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benoist, strauss, and the metaphysical problem

Dropping the mask of the political — for a moment — we see in the core of Benoist’s work a hatred of subjectivity; and perhaps fear is a better word. Fundamentally, he sees subjectivity as the ground for egalitarianism and universalism. [BHR, 21] On the face, it’s a strange line of thought; if everything is valid (as he defines relativism), why is egalitarianism the natural end? Why is there a natural end at all?

Benoist writes that a law which can be seen as for a man outside of social life would be inherently subjective. [BHR, 26] All legal rights — as they inhere in individuals regardless of their place in society — are subjective by definition. The natural question is whether or not all legal rights are merely legal rights. In the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it is easy to argue that many of the rights — while perhaps based on natural ones — are actually legal rights or, at least, legal prescriptions… or, at worst, nonsense. A right like Article 24 — ‘Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay’ — is so specific to a particular condition as to be absurd. If this is right, all of Benoist’s fury on the idea is justified.

Benoist approvingly quotes another writer, André Clair, who writes on the transition between rights as being ‘essentially present’ and now ‘a system of distributing and awarding lots’; but it is that latter definition that Clair sees as fundamentally subjective— not the former. Benoist follows this by claiming that rights are, indeed, merely law ‘contaminated by morality’ (via, of course, Christianity). [BHR, 34-5] It seems, from here, that Benoist really does reject natural right as well, not just legal right:

…the theory of human rights creates a radical novelty: a freedom independent of all participation in political affairs, a freedom of the individual seperated from the freedom of the political community to which he belong, an idea which in Antiquity would have been considered ‘absurd, immoral, and unworthy of a free man.’ (Carl Schmitt).

…the French Revolution tried to reconcile human rights with those of the citizen — a question which, in many respects, resembles of the old problem of the union of the soul and the body. …Revolutionary right aims, quite evidently, to reconcile the subjective right and the objective right, the natural right and the positive right, to ensure the union of citizenship and one’s membership in humanity. … Rousseau, for his part, had already declared that he was for the primacy of the citizen in a famous page: ‘We must therefore choose whether we will make a man or a citizen; we cannot do both.’ [BHR 91-2]

And Benoist is with Rousseau, here. (He also approves of Rousseau’s honesty in admitting his concept of the state of nature could be fictitious, see BHR 48.) Rousseau, along with Montesquieu and Jefferson, is the major proponent of the classical republican tradition in the 18th c, which places freedom within the concept of popular & parliamentary sovereignty. (Milton, Parker, Sidney, and ‘above all’ Harrington are its representatives in the 17th.) [BHR 113] This follows a surprisingly warm discourse on feudalism:

Describing the feudal regime, Fustel de Coulanges writes, ‘At the top of the hierarchy, the king was surrounded by his great vassals. Each of these vassals was himself surrounded by his own feudatories and he could not pronounce the least judgment without them… The king could neither make a new law, nor modify the existing laws, nor raise a new tax without the consent of the country… If one looks at the institutions of this regime from close quarters, and if one observes their meaning and significance, one will see that they were all directed against despotism. However great the diversity that seems to reign in this regime, there is, however, one thing that unites them: this thing is obsession with absolute power. I do not think that any regime better succeeded than that in rendering arbitrary rule impossible… Feudalism was an association of free men’. The end of the feudal regime marked the beginning of the disintegration of this system under the influence of Roman authoritarianism and the deadly blows of the centralised state. Little by little, hereditary royalty implemented a juridical-administrative centralisation at the expense of intermediary bodies and regional assemblies. While the communal revolution sanctioned the power of the nascent bourgeoisie, the regional parliaments ceased to be equal assemblies and became meetings of royal officers. Having become absolute, the monarchy supported itself upon the bourgeoisie to liquidate the last resistances of the nobility. [BHR 112]

This positive reading of the series of rights and obligations within feudalism is hard to reconcile with his love of popular sovereignty (discussed in the prior post, as well): Feudalism was essential hierarchical and not popular. While it would be easy to claim that natural right was more respected, and that legal right did not attempt to interfere with the normal political relations of members of society, it could only be a popular sovereignty in the dimmest sense. Benoist makes something of the election of kings (particularly in France, an anecdote he seems fond of, due to its repetition elsewhere), but these were not even elections by representative except insofar as a feudal lord may be able to be said to ‘represent’ his vassals; but the fashion in which he represents them is how a parent represents a child before the legal establishment. If you want to see the people as sovereign, you have to see those under lieges as children in one fashion or another. This ambiguity regarding the meaning of sovereignty is the most disturbing part of Benoist’s political philosophy; while I think ‘fascist’ would be too cute a term for him, the parallel is irresistible:

The Reichstag, 12.11.1941

Is this democracy?

