A lecture usually begins with the speaker appealing to some form of captatio benevolentiae by apologizing to the audience beforehand for any of the imperfections or mistakes that may slip through his presentation, in spite of having prepared it with great care. I believe this ancient figure of oral discourse is still as valid today as it was in the origins of rhetoric.
These types of gatherings occur every day at different points of the globe. However, the fact that a group of people set aside their obligations and pastimes, take the trouble to come to the place they have been summoned to, and agree to pay attention to what an individual wants to say is still a singular event worthy of reflection. Paying attention to the speaker is in fact an act of great benevolence. Because, as we all know, life is short and in the brief time granted to us by fate we can only fix our attention on a limited number of things. From this perspective, one must admit that devoting it to a lecture carries some obvious risks. One can stop reading a book at any given moment and, if necessary, even throw it against the wall in a gesture of resentment towards the author. In this situation we may have lost the money spent on the book, but not our time. Of course if we did lose any of the latter, it was only up to the moment we decided to recover our attention and find a better purpose for it.
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On the other hand, one may fall into a trap when attending a lecture because here the risk of an irreversible loss of time is much greater. Due to the nature of my work, I have attended many lectures and know that sometimes the speaker acts not only as if the audience has temporarily lent him their attention but as if they have given it to him forever. Moreover, it may seem as though the audience owed him their attention due to some unknown debt and, once it has been paid, he feels that it is his right to treat the audience’s attention as his own property, neglecting it, mistreating it, and sometimes even brutally torturing it. So the benevolent soul that attended the lecture discovers, a bit too late, that his trust has been betrayed and, unless he can pluck up his courage, leave his scruples behind, and abandon the hall, he can only continue to give the sacred gift of his attention to his torturer until the end of the lecture and surrender to being left with neither solitude nor company.
Taking the risk, as you are doing, of being left “with neither solitude nor company” at my hands is an act of benevolence on your part that deserves my most sincere gratitude. Nevertheless, today I need to request an additional supplement of benevolence from you.
Coming here today to speak to you, I must make sure I have brought along the text I will be reading, and I must also be certain that I have not left at home, in a cab or at the airport, the world that accompanies me. By “world” I mean the symbolic and cultural context that shapes the awareness of oneself and is implicit in the texts one produces since it is well known that the same discourse can be interpreted in different ways depending on how diverse the author and the reader’s worlds are. In the current convoluted times there is always a risk of replacing one world with another, that is to say I may have written something with a certain intention which the distinguished audience may however understand in a different way. This is because, although the text is the same, current changes have altered the implicit beliefs that illuminate it and make it intelligible. For this reason, I am obliged to clarify some aspects of my world beforehand and introduce the cultural context in which this text that I present to you needs to be placed.
It is for this reason that I find myself in the position of requesting of you a supplement of benevolence. Not only is paying attention and listening to my text for an hour a favor on your part, but I am aware that forcing you to listen to the context of my discourse is very much to ask.
Two worlds are in dispute in our present time: the decline of a long-standing culture, and the slow gestation of another that will consolidate, if it does so, in the future. The signs of one and another blend together and overlap and it is this semiotic hybridization that leads to the confusing and disparate time in which we live. For greater clarity, I will attempt to point out their differences.
When Hegel spoke of Minerva’s owl taking off at dusk, he used this metaphor to refer to the significant clarity that befalls all organic processes in their final phase of decadence: in the watchful night, in the experience of old age and in the lingering of a civilization when conscience turns on itself, contemplates what it has done, and not only is aware of things but understands them through and through. During those final moments, creative energy diminishes, life is observed with impassive judgment, and the distance between the ideal and reality, between a promise and keeping it, becomes obvious and, as a result, thought tends to become critical, incisive and skeptical.
Throughout the last century our culture has suffered all of the symptoms of clarity that characterizes terminal processes. Ours is a culture dominated by the philosophy of suspicion, the destruction of ontology, deconstruction, criticism of ideologies, archaeologies, etymologies, genealogies, and the transformation of traditional values, as well as proclamations such as the death of God, the death of Man, the end of History, and other such funereal declarations. This is a post-modern, a post-industrial, post-historic, post-colonial, post-metaphysical culture that understands itself as being on the periphery of a center that not only has passed by, but which in addition proved to be false. For this arch-conscious consciousness, everything has been said, everything has been written, and everything has been overcome. Thinking means to have thought, and thought becomes the history of thought.
It is said that lyrical poets write elegies or composes hymns. The end of an era is elegiac, the beginning is hymn-like. If our time is unclear and confusing, it is almost entirely due to the unmistakable hymn-like tones and inflections that can be heard among the unceasing elegies that reverberate in the air; alongside an “already” marked by resignation, stands the hint of a hopeful “not yet”. There is a world that perishes but also one that is born, and when one reflects on the latter, the clarity of “post” and “already” ─a purely academic division─ is of no aid, and on the contrary produces a reverse alchemy effect, like turning gold into coal. We are the prehistoric people of a civilization based on new principles that is now taking shape and making its way through numerous obstacles and difficulties. Even though they have contributed so much to our liberation, now that freedom has been conquered, genealogies, archaeologies, philosophies of suspicion, deconstruction, etc., have become a heavy burden weighing on the primary, elemental, archaic, and strong emotion that establishes the contact between the contemporaneous self and what is essential.
