Review: Antony and Cleopatra

Review: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and CleopatraAntony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LEPIDUS: What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?

ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and, the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.

LEPIDUS: What color is it?

ANTONY: Of its own color too.

This is Shakespeare’s most exiting play. The many and rapid changes of scene function like the shaky, shifting camera angles in a Jason Bourne movie: both accelerating the pace, and showing us a variety of perspectives from which to view the action, all the while keeping some angles carefully hidden from view. We see too much and not enough. The play is exhausting to read or watch, a constant torrent of development and action; and yet, by the end, it is terribly difficult to decide what stance to take towards the principle characters.

Antony cuts a poor figure in this play. Unlike the persuasive and savvy politician of Julius Caesar, here he is a bungler past his prime. In this he reminded me most strongly of Macbeth, another ruler who botches everything he tries to do (Antony even botches his own suicide). The two of them are charismatic, independent, and powerful personalities who, nevertheless, are much too susceptible to suggestion. I should say, rather, that they are too apt to ignore good and to follow bad advice. Antony illustrates this even more than Macbeth: all the play long, he is continually waving away his best counselors to follow the unruly impulses of his heart. He has no ability to put aside pleasure for practicality. It is impossible not to sympathize with him—the play would be tedious and dreary if he were totally unsympathetic—but it was, for me, also impossible to root for him.

Octavius is the perfect foil for this passionate hero. I admit that I like Octavius perhaps more than Shakespeare intended. He is so wonderfully efficient and commanding. In every scene he is issuing orders, rapid-fire, and every one of these orders is calculated and shrewd. He takes in all the essential facts of every situation at a glance, and at once his mind hits upon the correct course of action. He is unbending and unrelenting in his pursuit of his goal. Compared with Antony’s agonizing indecision about whether he wants to be a Roman commander or an Egyptian paramour, this is terribly refreshing. There is no question—in my mind at least—that he should and must be the ruler of Rome, since Antony is so manifestly unfit for the role. And yet, for all his single-minded pursuit of his aims, there is an undercurrent of pity and tenderness—his love of his sister and his outrage at her betrayal, and his tears for Antony’s death—that makes him a complete, sympathetic character.

Cleopatra is the most complex character in this play. Like Antony, she is passionate and mercurial; but unlike Antony, there always seems to be a part of herself that is unconquered by her impulses, a more calculating awareness that allows her to cast a spell over everyone in her presence. Like Iago, she is always acting, playing the part of herself, although to what end is not always clear. Unlike Iago, we never see Cleopatra in private, and have no windows into her solitary consciousness. Also unlike Iago, Cleopatra is constantly overwhelmed by her circumstances; the play she is trying to write never goes according to plan, usually thanks to Octavius. Indeed, the only person impervious to her is Octavius, whose cold, stiff demeanor wards off her dramatic performance. That being said, Cleopatra is the only character whom Octavius can neither understand nor conquer. His silver-tongued messengers to her end up getting manipulated, ignored, or conquered themselves (as in the case of Dolabella).

By chance, I watched this play while making my way through Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, much of which focuses on the famous Master-Slave dialectic. Whatever the applicability of Kojève’s thesis to Hegel’s ideas (that’s for another review), it strikes me that this scheme sheds some light on this play. The Master, in Hegel’s famous chapter, is stuck in a paradoxical situation. He craves the recognition of another self-consciousness, and will risk his life for this recognition; and yet his desire leads him to subjugate the Other to the role of Slave, whose recognition cannot satisfy the Master, since the Slave is not supposed to have any perspective whatever.

Now, it seems that Antony and Cleopatra’s erratic and passionate behavior is shaped by this paradox. The two of them are the masters of the world, surrounded by servants and slaves. They command, and are obeyed. But—unlike Octavius, who is comfortable with the role of impersonal master—neither can be satisfied with this obedience. They are bored by it. The two of them do not wish to be recognized simply as “masters,” but as individuals: as Antony and as Cleopatra. Yet this recognition can only come from an equal, from another master: from each other. This is why, in every scene, they always seem to be performing for each other. They are the only suitable audience for each other’s performance, the only audience that can give the satisfaction of individual recognition.

I think this is why critics have disagreed about whether they truly “love” one another. They seem to be using one another, intimately but self-interestedly, to achieve the full feeling of selfhood. They are like two mirrors reflecting each other’s light. This recognition is so vital that they will risk power, fortune, even life itself, only to sustain it one moment longer. Octavius cannot play this role for either of them. He wishes only to be obeyed; his personality, his private feelings and sympathies, are ruthlessly repressed in order to be the ideal master. Likewise, neither Antony nor Cleopatra can give Octavius what he wants: unconditional obedience. Octavius quite literally wants to reduce them to slavery, dragged in chains in a triumphal procession. This would be a fate worse than death for these two actors.

It is only in the final act, after Antony’s death, that Cleopatra seems to discover that she does not need Antony: she can be an audience to herself, she can recognize her own individuality. This is what makes her performance in Act V so overwhelming. She emerges from the circumstances that constantly thwart her plans, she breaks free of the need to be seen to feel complete. At this moment, the only action which will preserve her autonomy and her individuality is her self-destruction, since Octavius will reduce her to the level of a trophy if she allows herself to live. Her death is not wholly tragic, therefore, but has the pathos of self-transcendence.

Then Octavius strides in, and true to form he begins issuing orders for their burial and mourning. (I wonder what percentage of his lines are direct orders.) This is the play’s emotionally ambiguous end. We miss the passionate intensity of Antony and Cleopatra. Octavius may be compelling in his way, but he is certainly not charismatic. And yet we can’t helping feeling—or I can’t, at least—that the self-destructive, wasteful, and egotistical love affair between these two mortal gods had to end, for the world’s sake if not for theirs.

View all my reviews

Life and Death in Berlin — Part 1, Life

Life and Death in Berlin — Part 1, Life

Here goes another travel post delayed by a year. Now, however, I don’t feel quite so bad, since I learned that the famous travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, wrote his account of his youthful travels over 40 years after the trip itself. So maybe I’m not such a nincompoop after all. (For part 2 of this post, about the ugly history of Berlin, click here.)


Germany in Mind

Germany: The very word looms over my whole conception of the world.

Like so many of my bewildered generation, when I was in high school I spent a lot of time watching television. The problem, then as now, was that nothing was on. In desperation my brother and I often turned to the History Channel. If we were unlucky, Modern Marvels would be on—a show about the history of automobile manufacturing, or how screws evolved from nails, or something similarly dry. (This was before the History Channel became the Conspiracy Theory Channel, and had no programs about ancient aliens.)

The good stuff were the World War II documentaries. Grainy footage of soldiers marching across barren landscapes, the whistling of bombs released from bombers, stupendous explosions and the bright streaks of tracer bullets fired from fighter planes—all these scenes of battle, so captivating to young boys, were mixed up with footage of one man: Hitler. Every documentary was sure to feature that stiff, stern, mustachioed man yelling shrilly, punctuating his pronouncements with jerky gestures.

