Sunday, May 05, 2013

Kierkegaard, Julian, Obama

Who knows what governs how a moderately engaged undergraduate makes sense of abstruse philosophic texts? As a sophomore, my mind settled on a basic dichotomy: Hegel bad, Kierkegaard good. This was probably what you might call a gendered thought. Hegel's basic How-Things-Work was to my mind aggressive, imperialist, male: thesis absorbs antithesis in new synthesis. Man slays dragon, eats its heart, becomes (relative) superman. Kierkegaard, by contrast, kept apparently irreconcilable opposites in eternal balance, on an eternal toggle switch whereby they could be seen alternately as part of a unity and eternally distinct.

I can't tell you at this distance whether my abstract caricature is accurate, but it has stayed with me all my life, and I tend to class thinkers on one side or the other of this divide. In retrospect, I'm sure that I placed the subject of my dissertation, the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich (an achoress, i.e. a nun in self-imposed solitary confinement) on the Kierkeaardian side of the ledger, though I never zoomed up the centuries to probe the association. *
Julian had a brilliant trick of subordinating the harsh elements of Catholic dogma that she didn't like (the damned are damned forever) to those that she felt by force of direct revelation to be true (all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well).  Her basic dynamic was that God-as-man maintains two "cheres," or points of view: the human, limited one, whereby we must see and condemn our own sin, and the "inward, more ghostly" and more strictly divine one, whereby no one does anything except by God's will, and God is delighted with all, and sin is merely an instrument of human self-education.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Julian also inverted conventional understanding of gender roles by emphasizing God's motherhood more than his (her?) fatherhood. And in a similar subordinate-the-dominant-understanding trick, she cast God's motherhood not as a metaphor but as reality grounding human motherhood:
Thus our lady is our mother, in whom we be all beclosed and of her born in Christ, for she that is mother of our savior is mother of all that been saved in our savior; and our savior is our very [true] mother, in whom we be endlessly born and never shall come out of him.
Julian's God is mother and father as well as divine and human. Not flinching from the implications of the latter, she also pretty much asserts that humanity is divine -- she sees no difference between Adam and Jesus, lord and servant. "Both keeping in mind," indeed.

In about 2008 -- foolishly, maybe -- I slotted Obama into my binary Hegel-Kierkegaard bestiary, as his postpartisan pitch seemed to bear (to my mind) a distinctly Kierkegaardian slant. Julian's watchword for conceptual balance is "both keepyng in mynd": God, and she herself in revelation, simultaneously sees as God sees and as humans see. Obama's equivalent watchword, largely discarded over the course of four year of Republican obstructionism, is "the other side may sometimes have a point."  He paints that principle on his historical canvas, e.g.,  in The Audacity of Hope:
In his rhetoric, Reagan tended to exaggerate the degree to which the welfare state had grown over the previous twenty five years. At its peak, the federal budget as a total share of the U.S. economy remained far below the comparable figures in Western Europe, even when you factored in the enormous U.S. defense budget. Still, the conservative revolution that Reagan helped usher in gained traction because Reagan's central insight--that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie--contained a good deal of truth. Just as too many corporate managers, shielded from competition, had stopped delivering value, too many government bureaucracies had stopped asking whether their shareholders (the American taxpayer) and their consumers (the users of government services) were getting their money's worth (156-157).
 I suppose you could say that Obama's liberalism is more "Hegelian" than "Kierekegaardian" (at least in my personal caricature), in that a little tincture of conservative conscience merely tempers his ambitions for constructive government action. But his (unrealized) post-partisan promise does include an implicit acknowledgement that the bipolar nature of American politics is eternal and necessary: Yes-we-can collective efforts to extend equality of opportunity (while increasing the quality of opportunity for all) tempered by suspicion of government overrreach and determination to hold government accountable for its collection and use of tax dollars. He has shown himself centrist in his willingness to foreground deficits (he said during the transition in late 2008 that the long-term debt picture was what kept him up at night), willingness to trim entitlements, and extremely modest goals for new revenue (less than half those proposed by Bowles-Simpson). A good deal of that relative conservatism is dictated by political necessity. But a still-serving elected official's political philosophy can't be easily separated from his or her policy choices.

To mess up my own longstanding dichotomy a bit, my enduring optimism about humanity's future (something of a mystery to me, given my pessimistic bent) seems to suggest that I'm something of a Hegelian. That's true in part by way of professed neo-Hegelian Francis Fukuyama. I continue to place my bets on his core premise --  despite the beating his anticipations have taken in the last 20 years -- that humanity is impelled more or less by competitive necessity toward democracy and free markets, though I would hope that we can continue to develop or refine the latter at least into something better. Along with what seems to me incontrovertible evidence that humanity's material well-being is on an upward trajectory, I also believe that human ethics and social life continue to improve. That means I believe in something like Hegel's advance of reason in history.

* A look-back shows that I had the Hegel-Kierkegaard distinction very much in mind while studying Julian. At one point, I compared her favorite image of a human soul knit to God with this image from James of Milan's Stimulus Amoris:
But through virtue of Christ's love [the soul] breaketh and melteth and ungiveth as wax against the fire and goeth out from itself and turneth all into God.
 The contrast as I saw it:
Distance between God and man in James's view necessitates a meltdown, a transcendence that entails the dissolution of the transcendee, a kind of Hegelian absorption of the antithesis into the thesis. Julian's knitting, in contrast, implies an immanence that allows distinct coexistence within union, a thorough weaving-in and clothing-round but not, as it were, a chemical change in the substance of the human soul, endowed as it is with a divine "kyndely substannce which is to us by oure makying from without begynnyng (Ch. 58: 584). She embraces the antimony between real individuality and total union with a "both/and," a sustained double vision, alternately seeing a given image or doctrine through God's eyes and through her own.

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