The words “piety” and “pious” have an archaic ring; moderns find them hard to use without irony or a sneer. Pejorative senses of the words predominate, such as those the Oxford English Dictionary gives for “piety” (“a sanctimonious statement, a commonplace”) and for “pious” (“hypocritically virtuous; self-righteous; sanctimonious”). The words conjure in the profane mind the image of superstitious old women kneeling before statues in church, clutching their rosaries and holy cards. Only readers of old literature are aware of the richer and nobler senses of the words in the premodern West, as in the Confucian East, where the virtue of piety (禮 or li is the Chinese correlative) was regarded as the lynchpin of the social and political virtues. As Cicero wrote, “In all probability, the disappearance of piety toward the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.” Today, his prediction threatens to become reality.
A virtue is a settled disposition of character, a capacity to act well rooted in human nature but strengthened by custom, good mores, education, and (above all) good examples. Piety is the virtue that enables us to do what is right in relation to our family, friends, benefactors, country, and God. It supports the general virtue of justice, because it disposes us to render to each what is its due. “Piety underlies the virtue of justice,” says Cicero. “It is that by which we reverence our parents and other elders, our relatives, friends, benefactors, and likewise our country, which is another parent, and likewise God.” This reverence or regard is closely allied with notions of love, charity, devotion, holiness.
In uncorrupt societies, children grow up with a sense of gratitude for the unearned benefits they have received. If we have normal moral responses, we feel grateful for all the things we have been given that we have done nothing to deserve: the love and nurture of parents and family; the kindness of friends and benefactors; the benefits of a well-ordered society; the freedoms we enjoy thanks to the sacrifices of our countrymen; the beauty and bounty of nature, which God pours down upon us every day. We have to admit, if we are honest, that we have done little to deserve what we have been given. We have, indeed, done many things that would justify our being stripped of what we have been given. If we have any decency—if we know what is decens, what is fitting—our only response can be gratitude and love for family, country, and God. We have obligations we can never repay, and that fact imposes on us an obligation of loyalty to the sources of those benefits. The proper human response to all the unearned blessings we have received is pietas.
Totemism has one final explanatory value, which Freud did not foresee: it helps to explain why, in the age of sexual-expressionism-as-identity that Alvaré diagnosed, so few people are having sex. We casually say that our world is sex-saturated and pornified, and indeed it is. Yet not only has the birthrate been plunging across the developed world, but so too has the rate of marriage. Even more mysterious is the decrease in sexual relationships in general. There is a flight from intimacy across the board.
Why is the body’s totemic value explanatory in this case? The analogy with religion shows us what happens when religions are demythologized. The inflation of the powers of sexual expressionism to bestow identity and contentment has led to a kind of sexual agnosticism. For every sexuality-fundamentalist who still promotes the rite of carefree hookups, and for every incel who is a bitter co-religionist abandoned by the god of orgasm, there are those who are opting out.
For some, the mystical power of the body for human happiness has been called into question, and they have become relationship-cynics. For others, the relationship-part of sexual relationships has been discarded, the better to pursue virtual gratification via technology. And, most tragically, for many others, the desire for intimacy and marriage remains strong, but too many possible spouses have deserted the field.
The way forward is to elevate the body by relativizing it. The body is both less and more than sexual totemism would have us believe. It is less: it is not the locus of human happiness and desire. It is not even explicable on its own, by the terms of pure materialism. And it is more: it is something much better than an orgasm-machine, a site of spiritual energy, or a means to herculean fitness. It is an icon.
Aristotle saw something profound when he allied matter with potency. Matter is not a vacuum needing the colonization of form; rather, matter brings something to the hylomorphic table, namely, the ability to be formed. This poverty of matter is its wealth. The liminal state of the body makes it poor, because it expresses nothing on its own, but only the interior depths of the person. Yet this very truth means matter is pregnant with form and thereby very rich indeed. The body is, in fact, a Marian reality, rich precisely because it is so poor. Our task is to relearn how to rejoice over the body’s poverty.
