On Socrates's ethno-nationalist political theology

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 21/09/2018 - 1:17am in



Yesterday, I noted that according to Socrates the Kallipolis has permanent natural would-be-friends and permanent, natural would-be-enemies (see also the long quote from the Republic). Inserted in this analysis is his a call for the natural would-be-friends to treat each other with (what we might call) humanity in war and to promote fraternity among them (presumably also outside war). In fact, in its dealings with its natural would be friends, the Kallipolis is supposed to "correct them, then, for their own good, not chastising them with a view to their enslavement or their destruction, but acting as correctors, not as enemies.”  (Republic 471a) So, among the natural, permanent friends, the Kallipolis should act a kind of moral beacon or political exemplar that can guide political reform. 

One might wonder (i) who the natural allies of the Kallipolis are, and (ii) what makes a natural friend and natural enemy, and (iii) why Socrates rejects the possibility of fluid political alliances in foreign affairs. Now, on (i) Socrates is explicit: the permanent natural allies of the Kallipolis are the  fellow Greeks (470c). Anticipating Machiavelli (in the closing page of The Prince), Plato inscribes in his text a call for a form of political unity that transcends both the best realizable polity itself and then present political realities (which is one of political war among the Greeks). And this political unity is characterized (as I noted in the previous paragraph) by a kind of spiritual hierarchy in which the Kallipos is first among equals. Socrates gives an instrumental reason for such permanent unity, namely, to prevent being being enslaved by barbarians (469c; in this instance the Persians).

Now, as Socrates makes explicit (i) presupposes that the inhabitants of Kallipolis are going to be Greek (470e). So, this is a clear rejection of what we could multi-nationalism/culturalism (of the sort that Plato's Laws does explore). The reader of the Republic has to confront here the question whether Socrates's position is chauvinist: that other national/ethnic/linguistic (etc.--I return to below) cultures cannot have their own Kallipolis. Because of the use of 'barbarian,' my students assumed that Socrates is such a chauvinist that only one kind of people are culturally or ethnically capable of philosophical polity. (I have a tendency to interpret Aristotle as a cultural/national chauvinist.) My own reading of Socrates is (recall this post on 592) that his position, while perhaps rhetorically drawing on shared sense of cultural superiority, does not require such national/cultural superiority, and that a non-Greek Kallipolis elsewhere is, in principle, possible.* As it happens, I think Locke's views on toleration are structurally similar; we tolerate in virtue of our shared protestant theism; others (born say in Istanbul) may tolerate in virtue of their shared theism, etc.

Socrates does not really explain what makes a natural friend. But he does provide sufficient hints to offer an account for (ii). In addition to shared language, and, perhaps, sense of people-hood, a key binding factor is what we would call religion or religious practices. This is signaled by Socrates, when he asserts that how to treat fallen Greek soldiers (temporary enemies), is not up to philosophy, but rather should be inquired from “Apollo then, how and with what distinction we are to bury men of more than human, of divine, qualities, and deal with them according to his response." (469a) I am not suggesting religion is the only consideration at play: Socrates is keenly aware that ordinarily soldiering is done, in part, for profit (because the fallen enemies are a source of material goods). But Socrates emphasizes that what the Greeks have in common is something religious.+  

And, in fact, Socrates had explicitly noted that the founding of Kallipos would have to defer to the instructions of Appolo:

“For us nothing, but for the Apollo of Delphi, the chief, the fairest and the first of enactments.” “What are they?” he said. “The founding of temples, and sacrifices, and other forms of worship of gods, daemons, and heroes; and likewise the burial of the dead and the services we must render to the dwellers in the world beyond to keep them gracious. For of such matters  we neither know anything nor in the founding of our city if we are wise shall we entrust them to any other or make use of any other interpreter than the God of our fathers. For this God surely is in such matters for all mankind the interpreter of the religion of their fathers who from his seat in the middle and at the very navel of the earth delivers his interpretation.”  [427bc]

Kallipolis is explicitly part of a political-theology in which deference is shown to the pre-existing religion. This is especially so in matters of rites and worship. Of course, this religion is cleansed from immorality and internal contradiction by the censorship laws of Kallipolis. So, one sense in which Kallipolis is a beacon to other Greek cities, is in having an improved version of the stories and symbols associated with the pre-existing religion. And the Greek natural friendship is constituted by this shared theological horizon.** 

I suspect that absent true religious innovation, the boundaries of religious communities explain for Socrates why (iii) there are social groupings that are natural friends/enemies. Religion and political groupings are on this account mutually supportive in creating coherent enduring political bonds of friendship, and enduring possible enmity. Even those of us that do not accept clash of religious ethno-national civilizations have to take Socrates's position seriously.