Landsgemeinde in Appenzell, Switzerland (1973)

… or is this democracy?

The Reichstag never (formally) dissolved; the German people never voted to say, ‘we are no longer a democracy!’… so is there a mystic sentiment of the people than can preserve their sovereignty without direct rule? Benoist’s explicit recommendations all seem to be about the second picture; he approves the Swiss model, specifically. But his view of sovereignty is magical. Swiss democracy existed without a theory of democratic rights or the natural sovereignty of the people; it arose in response to real concerns and in context with the world around it. It preserved traditions of local governance, etc. How is Benoist’s insistence on popular sovereignty any less artificial or ‘subjective’ than the human rights laws he opposes?


[BHR], Beyond Human Rights

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pessimistic utopianism and the new right

 

This debate is interesting (though sort of circular), with each participant getting in some good points. Scruton falls into a form of argument in a couple of places which is one of the big issues with the anti–liberal (in the political & economic sense) right— a

* I have not seem him quoted or referenced, as I have noted, their favored Anglophone writers are Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre

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the dismal science

The markets, the government, the working–man’s wages, to
      think what account they are through our nights and days
To think that other working–men will make just as great
      account of them, yet we make little or no account.

The vulgar and the refined, what you call sin and what you
      call goodness, to think how wide a difference,
To think the difference will still continue to others, yet we
      lie beyond the difference.

To think how much pleasure there is,
Do you enjoy yourself in the city? or engaged in business?
      or planning a nomination and election? or with your
      wife and family?
Or with your mother and sisters? or in womanly housework?
      or the beautiful maternal cares?
These also flow onward to others, you and I flow onward,
But in due time you and I shall take less interest in them.

Your farm, profits, crops—to think how engross’d you are,
To think that there will still be farms, profits, crops, yet for you
      of what avail?

                                          —Walt Whitman, from ‘To Think of Time’

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there’s always money in the banana game

 

But tell me, by Jupiter, what part of man’s life is that that is not sad, crabbed, unpleasant, insipid, troublesome, unless it be seasoned with pleasure, that is to say, folly? For the proof of which the never sufficiently praised Sophocles in that his happy elegy of us, ‘To know nothing is the only happiness,’ might be authority enough…

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1,700 years ago

 

ΕΝ ΤΟΥΤΩ ΝΙΚΑ

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financial doom round–up

Ah, the 10s…

“But did you realize that the Fed and Treasury threw billions of dollars of taxpayer money at Barclays and the other Libor–manipulating banks after they knew about the manipulation … and did nothing to stop it?”

• • •

“‘[…] If some people end up in jail, maybe that will teach a lesson to somebody. Or somebody hanging in the streets.‘”

• • •

“Few begrudge a Bill Gates his fortune. But where vast wealth accrues to people whose actions seem unrelated to any contribution to society or country, and to have come simply from rigging the system for their own benefit, that system will not endure. Our casino capitalists are playing with fire.”

• • •

“Although Libor manipulation affects the interest rates we pay on all number of credit products, gold market manipulation is more serious still.

The price of gold is traditionally a proxy for the value of money. A soaring bullion price is indicative of a lack of faith in fiat currency.

Our financial system is predicated on the notion that money stands as a proxy for the factors of production – capital, labour, land and enterprise.

In short, the abundance of money in the economy should be related to the abundance of those factors. The harder we work, for instance, the more we create. There is more labour in the economy, therefore a rise in the money supply is legitimate in order to mirror this. There is nothing wrong with printing money per se so long as the printing reflects an expansion in the real economy.

Twentieth and Twenty-First century economics appears to have done away with this. Money is now created ex nihilo to feed both the top and bottom ends of society.”

• • •

“[…] credit default swap “prices” and the indexes derived from them are determined almost entirely by a little company with zero transparency and, it appears probable, a high exposure to influence from market manipulators. The company is called Markit Group, whose owners include investment banks Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) and JP Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), and there is every reason to believe that its CDS-driven indices (the CMBX, the ABX, and several others) are inaccurate, while the credit default swap “prices” that they publish and which rock the market are in fact nowhere close to the prices at which credit default swaps actually trade.

