Wednesday, October 3, 2018

INEP #25: BIldung ?%

So a few dozen of you, if you really care, might have asked where your once faithful correspondent has been. The answer is, he's been practicing violin, he's been addicted to duolingo and is trying, in his usual overly ambitious way, to learn four different languages simultaneously, in case he gets bored with any one of them - and has so far progressed enough that he can at least say 'apple' in all four - though as he's writing this he forgets how to say it in two of them; and he's been writing this pod-essay for many weeks he's searched his mind for a podcast format that would bring him and you the best possible results and satisfaction, only to draw the conclusion that he should keep doing this podcast exactly as it is without the slightest possible change, except for the shaggy dog trick that will become clear as the weeks go on.

But mostly, he's been reading, trying to learn the secrets of writers much better than he'll ever be, trying to figure out wh
ere his old fictional podcast, the podcast he was really passionate about making, perhaps mistakenly passionate, went off the rails, and trying to learn from the old masters how to make a coherent narrative and actually read the books he's always pretended he's finished, and occasionally never started.

So in these next few weeks, I particularly want to talk about the two books whose eponymous characters are in the title. One is the most beloved novel in the German language, the other is a Himalaya of world literature. If you're listening to this podcast in particular, I'll take it as a given that you have some experience with those literary Himalayas which bruise your foot when you drop them. You know the type of writer who writes them: Joyce, Proust, Mann, Dostoevsky, Dante, Milton, Melville, Faulkner... You can be bowled over by how brilliant they are, but their writing often feels impossible to love. It gets incredibly dry for a hundred pages at a time, and the act of willing yourself to read the book is itself part of the experience. 

Some artistic works are meant to feel like a struggle. Even the most worshipful Wagnerian can't possibly think that the Ring or Parsifal is filled bar line to bar line with notes that completely need to be there, and I'm sure that everyone who's ever seen 2001 without first taking substances realizes that there are any number of passages that should be quarter their length. Part of what it means to understand these works is to endure them.

But Goethe is an almost unprecedented example of a writer who began his career as almost the exact opposite type of writer and became a hermetic island of meaning as he aged. I have no doubt that for two hundred years, millions of Germans have taken Faust to their hearts like very few works in World Literature. It's documented all throughout the last two centuries that Goethe's Faust is an endless source of poetic wisdom for German speakers, but my German is pretty f-cking horrible, and Goethe's said to be one of those writers who loses nearly everything in translation. When I compare translations - and, oy gevalt, I read three translations of Part I, it's fairly easy to see how some people are taken into thinking that classic from a foreign time and place is terrible when what's really terrible is the translation. The first two translations I read conveyed hardly any flavor at all and I couldn't help but come away thinking what a pompous sage this Goethe is, but the translation of John R. Williams comes truly alive with all the playfulness and nature-painting and vulgarity that Goethe must read with in German yet seldom seems to register in English. With Part II, I read only one version, the one you can find online in PDF by A.S. Kline, and it was something of a bore that only came alive intermittently. Jesus, I'm not going through that experience again so soon of trying to understand Part II properly when getting my head around the spirit of Part I was so hard.

And that's not to say that even in a great translation, Faust is anything but long-winded, and it seems to take half of Part I to merely gain its momentum. A number of pieces of classical music based on Faust are more consistently enthralling than the original source, particularly Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Even in the great parts, there are any number of exhilarating scenes that run too long to sustain fascination all the way through.

But if you want to understand what we're capable of as a species, you have to read Faust. It is the irrational side of Shakespeare: the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest and The Scottish Play and The Merry Wives of Windsor, magnified to epic proportions. It is a work of art that stands right at the precipice between so many different human achievements: it stands in the middle of the transition from the classical to romantic even as it portrays the faultline between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it embodies the tension between rationalism and romanticism, paganism and secularism, between the idea that the world is a quantifiable place to be understood and that there are more things in the heaven and the earth that can ever be dreamt of by even Goethe. 

If Shakespeare set the stage for a quantum leap in human thinking, bringing our consciousness out from superstition into the world of understanding - demonstrating how humans are their most human when they think irrationally, and therefore, that humans should not trust that our instincts are rational - at just the same time that Galileo figured out how to set clocks accurately and charted the true motion of planetary orbits; laying the stage fifty years thereafter for Newton to uncover universal gravitation and Leibniz to invent calculus and Descartes to create a firm boundary philosophy and theology. 

In order for conceptual science to truly advance, the humanities have to advance first. I can't possibly prove an interrelation between the advancement of science and politics and the advancement of arts and humanities. But every time there seems to be a major the scientific revolution, there seems to be a major humanistic revolution a little earlier. To get to Shakespeare, there first had to be Chaucer, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, More, Spencer, Montaigne, Erasmus, Rabelais, even Luther, even Marlowe, even the Bard's near-exact contemporary Cervantes, and we won't even get into the various classical authors from whom Shakespeare borrowed, and you could do just as long a list of great Renaissance artists it takes to create to Michelangelo. 

But just think of the intellectual metamorphosis of classical Athens. It was only three years after Pericles first established Athenian democracy that Aeschylus premiered the Oresteia. When Bismarck said that politics is the art of the possible, I don't know if he realized that his famous quote had a double meaning. The quote doesn't just mean that we have to settle for the next-best solution, it means that by arriving at a better solution, the possibilities of every person affected by the new policy will be beneficially affected, and the possibilities of what we can attain in our lives grow greater. The more people can realize their true potential, the more the achievements just start flowing forth. 

A generation apart from one another were born the three great tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. The Oresteia trilogy in 458 BCE, Oedipus in 429, the Bacchae Tetralogy in 405. Tragedy was a new way of perceiving - a means to express the fleetingness of luck and happiness and security. I have no idea what it was like to be the first Athenian audience to see the Oresteia or Oedipus or The Bacchae, but I think we all know what it's like to read a great book or see a great movie for the first time. When it's over, everything you thought you knew about the world is different, because you are a different person than you were when you began. The best of art draws those thoughts out of you that you had no idea you were thinking. Art is an instinctual process, not an intellectual one. But once we've revealed those instincts, we can translate them into thought. In this case, the thought is that we are helpless against fate. And yet, at the end of the Oresteia, we get the idea that laws can stop the endless cycle of violence and retribution. At the end of Oedipus at Colonnus, Oedipus, lowliest and most degraded of men, is still permitted to die with dignity, perhaps even a state of grace. Once tragedy revealed to us the truth that our lives are the playthings of fate, we can begin to figure out limits to fate's power over us. 

A little younger than Euripides was the historian, Thucydides. If Homer recited history as myth, then Thucydides wrote history as scholarship - nothing trying to convey the vividness of the scene, rather, arrive at the truth of what happened through examining primary sources and political analysis.  

A few years younger than Thucidydes was the great Athenian writer of comedies: Aristophanes. The structure of Greek Tragedy can be put toward a comic purpose, which can point out those things wrong with society, hold out the possibility that we are not at the mercy of the Gods, and that if we try hard enough, if we want it desperately enough, and most importantly, if we are clever enough, then the solution to intractable problems could be fixed. The most famous example of this is probably Lysistrata - the antiwar play in which women refuse to sleep with their husbands until they stop making war. 

Then came the great philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Socrates established a method by which we could arrive at greater certainties through skepticism, Plato applies Socrates method to ask ask what, if anything, we can truly know. Aristotle establishes that some things, in fact, can be known, and begins to turn his philosophic knowledge toward hard science of virtually all types; a turn continued after his death by Theophrastus. But one of Aristotle's students is Alexander the Great, who turns all of Greece into an Empire - and there ends the Athenian Golden Age. But from this Golden Age we have the birth of drama, of philosophy, of history, and of science. All of them existed before Classical Athenian Democracy, but none of them existed in any manner that we'd find particularly recognizable. 