*A further possibility, namely what if two such exemplary polities who are a beacon to their own culture, but who may be enemies, would interact is a complex question.

+In Shorey's translation the commonality are religious holy sites (where the oracles are); 470.

**The quoted passage implies that the  the Greek god is the God of all people. This is a form of cosmopolitanism that is not reflected in the treatment of natural enemies/friends.. 

#1425; In which a Tract is hacked

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/09/2018 - 3:00pm in


comic, Religion, Travel

That tract was originally about a kid who valued his special trousers over the love of his family. You know, real relatable content

Ten Plagues Illustrated

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/09/2018 - 5:51am in

I illustrated the Plagues with videoclips in 2015, but never assembled still images before. Again, thinking about a book…











Murrain (cattle disease)




Hail (and fire)






Death of the Firstborn Egyptians



flattr this!

Ón The Model of the City of Pigs

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/09/2018 - 10:58pm in



First of all, then, let us consider what will be the manner of life of men thus provided. Will they not make bread and wine and garments and shoes? And they will build themselves houses and carry on their work in summer for the most part unclad and unshod and in winter clothed and shod sufficiently? And for their nourishment they will provide meal from their barley and flour from their wheat, and kneading and cooking these they will serve noble cakes and loaves on some arrangement of reeds or clean leaves, and, reclined on rustic beds strewn with bryony and myrtle, they will feast with their children, drinking of their wine thereto, garlanded and singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship, not begetting offspring beyond their means lest they fall into poverty or war?”--Republic 372a-c.

As regular readers know (see here and more extensively here), I tend to think that the so-called 'city of pigs' (Glaucon's term) is, in fact, Socrates normative ideal (because he calls it the true or healthy polity (372e), and also because it actually fits his definition of justice and is not warlike). I believe I am rather solitary in my opinion on this, but I recently was heartened to learn that the distinguished political theorist and metaphysician, Ruth Groff, holds the same view. the previous sentence. This post is intended to elaborate features of the model of the best city that, to the best of my opinion, don't receive much attention.

The origin of political life, and justice, is grounded in need, and the necessity of others in meeting our needs (369), according to Socrates. That is, humans are not self-sufficient or in this sense god-like. That's the foundation axiom of Socratic political theory. Until self-repairing robots exist, no person can go it alone.* Socrates recognizes a hierarchy of basic needs: food, which is essential to survival, shelter, and then clothes. Communal life is necessary, then, to meet the basic goods that supply our basic needs. 

There are many forms of communal life that can meet such basic needs. But, interestingly enough, Socrates notes that the division of labor by specialization will do so best. And strikingly, in the origin story of justice (which turns out to be an origin story of political life),  it's a communal life with the the addition of the division of labor that turns a mere (let's call it) association into a polity. 

This division of labor, in turn, is grounded, first, in natural difference (370ab) such that natural aptitudes can be expressed productively in  different fashion. Unlike the feverish city (and much else in Plato), these natural differences have no normative consequences. (In this sense Socrates anticipates (recall), say, Elizabeth Anderson.) In the true or healthy city everybody contributes, and each contribution is, in principle, valued equally. But second, it is grounded in a kind of craft-or practical knowledge that helps regulate life in the true city.

Socrates, gives two examples of such craft-knowledge: one is the farmer, who needs to plan ahead, and also has a tight window to, say, harvest.+  The other is quoted above: the true/healthy city is capable of (to echo Malthus's term) a moral check or to regulate population control in light of economic conditions, that is, the basic needs can be  met. In fact, Socrates is clear this polity is capable of preventing becoming overpopulated.** Socrates leaves unexplained whether they practice preventive  birth control, which would entail that they can judge their needs about a year ahead, or, more likely, whether they practice abortion or exposure of children in times of scarcity. Either way, there is a linear relationship between population and economic/subsistence, such that in this polity there is neither accumulation nor starvation (nor a tendency toward aggression with others). 

