Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

The Dionysian in Christian art, part 2

Leonardo da Vinci - John the Baptist

Leonardo da Vinci – John the Baptist


What are we to make of the fact that Leonardo da Vinci and his students detected a certain kinship between John the Baptist and Dionysus? The two figures seemingly could not be more different — the grim ascetic preaching repentance and the god of revelry. One could perhaps forgive Donatello his “fabulous,” sassy David, given that David was, after all, a young man whose appearance had drawn God’s eye. (In this case, the stranger choice is Bernini’s older David, captured mid-throw.) How could John the Baptist be portrayed as an androgynous, sensual figure? Did Leonardo simply mix him up with John the Beloved Disciple?

We see this strange sexuality of John the Baptist emerge again in Strauss’s Salome. Here, though, it is a mark of perversion and decadence as Salome incomprehensibly takes John as a sexual object and, after being rejected, willingly collaborates with her mother in his beheading out of vengeance. This strange attraction culminates in a disturbing scene where Salome kisses and carresses the Baptist’s disembodied head. This is very different from Leonardo’s straightforward presentation — where Strauss plays on the very unthinkability of John’s sexuality, Leonardo is able to present it as a simple fact, as almost self-evident.

Nietzsche might see here an acknowledgment of the inherent sensuality of asceticism, the erotic charge of denial. How much greater, how much more durable and even unlimited is the jouissance derived directly from the refusal of jouissance — excessive piety is the greatest of festivals, the carnival that never has to end because it has finally become life rather than the exception or relief from life. If only the ascetic has truly experienced jouissance, then what better figure to serve as the Christian answer to Dionysus than John the Baptist, who is in fact the very threshold of the Christian dispensation itself?

Posted in art, Christian theology, Nietzsche. Comments Off

The Dionysian in Christian art

Raphael - Transfiguration
In The Birth of Tragedy, one of Nietzsche’s most concrete illustrations of Appolinian art is Raphael’s Transfiguration (pictured above):

In a symbolic painting, Raphael, himself one of these immortal “naive” ones, has represented for us this demotion of appearance to the level of mere appearance, the primitive process of the naive artist and of Apollinian culture. In his Transfiguration the lower half of the picture, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the bewildered, terrified disciples, shows us the reflection of suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world: the “mere appearance” here is the reflection of eternal contradition, the father of things. From this mere appearance arises, like ambrosial vapor, a new visionary world of mere appearances, invisible to those wrapped in the first appearance–a radiant floating in purest bliss, a serene contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here was have presented, in the most sublime artistic symbolism, that Apollinian world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus; and intuitively we comprehend their necessary interdependence.

It is a truly ingenious artistic decision to include the Transfiguration and the fumbling disciples, whom Jesus finds trying and failing to drive out the demon, in the same frame. I wonder if Nietzsche is missing something here, though — namely, the fact that the composition of the top half of the painting so clearly echoes the crucifixion. Jesus’s hands and feet are positioned in such a way as to suggest that they have been purposefully moved away from the posture of crucifixion, and indeed, the crucifixion would not be out of place in the world of the lower half of the painting. Perhaps Nietzsche’s point is actually strengthened if we emphasize the crucified figure implicitly “behind” the glorified Christ — in fact, it’s difficult to understand why he doesn’t explicitly make that connection.

My contribution to the Agamben symposium

The Political Theology blog has published my contribution to their symposium on The Kingdom and the Glory, which discusses Agamben’s method in dialogue with Alberto Toscano’s critical review of the book.

Sociopathic subjects

I really enjoyed Why We Love Sociopaths, in part because of the additional perspective it gives on Awkwardness. The “fantasy sociopath” the book studies is introduced as the opposite of  awkwardness: where awkwardness is an anxiety in relation to social norms, sociopaths, at least in TV fantasy, never experience social norms as something that makes them anxious, only as tools they can use to manipulate others. But what unites awkwardness and sociopathy is that these anti-social experiences reveal something fundamental which underlies the possibility of sociality. That is to say, Adam’s project is a kind of dialectical redemption of the anti-social, in which anti-sociality, by revealing the conditions of our sociality denaturalize it and provide ways of thinking about an alternative sociality which we might choose. Awkwardness and Why We Love Sociopaths thus I think have something in common with what Judith Halberstam calls “anti-social” queer theory; the connection is perhaps clearest in the anti-familial theme that surfaces periodically through Why We Love Sociopaths.

One thing that is suggested in the book but I think it would be interesting to think about more is the possibility that the liberal subject as such is sociopathic. Read the rest of this entry »

Nietzschean Christology: A Life of Its Own

Back when I was a junior at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe, PA, thinking about graduate school, vocation, etc., I took a Christology course with one of my favorite professors, Father Tom Hart, O.S.B., a Benedictine priest and then chair of the Religion and Religious Education department.  The course was, as one would expect, fairly Catholic–in a good way–and was a genuine attempt at simultaneously introducing multicultural and spiritual approaches to the subject.  Me being me, I presented as my final paper for the class something neither Catholic nor multicultural, “Nietzschean Christology.” 

Earlier in that semester I actually got locked into the lower level of the library late one Friday night–this was before the library had a major renovation and brought up to fire code.  St. Vincent has a phenomenal library right in the center of campus, and I had my favorite spots on the lower levels that were generally uninhabited. Read the rest of this entry »

Another question

Does anyone know if Nietzsche read Anselm’s Cur deus homo? Obviously Anselm’s argument is very well-known and has been repeated, with variations, by many, many subsequent theologians, but I wonder if he literally sat down and read the original text.

Posted in Anselm, Nietzsche. Comments Off
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