Once we have Athens, it was only a matter of time before the conceptual knowledge of Athens is converted to harder knowledge. A hundred years later, Euclid figured out geometry and factors and prime and perfect numbers. Once mathematics is properly established, so then can hard science. A hundred years after Euclid, Archimedes figures out Pi and from Pi makes a screw. A generation later, Eratosthenes figures out prime numbers, correctly measures the circumference of the Earth and makes the Earth's first map. A generation after him, Hipparchus figures out trigonometry and the orbit of the moon and how to predict equinoxes.   

This is what it means to have broad humanistic knowledge. Once you better understand the hard hard lessons of politics, you can more freely express yourself, and you begin to better understand the meaning of how valuable that is when you better understand the arts. Once you better understand the hard lessons of the arts, you begin to better understand history. Once you better understand the hard lessons of history, you begin to better understand philosophy. Once you better understand the hard lessons of philosophy, you begin to better understand math. Once you better understand the hard lessons of math, you begin to better understand science. Once you better understand the hard lessons of science, you begin to better understand technology. And the development of technology is clearly what makes whole new conceptions of politics necessary. 

But Goethe represents perhaps a third quantum leap, or at least the prelude to one: completely reversed in its nature from Shakespeare's. Shakespeare seemed as though he wanted to map human psychology with all our various thoughts and motivations, but the Bard had to begin from a still quite Medieval world which valued Man as a just an small part of God's essence that God can always reclaim at his leisure. Few people thought human beings important enough to understand, so Shakespeare had to make the Human and Real into something magical. Even in Shakespeare's most rational, human plays, intimations the supernatural are always lurking and threatening vengeance: whether it's Hamlet's father, or the storm in King Lear, or even in comedies where you think the supernatural has no place - like the miraculous survival of both twins, Viola and Sebastien, from a shipwreck from which there seem to be no other survivors

You could say that Shakespeare wants to map human rationality, and show that it is in fact irrational. But in Faust, Goethe clearly wants to map the irrational, rationally. Perhaps like William Blake, Goethe wanted to deposit this newly minted, supposedly rational man of the Enlightenment back into the world of spirits and demons, and record the findings with almost scientific precision. Goethe wanted to create a portrait of the Devil himself, but not as Milton did - an epic incarnation of evil in a cinematic world of angels and demons at war. Rather, Goethe wrote the devil as a world-weary clown, a career bureaucrat who is somewhat incompetent at his job, with anthropomorphically human motivations; perhaps like a minor Greek god. This devil seems exhausted by the knowledge that the world is beginning to no longer believe in him, and plays bandmaster to a series of demonic parties with spirits who are clearly comic archetypes of the human unconscious rather than untamed apparitions of psychological terror. This is probably the seminal work in which all those thoughts which once terrified the human imagination get to strut about as something cartoonish, playful, almost harmless.

At first hearing, this poetic drama might still seem as boring as its reputation, but consider two things. 

The first is that Faust Part I was published in 1808, the era when hundreds of years of religious dogma, perhaps thousands, is finally overthrown and Western humanity was, for the first time ever, allowed some semblance of a truly secular life; with some people, not even necessarily the rich, free to ignore the diktats of the Church. Faust is so full of characters that it's clearly not meant to be acted on the stage; but rather, a dramatic poem either read quietly by one's self, or read in a group of friends or family. There were lots of English romantics like Byron and Shelley and  Imagine, for the first time that wasn't on a Shrove Tuesday, being able to act out Faust's explosion of demonic characters among your friends, saying all manner of crudely devilish things free from censure or approbation, and realizing that demons are not necessarily things to be feared but may well be cartoon characters of the human past. 

Once God and the Devil no longer had a stranglehold on the human imagination, we humans were much more free to look inward to indulge in our fancies and perceive how our imaginations work, and from that liberated inward gaze we got the real second quantum leap: realist fiction, non-realist painting, absolute music ... and let's not forget, industrial capitalism and liberal democracy.

 Or imagine enacting a protagonist in our minds like Faust, as we all do when we read good books, a character who gives voice to the same existential doubts that plague any thinking person about the efficacy of the supposed good we do, wondering even if good is good and evil is evil, and yet struggling mightily even so to evolve into better versions of ourselves, and willing to risk everything, even our souls, to do it. Art, maybe literature particularly, gives voice to the voices within us we didn't even realize were there, and the first time people read Faust's phenomenal doubts on a page, most readers must have realized that something like this was what they've always thought and felt without even realizing that they did.

But this rendering doesn't quite speak to why reading Faust, why reading Goethe, would still be valuable today. Depending on how the volumes are divided, Goethe wrote somewhere between 80 and 143 books, so it's not like I can give any kind of comprehensive overview of his work or define it in any truly meaningful way. But I can certainly contrast his two most famous works. One that legendary and thin-aired Himalaya of World Literature - and, for those who don't already know, World Literature is a term Goethe invented. The other is Germany's most beloved novel, a book whose reputation he could never live down because everyone wanted him to write another Werther, but Goethe, like Faust, and as genius must, was always evolving, always searching for new avenues of interest and expression to add to his storehouse of knowledge and reevaluate his wisdom. More than any proper philosopher, he was perhaps the truest thinker the modern world ever had; the reason being that he was unencumbered by any system at all, and rather left his philosophical theories messy - half empirical, half Cartesian, and a third half metaphysical, never quite making consistent sense with itself, and rather than fit them into neat proscriptions of any straightforward theory, he continually hedged his bets, never settling on any fixed truth as any one who values the truth ultimately must. He didn't just write novels and epic plays and philosophy, but travel writing, autobiography, and whole reams of poetry which many Germans have committed to memory. To me, this endless intellectual shapeshifting, this aimless following of wherever the mind takes you; not the creation of some quantifiable system of thought that seeks or purports to explain everything, is what it means to truly think.

And it's this Goethe which we, particularly in America, have so little knowledge of, yet require so badly. Goethe means so little to the American mind, to the 21st century mind, because everything about his ethos is so far away from our zeitgeist. Harold Bloom, not always the most insightful critic, does have a good line about Goethe, which is that the wisdom of Goethe seems to come from another solar system than ours. What seems to matter in this distant solar system is just a pleasant, calm life of contemplation in which we all strive to take as much interest in all the world's manifestations as we can, its people, its nature, its laws both jurisdictional and scientific, and even its potential metaphysical secrets; and in doing so, we cultivate an inner life rather than try to announce ourselves to the world in any outward manifestation; we never stop evolving into better and greater versions of the people we already are and the people we have yet to be, we never cling too particularly to our previous assumptions and what we assumed about ourselves and the world in one year is not necessarily what we assume the next; but this above all else - to perceive the world in all its roundness. Instead of the small, flattened, perhaps even quantified and technocratic, concepts we have of our world in which code is binary and A is only A, in which we all cling to the beliefs we already have; to, rather, always be on the lookout for the interconnections between all things rather than isolated within the same assumptions about what the world is that we live and die with. And by doing all this, the head and the heart can live in greater serenity and harmony than would ever be possible without embracing the constant metamorphosis that happens to us anyway whether or not we fight to keep ourselves the same.

This process has a word in German; everything has a word in German, but this is a particularly important word that we have no equivalent to in English - Bildung. We in America have devoted so much time and passion to the extension of freedom, even if every American seems to disagree violently on what it means to be free; yet how many Americans have ever given much thought about what all our freedoms are for? Once we've achieved all the freedom we could ever possibly want, whatever would we do with it? 

I don't think I need to give a long discourse about how the need for Bildung is related to American life, most people listening to this podcast probably live an American life and know what it entails, and the non-Americans might see what's wrong with America from the outside even more acutely than we do. Whether or not one agrees that Bildung is something contemporary Americans direly need more of, I think everybody understands why someone who would make podcasts about the gradual accumulation of knowledge and wisdom would see America as needing much more of exactly that.