Because there is no accumulation, there is no need for either the magistrate nor marriage institution in this rather anarchic polity. The former is not needed because there are no grounds for conflict; the latter is not needed because there are no resources to pass on to a privileged subset of the population. This is a polity that is incapable of feeding unproductive mouths very long. This fact, entails that presumably children are raised in common, and put to work early.  It also entails that women are co-equal in the workforce.  And that there is no need for physicians [UPDATE: see below]++ because these would only manage to keep unproductive citizens around. It's a healthy city, in part, not just because strife is absent and people contribute equally to common welfare, but also the diseased are not kept alive and fed for very long.

A further omission can be explained by this. While there is religion, there are no priests nor sacrifices; this is a polity that can't afford to feed a superfluous class nor bribe the Gods. And so clearly fits Socrates's ideals about true or joyful (singing, hyms, etc.) religion. (This is missed by Glaucon, who implies that this model is beastly without higher things ) From Socrates's perspective, institutionalized, priestly religion is a luxury good.


*And then, of course, one may well wonder why the robots will keep that person around.  

+The example is also significant because it shows the tight connection between reasonable expectations and conceptions of justice once agriculture is around. Farmers are always engaged in long term planning and for that to work they need to have reasonable expectations not just about what would work, but that the cattle/harvest is undisturbed.

**It also wishes to avoid war, so the natural safety valve for overpopulation is absent. 

++UPDATE: The eminent scholar, Eric Brown points out to me, correctly, that Republic 369D suggests this city has physicians where a σῶμα θεραπευτήν literally, 'carer for the body' is included. I did not think of a physician because I would have expected Plato to use 'ἰατρός.'But earlier in the Republic (341C), there had been an exchange  in which the question was what the proper end (or even word) of a physician (ἰατρός) is, and healer (θεραπευτής) had been the correct answer. So, while I think it is important that only bodies and not spirits/souls (etc.) are object of care here (which had inclined me to think this character is more akin to a gym-coach), I think it's clear Prof. Brown is in the right.

On Written Law and the Rise of the Caliphate according to Al-Farabi

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 11/09/2018 - 10:33pm in



82. If there happens to be an association of these kings at a single moment in a single city, a single nation, or many nations, then their whole association is like a single king due to the agreement in their endeavors, purposes, opinions, and ways of life. If they succeed one another in time, their souls will be as a single soul. The second will proceed according to the way of life of the first, and the one now present according to the way of life of the one who has passed away. Just as it is permissible for one of them to change a Law he legislated at one moment if he is of the opinion that it is more fitting to change it at another moment, so may the one now present who succeeds the one who has passed away change what the one who has passed away has already legislated. For the one who has passed away would change [it] himself, were he to observe the [new] condition. When there does not happen to be a human being of this condition, the Laws that the former [kings] prescribed or ordained are to be adopted, then written down and preserved, and the city is to be governed by means of them. So the ruler who governs the city by means of written Laws adopted from past leaders is the king of traditional law.--Al-Farabi, Political Regime, Translated by Charles Butterfield

In context it is clear that "these kings' are akin to Platonic philosopher-kings ("king in truth according to the ancients," (80)). The most visible difference is that for Al-Farabi, but not Plato, a philosopher-king can rule over an empire ("many nations") whereas Plato limits their rule to an explicitly delimited city-state/polity [Republic, 423b]. Another important difference -- not evident from this quote, but crucial -- is that in the Republic, Socrates farms out to the oracle of Apollo the fundamental laws pertaining to the divine (427),* so that the philosopher-kings of the Republic , which then inherit the oracle's injunctions, are more akin to an executive of earthy matters than a constitutional-onto-theological-legislator. Al-Farabi stresses this difference when he  points out that rather than calling one of them a philosopher king, it's better "of whom it ought to be said that he receives revelation." (80) 

A reader familiar with early Islamic history, is likely to read in this passage, the era of Muhammad and (at least) the four righteous caliphs, which came to an end . Unlike, say, Ibn Rushd later (recall here), he treats the period of the four righteous caliphs not as an imitation of the virtue of Muhammed, but as a continuation of the best kind of polity founded by Muhammad.+ For the sake of argument, I call this a continuity thesis. The continuity comes to an end, when under the Umayyad dynasty caliphs onward, judges and jurists are appointed who rely on and interpret written law.