It is an injustice to the German language that so many people are exposed to it through the oratory of that execrable man. Naturally, the language in that tyrant’s mouth is violent, aggressive, ugly, shrieking, garbled—as were his thoughts. But the abuse of one man ought not to cast aspersions on a whole language. Spoken well, German can be gentle, sweet, and tender.

I fell under its spell from my very first exposure. In the sixth grade we had a language survey, covering bits of Italian, Spanish, French, and German, to see which language we wanted to study. At the end of the term we were asked to rank our favorites. For me there was no question. It had to be German. The language was strangely akin to English, and yet so different in spirit: purer, stronger, more elemental. I put German as my first choice; and because I was required to list a second and third choice, I absently put down Italian and French. This decision came to haunt me later, for it was soon revealed that there wasn’t a German teacher. I took Italian as my main language—which exposed me to lots of excellent food, but which held no appeal to my immature mind.

These vague childhood impressions were soon supplemented by more definite knowledge. In a college literature class I was exposed to Thomas Mann, who soon became my first literary passion, a model of erudition and eloquence that simply dazzled me. Shortly after that, by a complete coincidence, somebody in my a capella group mentioned that he was teaching himself German using tapes; and when I showed an interest, he offered to lend them to me. I snatched at the opportunity; and from the first tape, the long-dormant passion for German was reawakened.

Once again I found myself enamored of the language—the magnificent German tongue, which combines rustic roughness with intensity of thought, earthiness with cerebral density, not to mention seriousness with silliness. (Click here to experience the silliness.) The next semester I enrolled in a German class, even though it had little to do with my major. For my twenty-first birthday I went to a German restaurant in New York City, Hallo Berlin, and ate sausages and sauerkraut and drank Weißbier, and felt absolutely stuffed and happy; and my fondness for the country has continued unabated ever since.

And all this still leaves out the dozens of the figures from Germany’s history—musicians, poets, philosophers, and scientists—who have puzzled my mind and saturated my spirits. From Bach to Beethoven, from Goethe to Nietzsche, from Kant to Heidegger, from Einstein to Weber, the Deutscher Geist has dominated my intellectual and my artistic interests. The horny grammar and spiky consonants of the German language, the labyrinthine fugues of Bach and the devious arguments of Kant, spiced with sour mustard and cooled with foamy beer—all this had combined, since I was in university, to form an impression of the Germans as somehow special. I wanted—no, I needed—to go see Germany for myself. And I finally did, however briefly, with my trip to Berlin.


First Impressions of Berlin

You might say that all this expectation could only lead to disappointment. This is half true. Nothing could possibly match the absurd image of Germany I had built up over the years: a city dominated by high-tech robots giving every citizen hours of leisure, a society of engineers who philosophize in their free time, every one of them relaxing in a beer hall downing Schnapps and singing Lieders in group harmony—it’s absurd, I know, but I really couldn’t imagine Germany being any other way.

The aspect that Berlin first presented to me was rather ordinary. I took a bus from the airport to the city center (Berlin is very well-connected) and I remember looking out the window and seeing: a city. That’s it—not a space-age colony, not a rustic paradise—a city, comparable to Madrid or Rome. But there was no doubt that I was in Germany. The people on the bus couldn’t be anything but German.

It is always a shock coming from Spain to Northern Europe. By and large, Spaniards are shorter, with slightly darker skin, and blacker hair. The Germans are the opposite in every respect: pale, tall, and blonde. (I’m speaking in generalities of course.) Even at a glance, there is no mistaking a bus-full of Spaniards for a bus-full of Germans.

There is also a striking difference in dress. Spanish people—despite their generally open attitude towards public displays of affection (Americans are often shocked by the kissing that goes on in metros and restaurants)—on the whole dress somewhat conservatively. Clothes tend not to be very revealing, either on men or women. (I have reason to believe, however, that this is slowly changing.) If you wear shorts and sandals before June, you will be stared at. What’s more, Spanish people tend to dress more formally than Americans; you can see women wearing elegant dresses on any day in the week—even among friends—and Spanish offices are seas of suits and ties.

German Male Nudity 1

Germany, from what I could see in Berlin, is quite different. Indeed I’d say the German attitude towards fashion is far closer to ours in the United States: tank-tops, belly shirts, short-shorts, flip-flops, and every other type of skimpy clothing under the sun is embraced. But there is one major respect in which the Germans differ from Americans: they are not puritans.

German nudity
Not a Puritan

You see, compared to Europeans, Americans are prudes when it comes to the body. Flip open a German magazine—not a pornographic one, but any old magazine—and you can see exposed breasts. Advertisements in Berlin feature, not only scantily clad women, but also the exposed male body—hairy, bulging, and thick (see the two examples above). This feature of their culture was revealed to me, in the most literal sense, when I was strolling through the Tiergarten (the central park of Berlin), and found myself suddenly surrounded by naked men lounging on the grass in broad daylight. Part of me was scandalized (think of the children!), but another part was very amused.

Now, I honestly have no idea why Spaniards dress more conservatively but kiss in public, why Germans dress skimpily and sun themselves naked in parks, and why Americans dress skimpily but avoid both kissing in public and public nudity. But I imagine the explanation has a lot to do with religious history.

The city of Berlin apparently has a reputation among Germans. I spoke to a couple of German students a few months before my trip, who told me that Berlin was the poorest region of the country. The city was dubbed “poor but sexy” by its own mayor. According to what I can find, Berlin is heavily in debt and is subsidized by the rest of the country, with the worst education in the country and an abnormally high crime rate. My Airbnb host explained that the city attracted a lot of artists and bohemian types because it’s bad economy made it a cheap place to live. The whole city gives off a hipstery vibe, with lots of street art, outdoor markets, and nifty stores; and like many aspiring artists, the city of Berlin is financially supported by its family.

Grafiti Hipster
Berlin Street Art

Aside from its grungy aspect, Berlin is notable for its layout. The city has no discernable center. All the major monuments seem scattered about at random. The city stretches out in every direction without any obvious plan or natural boundary. I believe this lack of apparent center or scheme is due to two major factors: that the city was pummeled into rubble during the Second World War, and that it was rebuilt while it was divided into different zones, each controlled by different countries. (Yet I have just read in Stefan Zweig’s autobiography that Berlin lacked a center even before the First World War, so I can’t say.) The longstanding division between East and West has left a permanent mark on the city.

I said above that my elevated expectations of Berlin could only lead to disappointment. But this was only half true. For everything Berlin lacked in space-age technology and opera-singing metaphysicians, the city made up for with unexpected charm. I felt immediately comfortable in Berlin, in a way that I rarely feel in foreign cities. Everyone I spoke to was friendly; the city felt safe and even cozy, like one giant neighborhood. Hipsters drank beer in the streets and friends bounced a balls in the park. There was a sense of intimacy, of familiarity, which I could not explain but which I nevertheless felt. (I have a friend who tells me he hated every minute of being in Berlin, so clearly this feeling is not universal.) Aside from this feeling of general contentment, I also found that Berlin is full of fascinating history; and this is what I’m here to tell you about.


A Note on Food, Immigration, & Transport

You may be interested to learn that, outside of Turkey itself, Berlin is the city with the highest population of Turks.

