M Gandhi and Ayn Rand

“How does one live a good life?” was the core question for Plato and other classical Greek philosophers. Here are two mutually exclusive answers from the 20th century:

Gandhi: Through service to others and simplicity of lifestyle.

Ayn Rand: Through rational self-interest and the advancement of capitalism.

Pick your path to happiness and to our best possible future. I know which one I lean toward.

Two Critiques of Materialism

1. What are you most certain of and how do you know it?  Let’s say you’re pretty sure about many things but most certain about mathematical truths (e.g., an equilateral triangle has three 60 degree angles).  Let’s say to prove this you draw a triangle on the chalk board.  But the triangle on the chalk board is imperfect: the lines are grainy and not quite straight, etc.  In fact, every physically produced triangle will fall short of the perfect triangle.  But all of your mathematical knowledge about triangles is based on the perfect triangle—the one in which the lines are perfectly straight and the angles exactly what they should be.  That ideal triangle, the one that doesn’t exist in the material world, is the only one you really know anything about, but luckily that knowledge carries over, albeit imperfectly, in the material world.  And mathematical knowledge, being the most certain, is a model for other kinds of knowledge.  So according to this theory, the material world does exist, but for us to have any real knowledge about it requires assumption of an ideal world that transcends this or that material object.

2. The second critique disagrees with the first, and assumes that knowledge is sensory based.  All knowledge begins with the five senses.  But what knowledge do you gain from the five senses?  Knowledge about the material world?  Not at all.  “The pillow is red” is not a proposition about the pillow itself, but about how the pillow registers in the retina.  “The pillow is soft” says nothing about the pillow in itself but only addresses how the pillow registers tactile sensations in neurons under the skin.  In fact, we may agree that the pillow is largely empty space with tiny atoms bombarding each other. But this knowledge too has been derived from empirical studies that rely in the first instance on sensory data.  So all we know about are the imprints made upon our own body’s sensory registers.  If there are material things out in space which exist independently of our sensory judgments, we can know nothing about them in themselves—we can only know about them post-processed, as it were.  So according to this theory, the material world may exist, but we’ll never know, because all we know about are the products of our own subjective processing plant.


The first critique was favored in the 4th century BC by Plato, who deliberately rejected empiricism (and the Greeks had already theorized that the world was nothing more than billions of tiny particles called atoms bombarding one another and creating the appearance of solid shapes—a conclusion they drew through philosophical inquiry without any need for scientific instruments, and a materialist conclusion Plato had studied and rejected on the grounds that it could only give us low-level knowledge accessible to the senses, knowledge of material reality, which is only a shadow cast by a more ideal reality accessible to reason).

The second critique was favored by the empiricist, David Hume, who was presumably following the empiricism of 18th-century scientists to its logical conclusion—that the material world was either non-existent or utterly unknowable.  (There are counterarguments—and rebuttals—Kant, e.g., would pick up exactly where Hume left off. But it’s interesting to see how the ultimate empiricist, Hume, and the ultimate anti-empiricist, the rationalist Plato, both conclude that a purely materialist world view is untenable.)


Stoics in a nutshell

When I hear “Stoic” used in the pejorative sense, as “icy and unfeeling,” I feel a little sorry for Marcus Aurelius. Sure, he was a Roman Emperor and probably managed just fine without my sympathies, but his Meditations, informed by the Stoic thought of slave-philosopher, Epictetus, were anything but icy and unfeeling. I also wince a little on my own behalf, because my own spiritual (or moral or intellectual) house is built in part with the following materials – one overarching goal and two principles — drawn from the Stoics.

Goal: To keep the soul (or psyche) tranquil and focused


1. Always concentrate your energy on what you can control, never on what you can’t control.

2. In everything you do, never lose sight of your moral purpose.

It is true that the Stoics found reason a steadier charioteer than emotion (i.e., better at keeping you keyed to these principles and goal), but who knows, maybe they were right about this.

Wordsworth and Kafka

Another path from classical to romantic to existential…

The classical ideal, epitomized say in Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, offers a closed system of perfect beauty, gives that calm rational pleasure that comes with the compound of beauty and completeness. The impact of a romantic piece like Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, on the other hand, comes specifically from a lack of closure. It is full of longing, and longing is by definition longing for something out of reach; the beauty is not the perfect beauty of a closed system but the melancholic beauty that comes with a conspicuous lack of closure, a sense that the system is incomplete, that what we desire is forever out of its scope.