This continuity thesis has an interesting implication: that the according to the four righteous caliphs contextually necessitated changes away from Muhammad's practice and example are not really changes, as it were, of the inner meaning of the law. It's only when Caliphs started to rely on written law that the polity becomes, at best, an imitation of virtue. This second-best structure is due to the lack of talent at the top. 

Of course, there is an alternative way to read the passage, which suggests that the collection and canonization of the Quran is indicative of this decline. The tradition assigns the completion of this process to the period of the third (righteous) Caliph, Uthman, although it was started under the first. It follows from this, that according to Al-Farabi, already the Rishdun caliphate became an imitation of the best.

Be that as it may, while it is tempting to see in Al-Farabi's position an echo of Socrates' bias against writing. It is important to recognize that for Al-Farabi this is merely a symptom; what he calls rule by "traditional law" is a consequence of a lack of available ruling talent or at least a mechanism by which it can come to rule.

We moderns are inclined to reflect on the selection mechanism or process of the right ruler. But that's not how Al-Farabi sees it. We can put the significance of his point as follows: if you can't govern by personal authority you must rely on written law; this reflects a lack of prudential wisdom. 

*I am avoiding the use of 'religion,' because that has a distinctive meaning in Al-Farabi.

+There is an interesting question about traditional Islamic theology lurking here--does it allow for the posthumous souls of the righteous caliphs to have the same rank as the Prophet? 

Al-Farabi's General Political Science and History.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 10/09/2018 - 5:49am in



Political science that is a part of philosophy is limited—in what it investigates of the voluntary actions, ways of life, and dispositions, and in the rest of what it investigates—to universals and to giving their patterns. It also brings about cognizance of the patterns for determining particulars: how, by what, and by what extent they ought to be determined. It leaves them undetermined in actuality, because determining in actuality belongs to a faculty other than philosophy and and perhaps because the circumstances and occurrences with respect to which determination takes place is infinite and without limitation. Al-Farabi "The Book of Religion, 15. in The Political Writings. Trans. Charles Butterworth, p. 106.

In Al-Farabi (reflecting the classical heritage) a philosophy of a special science is, in the first instance, a theoretical subject matter grounded in some principled yields demonstrations or proofs about universals. These are universals that apply to a particular domain. From the perspective of contemporary social science, Al-Farabi's political science that is a part of philosophy, is highly abstract and general. In order  to avoid confusion let's call this (politics that is a part of philosophy) general political science. But as Al-Farabi notes in the quoted passage, it's also part of such a general political science to create the framework that allow some of the preconditions for subsuming important features of political reality under these universals.

Now for Al-Farabi 'religion' is always a means to some given political end ("religion is opinions and actions, determined and restricted with stipulations and prescribed for a community by their first ruler, who seeks to obtain through their practicing it a specific purpose with respect to them or by means of them.") And, given this (recall) expansive functional definition and understanding of religion (which has clear debts to Plato), general political science studies the contents -- i.e., social mores (including institutions), habits of thoughts, and voluntary actions -- that are the main ingredients of religion. So, general political science is the general knowledge of the contours of making 'religion' politically functional. So, general political science is the generic knowledge of how political leaders/founders can achieve their aims. 

Of course, general political science deals in merely possible religions and the ways of discerning types of actions, dispositions, and mores. Really existing political reality is too specific to fall under general political science. It's too specific in ways that are in a sense too varied. Al-Farabi's way of expressing this -- "infinite and without limitation" -- is striking because it reminds one of properties of God. (Modern theorists would say political reality is too complex or too uncertain to be put in a model.) And so applying the generic knowledge of religion requires contextual knowledge, prudence, grounded in experience of individual particulars (17).  

Now, I want to close with a speculative thought (that may involve a terminological misunderstanding). I noted a few years ago, that one of Al-Farabi's distant philosophical successors, Ibn Rushd, inscribed (recall) in his commentary on Plato's Republic, a pattern of the rise and, especially fall of political regimes that was applicable to different social realities (see also this post on the Decisive Treatise). Ibn Rushd is no political historian, but he does thereby provide a framework for the kind of philosophical history that makes Ibn Khaldun worth reading to this day. In particular, Ibn Khaldun is (recall) the historian who focuses on the means by which religion is a means toward political ends, and by analyzing the mechanisms of one of its means, group-feeling.* What I had no appreciated before, but believe is true, is that this is the completion (not the anthisesis) of Al-Farabi's program for a general political science.+ 

*That's compatible with Ibn Khaldun being pious. 