When the cultural critic and theorist Mark Fisher took his own life on 13 January 2017 at the age of 48, he was a third of a way through delivering a lecture series titled “Postcapitalist Desire”, which he had devised as part of an MA course in contemporary art theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. Fisher began the first lecture by playing three clips, the last from a 2011 episode of Have I Got News for You. In the video, the former Tory MP Louise Mensch – “I can’t believe she’s called ‘Mensch’; it’s like a daft Martin Amis character, isn’t it?” Fisher comments – claims that Occupy protesters were undermining their critique of capitalism by buying coffee from Starbucks and tweeting on their iPhones: “You can’t be against capitalism and then take everything that it provides.”
Rather than ridiculing Mensch’s disingenuous argument – as her fellow contestants do – Fisher takes it seriously. The protesters, he explains to his students, “may claim, ethically, that they want to live in a different world but libidinally, at the level of desire, they are committed to living within the current capitalist world”. Mensch’s criticism is, Fisher says, part of “the negative inspiration for the course, where I’m going to pose the question: is there really a desire for something beyond capitalism?”
This opening – which can be read in a newly published and more or less verbatim transcript of the truncated lecture series, Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures (Repeater Books) – is typical of Fisher’s sensibility. His commitment to popular culture – as worthy of serious attention, a medium through which to think and a kind of political weathervane – followed from his lifelong immersion in it; popular culture was for Fisher a gateway to critical thought.
To the extent that Pico actually believed in the dignity of man, it was in a particular sense, one for which he probably found inspiration in Augustine and other Fathers of the Church. As created, man had no special dignity, no worth at all: a cosmic chameleon, he could become as devoid of thought and emotion as a crustacean or a stone, or burn with the celestial love of an angel, but until he made his decision he was the being without qualities. In one sense, though, man did have a special dignity: the dignity of his potential. Angels and animals could not change position. But man was a shape-shifter, and if the shift was violent and serious enough to take him out of his original self, he could realize a destiny that no other being possessed.
Your understanding of the picture is therefore grounded in your experiences as a person in the world. Such an understanding is not possible for CaptionBot, because CaptionBot has no such grounding (nor, of course, does it purport to). CaptionBot is completely disembodied from the world, and as Rodney Brooks reminded us, intelligence is embodied. I emphasize that this is not an argument that AI systems cannot demonstrate understanding but rather that understanding means more than being able to map a certain input (a picture containing Matt Smith) to a certain output (the text “Matt Smith”). Such a capability may be part of understanding, but it isn’t by any means the whole story.
Zeno argued that movement was impossible because in order to proceed from any given place to the next, we have to reach a point halfway between the two, and to reach that we have to reach another halfway between the first and the intermediate one, and so on throughout eternity. Little Red Riding Hood proves Zeno wrong. Movement is possible exactly because of all these intermediate points: points in the landscape in which the berries are ripe, the acorns plentiful, the flowers ready to be picked. Even the presence of the wolf is only one more intermediate point on the way to her grandmother’s house (which she will eventually reach) because this disobedient girl (disobedient of both maternal and pre-Socratic laws) chooses the points at which she will stop of her own free will. Little Red Riding Hood is emblematic of individual freedom, which is perhaps why the hood of France’s revolutionary Marianne is the same color as hers.
Through a series of black-and-white photographs, printed the size of large landscape paintings, visitors to Josef Koudelka’s exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s François Mitterrand site encountered a world emptied of its inhabitants. The images in “Ruins,” from Tunisia, Libya, Spain, Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Syria, show ceremonial avenues trailing off into the distance and ancient city squares standing empty. Temple precincts are reduced to forests of truncated columns; the rows of empty stadium seats pile up like geological strata. At one time communal and ritual focal points, these ruins now seem haunted by the ghosts of those who once moved through them. These would be striking images regardless, but in a city, and wider world, that has been in on-and-off indoor isolation since last March, this was an exhibition of the ancient world with much to say about the current one.