This, indeed, was the immigration ‘problem’ German people worried about before the Syrian Refugee Crisis: that there were so many immigrants coming from Turkey, and many of them were not integrating as fast as most people desired. They weren’t learning German and mixing in German society, but living in Turkish neighborhoods speaking Turkish. This was regarded as an alarming development.

Parenthetically, this is an interesting illustration of the different attitudes towards immigration in the United States and continental Europe. For all the xenophobia that has raged in the United States—and now more than in any decade of recent memory—Americans, at least in cities with high immigrant populations, are far more comfortable, on average, with immigrants keeping their language, dress, diet, and so on, than are Europeans. The controversy in France over the burkini, for example, simply could never happen in the United States. We have more than enough islamophobes, thank you very much, but lawmakers wouldn’t even contemplate passing legislation about acceptable forms of swimwear.

Note that this is not because Americans generally have a more positive opinion of Islam than French people do. To the contrary, I think the reverse is probably the case. But in America we do not have such a strong sense of “Culture”—traditional ways of dressing, eating, dating, speaking, and so on, that pervade every aspect of daily life—as exists in, say, France or Germany. Rather, in keeping with our traditional individualism, Americans conceive of choices in dress, diet, love, and speech as based on individual preference rather than having much to do with tradition. There are traditional sectors of American society, of course; but they are traditional by free choice. And no single tradition (except perhaps vague notions of “freedom” and “democracy”) would be accepted by any large fraction of the population.

Now, I should clarify that I am not denying that there is no such thing as American Culture; nor that the French and Germans are not individualistic; all I’m saying is that Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as living in accordance with any culture except the one we choose through our own free will. And if somebody wants to mess with that decision, they can go read the Constitution!

I am getting off track here. Well, the point is that Berlin has a lot of Turkish people. As a result, Turkish food has become wildly popular, and justly so. I once listened to two German students describe in raptures all their favorite kebab spots. The best kebab spot in any city is, apparently, a source of hot dispute among the locals.

If I can join in on this argument, I’d like to advocate for Mustafa’s Kebab. It is not even a restaurant, but a food stand selling different types of kebab. Trust me: go there and order one. All the ingredients are fresh: the crispy cucumbers and carrots, the refreshing feta cheese, the perfectly grilled meat—it is marvelous, simultaneously delicious and surprisingly wholesome, not to mention affordable, which is why there is always a long line. I ate there the first day and then went back the next.

Apart from this heavenly experience, the other famous dish in Berlin is the Currywurst. This is just sausage and fries with a creamy curry sauce. The combination of sausage and curry did not strike me as particularly promising, but I trust the Germans, and I had the meal twice. Both times I thought that, indeed, curry on sausage was odd; but I like curry, and I like sausage, and fries are always welcome. I enjoy it; but it is a greasy, heavy meal, not ideal for physical activity of any kind.

Speaking of avoiding physical activity, I should add a note about public transportation. Unlike in either New York or Madrid, the transport system in Berlin uses the honor code. You are trusted to buy a ticket and to verify it before every trip. But there is no barrier, gate, or turnstile preventing you from getting on. Bus drivers don’t check; the metro and the tram are hop-on, hop-off. It took me three trips on the transport system to figure out that, yes, I was expected to pay (I watched a few dutiful Germans verify their transport cards before boarding).

This prompted me to look up if it was common to avoid paying, since I had already taken three free trips by accident and nobody had noticed. This brought me to this fascinating article. Apparently there is a relatively small but dedicated band of Berliners who daringly ride the metro without a ticket. This is known in German as schwarzfahren (literally, “black going”—what a wonderful language!). But there are risks. Plainclothes officers, known as Kontrolleurs, ride metros and trams all day, randomly checking if people have a valid ticket. If you are caught without a ticket you can get fined for 40€ as a first-time offense. Granted, there is a chance of escaping the car once you see the agents begin checking, but this is far from assured. I took eleven or twelve trips while I was there and never witnessed any check. But for those intrepid souls looking to fight the man and seek perilous thrills by schwarzfahren, be warned.


Monuments of Life

I made one major mistake when visiting Berlin: I didn’t book a tour of the Reichstag building ahead of time. The Reichstag building (the word Reichstag, which means parliament, literally means “kingdom day”) is the current parliament building. It was originally constructed back in the 1890s, when Germany was an Empire, to house the Imperial Diet; it then burned down in mysterious circumstances in 1933, giving the ascendant Nazi party a convenient excuse to start jailing political enemies. After that, the building lay unrepaired and unused during the Nazi era and the Cold War; and it wasn’t until the reunification in 1990 that the building was finally refurbished and put back into use by the current parliament, the Bundestag (Bundestag literally means “federation day”).

Reichstag Building.jpg

Whatever the building’s history, I couldn’t visit it, since you need to book your tour in advance. (Follow this link.) I went up and asked if there were any free spots available, but there weren’t any until Tuesday, the day after I was going to leave. From the outside the building is impressive: a grand palatial edifice in neoclassical style. As I’ve mentioned in my post about Rome, Roman architecture has been adopted worldwide as the architecture of power; and nowhere is this on greater display than in Berlin. The front pediment of the Reichstag building features a Parthenon-esque frieze of Grecian gods surrounds the German coat of arms, an eagle derived from Roman military standards. Under all this is written Dem Deutschen Volk (literally, “The German People,” but the use of the dative “Dem” implies “To the German People”). Apparently, Kaiser Wilhelm II found the democratic ring of these words distasteful. Considering that he was the last Kaiser, I suppose the joke is on him.

The Reichstag building stands near the equally famous Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). This is another example of Roman-inspired architecture, modeled after the triumphal arches in that ancient city. Its construction was ordered by the Prussian King Frederick William II, to celebrate the defeat of the Batavian Revolution; and like any worthwhile piece of political propaganda, it commemorates a victory that never happened: the revolution was only momentarily delayed, and eventually succeeded.

Brandenburger Tor

The gate originally replaced an older, fortified gate in the city walls. (At this point in history, the walls had become obsolete anyway.) Much later, during the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate came to serve a far more nefarious purpose: to keep the citizens of East Germany in rather than to keep invaders out.

The Brandenburger Tor stands on the erstwhile border of East and West Berlin; formerly, the Berlin Wall encircled the gate in a sinister embrace. During this time, the dual symbolism of a gate, as a barrier or a portal, as a something can divide or connect, gave the monument a special meaning. Reagan gave his famous plea to “tear down this wall” standing before the Brandenburger Tor; and now, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the gate is an enduring symbol of European unity.

Atop the Brandenburg Gate is a quadriga, a statue of Victory being drawn in a chariot by four horses. This statue has its own political history. After Napoleon defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena (which Hegel famously overheard while completing his opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit), the French marched into the city through the gate, and then Napoleon took the quadriga back with him to Paris. (Rather petty, I think.) The quadriga was returned to Berlin after Napoleon’s eventual defeat. Then, during the Second World War, the gate was smashed up in the fighting, and the original quadriga was almost entirely destroyed; only one horse’s head survived, now on display somewhere in a museum.

