Miscellany: Left & Right, the Euthyphro dilemma, the scapegoat mechanism, etc.

On the philosophical underpinnings of the political Left and Right:

The topic is complicated by the fact that “Left” and “Right” are political designations and thus subject to all of the capriciousness of ideological fashion. That being said, I think a few points can be worth considering. 

Historically, RIGHT is meant to refer to the conservation of tradition. Tradition literally means “that which is handed down.” Hence the association of the Right with the past—especially a mythic past, with order, with hierarchy, and with monarchy. In essence, the Right stands for a preservation of the “center” (i.e. in contrast to the margin or periphery). Hence its connection to identity, given that the center (not necessarily in a spatial sense) is the essence of a thing. It appears as archetypally masculine once it is counterposed against the Left. Hence English speakers say or used to say “he” or “man” when the gender was indeterminate and also when it is determinately masculine. 

Historically, the LEFT refers to the opposition to tradition and the quest for liberation from its perceived tyranny. Hence the Left is associated with liberalism, progress—especially in technology and science—egalitarianism, and democracy. The Left stands for a revolution against the center and an exaltation of the margin or periphery. In principle, it derives its definition from what it opposes. It is archetypically feminine, like Eve who comes from Adam’s side and why Eve defied the so-called “law of Jehova.” Please observe that I am not saying anything about individuals who are women. I am not even really saying anything about women in general with this statement because that class is made up of individuals who are women, over whom, like I mentioned, this classification is irrelevant.

Having laid out these principles, it will probably be clear that their concrete designations are comparatively fickle over time. For instance, today the Left has tended to obsessively concern itself with one or two elements of identity while at the same time maintaining its proclivity to elevate the periphery to displace the center. At the same time, the Right has embraced a sort of folksy populism, which could not be further from its conventional orientation. Today, “elites” is often a term employed as a derogatory epithet by people on the Right for people on the Left, which is historically ironic. 

It is interesting to consider the way in which people on the Left have tended to embrace the kind of restrictions and borders in the name of “preservation of identity” that would ordinarily be associated with the Right. An explanation for this is the fact that the restrictions are imposed in a blindly egalitarian way without any regard for quality or hierarchy—everyone has to mask, everyone has to quarantine, everyone has to vaccinate, etc. The notion of similar restrictions in respect to national boundaries and immigration is vehemently opposed, however, because it establishes a qualitative gradient. Naturally, both the fundamentalist Left and the fundamentalist Right take positions that are so rigid that they invariably “call forth their opposites” in the reversal of extremes that Jung has referred to as enantiodromia and which the I-Ching outlines as the basic metaphysics of change. Hence we see authoritarian measures carried out under the pretense of opposing a perceived threat of authoritarianism, anti-racism assuming all of the trappings of its opposite except its name, champions of science and secularism assuming a religious zeal for their causes on a basis that nothing about their profession could ever account for, etc.

I think it will be clear that Luciferic and Ahrimanic elements appear on both sides of the political spectrum. The notion of liberation and revolution is distinctly Luciferic but the embrace of perennial scientific progress is not and neither is the contemporary Left’s embrace of the military industrial complex and “forever wars” policies, at least in the USA. The impulse to preserve one’s own identity from disintegration is Ahrimanic but the fervent hearkening to a mythic “Golden Age” is not and neither is the populist movement.

On interpreting The Decalogue in light of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma:

First, it may be of interest to note that Christianity represented a synthesis of the Hellenic and the Hebraic traditions and thus, the comparison suggested above is not as arbitrary as it may at first seem. In a certain sense, the comparison is already implicit in the Christian synthesis. Of course, at the time of the writings in question, Christianity was not to emerge for many centuries. Plato, after all, lived in the 4th century BC and it is believed that Exodus was composed in the 5th century BC. That being said, the eventual synthesis was only possible because of the transformation that Greek philosophers wrought upon the flagrantly polytheistic tradition of Homer. This transformation provided for a certain affinity between the two traditions that would not have obtained for Pre-Socratic Greece. Essentially, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle elaborated an idea of the Good, which is ultimate and not merely contingent on the whim of capricious deities. Early Christian thinkers like Paul found a natural resource in Greek philosophy to express and conceptualize their teachings. Whereas the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament was composed entirely in Greek.