+I am converging here with Muhsin Mahdi's Ibn Khaldûn's Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of the Science of Culture


Religious Pluralism and Religious Relativism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 07/09/2018 - 4:21am in

Just because there are diverse religious beliefs, it does not follow that religious belief is mere subjective preference or opinion.

Al-Ghazali's Genealogy of Philosophy and Natural Religion

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 04/09/2018 - 10:38pm in



29. Know that the philosophers, notwithstanding the multiplicity of their groups and the diversity of their doctrines, can be divided into three main divisions: Materialists, Naturalists, and Theists.
30. The first category, the Materialists, were a group of the most ancient philosophers who denied the existence of the omniscient and omnipotent Creator-Ruler. They alleged that the world has existed from eternity as it is, of itself and not by reason of a Maker. Animals have unceasingly come from seed, and seed from animals: thus it was, and thus it ever will be. These are the godless in the full sense of the term.
31. The second category, the Naturalists, were men who devoted much study to the world of nature and the marvels found in animals and plants; they also were much taken up with the dissection of animal organs. In these they saw such marvels of God Most High’s making and such wonders of His wisdom that they were compelled, with that in mind, to acknowledge the existence of a wise Creator cognizant of the aims and purposes of all things. Indeed, no one can study the science of anatomy and the marvelous uses of the organs without acquiring this compelling knowledge of the perfect governance of Him Who shaped the structure of animals, and especially that of man. 

32. However, it appeared to these philosophers, because they had studied nature so much, that the equilibrium of the mixture of humors had a great effect on the resulting constitution of the animal’s powers. Hence they thought that man’s rational power was also dependent on the mixture of his humors and that its corruption would follow the corruption of the mixture of his humors, and so that power would cease to exist. Once it ceased to exist, they alleged that bringing back the nonexistent would be unintelligible. So they adopted the view that the soul dies, never to return. Consequently they denied the afterlife and rejected the Garden and the Fire, the assembly and the Recall, and the Resurrection and the Reckoning. So in their view there would be no future reward for obedience, and no punishment for disobedience. Therefore they lost all restraint and abandoned themselves to their passions like beasts. These were also godless men, because basic faith is belief in God and the Last Day — and these men denied the Last Day, even though they believed in God and His Attributes.
33. The third category, the Theists, were the later philosophers, such as Socrates, the master of Plato, and Plato, the master of Aristotle. It was Aristotle who systematized logic for the philosophers and refined the philosophical sciences, accurately formulating previously imprecise statements and bringing to maturity the crudities of their sciences. Taken altogether, these refuted the first two categories of the Materialists and the Naturalists. Indeed, by the arguments they advanced to lay bare the enormities of the latter, they relieved others of that task: “And God spared the believers from fighting (the unbelievers)” (33.25) by reason of the unbelievers’ own infighting.
34. Then Aristotle refuted Plato and Socrates and the Theists who had preceded him in such thorough fashion that he disassociated himself from them all. Yet he, too, retained remnants of their vicious unbelief and innovation which he was unsuccessful in avoiding. So they all must be taxed with unbelief, as must their partisans among the Muslim philosophers, such as Ibn Sina and al-Farabi and their likes. None, however, of the Muslim philosophers engaged so much in transmitting Aristotle’s lore as did the two men just mentioned. What others transmitted is not free from disorder and confusion and in studying it one’s mind becomes so muddled that he fails to understand it — and how can the incomprehensible be rejected or accepted?--Al-Ghazali Deliverance from Error.

In Deliverance from Error (recall and here), Al-Ghazali conceives the origin of philosophy as a atheist revolt against a natural form of theism, one that posits an omniscient and omnipotent Creator-Ruler of the sort that naturally accompanies sovereign kingship [in which the political ruler understands himself as a God, the mirror image  of the cosmic Creator-Ruler). We are not told much else about the natural form of theism, but (given the stringent denials of the original philosophers), we can infer it posited a providential creation story. (I return to this below.) By contrast (on the hostile interpretation of Al-Ghazali) the first philosophers -- one can recognize a stylized picture of the atomists in it -- posit a cosmic order of eternal return without meaning. 