The only method that truly adapted to our object is what our lucid man, with his characteristic esprit de finesse, would today regard with contempt as naïvety. Now an excess of lucidity may also bring an element of risk, paralyzing and transforming everything it touches into a lifeless pillar of salt. On the other hand, naivety is bold and dares to cross, somewhat blindly, the luminous cloud of skepticism, relativism, particularism, and pluralism that surrounds us and confidently stretch its hand out to the objectivity that lies in all things. Since objectivity is the element that everyone shares, naivety opens up the possibility of a universal experience.
Nobody is thinking of burying the previous culture, joining a list of undertakers in a rush to dismiss philosophical tradition and criticism and to invoke naivety as an excuse for ignorance. By no means does this entail longing for a lost golden age. We must create a beginning, not return to one; we should think for ourselves about what lies ahead without being content with subtle genealogies and we must be capable of creating philosophy, not just a history of philosophy. But we must not act as if we were the first man on earth or aspire to some sort of philosophy from “point zero”. On the contrary, modern subjectivity and its world should be used as a starting point: the universal and objective qualities we are able to find should dwell in the realm of the experience of self.
Advocates of lucid thought may in any case frown on the imprudent act of thinking without permission and without having an explicit and detailed dialogue with hermeneutics, phenomenology, analytic philosophy, deconstruction, neopragmatism, theory of communicative action, theory of justice, feminism, psychoanalysis, symbolic anthropology, and postcolonial studies, among other disciplines. The naïvety I propose as a method and an emotion, both being alternatives to clarity, must understand the essential truth that these schools propose, which always relates in one way or the other to the expansion and emancipation of subjectivity.
Nevertheless, once this truth is recognized and acknowledged, naïvety seeks the terms and conditions to return to reality the lost seriousness which has been in retreat over the last centuries of subjectivity’s relentless advance.
As I mentioned before, naïvety is not the same as ignorance. As I understand it, it is neither rash spontaneity nor is it mere voluntarism. The objectivity to which we return is not our first choice, rather we consciously choose it once we have become aware of the infinite depths of the self, drawing a parabola of ironic self-sacrifice. This long return journey is reminiscent of Odysseus’ well-known nostos to Ithaca after many ordeals; the Odysseus who arrives at his hometown is not the same as the one who left. For this reason, I define this basic disposition as learned naïvety, which can only be acquired through an extensive apprenticeship and many adventures.
It seemed important to me to make the world that is implicit in my text clear and explicit to you in order to avoid it being misunderstood. Nevertheless, the moment of switching from process to real things has now arrived and with this context in mind, I plan to present you an outline of my philosophical position from the perspective of political universals.
We no longer believe History is magistra vitae, nor do we believe that the past provides infallible models of conduct. We have abandoned this repetitive and cyclical conception of History in which the past anticipated the future. We have also lost faith in the law of necessary Progress and in the belief that Universal History advances in a straight line heading toward a paradise or utopia which is located in an ideal future. Both conceptions have lost their explicatory value.
Nevertheless, I believe that no-one will question that History continues to generate collective experiences that are neither mere repetitions of past events, nor do they accumulate by following laws of scientific progress. They are experiences concerning, for example, the horrible atrocities civilization has born, and the subsequent established consensus that they not happen again under any circumstances. They may also involve positive convictions that, once accepted and acknowledged on the basis of their own evidence, cannot consequently be denied and must be preserved. It would be interesting to conduct a test by asking each one of you, what are those fundamental collective experiences that took place in Western civilization during the 20th century. I am not referring solely to scientific or philosophical ideas, but rather to something that is more of a concealed element that is contained in the notion of experience. They must also be collective and peculiar to the 20th century.
There are two fundamental collective experiences of the 20th century that stand out on my list: finitude and equality. Both metaphysical finitude and moral equality are based on the same pride that all individuals, as moral and mortal entities, recognize each other. At this moment I will not attempt to justify my choice, as this would lead to a long and protracted lecture, but I would like to add a few explanations.
Nowadays we all repudiate ethnocentrism and, out of due respect towards predominant multiculturalism, we refrain from giving any prominence to Western civilization over others in the world because we naturally see the well established consequences of nihilistic attacks on collective beliefs. Yet we do not always notice that it is precisely this self-criticism of Western civilization’s intellectual foundations, practiced with a radical and ruthless determination that we are all aware of, that represents, in fact, an extraordinary singularity in comparative perspective. Other people go through different stages throughout their development and the advent of a new stage is usually preceded by severe criticism of the last one; this is not just an occurrence in the Western world. But this total disapproval and condemnation of our cultural tradition is exclusively a Western event which results not only in the delegitimization of our inherited conception of the world, but also the delegitimization of its metaphysical and moral foundations. What other societies in the world and in history have driven themselves so fiercely to an eschatological judgment day? Paradoxically, multiculturalism is the single-parent child of discredited Westernization.
While I earlier alluded to the need for objective reality to recover its lost seriousness, we must not attribute to this new objectivity ancient properties that are characteristic of pre-modern metaphysical realism: static, impersonal, and eternal objectivity, like the platonic eidos. If we continue to understand reality as that which resists our volition, as something that does not disappear when our ego orders it to, this resistance now reveals its seriousness, more than by organic and biological facts, but in the symbolic order created by society and in which the ego is installed, limited and shaped from birth. At present we conceive of reality as a social, historic and contingent construction, as a finite entity that exists and could be different, or, more radically, as is and may not be, and, in fact, that some day will cease to be, for not only is its being essentially not-necessary, it is also corruptible and mortal. Consequently, the return to objectivity that I previously proposed as a general program of “learned naïvety” presupposes an introduction to the contingent modality of self, which simply constitutes for us reality as we understand it today.