But I will say two further things about Bildung. Bildung obviously had a huge problem. Those German speakers who devoted their life to this self-cultivation could cast huge shade of disapprobation on those who did not, or could not, be free to pursue the same cultivation as they, and in that lay the intellectual seeds of how Germany destroyed Old Europe. Obviously it generally wasn't the exquisitely well-read and refined bourgeois gentry who perpetrated Germany's worst crimes, but they did often look on Germany's crimes against humanity with indifference, and sometimes even approval.

We in Contemporary America are not Nazi Germany, and no matter what the Trump Administration may still be hiding in store for us, we will never be anything even remotely resembling Nazi Germany. We are America, and these days, that's problem enough. People, including me, who constantly fret that we're about expire from authoritarianism are probably still looking at the 21st century through the eyes of the 20th. We have more than enough existential crises right now without looking at them through the prism of existential crises of the past. At this point I really doubt this is the End of America or what's sometimes called the Pax Americana, though it could very well be the beginning of the end, because a lot of ends are not sudden but extremely gradual. We are already failing existential tests of the 21st century with flying colors: ecological catastrophe, mass extinction, nuclear proliferation, bioterror, excessive company profits and growth, often through the corporate data harvest of our personal information, and using that personal information to create fake news to keep us credulous about what they want us to believe. 

Every hard scientist and political scientist seems to have solutions to all this played out in theory, but no leader, not even an advisor to a leader, has the imagination yet to know how to enact creative solutions. Solving these problems, not just in conception but also in execution, can only be derived from vast humanistic training in which some of the interconnected metaphysical outlook of past civilizations are recaptured. Just because past societies fell does not mean their achievements have nothing to offer us, and at the moment, we in the West look like we may become a society of the past just like them, so we need all the help we can get.

We have so much quantitative knowledge that no one person can possess even a percentage point of it, but the more comparative study there is between all of these fields, the more each field can become better understood, and the more each field can yield pragmatic use. We are a society so dynamic, which grew so quickly, so noisily, so effectively, that our American dynamism may destroy the planet. Our quantitative progress, not our moral progress but our progress in technological breakthroughs, desperately needs to slow down so we can understand what we've created and implement it more wisely. 

Some thinkers literally, and mistakenly, call this dynamism 'Faustian.' When Oswald Spengler used the term 'Faustian society,' he meant European/American society, which was a relatively polite way of saying 'white society,' which he perceived as being in terminal decline. By 'Faustian' he meant that we live in a society that believes in the constant accumulation of progress. But this is such a horribly warped interpretation of Faust, that it would roll Goethe over in his grave for reasons both literary and moral. There is no linear progress to Faust's attainment of greater experience. The character Faust circumambulates organically as we all do, abruptly ending one segment of his experience to begin another, resuming a thread later that he had not picked up for long before - an endless process of abandonment and return that is how we all have to live our lives even if we try to will it differently.

But this process of abandonment and return is already implicit in how we relate to the technology in our houses and workplaces. Today, science and technology evolves so quickly that we seem to be unable to know what's true from year to year. A food that was always good for us is declared bad for us, and a year later it's already been declared good again and bad again. We hear that Pluto is no longer a planet but a dwarf planet, one of five in our solar system. Just yesterday, you might have read that Pluto is quite likely to regain its planetary status. So what happens to the other dwarf planets? Are they less deserving? Does this now mean that there are 13 planets that orbit our sun and not 9?

You can all make your own long list of these uncertainties, you don't need me to curate one for you, even if these examples I give are obviously not very good. The point is that in the many, many uncertainties we face in every facet of our lives, we cling to anything which gives our lives order. And since everything about the world is constantly changing, the easiest way to give order to the world is to define ourselves in the most immovable ways. It was always like this in human history, but today, when there are so much more knowledge about the world and so much less certainty about what it contains, there's much less reason for us to be so set in our ways.  

It is much easier for ourselves to think of ourselves as men or women, white or black, straight or gay, upper or middle or lower class, than it is to think of all the various ways, both beneficial and detrimental, which we have been influenced by men and women, whiteness and blackness, straightness and gayness, all manners of classes. Our commonality with each other is that we've all been influenced by all these various ideas of sex and race and class and so much else besides. But each of us is influenced by them in a completely different way. That is our uniqueness, and it's much more comfortable as though we're a part of a larger whole than it is to realize all those ways in which we're different. 

Because when we really take account of the balance sheet, wherever we lie on the political spectrum, we will discover all manner of things about ourselves that we will find deeply unpleasant, and strike at the heart of our deepest beliefs of who we are. When it comes to the interrelation between people, many of us think we want to break down barriers. But within each person is a chorus of different people, each of whom dominates ourselves at various points of every day. When it comes to the hundreds of thousands of ideas with which we're acquainted over the course of a lifetime, many of which we all find severely disturbing, we're as fixed in our ways as the earth in a geocentric universe - suppressing that which we find disturbing with denial when it comes from our own minds, and rage when it comes from the minds of others. It's a thin band-aid of secularism put on top of a gaping wound that is the religious psyche.

 I have no doubt that with the ability to be openly of an alternate sexual identity, or finally feel pride in one's racial minority status, a person can feel an enormous sense of liberation by being able to proudly express one's identity. There are no words for how necessary this development is in the spread and pursuit of human satisfaction. But the idea that a person's racial identity, or for that matter, their income identity, defined them for their entire lives, is an idea that was on the fringes of Western discourse, both left and right, just twenty years ago! But the speed at which the internet passes overly simplistic ideas and solutions is breathtaking, it's like authoritarian state propaganda of the 1930's, entirely generated by the followers rather than the leaders, with the result that people who never used to give politics a second moment's thought are now convinced that every political difficulty is an emergency too important to ever ignore, and to ignore them or to have anything but the most extreme opinion, is contributing to the perpetration of humanity's worst crimes. But an era when one can take enormous pride in a progressive identity is also an era when one can take pride just as enormous in a conservative, even reactionary, identity. Whatever our sexualities or racial compositions, we deserve to be accepted and loved for them. But the more we allow the lion's share of our time to be focused on the liberation of our identities rather than the liberation of our personalities, the more we risk losing the ability to liberate either. We've come too far to risk losing it all. Even if there is still so much further politically to go, by risking going further too quickly, we clearly risk losing it. The vast majority of the time most of us in 2018 use to pursue political goals is time wasted, better spent on the cultivation of the inner life - finding and spending time with those people whose company and love makes us happy, while finding those books and music and movies and physical activities and contemplative states and food that give us the most pleasure, so we can evolve into our best possible lives. 

And if you go back more than two-hundred years, it is because of this potential chaos of loss; all the pursuits of happiness which democracy aspires to guarantee for its subjects disappearing in an ocean of blood, that Goethe was, in every meaningful sense, an anti-democrat, perhaps even an anti-republican. He seemed to believe in what Isaiah Berlin termed The Temple of Sarastro - Berlin taking his title for this phenomenon from Mozart's Magic Flute, an opera which was a great influence on Goethe too. Here's a nearly fifteen-minute long quote in which Berlin describes this phenomenon in detail from his legendary essay: Two Concepts of Liberty, along with eloquently setting the intellectual milieu of how precisely thinkers like Goethe who believed in freedom came to the belief that the greatest possible liberty results from surrendering one's autonomy to an authority figure. 
..Freedom is self-mastery, the elimination of obstacles to my will, whatever these obstacles may be - the resistance of nature, of my ungoverned passions, of irrational institutions, of the opposing wills or behaviour of others. Nature I can, at least in principle, always mould by technical means, and shape to my will. But how am I to treat recalcitrant human beings? I must, if I can, impose my will on them too, 'mould' them to my pattern, cast parts for them in my play. But will this not mean that I alone am free, while they are slaves? 
They will be so if my plan has nothing to do with their wishes or values, only with my own. But if my plan is fully rational, it will allow for the full development of their 'true' natures, the realisation of their capacities for rational decisions, for 'making the best of themselves' - as a part of the realisation of my own 'true' self.
All true solutions to all genuine problems must be compatible: more than this, they must fit into a single whole; for this is what is meant by calling them all rational and the universe harmonious. Each man has his specific character, abilities, aspirations, ends. If I grasp both what these ends and natures are, and how they all relate to one another, I can, at least in principle, if I have the knowledge and the strength, satisfy them all, so long as the nature and the purposes in question are rational. Rationality is knowing things and people for what they are: I must not use stones to make violins, nor try to make born violin-players play flutes. If the universe is governed by reason, then there will be no need for coercion; a correctly planned life for all will coincide with full freedom - the freedom of rational self-direction - for all. This will be so if, and only if, the plan is the true plan - the one unique pattern which alone fulfills the claims of reason.