Al-Ghazali is careful not to name any of these original philosophers nor to characterize the natural theism they reject. But they both precede Socrates. There is, in fact, a peculiarity here in that Al-Ghazali ignores the pure forms of Greek polytheism. The natural form of theism is closer to Judaism and (perhaps more likely on his mind) Zoroastrianism; and original philosophy a revolt against it.  

Al-Ghazali's 'naturalists' are a kind of empirical, natural philosophers. (It's a bit surprising he does not mention medicine in this context, but there are hints of Galen throughout the piece.) These find evidence of functionality and design everywhere, there are led, inductively to a theistic designer. But they view a soul as something emergent from or grounded in physical processes and so mortal. Because they deny an afterlife (and resurrection), they become practical atheists. 

It's no surprise that Al-Ghazali sees a tight connection between beliefs about the nature of the soul and, perhaps, more important the existence of judgment day and  observed behavior. (Let's stipulate he is right about observed behavior.) But it is a bit surprising that the charge of immoral behavior is only lodged against the so-called naturalists and not the earlier materialists (a point repeated in paragraph 33!)

I called Al-Ghazali's narrative a 'genealogy.' But it would have been better, perhaps, to call it a 'natural history.' The achievement of the (Socratic) Theists is not just to refute the materialists and naturalists theoretically and to show why the behavior of the latter was truly immoral, but to turn an immature practice into a mature fields ("accurately formulating previously imprecise statements and bringing to maturity the crudities of their sciences.") To put Al-Ghazali's narrative in Kuhnian terms, Socrates is the start of a revolution in philosophy that culminates in Aristotle's achievements.

In the analysis of the after-effects of Aristotle's achievements, Al-Ghazali notices that even theistic philosophy inherit the "remnants of...vicious unbelief and innovation" of the naturalists and materialists relative to the original religion. This entails that Al-Ghazali treats the original religion as a species of (what we may call along with the tradition) true religion. Not for the first time (recall), I notice that Al-Ghazali suggests that that while Muhammad's revelation is instrumentally useful, it is not itself necessary for the existence of true religion. 


On a Humean Debate with Plato over Enthusiasm (and poetry/demagogues).

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 03/09/2018 - 7:24pm in


poetry, Religion

We may observe the same effect of poetry in a lesser degree; and this is common both to poetry and madness, that the vivacity they bestow on the ideas is not deriv'd from the particular situations or connexions of the objects of these ideas, but from the present temper and disposition of the person. But how great soever the pitch may be, to which this vivacity rises, 'tis evident, that in poetry it never has the same feeling with that which arises in the mind, when we reason, tho' even upon the lowest species of probability. The mind can easily distinguish betwixt the one and the other; and whatever emotion the poetical enthusiasm may give to the spirits, 'tis still the mere phantom of belief or persuasion.--David Hume, Treatise*

I have noted before that Hume's relationship to poetry is rather complicated (recall here and a bit here). I even even claimed (at the time now four years ago) that according to Hume we need to read poetry for what it reveals about us and its discerning the limits of mortal possibility. One may worry, however, that the quoted passage above suggests a rather deflationary attitude toward poets. Hume makes two claims here: first, that while all of us can be moved by poetry equally, the cognitive or epistemic effects of poetry are due to the character and disposition of the person impacted by it. Second, that regardless of its (shall we say) emotional impact, poetry cannot make us really believe what is not.  

One may well wonder who would think otherwise. Before I get to that, I want to pause at Hume's use of 'poetical enthusiasm.' Today, ‘enthusiasm’ means something like ardor—an energetic interest in a topic. Enthusiasm is derived (via Latin and French) from the  Greek enthousiasmos "divine inspiration, enthusiasm (produced by certain kinds of music, etc.)," and enthousiazein "be inspired or possessed by a god, be rapt, be in ecstasy," from entheos "divinely inspired, possessed by a god."

Of course, Hume primarily uses ‘enthusiasm’ to describe species of religious fervor (see his famous essay, “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm”). While Hume stance is, in general derogatory toward enthusiasm (a form of religious zeal), he recognizes that enthusiasm is grounded in at least some dispositions worth having: “hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of enthusiasm.” Moreover, he thinks that while in the short run enthusiasm generates fanaticism, in the long run it can have good political effects in the service of liberty.