We need to develop a special sense in order to perceive finitude in its positive, consistent, and (long ignored) truthful aspect. During the long reign of what is known as “onto-theology” the contingent mode of being was eclipsed by the metaphysical hegemony of the Maximum and Supreme Being, whose attributes are eternity, totality and infinity. Nihilism dispossessed that “onto-theology” of its pretensions of necessary validity but at no moment knew how to dignify finitude. In this respect, annihilatio mundi was much shyer and fussier than generally believed. It flexed its muscle in the pars destruens of its philosophy, in the destruction of the bastions that defended the ancient city, but when preparing for the pars construens, it unintentionally erected other bastions very similar to the old ones. Nietzsche, the most lucid among the lucid, emphatically unmasked the Platonic-Jewish lie but ended up imagining “eternal returns” and feverish “supermen” that are completely blind to the finite, contingent and mortal matter that human evolution is made of. When the devil visited a certain Ivan Karamazov and implied to him at a culminating moment of their conversation: “if God does not exist, everything is permitted”, his intention may have been to scandalize, to be provocative or to be subversive, but deep down he was already old-fashioned; the chaste lips of a Victorian lady could have pronounced that diabolical sentence. For this reasoning, coinciding with the old picture of the world, confirms that without the absolute and transcendental “onto-theology” that it is based on, finitude sinks into nothingness and that a culture that is only built on contingency would inevitably succumb to immortality, abomination, and anarchy.
Consequently, the real issue of our time is to deliver finitude from its historic kidnapping and find it an autochthonous and self-referential foundation so as to make an evolving civilization viable on these finite, but nevertheless firm and solid footings.
If we are able to lean down and smell the fragrance that arises from the flower of finitude, the ethical evidence of equality ─the second of the experiences outlined above─ will turn into an inexorable necessity. If everything that exists is equally finite, it follows that it is not morally legitimate to establish hierarchies, ranks and natural levels among people, which is why all forms of aristocratism are now regarded as unjust and, more so, unworthy. All individuals are equally entitled to dignity, compared to which, all other distinctive signs ─origin, culture, religion, ethnic group, personal merit, etc.─ are accidents of personality that do not interfere with the decisive fact of the equality at birth of all humans. This is an axiom that we can no longer contradict without degrading ourselves, although even today there is still no lack of those who resist the historical realization of this egalitarian principle and who try to give substance to their actions in an attempt to maintain anachronistic discriminations.
This great ethical truth carried within it the seed of a radical questioning of the traditional principle of authority that supports the higher hierarchical societal positions of parents, teachers, judges, the military, police, priests, and, in general terms, professionals over workers, adult males over women and children, and Europeans over other peoples. This authoritarian-hierarchical principal had been in force in the world at least since the first waves of Indo-Europeans arrived four millennia earlier and it appeared blessed by the Gods and by age-old customs but cultural and countercultural revolutions in the second half of the 20th century, pushed, knocked down and stamped on this principle, as if it were the statue of a cruel dictator. With this gesture, a new eon was introduced in universal history, the democratic eon.
If this eon does without an ethical and a social aristocracy, it also does without an epistemic one, and thus, facing historic gnoseological elitism, it must supply methods to establish a democratic truth that results from agreements freely entered into by equals after appropriate deliberation. A truth whose legitimacy must be recognized, in spite of its contingent origin, in order for it to achieve the unconditional authority binding to citizens, requiring their active and militant collaboration in creating the finite conditions of civility. One of these conditions entails the peaceful resolution of conflicts, which already has been imposed in all states governed by the rule of law, and is being extended, more as an ideal than a reality, in the international environment. Throughout centuries of cultural aristocratism, private vengeance, coercion and violence were elevated, with few exceptions, to the category of manly virtues worthy of social recognition within a code of honor. We should never stop being amazed at the extraordinary fact that democratic people condemn violence as a principle of social organization and seek to resolve their inevitable conflicts by peaceful means. The repugnance that is currently felt towards violent means and the systemic rejection of such means, indicates a high level of self-awareness of our own dignity.
Therefore, just as “onto-theology” and moral aristocratism formed an indestructible alloy that prevailed throughout centuries so as to resemble Siamese twins, finitude and equality are now forming an alliance that will lead to wonderful consequences. If each one of these two experiences, finitude and equality, are rigorously 20th century originals, their fusion, responding to an intimate and vital necessity, constitutes the most brilliant and courageous idea of our time, on a par with the greatest concepts ever generated by the collective spirit.
What in my opinion detracts from Heidegger and Ortega y Gasset’s solemn announcement of the end of metaphysics is precisely the fact that they perceive clearly the first of the aforementioned two experiences, the criticism of “onto-theology”, but with regard to the ethical-political sphere, they continue to adhere to a cultural aristocratism that fully pertains to the ancient cosmos that they intend to bury. So, in the end, their apparently radical attack on tradition is not fully accomplished and their reflections on the advent of non metaphysical forms of thinking, deprived of the combined experience of equality and finitude, often end up leading to esotericism, mannerisms or nostalgia.
Democracy, understood as the collective attempt of an egalitarian civilization established on finite bases emerged from the embrace between finitude and equality. From this perspective, democracy can be seen as an unprecedented historical experiment being carried out at this very moment by humankind without the aid of previous models to serve as a guide. As a genuine product of a period that has become aware of the contingent nature of all things human, it moves forward tentatively, facing great dangers, knowing that progress is fallible and reversible and the result uncertain.