Proceeding through the Brandenburg Gate, you reach the Tiergarten (literally “animal garden,” since the park originated as a private hunting grounds for the king), which is the central park of Berlin. The park is huge: at 210 hectares, it is one of the biggest parks in Germany. It is also absolutely enchanting. The paths wind lazily through the park, under overhanging trees, across green fields, past perfectly reflective lakes and the occasional statue or monument, with bikers riding by and friends playing catch (and older German men sunning their naked bodies)—it’s all lovely (except for the nudists). Somehow the Tiergarten combines the unplanned beauty of a nature reserve with the comfort and charm of English gardens; the park is at once wild and tamed. Without a doubt, it is the finest park I have visited in Europe.

Tiergarten

(I do admit, however, that the sight of people practicing sports and exercising often puts me in a foul mood. I have never liked sports or exercise; and the thought that people would defile a beautiful park like this with activity aimed only at physical fitness or pleasure, fills me with despair. Parks should be for quiet contemplation and for reading—for improving the mind and achieving tranquility—not for bulking up the body and for inducing meaningless excitement! I know I’m being silly here, but it’s hard to contemplate the meaning of existence with the constant sound of people kicking a soccer ball and yelling at each other. This is not a criticism of the Tiergarten, but of humanity.)

In the center of the Tiergarten is yet another notable Roman-inspired construction: the Berlin Victory Column. Like all victory columns, this one takes its inspiration from Trajan’s Column in Rome. The Berlin Victory Column was commissioned during the 1860s to commemorate Prussia’s victory over Denmark; and when Prussia went on to defeat Austria and France, the commissioners decided to top the column with a shining bronze statue of Victory for good measure. The Berlin Victory Column is truly a tower; the combined height of the statue and the pillar is 67 meters, or 220 feet. (For comparison, the Statue of Liberty, base included, is 93 meters.) It was moved to its current location by the Nazis, in anticipation of their plan to turn Germany into Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania—more on this in my next post). You can climb the more than 200 stairs to the top if you pay a fee. I wasn’t tempted.

Victory Tower

Although this qualifies as a monument to death rather than life, I should mention here the Soviet War Memorial that sits in the Tiergarten. It is a monument to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin, during the Second World War. As luck would have it, the monument was constructed in what later became West Germany; as a result, during the Cold War honor guards from East Germany came every day to stand watch; and civilians from East Germany were prevented by the Berlin Wall from visiting the monument that commemorates their “liberation.” History’s can be rather droll. The monument is yet another example of Roman-inspired architecture, taking the form of a gently curving Stoa. Two howitzer artillery pieces and two T-34 tanks flank the monument, and a striding statue of a soldier—unmistakably Soviet in his heroic pose—caps off the display. It is hard to know what to feel about all this. While I was there, a German man began yelling at a couple of teenagers and threatening to call the police; this only added to my confusion.

Soviet War Memorial

From this memorial it is a 25 minute walk to our next site: Museum Island. This is a complex of five state-owned museums on an island in the Spree river.

The most famous and most visited of these is the Pergamon Museum. This museum was opened in 1930 to display some of the large-scale archaeological discoveries recently made by German researchers. I have a habit of running into lengthy, ecstatic descriptions when I write about museums, as displayed in my post about the British Museum, so I will attempt to limit myself to a brief comment.

The Pergamon Museum is named after its most famous exhibit: the Pergamon Altar, a beautifully preserved temple from the Ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed in 2014 for remodeling, and won’t be open against until 2019 or 2020; so I did not get to see it.

Ishtar Lions
Ishtar Gate detail

I did, however, get to see the Ishtar Gate, which might be even more beautiful. This is a gate constructed in the walls of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, in the sixth century BCE. Its function is as decorative as defensive. Made of bricks glazed with lapis lazuli, the gate must have shone like cobalt in the sun; and its azul surface is covered in exquisite bas-reliefs of dragons and bulls. As it stands, the gate in the museum is not entirely original: some bricks were created using the original technique to complete the structure. In any case, I think the Ishtar Gate is easily among the most beautiful works of art from the ancient world: I was stunned when I saw pictures of it in Art History class, and stunned when I saw it in Berlin.

Ishtar Gate
Ishtar Gate

Beside the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, the museum has two more monumental exhibitions: the Market Gate of Miletus and the Mshatta Facade.

Pergamum Market
Market Gate of Miletus

The Market Gate of Miletus was built by the Romans in the second century and destroyed by an earthquake a few hundred years later. In 1900 the insatiably curious German archaeologists found the destroyed gate, excavated it, and transported the pieces to Berlin. Its reconstruction involved the use of many new materials, which was controversial; then World War II inflicted further damage on the old ruin, requiring further reconstruction. For something with such a violent past, so often rebuilt, the gate is convincingly ancient and absolutely impressive. It is a two-store facade with rows of columns, rather like the backdrop of the amphitheater I saw in Mérida, Spain. 

Mshatta
Mshatta Façade

The Mshatta façade is perhaps even more impressive. It is a section from a wall of an Ummayad Palace, excavated in present-day Jordan, built in the eighth century. The wall is exquisitely decorated with fine animal and vegetable motifs carved into the surface. This monument, like seemingly everything in this city, was also damaged in World War II. The Mshatta façade is the largest, though perhaps not the most beautiful, exhibition in the museum’s section on Islamic art. There were decorated Korans, luxurious rugs, sections of columns, roofs, and walls covered in wonderful geometrical arabesques. No culture in history, I suspect, has developed the art of ornamentation to such a pitch of perfection as in Muslim culture: every surface, every nook and cranny, every piece of furniture and written word, is executed with care and taste.

It is possible to buy a combined pass for all the museums on Museum Island—the Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Old National Gallery, the New Museum, and the Old Museum—but I had neither the time nor the money for that. After the Pergamon Museum, I could realistically only visit one more, and I chose the Old National Gallery. But this was a hard choice to make. The Neues Museum has the iconic bust of Nefertiti, still gorgeous and regal after three millennia. The Altes Museum looked even better, with an impressive and extensive collection of Greco-Roman statues—not to mention the lovely neoclassical building itself. But after the Pergamon Museum—and after seeing the British Museum a few weeks earlier—I’d had enough of the ancient world.

National Gallery
Alte Nationalgalerie

The building of the Alte Nationalgalerie yet another stately neoclassical construction; and the visitor, upon ascending the front steps, is greeted by equally stately neoclassical sculptures and busts of famous Germans. The pure white marble and technical finish of these sculptures immediately struck me as cold and academic, as does most art that imitates a dead culture.

Hegel
Hegel

The paintings inside—which mostly consist of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes from the 18th to the 19th centuries—ranged from the forgettable to the truly excellent. Of particular interest, for me, were the portraits of Hegel (stern old metaphysician), the brothers Grimm (as skeletal as their stories), and Alexander von Humboldt (a dashing dandy).

The finest paintings on display were those by Caspar David Friedrich, whose portraits of humanity dwarfed and mocked by nature—silhouetted figures under glowing suns, buffeted by tides and rain, or lonely men solemnly contemplating a vast expanse or the desiccated ruins of some dead culture—capture and express the same sentiment as Shelley does in “Ozymandias”: the overwhelming awareness of human finitude. Other than these works, however, I mostly enjoyed the few impressionist and post-impressionist works on offer.

