. A Platonist is no more a Manichean than a surgeon is a butcher. The latter cuts into something already dead, the former tries to salvage life from the jaws of death.

In the Incarnation, again, we find another term that is remarkably abused. I am thinking most of all in the idea that Catholicism is an “incarnational” religion, whereas Protestantism isn’t. This may have been a compelling idea fifty years ago during Holy Week in the highlands of Guatemala, but today it is merely a quaint anachronism. Anyone who has seen some of the hideous churches and banal services of the contemporary Catholic Church would think twice in applying the “incarnational” label to the Roman confession. On the other hand, what is so “anti-incarnational” in the black Pentecostal churches and snake-handlers of Appalachia? The religion of African-American Protestants has been quite incarnational in its respect for the movement of the body, music, and Scriptural language. But if we really wanted an “incarnational Christianity”, our best bet is to become Mormon: their prophet gets his orders directly from J.C. himself, and they think family is literally forever.

The only anti-incarnational religion I see around me is an American religion that calls itself Christian, and it crosses various confessional lines.

So much for the usefulness of labels…

On Self-Knowledge

25 09 2008

Now I have no leisure for such enquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me. For, as I was saying, I want to know not about this, but about myself: am I a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typho, or a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny?

-Plato, from the Phaedrus dialogue