Tocqueville used to observe that a democratic revolution is being imposed on societies in an uncivilized way because it “has taken place in the body of society, without that concomitant change in the laws, ideas, customs, and manners, which was necessary to render such a revolution beneficial”. He adds that, “we have, then, abandoned whatever advantages the old state of things afforded, without receiving any compensation from our present condition”, therefore, “the very elements of the moral world are indeterminate.” The great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, shares this analysis, when he argues that the new society that, in his opinion, is being born is exposed to the risk of “anomie” because it has become detached from the old morality without an appropriate one coming to replace the emptiness that the first has left in our conscience, or as he beautifully phrases it: “the ancient gods grow old or die, and others are not yet born.” So he states “our first duty at the present time is to fashion a morality for ourselves”.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the hierarchical cosmos of the pre-modern world that assigned functions to all of creation’s beings, from minerals to angelic bodies, according to the eternal order of nature, ceased to represent a an accurate picture of the world for an emerging subjectivity. The self-conscious ego no longer assimilated itself to a social function as easily as it did before and because of this, serious social problems related to subjectivity arose at the dawn of the Romantic Age and, in parallel, educational novels, the Bildungsroman, appeared in an attempt to find solutions to these problems. He who thinks of himself as an end, will resist becoming a means, even a means to the community, its general interest or common good. The self-conscious ego will require good reasons and a broad sentimental education to agree to set aside its individual drives and subordinate its aesthetic-instinctive spontaneity to the higher aims of the republic. For some time, society managed to contain its latent internal centrifugal forces thanks to the two greatest instruments of socialization of the ego used with extraordinary effectiveness throughout the centuries: beliefs and collective customs, specifically religion and patriotism, which quickly, accurately, and with little effort, drive the ego towards civic virtue. In a conservative backlash, common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they desperately tried to join forces to moderate the atomical tendencies caused by an ever-growing subjectivity. But as a consequence of nihilism’s firm and unappealable conviction against collective beliefs and customs, these ended up being banished from the republic, just as Plato expelled poets from his, and the practical result is that ours is a currently a democracy without mores.
In short, the democracy that has been imposed on our institutions and procedures but not on their substance -feelings, customs, conducts, life- is deprived of the two main instruments of socialization of the ego without having developed new equally effective instruments to replace them. Tocqueville and Durkeim foresaw the symptoms of a new civilization that was slowly gestating in the ruins of the previous one and warned us of the dangers that threatened that period of interregnum that opened up between the two. Nevertheless, collective beliefs and customs were still alive in their time carrying out satisfactorily their civilizing mission. Since then, these dangers reached a maximum intensity that neither of them could ever know, due to the effects of nihilism that in spite its origins as a doctrine for intellectuals in their studies, has spread and consolidated socially everywhere as a general condition of our culture.
In view of this, we can already imagine hearing a number of intriguing and open questions: What can this emerging civilization offer so as to retain, refine or sublimate the ego’s aesthetic-instinctive inclinations when religion, patriotism, and old collective beliefs have been abandoned? What civilizes, socializes and makes the ego virtuous in a post-nihilistic and secularized society when one can only turn to a self-referential, intersubjective, and consensus based truth? Is a civilization with pretensions of permanence that, after the death of God, tries to found itself exclusively on finite bases really viable? Taking up the classic metaphysical question that asks itself why being exists and nothingness doesn’t, the modern ego reformulates for itself this still unresolved dilemma in the following terms: For a modern subjectivity, why civilization and not barbarism? What reasons can truly convince the ego for it to accept a certain dose of “urbanity” and take upon itself the limitations and alienation inherent in a civilized shared society and renounce its antisocial drive, maybe barbaric to some, but authentic, spontaneous, and definitely its own?
This last consideration brings us to an interesting phenomenon that is typical of our time, namely vulgarity. By vulgarity, I am referring to a category that attaches cultural value to free demonstrations of the ego’s aesthetic-instinctive spontaneity. Facing an aristocratic perspective that restricts the concept of culture to elaborate, selective, restrained, and highly coded forms of expression of an elite group, the historic originality of vulgarity stems from the externalization of an unrefined, direct, and a non-mediated elemental spontaneity of a non-urbanized ego with the claim that these expressions have exactly the same right to exist and be publicly expressed as the products of high culture, for they both originate from subjectivities that share the same pride.
My next book Public Exemplarity (Ejemplaridad pública), which will be published in Spain in September, attempts to study the deep truth, beauty and justice of the vulgarity that is deeply embedded in our culture and to reclaim respect for it as a genuine product of equality. It has established itself, in its own right, as part of the capital of the political-cultural category of our time and from now on, all civilizing proposals that attempt to be realistic will have take it into account. Therefore all detailed reflections on democracy and its moral obligations must start by placing at their center the vulgarity that, for the moment, egalitarianism has resulted in.
Democracy is a finite entity with touches of infirmitas and impermanence, which greatly depends on the contingent will of its members. It is undeniable that the way in which each citizen chooses to “find his own way”, even though it is a decision that in the end is only incumbent on him, he is conditioning the viability of the democratic project since laws, institutions, procedures and legitimate coercion are not sufficient to guarantee it. Devoid of its traditional instruments of socialization, the democratic city-state can only promote our virtue through civically oriented motivation.