[…] The Department of Justice is reportedly investigating Markit Group for anti-trust violations. This investigation (which is reportedly focused on how Markit Group packages and sells its information) seems to acknowledge that Market Group has near-monopolistic control of information about credit default swap prices. However, if the press reports are correct, the DOJ has not considered the possible appeal of this monopolistic control to market manipulators.

[…] It is all the more shocking when one considers that the necessary data exists and might be in the hands of The Markit Group— a black box company based in London.

A thorough investigation of Markit Group is urgently required.”

• • •

“Moody’s said the Italian economy is worsening, and that’s also hurting the government’s financial position. The agency projects the country’s economy to shrink by 2 percent this year, which would make it harder for Italy to meet fiscal targets.

Among risks from outside the country, Moody’s cited the possibility of a Greek exit from the euro currency union and a worsening crisis among Spanish banks. Earlier this week, European financial ministers agreed to a 30 billion euro ($36.88 billion) bailout for Spain’s banks. That deal is expected to be finalized July 20.

Last week, interest rates on Italian bonds rose to distressing levels, with the rate hitting 6.01 percent on Friday. That compares with less than 1.5 percent for German and U.S. bonds.”

• • •

Buchanan’s casino metaphor is only accurate if we make some adjustments:

• All the high–rollers are bankrolled with money that persons gave them with the idea it would be used for low–risk investments.

• When a high–roller wins at a table, the winnings are created by the house.

• When two high–rollers engage in side–tables, the house creates some of the winnings for them as well.

• If any high–roller runs out of cash, the house creates more chips for them.

In 2008, the reaction was, “This isn’t working, so let’s just do more of the same and hope it works out.” That obviously did not work.

We have three other bubbles about to pop: (1) Student loans, and the entire university system with them, (2) health care & insurance, and (3) Credit card debt. We can take it for granted now that the governments are not going to allow a deflationary event until it is out of their control, which means bailing out the banks, the debtors, or both. In the student loan situation, the stakes are even higher for .gov, which relies on the bloated education system as both a jobs program and a supply of mandarins.

There will be no significant cuts in the subsidy programs that matter; what you may see are cuts in very important programs that have a much smaller advocacy group— like WIC.

The health care bubble would be the second–easiest, because the overall risks for the US are lower (even a post–bubble US would be better for doctors than other advanced nations with a few exceptions that cannot absorb a huge influx of US practitioners), but this is extremely doubtful as it would require either a fold–up of Medicaid and Medicare or a law making all insurance companies illegal.

The credit card situation is completely unpredictable.

This all said, while it’s going to be disastrous, I do not agree with the doom & gloom party which thinks it will be the end of US hegemony.* Export–reliant nations like China are going to be in even worse shape after a global monetary blow–up, and US domestic production can be rebooted within 5-8 years. The USN is not going to go away (it may be cut)— though the pressure on .gov will be to start forcing open tribute from other nations for the upkeep of the trade–insuring thallocracy. Further, while we can expect disruptions in the food distribution sector, the US has absurd agricultural surpluses; we aren’t going to see mass starvation here, though we likely will in the Third World where the long–term post–war food aid has utterly destroyed local agriculture. Europe will be the logical target for a Camp of the Saints event, not the US.

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carlyle on norse paganism

[…] I think Scandinavian Paganism, to us here, is more interesting than any other. It is, for one thing, the latest; it continued in these regions of Europe till the eleventh century: eight hundred years ago the Norwegians were still worshippers of Odin. It is interesting also as the creed of our fathers; the men whose blood still runs in our veins, whom doubtless we still resemble in so many ways. Strange: they did believe that, while we believe so differently. Let us look a little at this poor Norse creed, for many reasons. We have tolerable means to do it; for there is another point of interest in these Scandinavian mythologies: that they have been preserved so well.

[…]

That Norse Religion, a rude but earnest, sternly impressive Consecration of Valor (so we may define it), sufficed for these old valiant Northmen. Consecration of Valor is not a bad thing! We will take it for good, so far as it goes. Neither is there no use in knowing something about this old Paganism of our Fathers. Unconsciously, and combined with higher things, it is in us yet, that old Faith withal! To know it consciously, brings us into closer and clearer relation with the Past,—with our own possessions in the Past. For the whole Past, as I keep repeating, is the possession of the Present; the Past had always something true, and is a precious possession. In a different time, in a different place, it is always some other side of our common Human Nature that has been developing itself.

— Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero–Worship, and the Heroic in History

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housekeeping

I’m making a few changes to the blog; readers can check the newly–edited “about” page for some information. I may also be moving to a unique domain to fix the url vs title issue. Given my own rare posting and the fact that I am traveling through the 17th it is doubtful any actual work will appear here in the near–future.

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peri poêtikês

The past couple of days, I read Seth Benardete & Michael Davis’s translation of Aristotle’s Poetics. Unsurprisingly, Benardete & Davis read the Poetics as a discourse on, not only drama, but the soul. I like Davis’s statement, in the introduction, of the guide to their method:

Naturally how one understands Aristotle’s manner of writing in On Poetics has consequences for how one will translate him. If the book is not properly speaking a writing at all, but a collection of lecture notes the intention of which, while generally quite clear, is occasionally dark owing to Aristotle’s infelicitous choice of words, then a translator will have as his task rendering the sense of what is obvious and striving to clarify what Aristotle has left obscure. If, on the other hand, On Poetics is an artful composition, a translator will seek to preserve interesting ambiguities, translate Greek terms consistently with a single word as much as is compatible with English so as to preserve allusion in the text that suggest otherwise odd but perhaps fruitful comparisons, and not to change sentence structures gratuitously. Now even if On Poetics were simply a collection of notes, as long as this sort of fastidiousness results in readable English, nothing would be sacrificed. And if On Poetics is something more than that, of course, a great deal would be gained from translating scrupulously.

—viii, emphasis mine

Benardete, as a student of Strauss, is unfairly associated with the dominant view of Strauss in the wake of the Straussian theory of neoconservative origins. Benardete held that, rather than philosophy being the guide to politics, its “esotericism” was to protect philosophy from politics. (For example Davis’s introduction holds that, for Aristotle, political courage is a “spurious” form of that virtue.) Even the “esoteric” word, while used, seems inappropriate in its connotations; Benardete in particular (and oftentimes Strauss himself) engage in readings of the text which, however eccentric they seem, are born of taking the writer and the text very seriously; the esotericism is no more esoteric than Biblical interpretation— it is not a secret tradition. Benardete’s reading is about how the philosophical works themselves lead the readers to examine the issues and towards an enlightening, not always cleaving to literalism, but nevertheless being readable in–themselves (or, at least, in the context of the author).

As a method of translation, I think this is fruitful. While there are translation of Aristotle which take him seriously and attempt to render him into a normal, expressive English, not all are particularly or consistently fruitful. Joe Sachs’s translation of the Metaphysics is at times unusually enlightening—such as his translation of ἐνέργεια as “being–at–work”*—but others of his quasi–Heideggerian translations are more obscuring than enlightening; ἐντελέχεια is rendered “being–at–work–staying–itself”, which preserves the relation to ἐνέργεια at the cost of easy comprehensibility and readability. (That said, Sachs’s introduction is excellent and the translation itself is a worthy read for someone trying to comprehend the Metaphysics.)

One thing I appreciate about the Benardete/Davis translation is its lack of leading vocabulary. As Davis points out, Greek tragedy is quite different from our drama, and they largely avoid terms associated with it (including the English adoption of catharsis). For example: “ἔστι δὲ πάσης τραγῳδίας τὸ μὲν δέσις τὸ δὲ λύσις” (1455b) is rendered by them, “Of every tragedy there is an entanglement and an unraveling”. Compare this to the common Bywater translation: “Every tragedy is in part Complication and in part Dénouement”. By the use of “dénouement”, the Bywater suggests a probably inappropriate association with our conception of dramatic closure.

In other places, Benardete and Davis are respectful of traditional readings, most of all in the title. Davis’s introduction remarks that “On the Art of Action” may be a more appropriate reading of “περὶ ποητικῆς”, preserving the connection between dramatic and normal human action, shoring up their reading of the treatise as being ultimately about the soul, the “center of human life”. (xiii) They also divide the text by the traditional divisions, whatever their actual utility in understanding it.

The translation is very readable by those not familiar with Greek. The footnotes are useful, though sometimes overlong (endnotes would have been a better format, probably) and explain most of the various decisions, including noting each incident where a word they consistently translate in one way is rendered differently. In a sense, this review is set as a contrast to my recent review of Fr Behr’s translation of On the Incarnation— an example of a better path.

* While this may sound overbold, I think a more proper understanding of the metaphysical role of ἐνέργεια is useful to correct the Neo–Palamite mistake of overstating the difference between the Eastern conception of God and the Western. A further explication of this would be inappropriate on this blog; I only offer it as a suggestive remark.

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