Caspar David Friedrich
The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich

The courtyard outside the Nationalgalerie is one of the most peaceful and pleasant spots I found in Berlin. The river flows nearby, with barges carrying tourists drifting past, and on the far bank are still more tourists basking in the sun. From here it is a very quick walk to Berlin Cathedral. This stands at the end of an equally picturesque plaza, full of Germans and foreigners lounging in the grass and kids playing with the central fountain.

At a glance you can tell that Berlin Cathedral is not particularly old. The central dome and the four smaller domes which surround it are all made of copper, I believe, and have the same pale green color as the Statue of Liberty. The statues of saints and angels surrounding the front portal are tinted this same algae-green. This creates an odd effect when combined with the fine neo-Renaissance building, like parts of an old ship welded onto a resplendent bank; but for all that, the cathedral is an impressive sight.

Originally built in the early 1900s, as a kind of Protestant version of St. Peter’s, it was damaged and partially destroyed, like everything, during the Second World War. Situated in East Germany, it was unsure whether the government—officially hostile to religion—would reconstruct the cathedral. Eventually they did, but the cathedral’s most famous and beautiful wing, the Denkmalkirche was destroyed, as a symbol of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Political pettiness has always been with is.

Berlin Cathedral Exterior

It is worth the fee to visit the Berlin Cathedral. The interior is finely decorated and cheerfully bright. Of particular interest to me—since I had just finished reading a book about the Reformation—were the sculptures of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon standing high up above the main altar. The visitor can, if she so wishes, climb all the way up to the dome of the cathedral to see Berlin. I enjoyed the climb; but I must say that the view—ugly apartment buildings and construction sites—did not make me feel inclined to wax poetic or to fall into raptures about the beauties of the city.

Berlin Cathedral View
Isn’t it glorious?

In any case, you can also visit the crypt in the basement, where several members of the Hohenzollern dynasty are buried. Compared with, say, the royal crypt in Spain’s El Escorial, this one struck me as simple and subdued. Some of the coffins are quite plain and unremarkable. A few are elaborately carved, gilded, and decorated. As in the El Escorial, there are quite a few coffins for young children and infants. Before the age of vaccines and modern medicine, even the most powerful of the world couldn’t keep their children safe. But this brings me to the second part of this post: death.

Review: Introduction to the Reading of Hegel

Review: Introduction to the Reading of Hegel

Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of SpiritIntroduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit by Alexandre Kojève

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Generally speaking, there is a tendency to underestimate the difficulties of satisfaction and to overestimate those of omniscience.

Alexandre Kojève is easily one of the most influential thinkers of the last century. This is peculiar, considering that his reputation rests mainly on his interpretation of Hegel, an interpretation which he developed and propounded in a series of lectures in 1933-39. Many who attended these lectures—Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Lacan, to name just two—went on to be important intellectuals in their own right, reinterpreting Kojève’s ideas for their own purposes.

Kojève’s thinking extended beyond the lecture hall, shaping his whole intellectual milieu—deeply affecting Sartre, who may never have attended the lectures—and even extended to the United States. This was largely thanks to Leo Strauss, who sent his disciples to study under Kojève. One of these disciples was Allan Bloom—of The Closing of the American Mind fame—and, in turn, Bloom taught Francis Fukuyama, who heavily relied on Kojève for his controversial bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man. Once again, Kojève was influential.

It is too bad, then, that I found his most famous book to be of little merit. Frankly, I failed to see anything of serious interest in these pages: either as textual interpretation or as philosophy. Admittedly, the former did not surprise me. By common consent Kojève was a heterodox interpreter of Hegel, mixing Hegel’s ideas with those of Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger to create something quite different from what Hegel intended (whatever that was). But I did not expect this book to be so devoid of intellectual interest. Indeed, I am somewhat at a loss as to why or how it became so influential.

For one, Kojève’s writing style will be irksome to any who prize clarity and concision. He is boorishly repetitious, persistently vague, and pompously obscure. Every other word—when it isn’t an unnecessary foreign expression—is capitalized, italicized, wrapped in scare-quotes, or set aside in parentheses, as if simple words and commas were not enough to convey his subtle message. Meanwhile, his meaning, stripped of its pretentious shell, is either a banal truism, nonsense, or obviously wrong. This, by the way, is so often the case with turgid writers that I have grown to be deeply suspicious of all obscurity. In academic circles, dense prose is easily self-serving.

I cannot make these accusations without some demonstration. Here is Kojève on work: “Work is Time, and that is why it necessarily exists in time: it requires time.” Or Kojève on being: “Concrete (revealed) real Being is neither (pure) Identity (which is Being, Sein) nor (pure) Negativity (which is Nothingness, Nichts) but Totality (which is Becoming, Werden).” Another insight on the nature of existence:

One can say, then, that Being is the being of the concept “Being.” And that is why Being which is (in the Present) can be “conceived of” or revealed by the Concept. Or, more exactly, Being is conceived of at “each instant” of its being. Or else, again: Being is not only Being, but also Truth—that is, the adequation of the Concept and Being. This is simple.

Very simple.

As I said above, Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel is distinctly implausible. Kojève sees the Master-Slave dialectic as the key to Hegel’s whole system, whereas it is only one stage in Hegel’s Phenomenology, and Hegel does not frequently refer back to it. This focus on the issue of subjection, alienation, recognition, and work allows Kojève to read Hegel as a quasi-Marxist. Kojève also has lots of things to say about space, time, mortality, and freedom, most of which is derived from Heidegger and which are totally alien from Hegel’s thought. Kojève’s originality is not in any ideas unique to him, but to the conglomeration of these German philosophers that he conveys in these lectures.

I found all this to be academically slipshod. The attempt to make Hegel into a quasi-existentialist, deriving freedom from the cognizance of death, is especially unconvincing: Hegel was anything but an existentialist. Generally speaking there are not nearly enough citations of Hegel, nor is there any discussion whatever of Hegel’s background, development, or intellectual influences. Thus as an introduction to Hegel, the text is basically useless.

Even more intellectually irresponsible is his habit of deferring to Hegel’s text right when any argument is necessary. Statements like these are common: “Once more, I am not concerned with reproducing this deduction here, which is given in the entirety of the first seven chapters of the Phenomenology. But I shall say that it is irrefutable.” He does this quite often, merely asserting something and than insisting that, to prove it, one must read and understand the whole Phenomenology of Spirit. (This habit of deferring to infallible texts, by the way, is a typical move in religious arguments, and has no place in philosophy.) As a result, this book is one bloated series of unfounded assertions—seldom citing the text or providing anything resembling an argument—which makes it worse than useless.

Now, in case you think I am being overly harsh, let me quote one section where he does seem to be making an argument:

Let us consider a real table. This is not a Table ‘in general,’ nor just any table, but always this concrete table right here. Now, when ‘naive’ man or a representative of some science or other speaks of this table, he isolates it from the rest of the universe: he speaks of this table, without speaking of what is not this table. Now, this table does not float in empty space. It is on this floor, in this room, in this house, in this place on Earth, which Earth is at a determined distance from the Sun, which has a determined place within the galaxy, etc., etc. To speak of this table without speaking of the rest, then, is to abstract from this rest, which in fact is just as real and concrete as this table itself. To speak of this table without speaking of the whole of the Universe which implies it, or likewise to speak of this Universe without speaking of this table which is implied in it, is therefore to speak of an abstraction and not of a concrete reality.