We must seriously question if within the essential option between civilization and barbarism that beats deep in the conscience of each citizen, these limited and intramundane assumptions that are our own and lack the driving force of previous ideologies, will be, by themselves, able to instill a sense of duty and lead the citizen towards a civilized self-control of his desires.
Now that subjectivity has succeeded in freeing us from almost all previous forms of old repressions, it becomes obvious that an extension of the sphere of freedom ─which has reached its historical limits─ is not the same as the correct and virtuous use of that extended sphere of freedom. To live more freely and without coercion is no doubt a good thing, but it does not ensure that the manner in which we exercise that superior freedom is correct as well. Sometimes an unfortunate conceptual slip occurs when we think that because we are more free ─which is necessary for virtue─ we have been endowed with virtue, which is not true because the liberation of the ego does not guarantee emancipation. If we open our eyes we will realize that what has mainly freed this liberated but not emancipated subjectivity has been, in fact, large doses of vulgarity. Nevertheless, vulgarity, made respectable thanks to the egalitarian principle that generates it, can also be understood as a non-civilized form of exercising freedom, another form of barbarism.
In conclusion, a democracy cannot be sustained if it is based on the barbarism of its unemancipated citizens and on incomplete and undeveloped personalities, instinctively self-assured, remote from any sense of duty. A non-repressive civilization founded on the quicksand of its citizens’ vulgarity cannot endure. Since what is in play is the rehearsal of an egalitarian civilization founded on finite bases, democracy uses its legitimacy to formulate an unconditional and binding imperative directed at its citizens: “You need to change your life.”
In our ingenuity we search the beach for marks of metaphysical and ethical objectivity that is peculiar to our democratic culture and with which we can achieve a universality that all genuine cultures need in order to survive and consolidate their existence. But ─and this is important─ we force ourselves to look for them within the limits of modern subjectivity, for it is only within the subject’s experience where we can find something that he considers valid and relevant.
The origin of the problem lies in the notion of subjectivity that has prevailed since Romanticism and in the type of experience of which it is capable. The efforts to obtain release from an anonymous objectivity encouraged, moving from one extreme to another, the birth of a radicalized subjectivity. In other words, from Herder onwards, we have become accustomed to find the subjective aspects of subjectivity in that which is different, special and unusual in each one of us: to be an individual means to be different, original and singular, and to have experience is to experiment with unrepeatable singularity. Our representation of subjectivity borrows from the properties that Kant attributes exclusively to artistic genius: to be above all rules, to be a creator and a self-legislator. Kant’s contribution is clearly seen in Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The individual’s singularity and originality, says the philosopher, is “the salt of the earth”, “the atmosphere of genius”. With beautiful words, he praises the ego’s different characteristics, its richness, variety and plurality and, as a result, looks down on those who follow the despotism of common customs and opinions, for they “have no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation”. He regrets that today, individuals are lost in the crowd, slaves to the common place, to the deep sleep of pre-established beliefs. For him, beliefs and collective customs belonged to the masses, “that collective mediocrity” as he describes them with disdain. When confronted with them, he recommends that the individual practice “eccentricity” of conduct. He says that “the mere example of non conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded, and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained”.
Mill’s work effectively summarizes the position of the aristocratic representation of subjectivity, which reasserted itself as a unique and singular entity, proudly separating itself from the masses’ collective beliefs and customs. Naturally, exemplarity is also excluded since individuality resides in the qualities of the ego that are unrepeatable and exceptional,. To be an individual consists of being different and, in order to achieve this, the ego must rise above that which is indistinct about the masses where all individuals resemble each other, and forge its own distinct personality.
It is also important to point out the difference that exists between, on the one hand, despising vulgarity as a foreign element that is opposed to true subjectivity as reflected in Mill’s aristocratic moral code, and, on the other hand, recognizing that element of vulgar indistinction that exists in the makeup of that subjectivity, and, once this is accepted, aspiring to change it. The alternative to vulgarity should not be a return to an anachronistic aristocratism but its reform within the limits of the egalitarianism that created it. The first step is to experiment with a representation of the subjectivity that, instead of stressing our differences and that which divides us, should, on the contrary, positively take into account the common subjective indistinction we all share and experience as individuals. Democratic egalitarianism and the human dignity that is at its base, shed new light on these matters and help us take that first step.
By virtue of democratic pride, each citizen is granted equal moral autonomy and civic competence to search for happiness and to choose, according to his own criteria, what suits him best in regards to his public and private business. No other citizen may exert influence over other individuals or over the decisions that they make relevant to their lives on the basis of natural talents, social position, merits or superior knowledge. Once the individual has come of age he becomes a citizen with full rights, which is a just decision for we all share the same need to learn what it is like to be mortal and no one can take our place in this enormously personal but universal trance, just as no one holds the key of life. A person’s degree of education or ability does not change the final reality of our common mortal destiny and finite pride in the face of negative experiences and the enigmatic development of life that understands nothing of exclusive minorities, eminent figures or privileges.
Individuality does not pertain to a few lonely and lucid citizens but is a shared, general and normal experience of all people. Each subject, each ordinary ego that is born, works, sets up a home, and dies, fully participates in the intense drama that comes with true individuality in the very “averageness” of the simple man who specializes in toil. In one’s heart one really has to admire the heroic act of acceptance of mortality though in most cases that heroic act is hidden behind ethical normality in the shape of serene day-to-day fulfillment of duty and the lack of mannerisms. In that never-ending conversation known as literary culture, one could say that Montaigne anticipates and provides an answer to Mill and his suggestion of an eccentric ego, when in the final page of his extensive Essays he bequeaths us one of his most profound convictions: “The fairest lives, in my opinion, are those which regularly accommodate themselves to the common and human model, without miracle, without extravagance.”