Its laws will be the rules which reason prescribes: they will only seem irksome to those whose reason is dormant, who do not understand the true 'needs' of their own 'real' selves. So long as each player recognises and plays the part set him by reason - the faculty that understands his true nature and discerns his true ends -there can be no conflict. Each man will be a liberated, self-directed actor in the cosmic drama.

The common assumption of these thinkers (and of many a schoolman before them and
Jacobin and Communist after them) is that the rational ends of our 'true' natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however violently our poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong. To force empirical selves into the right pattern is no tyranny, but liberation. Rousseau tells me that if I freely surrender all the parts of my life to society, I create an entity which, because it has been built by an equality of sacrifice of all its members, cannot wish to hurt any one of them; in sucha society, we are informed, it can be in nobody's interest to damage anyone else. 'In giving myself to all, I give myself to none',and get back as much as I lose, with enough new force to preserve my new gains. 
Kant tells us that when 'the individual has entirely abandoned his wild, lawless freedom, to find it again, unimpaired, in a state of dependence according to law', that alone is true freedom, 'for this dependence is the work of my own will acting as a lawgiver'.Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it. This is the thought and language of all the declarations of the rights of man in the eighteenth century, and of all those who look upon society as a design constructed according to the rational laws of the wise lawgiver, or of nature, or of history, or of the Supreme Being. Bentham, almost alone, doggedly went on repeating that the business of laws was not to liberate but to restrain: every law is an infraction of liberty - even if such infraction leads to an increase of the sum of liberty.

If the underlying assumptions had been correct - if the method of solving social problems resembled the way in which solutions to the problems of the natural sciences are found, and if reason were what rationalists said that it was - all this would perhaps follow. In the ideal case, liberty coincides with law: autonomy with authority. A law which forbids me to do what I could not, as a sane being, conceivably wish to do is not a restraint of my freedom. In the ideal society, composed of wholly responsible beings, rules, because I should scarcely be conscious of them, would gradually wither away. Only one social movement was bold enough to render this assumption quite explicit and accept its consequences -that of the Anarchists. But all forms of liberalism founded on a rationalist metaphysics are less or more watered-down versions of this creed. 
In due course, the thinkers who bent their energies to the solution of the problem on these lines came to be faced with the question of how in practice men were to be made rational in this way. Clearly they must be educated. For the uneducated are irrational, heteronomous, and need to be coerced, if only to make life tolerable for the rational if they are to live in the same society and not be compelled to withdraw to a desert or some Olympian height. But the uneducated cannot be expected to understand or co-operate with the purposes of their educators. Education, says Fichte, must inevitably work in such a way that 'you will later recognise the reasons for what I am doing now'. Children cannot be expected to understand why they are compelled to go to school, nor the ignorant - that is, for the moment, the majority of mankind - why they are made to obey the laws that will presently make them rational. 'Compulsion is also a kind of education.’ You learn the great virtue of obedience to superior persons. If you cannot understand your own interests as a rational being, I cannot be expected to consult you, or abide by your wishes, in the course of making you rational. I must, in the end, force you to be protected against smallpox, even though you may not wish it. Even Mill is prepared to say that I may forcibly prevent a man from crossing a bridge if there is not time to warn him that it is about to collapse, for I know, or am justified in assuming, that he cannot wish to fall into the water. Fichte knows what the uneducated German of his time wishes to be or do better than he can possibly know this for himself. The sage knows you better than you know yourself, for you are the victim of your passions, a slave living a heteronomous life, purblind, unable to understand your true goals. You want to be a human being. It is the aim of the State to satisfy your wish. 'Compulsion is justified by education for future insight.’ The reason within me, if it is to triumph, must eliminate and suppress my 'lower' instincts, my passions and desires, which render me a slave; similarly (the fatal transition from individual to social concepts is almost imperceptible) the higher elements in society - the better educated, the more rational, those who'possess the highest insight of their time and people’ - may exercise compulsion to rationalise the irrational section of society. For - so Hegel, Bradley, Bosanquet have often assured us - by obeying the rational man we obey ourselves: not indeed as we are, sunk in our | ignorance and our passions, weak creatures afflicted by diseases that need a healer, wards who require a guardian, but as we could be if we were rational; as we could be even now, if only we would listen to the rational element which is, ex hypothesi, within every human being who deserves the name.

But I may reject such democratic optimism, and turning away from the ideologicaldeterminism of the Hegelians towards some more voluntanst philosophy, conceive the idea of imposing on my society - for its own betterment - a plan of my own, which in my rational wisdom I have elaborated; and which, unless I act on my own, perhaps against the permanent wishes of the vast majority of my fellow citizens, may never come to fruition at all. Or, abandoning the concept of reason altogether, I may conceive myself as an inspired artist, who moulds men into patterns in the light of his unique vision, as painters combine colours or composers sounds; humanity is the raw material upon which I impose my creative will; even though men suffer and die in the process, theyare lifted by it to a height to which they could never have risen without my coercive - but creative - violation of their lives. This is the argument used by every dictator, inquisitor and bully who seeks some moral, or even aesthetic, justification for his conduct. I must do for men (or with them) what they cannot do for themselves, and I cannot ask their permission or consent, because they are in no condition to know what is best for them; indeed, what they will permit and accept may mean a life of contemptible mediocrity, or perhaps even their ruin and suicide.

What can have led to so strange a reversal - the transformation of Kant's severe individualism into something close to a pure totalitarian doctrine on the part of thinkers some of whom claimed to be his disciples? This question is not of merely historical interest, for not a few contemporary liberals have gone through the same peculiar evolution. It is true that Kant insisted, following Rousseau, that a capacity for rational self-direction belonged to all men; that there could be no experts in moral matters, since morality was a matter not of specialised knowledge (as the Utilitarians and philosophes had maintained), but of the correct use of a universal human faculty; and consequently that what made men free was not acting in certain self-improving ways, which they could be coerced to do, but knowing why they ought to do so, which nobody could do for, or on behalf of, anyone else. But even Kant, when he came to deal with political issues, conceded that no law, provided that it was such that I should, if I were asked, approve it as a rational being, could possibly deprive me of any portion of my rational freedom.