This argument is part of Kojève’s general thesis that only holistic knowledge (which he calls “circular”) is true “Knowledge.” Putting aside the dreary, bombastic pointing out of the obvious, this passage, insofar as it makes any point at all, is obviously incorrect. Kojève is saying that it is impossible to refer to concrete reality without having a complete, total knowledge (knowing everything about the table involves knowing everything about everything). This is false. To show this, as well as to demonstrate that philosophy need not always be written so badly, I will quote Bertrand Russell:

The fact is that, in order to use the word ‘John’ correctly, I do not need to know all about John, but only enough to recognize him. No doubt he has relations, near and remote, with everything in the universe, but he can be spoken of truly without taking them into account, except such as are the direct subject-matter of what is being said. He may be the father of Jemima as well as James, but it is not necessary for me to know this in order to know that he is the father of James.

Now, if this book were truly as devoid of value as I am making it out to be, it would lead to the question of how it became to popular and influential. Well, I can only guess. Perhaps Kojève’s dazzling obscurity, along with his sexy combination of the works of Marx and Heidegger—the two most influential thinkers in France at that time—allowed him to touch the Zeitgeist, so to speak. The attempt to reconcile a philosophical understanding of freedom and death (taken from Heidegger) with an understanding of oppression, historical progress, and work (taken from Marx and ultimately Hegel), may have given Kojève’s students an exciting impetus in the hectic days after the Second World War, when Europe was busy rebuilding itself. To any Kojève enthusiasts out there, please do let me know what you see in him. I remain blind.

View all my reviews

Review: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Review: Institutes of the Christian Religion

The Institutes of Christian ReligionThe Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many wicked lies get mixed up with the tiny particles of truth in the writings of these philosophers.

I am here writing a review of John Calvin’s most famous book, but I can’t say I’ve actually read it. I have read an abridged version, one that preserves about 15% of the original. This is still a fair amount, considering that the unabridged version runs to well over 1,000 pages; but there is so much I missed that I feel a bit self-conscious writing a review.

John Calvin is arguably the most important Protestant theologian in history. Karl Barth once called Hegel the ‘Protestant Aquinas’, but the title seems more apt for Calvin, whose Institutes put into systematic form the new theology and dogma of the budding faith. Calvin begins with knowledge of God, then moves on to knowledge of Christ, the Christian life, justification by faith, prayer, election and predestination, the church and the sacraments, and much more along the way.

Calvin was a lawyer by training, and it shows in his style. Unlike Aquinas, who made careful arguments and addressed objections using logic, Calvin’s primary mode of argument is to quote and interpret scripture, in much the same way as a lawyer might argue from legal precedent. You can also see his legal background in Calvin’s combative tone; he attacks and defends with all the cunning of a professional debater, and will use any rhetorical device available to win his case.

The two biggest theological influence on Calvin, it seems, were St. Paul and St. Augustine, both of whom were rather preoccupied with evil and sin. The gentleness of the Gospels seems totally absent from Calvin’s worldview. Perhaps this is due as much to his personality; he struck me as rather saturnine and bitter, a man disappointed with the world. His mode of argument and cutting tone—treating all his interpretations of the Bible as self-evident and obvious, and his enemies as wicked deceivers—also made him, for me, a rather authoritarian guide through theology. And his zeal was manifested in deed as well as word. It was Calvin, after all, who oversaw the auto-da-fé of Michael Servetus, a Unitarian who believed in adult baptism.

Besides being a powerful thinker, Calvin was a powerful stylist. This book, in the French translation, remains one of the most influential works of French prose. He can swell into ecstasies as he describes the goodness of God, the mercy of Christ, and the bliss that awaits the elect in the next life. At other times, he can rain down fire and brimstone on sinners and reprobates, accusing humanity of universal sin and condemning human nature itself. One of his most characteristic moods is a powerful disgust with sin, which he sees as an inescapable part of earthly life, a pervasive filth that clings to everything. This quote gives a taste of his style:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; they suffer for their own imperfection and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

The most controversial part of this book is the section on predestination. Before even the creation of the world, God knew who would be saved and who would be damned. Our salvation is not ultimately due to any choices we make; we are entirely helpless, completely dependent on God’s grace. By ourselves, we earn and deserve nothing. Human nature can take no credit for goodness. The reason why some are saved and others damned is entirely mysterious. You can never know for sure if you are among God’s elect, but there are certain signs that give hope.

One thing I do admire about Calvin’s argument for predestination is that he achieves a brutal kind of consistency. God is all-powerful, and thus responsible for everything that happens; he is all-knowing, and so was aware of what would happen when he created the world; and he is infinitely good, so all goodness resides in him and not in us.

The only problem with this doctrine is that, when combined with the doctrine of heaven and hell, it makes God seem monstrously unjust. A God who creates a world in which the majority of its inhabitants will be inescapably condemned to everlasting torment is even worse than a man who breeds puppies just to throw them in the fire. Calvin makes much of the “inscrutability of God’s judgment”; but this is as much to say that you should believe him even though what he’s saying doesn’t make sense.

Calvin perhaps can’t be faulted too much for reaching this bleak conclusion. Theologians have been trying for a long time to square the attributes of God—omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenificence—with the qualities we observe in the world and the doctrine of heaven and hell. Everlasting punishment can only appear fair if the sinner brought it upon himself with his own free action (and even then, it seems like a stretch to call everlasting torment “justice”).

But how can free will exist in a universe created by an all-powerful and all-knowing God? For if God knew exactly what was going to happen when the universe was created, and is ultimately responsible for everything that happens (since he created the universe with full knowledge of the consequences), then that would make God responsible for the existence of sinners, and thus we get this same absurdity of people being punished for things they were destined to do.

For my part, I find this question of predestination and punishment extremely interesting, since I think we will have to face similar paradoxes as we learn to explain human behavior. As our belief in free will is eroded through increasing knowledge of psychology and sociology, how will it affect our justice system?

In any case, I’m glad I read the abridged version, since I can’t imagine pushing myself through more than 1,000 pages of this book.
View all my reviews

Review: Phenomenology of Spirit

Review: Phenomenology of Spirit

The Phenomenology of MindThe Phenomenology of Mind by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is easily the most controversial of the canonical philosophers. Alternately revered and reviled, worshiped or scorned, he is a thinker whose conclusions are almost universally rejected and yet whose influence is impossible to escape. Like Herodotus, he is either considered to be the Father of History or the Father of Lies. Depending on who you ask, Hegel is the capstone of the grand Western attempt to explain the world through reason, or the commencement of a misguided stream of metaphysical nonsense which has only grown since.