Those lives that follow “the common and human model, without miracle, without extravagance” that are really all human lives, in one way or another, participate in the same common, general, and objective human experiences, which can be summed up in the universal “live and age”. Nothing obliges me to focus on the rare, eccentric, exclusive or unique aspects of my life story because they are not generalizations and they only concern me. There is an additional aspect of the subjective experience that is linked to its representative and paradigmatic qualities. This aspect is that which I share with other individuals, due to the simple fact that I am one myself and leads to direct communication with the essential human experience, once I have overlooked the accidental elements of my person. Thus, I connect with that which, even though it is my experience, is also an experience of the world’s general objectivity. For too long we have identified subjectivity with that which is strange and rare but, in reality, “living and ageing”, the fundamental aspect of human experience, is common to all, and therefore universal.
Within this modality of experience, we would find a door to universality within the very essence of modern subjectivity.
Life experience is the name that I have given to this type of subjective and personal, but at the same time objective and universal, experience. In our literary tradition this term is usually associated with the literature of knowledge or with a diffuse and normally disillusioned knowledge, transmitted by those who have lived many years or have had many great adventures. On the contrary, the idea I propose is complex, technical, and belongs at the same time to pragmatism and metaphysics and, despite being grounded in experience, is in some way transcendental. For it does not refer to a concrete experience that anyone might have had, nor to the sum of many experiences, but rather to the limits of all experience, limits determined by the very structure of reality. Life experience answers the well-known question posed by Kant, who queries “what can we hope for?”, understanding it to be what every mortal and self-aware subject can reasonably expect from life in general, even before having started to live. It is a notion that establishes the frame and guideline for all possible experience and enunciates the theorem of equilibrium between experience and hope.
The common thread of my research when working on Imitation and Experience (Imitación y experiencia), my first book, was this notion of “life experience”. This book proposed up to three definitions of life experience in three different moments, always in relation to examples and patterns that one encounters in the course of a finite life.
My second book, Achilles in the Gynaeceum, (Aquiles en el gineceo) defines that universal experience as “the apprenticeship of mortality”, and explores the process of subjectivity, which leads to it within the framework of a theory of studies on life’s road. The book starts with the situation so beautifully described in the myth of Achilles’ adolescence. The myth tells that during his youthful years he lived hidden within a gynaeceum among damsels, dressed like them and left in irresponsible idleness to his innocent pastimes with no well-defined personality and no heroic deeds, fleeing from his heroic destiny. He was immortal, but was warned by the oracle that he would die if he fought in the Trojan War. Nevertheless, Achilles, of his own volition, fought in Troy, knowing that he would fall in battle, as he eventually did. In this book I asked myself why did Achilles prefer a short and mortal life instead of living eternally in the gynaeceum, enjoying all the pleasures it had to offer? A careful analysis of the myth revealed that going to Troy meant several things at the same time to Achilles: rising from anonymous obscurity by entering public life, making a living based on his own efforts, serving the Greek community (whose victory he could guarantee thanks to his participation), gaining the title of “the best of the Achaeans”, acquiring a social identity, and last but not least, being Achilles, a man, a supreme human exemplar.
In short, for Achilles, mortality was the price that had to be paid for being an individual. Because, even though it sounds strange, mortality must be chosen and must be an object of self-appropriation, it is not something that is given to us, or can be used without effort and learning. Moreover, it is the work of an entire life, a never-ending task. Our life resembles an educational novel or Bildungsroman of that endless journey from the gynaeceum to the Trojan battlefield. In Achilles’ destiny I saw a condensed version of the common destiny of all individuals that feel immortal in their childhood and tend to deify themselves in adolescence, as if they lived in the gynaeceum and at a certain point in life they decide to go to Troy and participate in the city-state’s productive economy, where everything is interchangeable and replaceable, including one’s own ego. For this reason, the city-state is the great theatre of finitude where the ego develops its double specialization and experiences the radical condition of its own expendability, that is, its contingency and mortality, and, like the Greek hero, it chooses for itself an individual, albeit short, life.
One of the main theories of that essay concludes that this universal experience regarding one’s own mortality, which we called “life experience”, is essentially a political experience.
One can agree with existentialists when they hold that finitude is an attribute that is inseparable from individuality, but not when they suggest that the decision in favor of mortality is an experience of that which is singular and unique of the ego. Heidegger is wrong when he detests “the public sphere”, land of hypocrisy and lack of authenticity, which will consummate, according to the philosopher, the crushing of all the being’s possibilities and when he contrasts it with the private sphere where the most original aspect of the ego will be revealed to it. On the contrary, it is in the public sphere and the normality within the community of the city-state where the subject is offered the total and original possibility of choosing his own mortality. Death may be an intimate or private affair, but mortality, the moral anticipation of death, certainly is not. Within the city-state and the institutions it creates, in the normal experience of working for someone else, in the prior acceptance of the alien nature of what is produced (including children and the most personal creations) and, first and above all, in becoming aware of being totally and absolutely dispensable within this social order until finally being replaced, in all these things, the ego grasps the concept of its own mortality much more efficiently than through the fantasies of a solitary walker.
The political sphere is also the sphere of exemplarity. The individual who goes through the common, normal and shared experience of being mortal in the finite environment of the city-state is an exemplary being: his conduct can be generalized and he sets an example for others.