With this the door was opened wide to the rule of experts. I cannot consult all men about all enactments all the time. The government cannot be a continuous plebiscite. Moreover, some men are not as well attuned to the voice of their own reason as others: some seem singularly deaf. If I am a legislator or a ruler, I must assume that if the law I impose is rational (and I can consult only my own reason) it will automatically be approved by all the members of my society so far as they are rational beings. For if they disapprove, they must, pro tanto, be irrational; then they will need to be repressed by reason: whether their own or mine cannot matter, for the pronouncements of reason must be the same in all minds. I issue my orders and, if you resist, take it upon myself to repress the irrational element in you which opposes reason. My task would be easier if you repressed it in yourself; I try to educate you to do so. But I am responsible for public welfare, I cannot wait until all men are wholly rational. Kant may protest that the essence of the subject's freedom is that he, and he alone, has given himself the order to obey.
But this is a counsel of perfection. If you fail to discipline yourself, I must do so for you; and you cannot complain of lack of freedom, for the fact that Kant's rational judge has sent you to prison is evidence that you have not listened to your own inner reason, that, like a child, a savage, an idiot, you are not ripe for self-direction, or permanently incapable of it. 
If this leads to despotism, albeit by the best or the wisest - to Sarastro's temple in The Magic Flute - but still despotism, which turns out to be identical with freedom, can it be that there is something amiss in the premises of the argument? That the basic assumptions are themselves somewhere at fault? Let me state them once more: first, that all men have one true purpose, and one only, that of rational self-direction; second, that the ends of all rational beings must of necessity fit into a single universal, harmonious pattern, which some men may be able to discern more clearly than others; third, that all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the clash of reason with the irrational or the insufficiently rational - the immature and undeveloped elements in life, whether individual or communal - and that such clashes are, in principle, avoidable, and for wholly rational beings impossible; finally, that when all men have been made rational, they will obey the rational laws of their own natures, which are one and the same in them all, and so be at once wholly law-abiding and wholly free. Can it be that Socrates and the creators of the central Western tradition in ethics and politics who followed him have been mistaken, for more than two millennia, that virtue is not knowledge, nor freedom identical with either? That despite the fact that it rules the lives of more men than ever before in its long history, not one of the basic assumptions of this famous view is demonstrable, or, perhaps, even true?

Berlin is absolutely correct that the surrender of one's autonomous will to an authority figure is a ruse that can't help but eventually corrupt the prosperity of both ruled and ruler. But what if, for a long period of history, it's the best we can do? From the fall of the Roman Republic to the rise of the United States and the United Kingdom's liberal monarchy, it seemed that enlightened autocracy was the best we could ever hope for. A long era, sooner than we know, may approach us when it's the best we can hope for yet again. 

And what if, and fortunately it's still very much an if, the same inevitable corruption and erosion of values is as true for liberal democracy as it is for authoritarian states? For two-thousand years, democracy was largely thought a mirage in which liberal rule of law was impossible. The success of America and the Pax Americana seemed to have let us write that notion off as one of the most self-sabotaging beliefs of human history. But the circumstances of recent world history seem so familiar. Powerful conservatives who tighten their grip on society because of a mixture of greed, fanaticism, and the fear which isolation at the top of the income pyramid brings, until their restrictions drive either the radicals under them insane, which is what caused the French Revolution, or drive the elites themselves insane, which is what brought us World War I, or some disastrous chaos intermingling the two insanities which is how Northern Europe got the chaos of the Thirty Years War and China the chaos of the transition between the Ming to Qing dynasties. 

Self-determination is inevitably a chaotic process. For self-determination to work, there have to be an enormous series of failsafes in order to make it work, and for better or worse, the only way to make such a 'non-regime-regime' guarantee liberty for its citizens is an enormous, impersonal, intrusive government, a thousand times larger and more complex than the will of any one actor with a will to power that may corrupt it - and that's more true now than ever before. In the 20th century, the unrestricted growth of government was clearly an enormous problem. In the face of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, and a hundred other dictators, we have to forgive our parents and grandparents if they heard Ronald Reagan say that government is the problem, and immediately thought of all the mass murderers who used the apparatus of government to kill, torture, spy, and banish. But paradoxically, what prevented an American figure like Hitler from rising to power, a Huey Long, a Charles Lindbergh, a little later, a Douglas MacArthur, is not that American government was small enough to prevent an authoritarian ruler, but was large enough to prevent an authoritarian ruler. In the economic chaos of the 1930s, it was a given that government would expand everywhere in the world. If America had tried to contract the power of government during The Great Depression, the public would have demanded that governmental power would grow exponentially larger until a leader came along with the power and control to feed their families. Tens of millions in every major country needed jobs, they needed welfare checks, they needed shelter and security. If a fairly beneficent liberal leader like Roosevelt did not provide them, an authoritarian leader like Huey Long would have who would demand complete fealty as his price. 

But this is not the 20th century anymore. Presidents like Reagan wanted to shrink government, they couldn't do it, only managed to marginally slow the rate of its growth. But meanwhile, as governments were growing arithmetically, corporations were growing geometrically. We are living in a time when defeated lawmakers go back and forth from public office into the private sector where they use their contacts to lobby the government to be friendlier to business, a time in which the most talented young staffers of legislators are expected to work a decade in the private sector to make millions of dollars before they return to public life, ready to take government appointments at the highest levels of the executive branch, where they have vested interests in keeping the door between politics and big business as open as possible so that they can continue to be remunerated and not be punished legally or humiliated in the press for the seemingly legal but clearly corrupt way they made their money, should the door between business and government ever begin to close. 

In January 2017, the Democracy Unit of the Economist Intelligence Unit, or the EIU, demoted its rating of American democracy from 'full democracy' to 'flawed democracy.' Less democratic than South Korea, which was a dictatorship just a quarter-century ago, and on par with Italy, who, since World War II, elected seven Prime Ministers who lasted less than a year, and another eleven prime ministers who lasted less than two years. That's eighteen Prime Ministers whose governments couldn't even last two years without collapsing! Since The Great Recession, Italy's unemployment rate has hovered around 18 percent. It is beset on the right by big businesses who refuse to be held accountable, and on the left by trade unions who refuse to grant concessions. There are 5 million foreign nationals living in Italy, roughly 8% of the population, and whether or not letting them in is morally the right thing to do, Italy is too close to Northern Africa to ever be able to patrol its borders properly, and it's resulted in breathtaking xenophobia. Polls show that 51% of the country is in favor of leaving the European Union, and only 46% in favor of remaining. As we spoke about a few months ago, the Italian government has been lead since May been a coalition of the Far Right party, Lega, and the Far Left parties, the Five Star Coalition. Both share the goal of dismantling government as Italians have ever known it, and are yet locked in total opposition, and no doubt eventually in total enmity over the kind of political system which they want Italy's dysfunctional liberal democracy to be replaced. This is the country whose democracy works as well as ours currently does. 

It is the iron triangular tension between government and business and community organizations, the public sector, the private sector, and the social sector, which creates a prosperous society, but even if business and community organizations must be power enough to do battle the power of government, government must be large enough to win those battles the vast majority of the time, or else these two other forces will subsume society with their desire to acclimate rights for their interests at the expense of allowing its society to prosper as a whole, and nothing at all can get done. The purpose of business is to provide for the businessmen, the purpose of community organizations is to assist in providing for everyone not prosperous enough to own their own businesses, but next to law enforcement and national defense, the most basic purpose of a government is probably to be an impartial arbiter in disputes between businesses and their workers and customers, and to guarantee that the community at large - the employees and the customers - are treated fairly by those businessmen upon whom they can't help but be dependent. America has gotten much better at ruling in favor of both employees and customers, and when it comes to ruling in favor of customers, it can be downright good. What, after all, is the Food and Drug Administration? What's the Environmental Protection Agency? What's the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? These are, in the most basic way, deliberate impediments placed in the way of businessmen who might think that a little harm to people's health to make or save more money won't matter very much. 

Any service which businesses provide for customers and employees is only their second and third goals. It is absurdly easy to hoodwink customers. Government inspectors have to be extremely present, intrusive even, in the quest to make businesses provide the best possible services, not because businessmen aren't capable of figuring out that providing good services are to the benefit of their businesses, but because if a necessary business makes a self-destructive decision, the decision can affect its customers much as the collapse of a branch its government. Whether the result is that a whole county goes without plumbing repair for months or how the collapse of Bear Stearns begat The Great Recession, it's the same principle. 

I have no idea if the swarming of government by business is the inevitable process by which liberal democracies die. Though even if it were, there are nowhere near enough liberal democracies to prove that notion, let alone enough failed ones. But if a democratic government cannot prevent the encroachment of business power to the point that the failure of a business causes the failure of a society, then the only option left is to hope that an authoritarian government is large and well-run enough to stave off such a failure. It's not a great hope, but if the world's largest democracy ends up leading us to the destruction of the world as we know it, there doesn't seem a better option. 