A great deal of this controversy is caused by Hegel’s famous obscurity, which is proverbial. His writing is a great inky cloud of abstractions, a bewildering mixture of the pedantic and the mystic, a mass of vague mysteries uttered in technical jargon. This obscurity has made Hegel an academic field unto himself. There is hardly anything you can say about Hegel’s ideas that cannot be contested, which leads to the odd situation we see demonstrated in most reviews of his works, wherein people opine positively and negatively without venturing to summarize what Hegel is actually saying. Some people seem to read Hegel with the attitude of a pious Christian hearing a sermon in another language, and believe and revere without understanding; while others conclude that Hegel’s language plays the part of a screen in a magician’s act, concealing cheap tricks under a mysterious veil.

For my part, either dismissing or admiring Hegel without making a serious attempt to understand him is unsatisfactory. The proper attitude toward any canonical thinker is respect tinged with skepticism: respect for influence and originality, skepticism towards conclusions. That being said, most people, when confronted with Hegel’s style, will either incline towards the deifying or the despising stance. My inclination is certainly towards the latter. He is immensely frustrating to read, not to mention aggravating to review, since I can hardly venture to say anything about Hegel without risking the accusation of having fundamentally misunderstood him. Well, so be it.

The Phenomenology of Spirit was Hegel’s first published book, and it is widely considered his masterpiece. It is a history of consciousness. Hegel attempts to trace all of the steps that consciousness must go through—Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, Reason, Spirit, and Religion—before it can arrive at the point of fully adequate knowledge (Absolute Knowledge). Nobody had ever attempted anything similar, and even today this project seems ludicrously ambitious. Not only is the subject original, but Hegel also puts forward a new method of philosophy, the dialectical method. In other words, he is trying to do something no one had ever thought of doing before, using a way of thinking no one had thought of using before.

The Phenomenology begins with its justly famous Preface, which was written after the rest of the book was completed. This Preface alone is an important work, and is sometimes printed separately. Since it is easily the most lucid and eloquent section of the book, I would recommend it to those with even a passing interest in philosophy. This is where Hegel outlines his dialectical method.

The dialectical method is a new type of logic, meant to replace deductive reasoning. Ever since Aristotle, philosophers have mainly relied on deductive arguments. The most famous example is the syllogism (All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, etc.). Deduction received renewed emphasis with Descartes, who thought that mathematics (which is deductive) is the most certain form of knowledge, and that philosophy should emulate this certainty.

The problem with syllogisms and proofs, Hegel thought, is that they divorce content from form. Deductive frameworks are formulaic; different propositions (all pigs are animals, all apples are fruit) can be slotted into the framework indifferently, and still produce an internally consistent argument. Even empirically false propositions can be used (all apples are pineapples), and the argument may still be logically correct, even if it fails to align with reality. In other words, the organization of argument is something independent of the order of the world. In the generation before Hegel, Kant took this even further, arguing that our perception and our logic fundamentally shape the world as it appears to us, meaning that pure reason can never tell us anything about reality in itself.

Hegel found this unsatisfactory. In the words of Frederick Copleston, he was a firm believer in the equivalence of content and form. Every notion takes a form in experience; and every formula for knowledge—whether syllogistic, mathematical, or Kantian—alters the content by imposing upon it a foreign form. All attempts to separate content from form, or vice versa, therefore do an injustice to the material; the two are inseparable.

Traditional logic has one further weakness. It conceives of the truth as a static proposition, an unchanging conclusion derived from unchanging premises. But this fails to do justice to the nature of knowledge. Our search to know the truth evolves through a historical process, adopting and discarding different modes of thought in its restless search to grasp reality. Unlike in a deductive process, where incorrect premises will lead to incorrect conclusions, we often begin with an incorrect idea and then, through trial and error, eventually adopt the correct one.

Deductive reasoning not only mischaracterizes the historical growth of knowledge, but it also is unable to deal with the changing nature of reality itself. The world we know is constantly evolving, shifting, coming to being and passing away. No static formula or analysis—Newton’s equations or Kant’s metaphysics, for example—could possibly describe reality adequately. To put this another way, traditional logic is mechanistic; it conceives reality as a giant machine with moving, interlocking parts, and knowledge as being a sort of blue-print or diagram of the machine. Hegel prefers the organic metaphor.

To use Hegel’s own example, imagine that we are trying to describe an oak tree. Traditional logic might take the mature tree, divide it into anatomical sections that correspond with those of other trees, and end with a description in general terms of a static tree. Hegel’s method, by contrast, would begin with the acorn, and observe the different stages it passes through in its growth to maturity; and the terms of the description, instead of being taken from general anatomic descriptions of trees, would emerge of necessity from the observation of the growing tree itself. The final description would include every stage of the tree, and would be written in terms specific to the tree.

This is only an example. Hegel does not intend for his method to be used by biologists. What the philosopher observes is, rather, Mind or Spirit. Here we run into a famous ambiguity, because the German word Geist cannot be comfortably translated as either “mind” or “spirit.” The edition I used translates the title as the Phenomenology of Mind, whereas later translations have called it The Phenomenology of Spirit. This ambiguity is not trivial. The nature of mind—how it comes to know itself and the world, how it is related to the material world—is a traditional inquiry in philosophy, whereas spirit is something quasi-religious or mystical in flavor. For my part, I agree with Peter Singer in thinking that we ought to try to use “mind,” since it leaves Hegel’s meaning more open, while using “spirit” pre-judges Hegel’s intent.

Hegel is an absolute idealist. All reality is mental (or spiritual), and the history of mind consists in its gradual realization of this momentous fact: that mind is reality. As the famous formula goes, the rational is the real and the real is the rational. Hegel’s project in the Phenomenology is to trace the process, using his dialectic method, in which mind passes from ignorance of its true nature to the realization that it comprises the fabric of everything it knows.

How does this history unfold? Many have described the dialectic process as consisting of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The problem with this characterization is that Hegel never used those terms; and as we’ve seen he disliked logical formulas. Nevertheless, the description does manage to give a taste of Hegel’s procedure. Mind, he thought, evolved through stages, which he calls “moments.” At each of these moments, mind takes a specific form, in which it attempts to grapple with its reality. However, when mind has an erroneous conception of itself or its reality (which is just mind itself in another guise), it reaches an impasse, where it seems to encounter a contradiction. This contradiction is overcome via a synthesis, where the old conception and its contradiction are accommodated in a wider conception, which will in turn reach its own impasse, and so on until the final stage is reached.

This sounds momentous and mysterious (and it is), but let me try to illustrate it with a metaphor.

Imagine a cell awoke one day in the human body. At first, the cell is only aware of itself as a living thing, and therefore considers itself to be the extent of the world. But then the cell notices that it is limited by its environment. It is surrounded by other cells, which restrict its movement and even compete for resources. The cell then learns to define itself negatively, as against its environment. Not only that, but the cell engages in a conflict with its neighbors, fighting for resources and trying to assert its independence and superiority. But this fight is futile. Every time the cell attempts to restrict resources to its neighbors, it simultaneously impedes the flow of blood to itself. Eventually, after much pointless struggle, the cell realizes that it is a part of a larger structure—say, a nerve—and that it is one particular example of a universal type. In other words, the cell recognizes its neighbors as itself and itself as its neighbors. This process then repeats, from nerves to muscles to organs, until the final unity of the human body is understood to consists as one complete whole, an organism which lives and grows, but which nevertheless consists of distinct, co-dependent elements. Once again, Hegel’s model is organic rather than mechanic.

