A Nonfiction Book
The Enlightenment deconstructs “nonrationality,” but might that be a good thing?
‘Alasdair MacIntyre famously observed, every notable attempt since the Enlightenment to construct a rational framework for an objective morality has been built out of nonrational premises, premises that any rational person may reasonably deny.’¹ This is why Enlightenment thinking (which is basically our thinking) has struggled to bring about a true CCE: it asks people to accept no “givens” (as necessary for CCE), but then has only “givens” to replace what was lost. At the same time, the Enlightenment has taught people to be rational in what they think — to not accept anything without rational reasons — and there are rational reasons to deny any “givens” provided by the Enlightenment. Any CCE Enlightenment thinking tries to establish is undermined by our ways of thinking blessed upon us by the Enlightenment: the snake, in its great wisdom, eats the tail of a “different” snake…
As discussed in “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose, the conflation of “true” and “rational” has contributed greatly to this problem of the Enlightenment: we fail to realize that all thinking must accept some axioms and “givens” in order to be itself, and hence engage in a mode of thinking of which undermines its own possibility (as with the corresponding possibility of a meaningful “habitus” which can be internalized). This has contributed to our “restlessness,” and though the seeds of this “restlessness” have been among us for centuries, thanks to our modern technologies, Pluralism, Globalization, Capitalism — the seeds are sprouting.²
The Enlightenment has equipped us with invaluable tools for “the life of the mind,” but in that act it has also made the reduction of CCE into “values” incredibly difficult if not impossible to avoid. We require “givens,” as we require thinking, and so the Enlightenment for the right reasons has set us up to be pressured between two necessities. Should we give up on the Enlightenment? No, that would be going too far (and fall into the ditch of “autonomous nonrationality”): we should realize that there will be some “givens” we must turn our Enlightenment-thinking “off toward,” per se (lest we remove the foundation upon which we stand). Fair enough, but how do we decide which ideas to accept as “givens” without Enlightenment thinking? Will it not ultimately be arbitrary? Yes, for our rationality requires accepting arbitrary “nonrationality” to not cancel out its possibility (as we may require belief in a God who doesn’t exist to gain CCE, which as suggested in “On Kafka, Character, and Law” by O.G. Rose, is also required for freedom — perhaps we are a mess — but I get ahead of myself).
For Hunter, the fact invaluable Enlightenment thinking (and arguably “critical thinking” in general) undermines both its own possibility and CCE, is why CCE is only possible amongst those who so think “thoughtlessly,” those who are a story as opposed to knowing they are in a story (like Pirandello’s characters). But if this is the case, then character is only possible where “the banality of evil” is possible, which suggests that with the loss of character goes the possibility of “Lost Causers” (with Hitler goes Bonhoeffer). Shakespeare discussed in The Twelfth Night how greatness was “thrown upon” some, and though the loss of “givens” means greatness cannot be “thrown upon” anyone, neither can evil be so “thrown.” We cannot wake up and find ourselves saints, but we also cannot wake up as monsters. We make ourselves.
The Nazis used propaganda and manipulation to secure the “story” in which Germans at the time operated, so too securing their CCE. At the time, had CCE devolved into mere “values,” perhaps the German people wouldn’t have fallen under the spell of Nazism. Perhaps millions of lives would have been spared, which suggests that perhaps we should dance upon the grave of character. Perhaps story inherently manipulates, as community inherently excludes, and though “belonging again” might be impossible without CCE, who wants “belonging” if it risks Nazism? Who wants “rest” if it requires the excluded to suffer injustice and alienation? As we will discuss, if CCE is impossible without God, then with the death of God, so perhaps too dies Hitler and Bonhoeffer. Unless that is Nazism is still possible thanks to values; unless that is values make possible Hitler but not Bonhoeffer; unless that is CCE entails good and bad while values entail only bad; unless values also exclude, but don’t also create “belonging.” Hard to say.
“The banality of evil” seems impossible without a CCE or “common life,” but it would not follow that rationality cannot still be present, which entails the ability to deconstruct and deny the need for “nonrationality.” Furthermore, if “autonomous rationality” can bring about a form of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, then though the loss of CCE removes the threat of one kind of authoritarianism (“The Mass”), another type might still be possible (“The Mob”). Thus, we cannot assume that removing CCE will necessary free us from the dangers of totalitarianism or various social pathologies: for the “negation” to be a “sublation,” something else seems needed.
Moving forward, all of this suggests that if we could figure out how to negate/sublate “character” into “Absolute Knowing,” in removing the possibility of “the banality of evil,” we could be better off — this period of history could be a period of great and supreme evolution. On the other hand, if such a negation/sublation isn’t possible, or else if we can only negate CCE without a corresponding sublation, then this moment in history might be one of trouble.
¹Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: 200.
²Considering this, it’s reasonable to argue that these macro-forces are inherently incompatible with character as opposed to values. If character is necessary for civilization to last and thrive, then our accomplishments are our coffins.
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