I believe Isaiah Berlin is as great a political philosopher as the world has ever seen, but like everyone, he was a man of his time - born five years before World War I, a witness to the Russian Revolution before his family escaped to England, working for as a liaison between American and British intelligence during World War II, a doyen of Cold War Liberalism who seemed somewhere between silent and confused about the America-backed massacres of millions around Indonesia, Congo, and Vietnam even though his theories should have provided room for a kind of coexistence between less extreme versions of both Western and Communist governments. In Berlin's generation, the efficacy of authoritarians had been so trounced, and the efficacy of democrats so vindicated, that it was taken as something of a given that the worldwide promotion of democracy and erosion of authoritarianism was something which all liberals should be working towards. Berlin died in 1997, and it would be impossible to know what he would have made of something like the Iraq War that clearly made at least a little hash of those arguments, though plenty of liberal hawk admirers invoked his name to say that Berlin would have supported it. 

But let's just imagine that a gamble on democracy a thousand times larger than even the Iraq War happened in our lifetimes, perhaps an event as large as the French Revolution. Now you can you can begin to understand how thinkers of genius like Goethe felt completely justified in predicting that democracy would not work. When an event as colossally chaotic as the French Revolution happens, which sets off a chain reaction that eventually claims something like 10 million lives once Napoleon was stopped, even the thought that giving democracy a couple more chances to work seems incredibly irresponsible. 

This is very different kind of authoritarianism, even a very different kind of nationalism, from the patriotic fever that would grip later German intellectuals. It's pretty safe to say Goethe is as far from later German authoritarianism as one can imagine, and the nationalism which insisted upon 'Germany over all' or "Deutschland über alles" is of an almost completely opposite spirit from what Goethe intended. Goethe, at least in his intensions, represented the best of German aspirations - a fairer, more just, more enlightened society, in which people were free to evolve into the people which their potential would have them be. Goethe grew up in the Free City of Frankfurt am Main, the ancient seat of the Holy Roman Empire where every new emperor was chosen by the electors, and would then procede to Rome for crowning by the Pope. While there was technically a Holy Roman Emperor until Goethe was nearly sixty, the Emperor basically only ruled Austria and its surrounding territories which, after Napoleon, would form the basic territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Holy Roman Emperor was titled King of the Germans, but the Emperor hadn't ruled much of Germany in in nearly 200 years, and certainly didn't rule Frankfurt. So there was therefore no king or even noble to elevate Goethe's family to the aristocracy, nor was there any need for it. Goethe grew up all the educational and financial benefits of being an aristocrat without the strictures that come from being an aristocrat who had to absent himself from regular socializing with lower class - peasants, carnivals, merchants, military, Jews. This easy socialization with lower classes is something you readily see in the early scenes of Faust. 

This is not in any sense the same as saying that Goethe was a democrat. Like Berlin, he was a man of his time, and Goethe, like us all, had the right to be wrong and did the best he could with the information he had, which is usually better than we can do. He believed in the authoritarianism of sovereigns not because he thought some people deserved rights more than others, but because authoritarian sovereignty guaranteed accountability. When there is a single power at the top of the social hierarchy, responsible for all your provisions, you know whom to blame when things go wrong. When you have 18th century coercive means at your disposal along with 18th century medicine and technology, this can perhaps be a forgivable sentiment even if it points a direct path to Hitler 150 years later.
Many of Goethe's ideas about government originated with a thinker not much thought of today named Johann Gottfried Herder. It may be worth doing some podcasts on Herder too, because Herder is a thinker nobody talks about today, but if ideas matter more in their consequences for the world than as ends in themselves, Herder is clearly more influential than his much more famous contemporary, and his mentor, Immanuel Kant. I'm not going to give a large discourse on Herder. My philosophical knowledge is frankly pathetically shallow compared to the airs I put on in this podcast. But Herder is one of those out-of-fashion thinkers whom, thanks to Isaiah Berlin, I do feel a call to read extremely closely in the relatively near future. 
But I certainly have the competence to report that Herder was, above most things, a philosopher of language, and his ideas are, at times, shockingly close to Darwin, and closer of course to Lamarck, in how he perceives, that regional characteristics are formed by geography and that humans and non-human living organisms alike tend to adapt traits based upon their general environment - perhaps as Montesquieu did before him. From Herder, we get the basic germ of 19th century nationalism, which of course led directly to the right-wing nationalism of fascism, and a little more indirectly to justifications of imperial pillaging. However, on the other hand, with nationalism comes the idea of self-determination - that each peoples, and eventually therefore each person, is entitled through their cultural differences to other peoples to determine their own fates, and what is true and good for one people is not necessarily true and good for another. It may not be true, but it was the key moment in morality itself that broke the idea that one single, universal truth, must be imposed on every single person, with all the Holy Wars between Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Muslims, which that entails.
To understand just how progressive or liberal this nationalism of Herder's, and therefore Goethe's, was, please just consider this passage from Herder's Outlines of a Philosophy of History. Try to excuse the use of the term 'savages' and try to remember that we were two hundred years away as a species from understanding the concept of inherent bias:
Vain therefore is the boast of so many Europeans, when they set themselves above the people of all the other quarters of the Globe, in what they call arts, sciences, and cultivation, and, as the madman by the ships in the port of Piraeus, deem all the inventions of Europe their own, for no other reason, but because they were born amid the confluence of these inventions and traditions. Poor creature! hast thou invented any of these arts? have thy own thoughts any thing to do in all these traditions thou hast sucked in? thy having to use them is the work of a machine: thy having imbibed the waters of science is the merit of a sponge, that has grown on humid soil. Steer thy frigate to Otaheite (meaning Tahiti), bid thy cannon roar along the shores of the New Hebrides, still thou art not superior in skill or ability to the inhabitant of the South-Sea islands, who guides with art the boat, which he has constructed with his own hand. Even the savages themselves have had an obscure perception of this, as soon as they became more intimately acquainted with europeans. In the preparation of their implements they appeared to them unknown superior beings, before whom they bowed themselves, and whom they saluted with reverence: but when the savage perceived, that they were vulnerable, mortal, liable to disease, and more feeble in bodily exercises than himself, he dreaded the art, but flew the man, whose art was no part of himself. This is applicable to European cultivation. If the language of a people, even in books, be delicate and modest, everyone who reads these books, and speaks this language, is not therefore to be concluded modest and delicate. How he reads, how he speaks, are the question: and even then he thinks and speaks only after others, whose thoughts and expressions he follows. The savage, who in his narrower circle thinks for himself, and expresses himself in it with more truth, precision, and force; he, who in the sphere of his activity knows how to employ his mental and corporal faculties, his practical understanding, and few implements, with art, and with preference of mind; is palpably, man for man, more cultivated than the politic or learned machine, that fits like a child on a lofty stage, erected, alas! by the hands of others, nay, perhaps by the labor of all preceding ages. The man of nature, on the contrary, more limited indeed, but a founder, abler man, stands firmly on the ground. No one will deny Europe to be the repository of art, and of the inventive understanding of man: the destiny of ages deposits its treasures there: they are augmented and employed in it. But every one, who makes use of them has not therefore the understanding of the inventors: nay, this very use tends to render understanding inactive; for I have the instrument of another for my purpose, I shall scarcely take the trouble, to invent one for myself.  