Compare this to Wordsworth and Kafka, icons of Romanticism and existentialism, respectively. Both break from the classical ideal of a closed system of perfect beauty, but they break differently. For the Romantic poet, the world holds enormous meaning, warrants enormous feelings beyond the reach of the classical’s neat rational boundaries. But that locus of meaning, of feeling, is at a depth that we can sense but never quite reach. When Wordsworth speaks of the “meanest flower” that “can give / thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (“Intimations Ode”), the melancholic tone comes from an incomplete desire. The poem is not a closed system of perfect beauty, but a locus of longing, ever pointing to something outside of itself. But if “too deep” locates the object of desire ever at a distance, there is no doubt in Wordsworth as to its substantive presence:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(“Tintern Abbey”)

Kafka and the existentialists create narratives that seem more romantic than classical in that they too rely on a conspicuous lack of closure. The meaning sought is forever beyond the scope of the system they are trapped within. But whereas Wordsworth reaches out from the system to grasp a meaning whose “presence” is too large or too deep for him to get his hands around, Kafka’s K (The Castle) and Joseph K (The Trial) reach out from the system for a meaning that is not present at all but absent. That locus of meaning, that presence that validates the depth of human feeling, was for Wordsworth too big (Kant’s mathematical sublime) or too powerful (Kant’s dynamical sublime) to be contained in classical symmetries but for Kafka it is infinitesimally small. It is an empty vanishing point and nothing more.

If I could draw diagrams in WordPress, or set up toolbar icons on my own computer program, I’d say picture a pearl that fits perfectly in someone’s hand as our classical icon. Click it to play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Now picture a second icon in which the pearl has become a sphere the size of a planet under the person’s feet, far too large to grasp or hold or even imagine in its entirety, however one might long to do so. That is our Romantic icon. Click to open Wordsworth. Now the sphere disappears and the person is floating in empty space. Click for Kafka.

Rosalind’s (Anti-)Romantic Flourish

While reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I whimsically plotted one of Rosalind’s most brilliant moments into the thematic field (romantic, classical, sentimental, etc.) of my recent blog entries (Dracula, Von Trier’s Melancholia, Darkness and Melancholia).  In the Forest of Arden (Act IV, scene i), Rosalind, disguised as a young man named Ganymede, meets Orlando, who is pining for the real Rosalind. Orlando’s excessive avowals of love might mark him as a Romantic in the schema of my previous blog entries (albeit a Romantic with a sentimental rather than the darker Byronic underpinning), but Rosalind (naturally, since this is a Shakespeare comedy) decides to put him to the test. While Orlando thinks she is Ganymede, she offers to pretend to be Rosalind and engage him in a discourse of love. (On the Elizabethan stage, this means you have a boy actor pretending to be Rosalind, who is pretending to be Ganymede, who is pretending to be Rosalind, piling up layers of human and gender identity as Shakespeare so often does.) So Orlando pitches his love to Rosalind, believing her to be Ganymede. When “Ganymede” theatrically rejects him, he laments: “Then in my own person I die.” Here Rosalind (as Ganymede) beautifully debunks all the patterns of romantic love that make such excessive claims:

“The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year …. Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

Orlando further protests that Rosalind’s very “frown might kill me.” To which “Ganymede” dismissively responds: “It will not kill a fly.”

Between Shakespeare’s mastery of wordplay and the dramatic irony of Orlando’s ignorance that he is speaking to the real Rosalind, the comedy is rollicking in this scene. But there are real value systems being seriously played out against each other. In her speech, Rosalind (Ganymede) represents the cynic, who comically debunks pastoral/romantic love, and who does so with cold hard facts. It is beyond dispute that no young lover, however bold in love, has ever died from a female frown. So Rosalind’s speech seems to win the day. Using the schema of my recent blog entries, we might hypothesize that Shakespeare has deflated romantic nonsense from the point of view of the classical – the Greek cynic or the Roman satirist in this case. But Shakespeare (naturally, since he is Shakespeare) is not done with us. By the end of the play – nay, by the end of the very scene – Rosalind’s factually indisputable speech debunking the excesses of romantic love becomes, itself, nonsense. As soon as Orlando exits the stage (having been sounded and passed the test of love), Rosalind lets loose her true feelings: “How many fathom deep am I in love!”  Orlando may have been comically incapable of refuting in language the solid facts of the cynic, but his love was true; and Rosalind may have put forth the case of the cynic in terms that cannot be disputed, but her heart shows how hollow those words are. Not only is she in love, but she is in love beyond all rational measure. It is a love with “an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal,” a love “born of madness.” It is exactly the kind of unrestrained, limitless romantic love that her theatrical speech had denied.

Let this scene be a reminder to those who emphasize the play’s satirical element, which pokes fun at the conventions of love poetry, that the satirical element is recontained within a larger theme. Rosalind’s beautifully crafted and factually undeniable anti-romantic speech becomes, in Shakespeare’s hand, the perfect vehicle for showing the overwhelming and even more undeniable power of romantic love.

Darkness and Melancholia

Romantic and Existentialist: Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness

I had to expedite this sequel to Von Trier’s Melancholia after a pleasant give-and-take with Paul Adkin in the comment section. There is certainly a romantic lacing to Melancholia, which Paul finds in the soundtrack and which I find in the lyrical beauty of the visual imagery, especially in the early sequences. To me, the romantic elements counterpoint rather than shore up the existentialist elements. The romantic lyricism, however fleeting, leaves an eternal mark of beauty, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, even when the people involved are long gone. The melancholia of the Romantics traces back not to the Blake/Byron line (where I placed Coppola’s Dracula) but to the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which were drenched in a kind of melancholia that I find largely absent in Blake and Byron. But the melancholia of Wordsworth and Coleridge, unlike that of Von Trier and Camus (to use Paul’s reference), comes from the heaviness of too much meaning, an overload of emotional content, not from the anemia of life without meaning and emotional content. As Wordsworth says at the end of the Intimations Ode, “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” That to me is romantic melancholia, and (at least to me) it is fundamentally different from, though perhaps genetically related to, existentialist melancholia.