The Euthyphro dialogue hints at the dilemma that confronts a person who wishes to be pious but remains unable to identify a univocal divine will. Notice that there can be no coherent concept of “pious” or “good” or “virtuous” without a definitive standard against which to evaluate it. Athen praises the Greek heroes and Hera praises the Trojan ones. Similarly, Euthyphro can please one god and gall another when he one-sidedly professes to be condemning his own father to death out of “piety.” Obviously, when the same deed can at once be labeled as “pious” and “impious,” the situation must be described as a dilemma. 

One final comment about the Euthyphro dilemma as such: it is really a question of whether goodness causes the gods’ assent to something or whether the gods’ assent to something causes that thing to be good. Either answer invites a further question and risks initiating an infinite regress that can only be arrested in a Platonic Good or monotheistic God. But the purpose of the question is not to order an inquiry after propositional knowledge but instead to entrain our understanding into the configurations that are adequate to understand what is meant by those terms (i.e. “the Good” or “God”).

On the scapegoat mechanism:

Part of the difficulty in grasping the nature of this phenomenon is the risk of equating “scapegoat” to “sacrifice.” One then risks pursuing the meaning of the second term that is least able to disclose the nature of the scapegoat mechanism. Sacrifice can be of one’s own person or of another. Notice that both meanings are present in Christ since he both (1) offers himself as sacrifice but also (2) is offered as a sacrifice by Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin:

“Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.” (John 18:14) 

In the film Armageddon (1998), it is clear that the protagonist (played by Bruce Willis) is “taking part” in the symbol of Christ’s self-sacrifice (1) and not Caiaphas’ sacrifice (2). If everyone else had arrived at the collective decision that he should have stayed behind—which would invariably have involved inventing some useful fiction to rationalize his dessert of this fate—then he would have become a sacrifice in the second meaning. 

If we think about this second kind of sacrifice, we can see that it serves a purpose. In fact, Caiaphas is explicit about this: “It is expedient,” he says “that one man should die for the people.” What can this mean? Here we will have to pull back the veil on an unflattering psychological phenomenon of human nature that once we see, we cannot unsee and which the Gospels were also meant to reveal. Namely, most societies are sustained by the periodic sacrifice of a scapegoat. Like the Minotaur of Crete, society must be “fed” by a periodic offering of “virgins” for its meat. “Fed” is a metaphor for the manner in which the bonds of a society are reinforced by this event and offering of “virgins” indicates the manner in which the victim of such a sacrifice is always innocent relative to the magnitude of the offense that he is charged with (i.e. otherwise it would be very difficult to justify such a sacrifice). The “unflattering psychological phenomenon” that I indicated is nothing other than the fact that a group of people are able to compensate for lack of essential community by unanimously (i.e. uni- “one” + animus “breath,” “soul,” “spirit”; “of one soul” or “of one spirit”) joining in the crucifixion of a single victim. As long as everyone shares this common enemy, the bonds of the society will receive an impulse of rejuvenation. This is the basis for public spectacles of execution and witch-burnings and the like: everyone in attendance enjoys a solidarity in virtue of communal attending. 

Given that this connection is artificial, however, it is impermanent and for this reason, must be periodically renewed. Hence the seasonal festivals of sacrifice and renewal that characterize most traditional cultures. Hence, also, the fact that political parties are always seeking their next “scapegoat” upon which they can pin all of the responsibility for whatever problems are currently besetting them, and the reason that nation states are continually seeking a new adversary against which they can inversely constellate their own identity. People become fearful of the enemy for the exorbitant amount of power that is ascribed to him through the somewhat ludicrous accusation and out of their fear, they are also impelled to band together. The scapegoat phenomenon also appears at the level of the individual, where it is the basis for the so-called psychological phenomenon of “shadow-projection” in which a person tends to displace his own negative affect onto someone around him and then proceeds to blame this person for those same emotions, which, of course, had their origin in the one who is now “casting stones.”