According to this, being mortal means being a citizen and leaving behind instinctive aestheticism and moral vulgarity. There is something noble in the act of rising above oneself towards total responsibility; in losing one’s aesthetic self to find it later, transformed into acts and deeds; in living in the name of everyone rather than in our own name. The Romantic doctrine of genius has left us blind to the perception of the noble simplicity and the serene greatness of political normalcy. To participate in the city-state and, at the same time, contribute to its public service is extremely difficult, for it requires the ego to renounce its youthful prerogatives and accept for itself the strict, common norms, while observing the behavior patterns adopted by the community. Although disregarded by a culture that has turned artistic genius into a model of individuality, man’s main enterprise consists in earning this political normalcy. This objective not only meets man’s standards but there is no greater or more worthy enterprise for him to pursue, and it is such a vast task that it may require an entire life to achieve it. No one needs instruction in applying the prerogatives of genius. What remains to be done, today and forever, is to educate the eros, which gives wings to the aesthetic ego, and to provide it with a social function within the economy of the city-state.
The ego that progresses through the stages of life and goes from the gynaeceum to Troy, from aesthetic self-possession to ethical alienation, is an emancipated citizen that has reformed his life and traded vulgarity for exemplarity, thus contributing to making the democratic experience viable. Example and exemplarity was the subject of my first book, Imitation and Experience, that first examined these themes from a historical perspective and then established the basis of a general theory. In my third book, Public Exemplarity (Ejemplaridad pública), ─which concludes a trilogy dedicated to experience and gives way to a monograph on hope titled Necessary but Impossible (Necesario pero imposible)─ the outcome of this general theory on exemplarity is applied to the public sphere and to the democratic project of an egalitarian civilization founded on finite bases.
One of the main problems this evolving civilizing process faces is the current absence in our culture of a paideia that includes all the dimensions of our personality. Our culture divides the ego into two spheres: the public and the private. What is permitted is a delegation of power to political institutions to organize subjects that are of general interest and limit, to some extent, subjective rights in order to protect public order and the collective interest. But as a consequence of modern processes of cultural emancipation, the private sphere has not only put its entire faith in the ego, but also considers any sign of bravery or virtue to be a threat to its autonomy. It is characteristic of our era that many systems of public ethics have been proposed ─emancipatory and communicative ethics, theories of justice, etc.─ yet not a prescriptive private ethical system. For it is understood that within the private space, orders and prescriptions do not exist, only freedom, preferences and personal options are applied here. On these terms, democracy cannot convince its members of the obligation to reform as long as the authority of the city-state to assign duties to its citizens is not recognized, and its demands for collaboration are considered illegitimate.
The second problem is the one that was mentioned earlier: following nihilistic criticism, beliefs and collective customs were eliminated, along with the most efficient instruments of socialization of the ego. “Good habits” lead the ego toward virtue with little effort and collectively emancipate citizens. A democracy without mores, such as ours, fragments the population, into a disintegrated plurality of subjectivities, and forces the ego to be civic and virtuous by taking on a long, moral pilgrimage alone.
The third title of the trilogy on experience, Public Exemplarity, presents ethical and metaphysical foundations that should be useful to provide density and content to our civilizing project. It should be one step within that ethical system that Durkheim believed we should create for our new times. First, I should point out that the “public” element in public exemplarity is not exclusive to professional politicians and political parties. On the contrary, I believe any emancipated citizen who has progressed through the many stages of life is a public person, and, for this reason alone, he can rightfully reside in the public space.
A theory of exemplarity for a finite-egalitarian culture must begin by setting that behavior pattern free from the prison of elitism where it has historically resided ─throughout history, exemplarity has been associated with aristocratic, starting with Homeric heroes, who were always princes─ and then prove the possibility of egalitarian exemplarity. Once these principles have been established, the theory must prove exemplarity to be an ideal that, by its very nature, involves all the dimensions of personality, both public and private, because we can only say someone is “exemplary” if he has shown the honesty and righteousness throughout his life that Cicero calls “uniformity in life”. Therefore, an integral paideia needs to be restored that can embrace all the different dimensions of personality at the same time to involve them responsibly in this collective project by conviction and not coercion.
Secondly, I will show how exemplarity’s paideia, thanks to the charisma it exudes, is able to produce societal “good habits” that the democratic republic unmistakably needs in order to integrate the solitary citizen into a community and, only by means of persuasion without coercion, channel his spontaneity into civilized socialization. For Weber, charisma, vibrating with an aura of vital energy, is the innovative element in politics; as it becomes routine, it creates customs. Nevertheless, since the German sociologist thought both charisma and customs belonged to a pre-modern era before world disenchantment, we can infer that for him, current democracy, both rational and legal, was destined to be a desert devoid of customs, trapped in a never-ending monotony. On the other hand, my thesis is that egalitarian exemplarity has innovative and charismatic qualities and is capable of generating a sheaf of good habits, dense enough to retain a fleeing individualism within complex and modern democracies, and reform and transport it to civic virtue once it is convinced that “government bayonets” lack strength to prevent social lawlessness.