The darkness of Romanticism, unlike the melancholia, does trace to the Blake/Byron line. It comes from a passion so excessive that it becomes morally dark and dangerous (witness Dracula’s treatment of Lucy in the Coppola film). The darkness of existentialism, on the other hand, is married to the melancholia (at least as Von Trier presents the concept). It’s the empty darkness that is left when all meaning and emotional content are drained. It is the suicidal depression that Camus tries to escape by imagining Sisyphus happy. It’s different from the darkness of an emotional content so overloaded, a passion so excessive, that it becomes wildly destructive in terms of its human toll.

So the melancholia associated with existentialism (at least in Von Trier’s film) may find a historical antecedent in the Wordsworthian branch of Romanticism, and the darkness associated with existentialism may find a historical antecedent in the Blakean/Byronic branch of Romanticism, but both the melancholia and the darkness settle into completely different values in the symbolic economy of existentialism.

Von Trier’s Melancholia

A friend with whom I’ve had long and beautiful talks about romantic versus classical ideals led me into a discussion recently of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which reminded me of a third pole that in my mind is equidistant from the other two: the existentialist pole. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is clearly not classical in sensibility, as there is nothing rational or tranquil about her relationship to the world. But nor does she represent a romantic world view. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for example, represents a romantic world view. Dracula has an all-devouring passion that transgresses all limits – religious, rational, moral – all boundaries shatter before his excessive passion. This is romanticism in its Byronic/Blakean form but with additional attention to the moral dangers that Byron and especially Blake downplayed. The existentialist is in a way the opposite. The world seems drained of meaning, of passion, of emotion, of any kind of authentic sentimental connection to others. Justine’s existentialist mindset (not that she chose this mindset but she expresses it) would find Coppola’s Dracula a bit ridiculous for putting so much frenzied importance on an emotional bond to a woman. Dracula’s attitude implies that there can be enormous meaning in the world, that enormous passion is justified. Justine’s problem is the opposite.

Justine’s foil in Von Trier’s film, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), shows that even our new tripolar model – classical, romantic, existentialist – falls short. Claire indeed represents a value system that stands in primary conflict to Justine’s, but Claire’s world view is neither classical, romantic, nor existentialist; it is a fourth pole, best labeled as the “sentimental world view” – where all human values hover back to the sensible, sentimental, domestic forms of bonding that hold families together.

So Justine and Claire force me into this final sweep on the broad strokes of Western cultural history. If we generally think of the classical ideal as symmetrical, rational, stoical, poised, and the romantic ideal as passionate, excessive, overwrought, suprarational, one can hypothesize a pendulum swing through periods of European cultural history, from classical Greece and Rome to the romantic tendencies of the Medieval era, to the classical Renaissance, romantic Baroque, then neo-classical/Enlightenment, then Romanticism-proper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With 19th-century realism, something changes. The ideal that centers the symbolic economy of great Victorian novels by Dickens and others is neither classical nor romantic but sentimental, and it traces back to an underrepresented moment in cultural history, the “Cult of Sensibility” that emerged in 1760s England and Scotland. The Cult of Sensibility sprouted up alongside Romanticism as a reaction against the rational symmetries of the neoclassical aesthetic. But whereas Romanticism-proper favored excessive passion and a power of imagination that stretched beyond all rational boundaries, the Cult of Sensibility favored the tender emotions that could bond people together in the domesticated bliss of their own little gardens. So although Romantics and Sensibility writers shared a rejection of stoical reason as a touchstone of human values, they produced quite different kinds of heroes. Romanticism would produce powerfully ambiguous heroes from Byron’s own Manfred and Childe Harold to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Coppola’s Dracula (and one might even reclaim Milton’s Satan as Romantic hero, as Blake and Percy Shelley did quite explicitly). Sensibility would produce the tender domestic heroes of 18th-century writers like Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, who were laying the groundwork for the sentimental novels of Dickens and others.

With those four poles, we at least have a more complete heuristic model for cultural analysis. E.g., in Coppola’s Dracula, Mina struggles between romantic (Dracula) and sentimental (Jonathan) options. The symbolic economy of Von Trier’s Melancholia is energized by the conflict between existentialist (Justine) and sentimental (Claire) world views. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shakes the model in its own way, with Victor Frankenstein representing a compound of romantic and classical, evincing not only the excess passion and overwrought idealism of the romantic but also a more classical trust in reason and science as his methodology; Elizabeth in that novel, on the other hand, represents the sentimental ideal of tender domestic emotions (and the arc of the plot would seem to validate Elizabeth’s point of view).

But I believe I’ve exceeded the reasonable limits of the blog entry format, so I’ll end with a simple solicitation. If anyone has read this far without becoming overly resentful, please remind me to write a sequel on the following topic: Romantic and Existentialist — Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness. (Sequel is here.)