(IMAGE: Josef Koudelka: Amman, Jordanie, 2012 - Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos)
This “elevation of politics to the language of philosophy” goes hand in hand with the rejection of the traditional idea that all people share in a universal rationality. Marx is radically anti-Platonic because the idea of the Logos already contains an aspect of transcendence. This is a general feature of positive atheism: “the essential adversary of the great atheists of the nineteenth century … is not Christianity per se, but Platonism as the philosophy of Truth in itself and Goodness in itself, understood to be absolutes to which man is subordinate; or more precisely Platonism and Christianity united by an unbreakable bond.” Thus, the elimination of the question of God by positive atheism coincides with the reduction of reason to purely instrumental reason, to man’s tool to achieve domination over nature and political liberation.
However, if politics is the fulfillment of rationality, how can Marxism justify itself—in what sense is it true? Moreover, if there is no given, universal moral order—and thus no objective human rights, no idea of “justice”—what principles can direct political action? The criterion that proves the truth of Marxism and directs its political expression can only be the direction of history. Since positive atheism rules out a priori the possibility of justifying itself on the basis of eternally valid philosophical truths, it must always present itself as the inevitable result of a historical process. Accordingly, “the ultimate criterion of judgment about philosophies can only concern their progressive or reactionary character.” And since positive atheism does not recognize any universal moral order, it must rely on the assumption that the historical process is marching towards liberation. Then, the ensuing practical postulate is that whatever promotes the process of liberation is right, and whatever hinders it is wrong.
According to Del Noce, this “ethics of the direction of history” is the reason why Marx’s positive atheism is destined to drift toward totalitarianism and the falsification of language. Whereas in the traditional vision right and wrong are revealed to all human beings by their conscience (the locus in which the individual participates in the transcendent), the direction of history is not really an object of persuasion. Rather, it is typically “discovered” by intellectuals, by “gnostics” who are able to decipher the mechanism of historical development. By denying an ideal common ground recognizable by everybody, the Marxist outlook inevitably separates an intellectual and political elite (the Party, in Leninist terms) from the majority of the population which can only be the subject of propaganda. In order to reach the masses, the ethics of the direction of history must inevitably conceal itself behind a language that evokes traditional moral concepts that make no sense from a rigorous Marxist standpoint. For example, critics of Communism in the 20th century routinely observed that Communist propaganda would use words like “justice,” “peace” and “democracy” that could be interpreted morally by the masses, while party leaders and intellectuals upheld a historically materialist vision in which those same words were essentially meaningless (in fact, Marx himself had already mocked them as “Romantic Socialism”). A related feature of the ethics of the direction of history is its “peculiar unity of radical amoralism and most radical hyper-moralism.” Amoralism because ethical claims are just reflections of social conditions and have no permanent validity; hyper-moralism because everything is justified for the sake of the revolution.
Now, Del Noce thinks that this “unfolding” of positive atheism—into instrumental reason, an ethics of the direction of history and the totalitarian falsification of language—is a general modern philosophical pattern, which found its first expression in Marxism but has a broader significance. It does not need to be tied to Marx’s socio-economic analysis, nor to his particular interpretation of the direction of history (as a dialectical process driven by the struggle among classes, which will culminate in a total revolution that will usher in a completely new world, etc). In fact, Del Noce thinks that the technocratic and progressive secular culture that gradually became dominant among the Western intelligentsia after World War II is also a form of positive atheism. It is not Marxist, but is tied to Marxism by a complex relationship, because it developed during the Cold War as a response to Communism. It understood itself as a return to the world view of the Enlightenment, because it exalted scientific progress, individual autonomy, globalization, secularization, etc. However, it was an Enlightenment after Marx because it broadly accepted the Marxian critiques of metaphysics, of religion, of the family, of natural law and so on. It separated out the materialistic and relativistic side of Marxism and used it to undermine the dialectic and revolutionary side.
lame duck: An officeholder whose power is diminished because his or her term in office will soon come to an end. Originally, a British term for a bankrupt businessman.
landslide: “A resounding victory; one in which the opposition is buried.”—William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary, 1968
mobile vulgus: (Latin) The changeable common people, the fickle crowd. Whence mob.
naco: (Mexican slang) A bad-mannered or poorly educated person; the people.
nepotism: The showing of special favor or unfair advantage to a relative in conferring a position, job, privilege, etc. From Latin nepōt-, nepōs, nephew.
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