What a glorious paragraph that is! Not just because it's respect for other cultures is so ahead of its time, perhaps even so ahead of our time, but because the whole of history is present in it - the miracle of how civilizations rise seemingly out of nothing, and the mystery of how civilizations fall which seem to be invincible. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but is also therefore the mother of understanding. When the circumstances of your surroundings require the ability to master new skills to save your lives, some people will develop those skills; meanwhile others will die from the lack of them, and thereby you have the beginning of a new civilization. But when everything is provided for us and taken for granted, the seeds of destruction can develop all around us with no one seeing them for what they are until after mechanisms devour us that were supposed to keep us alive; and therein seems to be the story of American decline and the rise of China. 
Yet again, as the world evolves, the dominant nation refuses to evolve with it. The American ideals of liberal democracy refuse to evolve with it just as the once-extremely promising ideas of Bildung and Kultur refused. Democracy without liberal rule of law is no different than tyranny, and we live in an era when facts themselves can be denied for political gain and every internet crank can consider himself an expert entitled to dismiss the findings of people who study their subjects their lifelong (irony duly noted). Almost every good faith statistical finding seems to support ideas that the climate is changing at an alarming rate, and the need for vast government spending on education and public works and poverty alleviation and health care and scientific research and high tax rates to fund them all, that mental illness is omnipresent in human society and not merely a flaw of character, that there are nearly infinite permutations of identity - racial, gender, and sexual, the free expression of which cannot possibly hurt any group of people who do not mean harm; that the bedroom is a place where infringements on the right to privacy lead directly to authoritarian spying and thereafter to authoritarian policing, that a government which refuses to regulate business creates a power vacuum into which step large corporate monopolies who obliterate all potential competition and innovation; that the inequalities of opportunity between men and women have been ignored and justified for the entirety of human history in spite of women never having been fairly proven to be less inherently gifted than men, that the exploitation and abuse of people of color for the economic gain of white plutocrats and millions of their unwitting European and American accomplices is such a long-established practice that no amount of atonement can ever alleviate the burden of guilt, and that the overwhelmingly vast majority of immigrants are wonderful people who can make enormous contributions to their new countries - many of which are in low-paying demeaning jobs native-born citizens would never countenance taking, and yet the Right denies every bit of it. Almost every good faith statistical finding seems to support ideas that a large military and law enforcement is absolutely necessary, that genetically modified food can solve world hunger, that gender identity is a biologically hard-wired spectrum and not merely a performative social construct - and therefore that masculinity and femininity are inherent on people whose brain chemistry falls either on the masculine or feminine ends of the spectrum and whose more masculine behavior is not merely a toxic residue from bad socialization, that incentives to have two parents for every child can vastly improve the chances of children for success as adults, that monogamous relationships are by far the best guarantee for happiness among most adults, that mental illness is omnipresent in the human condition, often triggered by adverse human circumstances but not a mental manifestation of adverse systemic circumstances, that the disparate elements of healthy cultures are meant to intermingle freely and that attempts to end supposedly exploitative cultural appropriation in any manner but financial and public exposure are a eugenic attempt to interfere in the inevitable process of human evolution, that mob censure of speaking unpopular sentiments is the tactic of animals employed in the wild - enabled by an unregulated internet so democratic that its results can be little different than tyranny, that a tightly-regulated capitalist economy is the guarantor of public welfare the world has ever seen and much better so far than even the loosest-regulated socialist state; that however bad imperialist governance in Africa, Asia, and South America, many of the agitators who styled themselves freedom fighters for their people turned out to be tyrants whose rule was still bloodier for their subjects than the European imperialists who preceded them, that there must be aggressive immigration screening processes so that the few potential immigrants who mean serious harm to their new country are prohibited to enter, yet the Left increasingly denies every bit of that too. I would also include the notion that deficit spending is the ultimate indicator of how close a society is on the path to collapse, but it would seem that in spite of their protestations to the contrary, today's Right believes that even less than today's Left; and I'm not even going to touch the various issues of police brutality and sexual misconduct with a ten foot pole, in which one side automatically defends the accused aggressor and the other automatically automatically believes the alleged victim, except to say that however you feel about these issues, any absolute point of view which says that either side deserves the benefit of the doubt simply for being the accused perpetrator or the alleged victim is about ideology, not fact, and is the enemy of both democracy and liberal rule of law. There is no way to either hear or speak or read about these issues today while keeping a cool head. We are just too polarized as a country, too mistrustful of each other, and even if these issues are too urgent not to fight for, the fact that pressing political questions of the intellect are so viscerally to our emotional responses rather than inquiries and judgement can only muddy our ability to solve them. 

The point of all this is to say what I think every listener knows in their bones about all these issues. Democracy as we currently know it is not equipped for an era when people feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions, and statistics point to every one of these notions being facts, not opinions. To deny these notions in 2018, when technology has provided the world so much evidence, is at least a bit like denying the existence of gravity and that the earth is round. You may believe it, but if you take over a state with weapons and try to implement your beliefs against evidence, you could ruin hundreds of years of human progress.
I'm sure there are many contradictions in this, to perceive contradictions is to see what it means to really wade through what you think about any particular issue, but I can at least perceive two very obvious ones. The first is that, on the one hand, one has to always be skeptical, on the other hand, one has to be credulous. When scientists whom we assume are well-informed about their subject tell us their findings, but only a very select few people have the training to test their findings, we simply have to believe that the experts are right and take the continued and/or improved functionality of society as evidence that they are. One is skeptical so that one can be credulous. Perhaps technology will eventually be such that it can enable the human brain can understand every bit of scientific and humanistic research it processes, but until such time as we can verify every finding for ourselves, I don't think this is a circle human beings are meant to square. Until then, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people whose jobs are to find the most truthful possible results about our world. We have no choice but to believe them. 

The other obvious contradiction is that the findings are always changing. Whenever I read a phrase like 'new research is beginning to show' or 'research is increasingly showing,' it always sends my pulse sky high because that means that the author knows that preponderance of research does not support the finding he or she wants to advance. Nevertheless, it's true, research does sometimes change, and if the research changes, the people who backed the wrong horse get to seem prescient. Perhaps the people who conducted the correct research should be rewarded with their prescience, but the people who believed the incorrect research should not get to be rewarded for doing the right thing for a narcissistic reason. It is much easier to believe a simpler, two-dimensional, truth than that the truth is a complex phenomenon that can never be entirely known. It may yet turn out that there is a yet untried form of socialism among the hundreds of untested versions of it that works in practice, perhaps better than any form of regulated capitalism. It may yet turn out that some form of massive charitable fund turns out to be a more effective alleviator of societal ills than a government welfare program. But if either turns out to work, the vast majority of its advocates and adherents will be vindicated by sheer dumb luck. They had no more idea about the efficacy of what they were promoting than the rest of us did. 

The way this relates to Goethe is this: Goethe believed not in a dictatorship of Germany over all, but in enlightened authority figures for every country; each of whom would use the best research of the time to provide citizens with the best possible results. However much evidence we have as to the terror of authoritarianism in our day, in the 1800s, democracy seemed to many to guarantee civil war and slavery. It's still possible that by 2200, democracy will mean something similar yet again. Far more than I believe in America itself, I believe that liberal democracy is, far and away, the best guarantor of each person's rights and opportunities as the world has ever conceived. Any even cursory reading of history makes you realize that the results speak for themselves. But liberal democracy can only function if its custodians handle it responsibly. Liberal democracy has resulted in such a flowering of progress that the progress of Americans cannot continue if Americans do not do their best to understand the forces present within their democracy that their incredible flowering of progress unleashed. If Americans do not develop the bildung to keep abreast with the findings of the vast array of research and data at their disposal, they will be exploited by any number of intelligent psychopaths who do. The irresponsibility of today's Americans, accustomed to believing that the mechanisms of their rights and opportunities take care of themselves without maintenance, is self-evidently breathtaking. There have been sufficiently few liberal democracies in human history that the break down of this incarnation of liberal democracy should discredit liberal democracy, but if liberal democracy as we currently understand it breaks down in our lifetimes, it will be up to relatively more enlightened authoritarian states to ensure that the incredibly glorious storehouse of knowledge about human improvement which liberal democracy provided does not go entirely to waste, and hope for some enlightenment among rulers who have no checks to their power, and therefore accountability to no one when they rule their subjects in bad faith.  
Whether or not these notions, of national determination and moral truths which are particular to region rather than universal, were in any sense true, it was in some ways this hope that an enlightened authority figure would work better than equality for all which ensured that the French Revolution never spread to Germany. When the dust cleared a generation later from the Napoleonic Wars, no country, not even England, was better situated than Germany, and for 100 years thereafter, the German nations were considered the same acme of progress which monarchical France was considered previously.