Finally, the book also addresses the exemplarity of professional politicians. Of course it does not say that they are exemplary but that they should seek to attain this quality. We see on a daily basis that exemplarity is used as a standard for judging politicians -it is not enough that they abide by the law, something more is required of them- nevertheless, exemplary political behavior has not been seriously studied from this perspective either. Every day it becomes more evident that uniformity in life, and, whether we like it or not, whether we approve or not, rectitude in private life, is an active principle operating in the public sphere which exerts a decisive influence over the generation of trust between citizens and politicians. Trust is inspired, and that inspiration cannot be produced technically, it is born from the charismatic halo surrounding personal exemplarity.
If any doubt remains on this subject, Obama’s recent electoral victory confirms this principle. He is a president who holds two university degrees, who has not written on legal or political subjects but instead has produced, at a very young age, two autobiographies. Throughout his electoral campaign, his powerful speeches have consistently recounted stories of his life marked by their subtly exemplarity. In this post-ideological era, in which citizens trust is inspired less by a coherent political agenda then by a politician’s personality, the politician should be capable of presenting himself as a story and forge through his biography an image of himself as a trustworthy person. From this point of view, the new President has made a wise decision in composing autobiographical texts, because the narrative, especially in the first person, is the most effective rhetorical technique to elevate anecdotes of one’s own life to the paradigmatic category, inspiring and convincing. Nowadays, politics is less a matter of things ─plans, programs, projects─ and more a matter of people in action: less res publica and more dramatis personae.
I know very well, dear friends, that I am at the point of using up, if I haven’t already exhausted, the share of benevolence I borrowed from you at the beginning of this lecture. Now that I find myself at the end of it, I regret not having known how to satisfy Jorge Brioso who, with the full authority that he has over me, recommended that I should use the opportunity provided by my American tour to present the main topics of my three books.
Looking back, I realize I am far from having achieved this goal. We can apply to lectures what Valery said of poetry: more audacity and grace is needed to remove an adjective than to add one. I have removed several but am still not sure that I have left in place, that which is most important. I share Hegel’s particular conception of what is “concrete”. For him, a reality becomes concrete when it is inserted in the system it was created for, and not when it is isolated or detached from its context. I admit I have not even been able to outline my method of thought, and, for this reason, I am afraid the non-systematic arguments I have presented may seem abstract.
And in spite of all this, the opportunity of giving a lecture gives me great personal joy. I will conclude by telling you why.
We are often not fully aware to what extent the laws of orality have, until recently, presided over Western culture. Not just until the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, or until the printing press was invented at the beginning of the Renaissance. On the contrary, recent studies have demonstrated that the common way of transmitting and spreading culture, until at least the 19th century, was by orality. This meshes with the fact that the percentage of the population capable of reading and writing texts has historically been extremely low yet living culture has never been in the hands of a learned minority. Western culture has until recently been predominantly oral, and this has had extraordinary literary and moral consequences.
A direct and immediate communication was established with the public when Homer proclaimed the victories of Greek heroes, or when the historian Herodotus told the memorable story of the Hellenic war against the Persians before an expectant audience gathered in a public square. Orality implies sociability, meaning bewitchment, enchantment, and overflowing grace caused by the muse who has attended the community’s celebration. On the other hand, sociability requires responsibility which requires the poet facing the public to abstain from referring to personal affairs, or making clever and witty remarks that concern only his personal ego. It requires him to raise himself to the level of the generalized ego in order to speak in everyone’s name, with a high moral purpose, to the collective before him. If studied closely, until the time of Romanticism, culture had the characteristic of spellbinding persuasion moved by exemplary purposes while teaching social habits. The emergence of a non-oral literary culture has turned the creator into a writer and the audience into a reader and due to this recent transformation, reading and writing are now solitary vices in which the writer, who is left without a muse, an audience, and responsibility, abandons himself to an orgy of subjective expressiveness, holding forth only to himself.
I believe that the time has come for a public art that once more speaks to themes that are common to individuals; that tells the educational stories that each ego experiences; that points out and reveals the universal politic involved in life experience; that composes hymns to the shared experience of living and ageing, to human mortality and its enigma and drama. What is needed is an art that is not limited, as it has been up to now, by wallowing in pure subjective expressiveness; an art that frequently claims to be transgressing rules, when, in fact, it is mostly exhausted as an artistic inspiration and, because of its repetitiveness, sometimes leads to boredom. Our ears are somewhat tired of so many peripheral stories of subjectivity and exotic experiences. These “stories” never escape from that which is specific to the entity, whereas real poetry, according to Aristotle, is of a higher and more philosophical character because it does not address the entity’s specific elements but the universal elements of the being; not what Alcibiades decides or doesn’t decide to do, but rather to what occurs to man due to the human condition. Thus Aristotle is formulating a theoretical expression for the universal aesthetic which was current with Greek creators for centuries and can be observed in Homer, who only depicts his heroes in paradigmatic scenes and not in insignificant events; in archaic and classical sculpture, which does not represent the subject’s idiosyncratic traits that are considered irrelevant and in the tragic actors of theatre, who hid their faces behind a mask to emphasize the universality of the characters they portrayed. As for myself, I declare myself anxious to admire and honor the inspired poet who is able to find a universal aesthetic with the materials of our vulgar, but at the same time exemplary, world.
I also believe that to some extent we need to restore to our spiritual works the lost enchantment of orality. For me, having spent so many hours in solitude devoted to my literary vice, connecting with this distinguished audience for one hour, directly and without intermediaries, is like summoning a muse in a festive and celebratory mood, and succeed in magically making her materialize amongst us, radiant and beautiful, under an electric rain of emotion.
Thank you for taking part in this epiphany and thank you so much for your benevolence. And now I shall give you back your solitude and also your company.
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