Just so, the mind awakes in the world and slowly learns to recognize the world as itself, and itself as one cell in the world. The complete unity, the world’s “body,” so to speak, is the Absolute Mind.

Hegel begins his odyssey of knowledge in the traditional Cartesian starting point, with sense-certainty. We are first aware of sensations—hot, light, rough, sour—and these are immediately present to us, seemingly truth in its naked form. However, when mind tries to articulate this truth, something curious happens. Mind finds that it can only speak in universals, which fail to capture the particularity and the immediacy of its sensations. Mind tries to overcome this by using terms like “This!” or “Here!” or “Now!” But even these will not do, since what is “here” one moment is “there” the next, and what is “this” one moment is “that” the next. In other words, the truth of sense-certainty continually slips away when you try to articulate it.

The mind then begins to analyze its sensations into perceptions—instead of raw data, we get definite objects in time and space. However, we reach other curious philosophical puzzles here. Why do all the qualities of salt—its size, weight, flavor, color—cohere in one location, persist through time, and reappear regularly? What unites these same qualities in this consistent way? Is it some metaphysical substance that the qualities inhere in? Or is the unity of these qualities just a product of the perceiving mind?

At this point, it is perhaps understandable why Hegel thought that mind comprises all reality. From a Cartesian perspective—as an ego analyzing its own subjective experience—this is true: everything analyzed is mental. And, as Kant argued, the world’s organization in experience may well be due to the mind’s action upon the world as perceived. Thus true knowledge would indeed require an understanding of how our mind shapes the experience.

But Hegel’s premiss—that the real is rational and the rational is real—becomes much more difficult to accept once we move into the world of intersubjective reality, when individual minds acknowledge other minds as real and existing in the same universe. For my part, I find it convenient to put the question of the natural world to one side. Hegel had no notion of change in nature; his picture of the world had no Big Bang, and no biological evolution, and in any case he did not like Newtonian physics (he thinks, quite dumbly, that the Law of Attraction is the general form of all laws, and that it doesn’t explain anything about nature) and he was not terribly interested in natural science. Hegel was far more preoccupied with the social world; and it is in this sphere that his ideas seem more sensible.

In human society, the real is the rational and the rational is the real, in the sense that our beliefs shape our actions, and our actions shape our environments, and our environments in turn shape our beliefs, in a constantly evolving dialogue—the dialectic. The structure of society is thus intimately related to the structure of belief at any given time and place. Let me explain that more fully.

Hegel makes quite an interesting observation about beliefs. (Well, he doesn’t actually say this, but it’s implied in his approach.) Certain mentalities, even if they can be internally consistent for an individual, reveal contradictions when the individual tries to act out these beliefs. In other words, mentalities reveal their contradictions in action and not in argument. The world created by a mentality may not correspond with the world it “wants” to create; and this in turn leads to a change in mentality, which in turn creates a different social structure, which again might not correspond with the world it is aiming for, and so on until full correspondence is achieved. Some examples will clarify this.

The classic Hegelian example is the master and the slave. The master tries to reduce the slave to the level of an object, to negate the slave’s perspective entirely. And yet, the master’s identity as master is tied to the slave having a perspective to negate; thus the slave must not be entirely objectified, but must retain some semblance of perspective in order for the situation to exist at all. Meanwhile, the slave is supposed to be a nullity with no perspective, a being entirely directed by the master. But the slave transforms the world with his work, and by this transformation asserts his own perspective. (This notion of the slave having his work “alienated” from him was highly influential, especially on Marx.)

Hegel then analyzes Stoicism. The Stoic believes that the good resides entirely in his own mental world, while the exterior world is entirely devoid of value. And yet the Stoic recognizes that he has duties in this exterior world, and thus this world has some moral claim on him. Mind reacts to this contradiction by moving to total Skepticism, believing that the world is unreal and entirely devoid of value, recognizing no duties at all. And yet this is a purely negative attitude, a constant denial of something that is persistently there, and this constant mode of denial collapses when the Skeptic goes about acting within this supposedly unreal world. Mind then decides that the world is unreal and devoid of value, including they themselves as parts of the world, but that value exists in a transcendent sphere. This leads us to medieval Christianity and the self-alienated soul, and so on.

I hope you see by now what I mean by a conception not being able to be acted out without a contradiction. Hegel thought that mind progressed from one stage to another until finally the world was adequate to the concept and vice versa; indeed, at this point the world and the concept would be one, and the real would be rational and the rational real. Thought, action, and world would be woven into one harmonious whole, a seamless fabric of reason.

I am here analyzing Hegel in a distinctly sociological light, which is easily possible in many sections of the text. However, I think this interpretation would be difficult to justify in other sections, where Hegel seems to be making the metaphysical claim that all reality (not just the social world) is mental and structured by reason. Perhaps one could make the argument on Kantian grounds that our mental apparatus, as it evolves through time, shapes the world we experience in progressively different ways. But this would seem to require a lot more traditional epistemology than I see here in the text.

In a nutshell, this is what I understand Hegel to be saying. And I have been taking pains to present his ideas (as far as I understand them) in as positive and coherent a light as I can. So what are we to make of all this?

A swarm of criticisms begin to buzz. The text itself is disorganized and uneven. Hegel spends a great deal of time on seemingly minor subjects, and rushes through major developments. He famously includes a long, tedious section on phrenology (the idea that the shape of the skull reveals a person’s personality), while devoting only a few, very obscure pages to the final section, Absolute Knowledge, which is the entire goal of the development. This latter fact is partially explained by the book’s history. Hegel made a bad deal with his publisher, and had to rush the final sections.

As for prose, the style of this book is so opaque that it could not have been an accident. Hegel leaves many important terms hazily defined, and never justifies his assumptions nor clarifies his conclusions. Obscurity is beneficial to thinkers in that they can deflect criticism by accusing critics of misunderstanding; and the ambiguity of the text means that it can be variously interpreted depending on the needs of the occasion. I think Hegel did something selfish and intellectually irresponsible by writing this way, and even now we still hear the booming thunder of his unintelligible voice echoed in many modern intellectuals.

Insofar as I understand Hegel’s argument, I cannot accept it. Although Hegel presents dialectic as a method of reasoning, I failed to be convinced of the necessary progression from one moment to the next. Far from a series of progressive developments, the pattern of the text seemed, rather, to be due entirely to Hegel’s whim.

Where Hegel is most valuable, I think, is in his emphasis on history, especially on intellectual history. This is something entirely lacking in his predecessors. He is also valuable for his way of seeing mind, action, and society as interconnected; and for his observation that beliefs and mentalities are embodied in social relations.

In sum, I am left with the somewhat lame conclusion that Hegel’s canonical status is well-deserved, but so is his controversial reputation. He is infuriating, exasperating, and has left a dubious legacy. But his originality is undeniable, his influence is pervasive, and his legacy, good or bad, will always be with us.

View all my reviews