Okay, let's return to Treatise, It's worth asking who the target of Hume's remarks are. I suspect they were prompted by Shaftesbury's (1707) "Letter Concerning Enthusiasm," (included in the Characteristics of Men). For in historicizing fashion, Shaftesbury thinks the poets among the ancients (but not the moderns),+ were capable of inspiring belief in what is not (just as modern false religious enthusiasts are also so capable according to him).** The ultimate target here is, of course, Plato or somebody inspired by Plato:

Stop now and tell me, Ion, without reserve what I may choose to ask you: when you give a good recitation and specially thrill your audience, either with the lay of Odysseus leaping forth on to the threshold, revealing himself to the suitors and pouring out the arrows before his feet, or of Achilles dashing at Hector, or some part of the sad story of Andromache or of Hecuba, or of Priam, are you then in your senses, or are you carried out of yourself, and does your soul in an ecstasy suppose herself to be among the scenes you are describing, whether they be in Ithaca, or in Troy, or as the poems may chance to place them? (Ion 535B-C)

Indeed, Socrates uses one such connate (of enthusiasm) to describe poetic frenzy. To be sure, it’s not used to capture the frenzied mania of divine inspiration, but rather to represent the phenomenal experience – the what it’s like – of a poet’s loss of self or identity, in presentating or performing her poem. (Greek poetry is meant to be  performed.) In context (Ion 235b-c), the poetic-performance ecstasy entails that the poet leaves her own body at a particular space and time, and mentally transports himself to the represented reality (somewhere else in time),++ the scenes described. Plato has the poet, Ion, affirm the experience: "I will tell you without reserve: when I relate a tale of woe, my eyes are filled with tears; and when it is of fear or awe, my hair stands on end with terror, and my heart leaps." (Ion 535)

The described effect is politically important because (sophistic) rhetoric produces, in Socrates’s reported experience, an analogous effect on its audience (see Menexenus 235a-c): "they bewitch our souls...when thus praised by them feel mightily ennobled, and every time I listen fascinated I am exalted and imagine myself to have become all at once taller and nobler and more handsome," (etc.). As I noted before (recall here, here, and here), De Grouchy, who lived through the French revolution, was very concerned about the effect of enthusiastic modern, demagogues who may well appear to believe their own rhetoric.

Let's close with Hume. It's possible he was convinced by, say, Shaftesbury that poetic enthusiasm was no political danger at all anymore; that the dangers could be contained by increased freedom of speech, especially the freedom of raillery "for against serious Extravagances and splenetick Humours there is no other Remedy than this." But the way Hume argues in the Treatise he seems to think that given human nature, there is simply little danger that we can be made to believe something just by beautiful words alone. As he put it, "there is something weak and imperfect amidst all that seeming vehemence of thought and sentiment, which attends the fictions of poetry." ( While Plato may be thought to take the problem too seriously, and to ignore the downside risks of banishing the poets, one may even be tempted to accuse Hume of some complacency in the other direction (if we didn't have Hume's later writings ).

But there is a more interesting point lurking in Hume's position. There is no doubt Hume thinks that enthusiasm can produce strong emotions that make us behave as if we believe its fictions; spirits are excited and our attention is roused. But Hume suggests that if one looks closely there is no firm conviction. People want to believe pleasing poets and demagogues -- as Nietzsche noted "man would rather will nothingness than not will," -- and will express behavior that makes it seem they do. (And the art of demagogues is to make his audience hear what it wants.) But Hume tells us to look more closely, and what one finds is not melancholy, as Shaftesbury thought, but a fragile weakness ("something weak and imperfect"). This entails, I think, that the responsible, political response to enthusiasm should be directed at finding ways of acknowledging this fragility and redirecting it to less harmful ends.



*This post was prompted by a correspondence with with the mathematical economics, M.A. Khan, over the nature of enthusiasm after this post on the purported secularization of enthusiasm De Grouchy.

+By which he means post-Christian revelation; the ancients worshiped the muses in a way the moderns can't.

**Shaftesbury's solution to the excesses produced by religious speech/freedom is to promote another species of freedom of speech--letting  mockery and satire undermine religious enthusiasm. (In fact, he thinks if it is capable of withstanding such mocking scrutiny, it's a sign of truth.) There are hints of Machiavelli and Spinoza here, using an evil to combat that very evil.

++I ignore here how Socrates and his interlocutors think about the historical status of myth.


Jesus as a Toddler

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 30/08/2018 - 5:00pm in

Even God’s living avatar on earth was a little jerk.