It is perhaps illustrative to consider the antithetical stances that utilitarian and deontological approach to ethics would take towards scapegoating, respectively. From the utilitarian perspective, there is nothing inherently good or bad about scapegoating and the only question to answer is whether it is useful to some ulterior end (i.e. “greatest happiness for the greatest number”). From the perspective of deontology, it is irrelevant whether the sacrifice of a scapegoat happens to be useful or not; the act itself is wrong in principle so don’t do it.

Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht sichtbar.

“Art does not reproduce the visible; art makes visible.”

—Paul Klee

The Goldfish (1925)

On the one hand, the ideal of art can be construed as a pure mimesis of sensory phenomena. If this were true, painting would have had no reason to persist beyond the invention of the photograph. It is also not true to the world, which receives its completion in the human being, whose office is to be the priest of Creation.

On the other hand, the ideal of art can be construed as pure expressionism; an attempt to reproduce internal experiences of psychological and emotional phenomena. This is not true to the human being, who, in his office as priest of Creation, is tasked to join the above and the below, the inner and the outer, and refer it back to God—thereby to “close a circuit” of sorts. 

I thought the quote above shows that Paul Klee had a sense for this function, even if sometimes his work deviated towards the expressionist side. I think of the way that art, like a story or any bona fide symbolic expression, trains our organs of cognition so that we are able to “separate the wheat from the tares” and perceive the essence of phenomena. 

On Augustine and the equivocation of placing Platonism and Cartesianism alike in the category of metaphysical dualism:

The reason Augustine advocated the inward turn is the same reason the rationalists contemplated abstract essences. It is not because they thought these things were merely personal, but rather because they believed the essence of what is real and objective was disclosed in inward contemplation. What does a tulip look like in November? It has an appearance, but the idea is the condition for me to recognize the essence of what is before me at any moment. If I have only the testimony of my senses to go on, I will be unable to establish the supersensible “thread” upon which the various morphological instants of any organism are strung through time, like pearls on a necklace. I think it is a Modern fallacy to infer that Platonism is a dualist metaphysics in the way that Cartesianism is. Instead, Platonism simply observes the obvious fact that the idea orders and organizes changing perception to render it intelligible and is, in this sense, transcendent to these changes.

On different standards by which mental and physical health is evaluated:

It was indicated that mental health and physical health are often judged by different standards. Why should this be? I can imagine a number of possible explanations, any of which alone could account for the discrepancy, and yet I’m not sure how to select which one to hang our hat on, so to speak. In other words, the issue seems at once theoretically over- and underdetermined. It might be that people feel a certain shame or stigma in disclosing mental illness. It might also be that they feel guilt—whereas shame expresses a wish that no one find out about a perceived shortcoming, guilt expresses remorse over the existence of that shortcoming altogether. Perhaps mental illness is judged differently than physical illness because it is not quantifiable, which, since the Scientific Revolution, has been perceived as the gold standard of knowledge. Perhaps it is because illness is much more difficult to discriminate from the mind than from the body, not the least becasue the mind is our instrument of discrimination to begin with and thus, itself being in a state of disease, may not be adequate to the task of making such distinctions. Also, though we may at times identify with both our bodies and our minds, it is much more difficult to differentiate oneself from the mind than from the body. It is much more natural to say “I have a body” than “I have a mind” or “I have a soul.” Likely these propositions could be continued indefinitely but perhaps someone has further thoughts to offer.

On a Yup’ik production of Sophocles’ Antigone:

It is a lovely and particularly enchanting production. I think the casting is perfect. As I watch it, it has a strange effect of transporting me to a different time and place and I almost feel as though it stirs distant memories in me. I believe there is evidence that humanity undergoes a collective evolution that is analogous to the developmental stages in each of our personal biographies. Different civilizations enter a given stage at different absolute times but the stages are analogous. I will leave it to you to correlate stages like “childhood,” “adolescence,” “maturity,” and “senility,” etc. to specific historical testimonies from various cultures but somehow, this production achieves a singular resonance with Greek tragedy. I feel not that I am exactly in ancient Greece as I watch this, but rather that I am seeing something close to what an ancient Greek would have seen. I have never seen a production that has affected me in this way.

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh on Pexels.com

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