Not even England had a more glorious nineteenth century than the German speaking lands. No country had more dynamic scientific discoveries than Prussia, no country guaranteed greater liberties for more of its citizens than the Austro-Hungarian Empire. No doubt many Germans would have loved to have a large overseas empire like Britain and France, but there was no chance for it and therefore no chance for the same level of human rights abuses. Once romanticism gave way to realism around 1830, the literature of the age flourished in France, England, and Russia as it never did in German lands thanks to the red supergiant absorbing everything around that was Goethe's influence for a full lifetime after his death. But in music, in philosophy, in science, in all manners of purely abstract thought and many connected to abstract thought like industrial technology and jurisprudence and soldiery, no other country was even close.

The problem the French found, just the Germans found a century later, just as we may be finding now, is that if your system of belief rewards you too greatly, you base too many of your thoughts on that one system of belief, and you become unable to see the world outside the filter of the belief system which surrounds everything you do. Even the rebellion against the belief system becomes an affirmation of it. 

Here's an obvious example: you can't truly understand these new theories of inherited privilege making the rounds on the progressive/socialist internet unless you realize that nobody would care about them if they didn't first buy into the idea, the American idea, that all men are created equal. It's the old Marxist idea that freedom is a form of oppression unless tied to equality of means and income, which until now, never held much appeal to Americans. The reason it's now taken on so much meaning is that it's now crossbred with the idea that everyone deserves the inherent individual right to grow into what they feel are their best selves - whether or not that best self has any demonstrable benefit to society. Some truths are painfully obvious - that income inequality leads to economic stagnation, and that some of those inequalities are embedded into our economic, legal, and even moral systems. All of that is painfully obvious to anybody not repressing what their eyes see involuntarily every day. 

But if ending the hierarchy of privilege, if social justice, is a higher priority than liberty itself, then every manifestation of freedom also becomes a manifestation of oppression, and therefore no amount of commitment to the cause of equality is ever enough because by realizing your own best life, you are inevitably causing the oppression of someone else. Let's grant people who believe that, a few of whom I'm sure are listening to this podcast, a small chance that what they believe is ultimately true, Whether or not that's true, American society, Western society, is built on the idea that it isn't, and you're not going to be able to revolutionize the America and the European Union, or capitalism and the patriarchy; or if you're of a different political orientation, big government or the United Nations and NATO, without a cost of life and suffering that is incomprehensible to the human imagination. I believe that a life full of injustice and unnecessary suffering is still preferable to no life at all, you may feel free to disagree, but the idea that such epochal changes will demand anything less can be countermanded by a glance at even the most ideologically biased history book.

A century ago, there was plenty of revolution in the air, but we in America did not seem to have such high expectations of life. The evil of slavery, the mass death of the Civil War, the inequality and horrific working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, the often murderous ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, all the sheer difficulties inherent in Westward expansion, and let's not forget about the oppression that prompted so many of our ancestors in the 19th century to come to America in the first place - all this tempered the expectations our ancestors had of life. They were sustained by the dream that some time down the road, descendants like us could live in privilege and luxury - the allegedly happy dream lives they never had. Around 1918, America was still under no illusions that suffering and death were very near at hand, and that all of us were both victims from it and complicit in it. None of it was as spectacularly tragic as the either world war or the wars of the French Revolution, but like the Germans of Goethe's day, the low expectations of our ancestors made them far more equipped for the difficulties of being the country the world looked to for guidance than any number of more prosperous nations and empires. 

Long and terrible experience made the German societies of Goethe's time far more prudent than their French equivalents, who were accustomed to thinking themselves the best of all societies, and therefore expected that life entitled them to more. The national trauma of a country never truly leaves it, and the German people, who once thought themselves an especially peaceful medieval tribe of city-states, burghers, bunds, and guilds; became the exact center of the Protestant-Catholic Wars thanks to Martin Luther. After Luther, a hundred years of political instability, war after war after war, which only led to still larger wars. Until, finally, a hundred years after Luther's death, an explosion of fanaticism crossed with the exploitation of venal warlords erupted into what we now know as the Thirty Years War - a war as apocalyptic in its time as both World Wars. Eight million dead from violence, disease, and starvation in an era when far fewer people lived. While France expanded its national pride to the very limits, generation upon generation of Germans had to live a quiet, unglamorous, disciplined life of rebuilding.

All around, we denigrate this disciplinary, patriarchal, view of society which seems to have a mythical father figure at its head telling us that we cannot have what we want. The modern Left calls it the Patriarchy, the modern Right calls it Paternalism, and at the heart of both is resentment that a stable life can't demand too much from it. But that does not mean that in times of rebuilding, the Father figure cannot be oppressive indeed.

The spirit of the Germany which birthed Goethe could not have been more patriarchal. The laws were roman in spirit, the middle class was very small indeed, and the general zeitgeist expected Germans to live lives of extreme thrift. It was a Germany which even a hundred years after the Hundred Years War, was still a loose confederation of 300 states while England and France seemed glorious sovereignties, and whose entire spirit seemed embodied by the Prussian king, Friedrich. There was no city in the German-speaking lands anywhere near the size of Paris or London or Beijing or Ayuttahaya - the historic capital of Thailand. Germany, divided as it was, was united in the sense of being a rural nation of farmers and forests. Even the German cities were comparatively rural, and immersion in grimy glories of nature was second nature to even the richest Germans as it could not be to most Frenchmen of means.

 Not Friedrich der Grosse, or Frederick the Great, but his father, Friedrich I of Prussia, the nearest-by powerful kingdom to Goethe's life in Frankfurt and Weimar, whom at one point came close to having his son executed. Friedrich I of Prussia had such a mania for saving that he kept the Prussian treasury in the basement of his own castle. He raised taxes to whatever maximum he could get without open revolt and spent not a penny more than he ever could countenance, and for national defense he built a giant army whose sole use was an endless series of military drills. He was so micromanaging that he personally dictated all 297 paragraphs of the manual for Prussian state employees. He considered it his divine right to dictate his subjects' hygiene, clothing, housing, what they read and what they spoke about, whom they married and what they ate. It was a kind of maniacal prison from which there was nearly no chance for subjects to exhibit any sense of independent will at all.

In so many ways, this is a proto-totalitarian mentality. But it is, nevertheless, a very different and not as destructive a mentality as either the various theocratic dictatorships so prevalent all throughout European history, and also very different from the reformist and secular theocracy of France post-revolution. If anything, perhaps the closest parallels would be to Oliver Cromwell's England in the mid-17th century which perhaps created the circumstances for the Glorious Revolution and liberal monarchy of 1688, and, obviously more importantly for our time, perhaps even a parallel to modern China.

i think it's hard not to see the parallel with the thrift of modern China. The Chinese are still limited to one child per family, there is no freedom of association, no internet congregation except on government approved sites, no mass protests, very little freedom of speech when it comes to politics, and still very little freedom of movement. What is most amazing about modern China is how it seems to thrive not because of these policies, but in spite of them. Liberal democracy does not ensure good governance, liberal democracy ensures that a society can thrive in spite of bad governance. But with their embrace of authoritarianism, the government of China must be exemplary at all times. One imprudent move can cause the entire system of government to collapse. That collapse may come as early as next year. Xi Jinping's unwillingness to step aside after five years in the manner of the last three General Secretaries following Deng Xiaoping could send the entire Chinese system into freefall. On the other hand, if Xi ends continues to govern with a philosophy of maximum circumspection as all Central Committee members are instructed to do from their first jobs in the Chinese Communist Party, it won't matter whether he is the General Secretary or if it were a hundred other Central Committee members. The Chinese government is constituted in such a way that people of great ability are noticed, mentored, and promoted from a very young age. But they are rarely ever promoted to the Central Committee until they're at least 50, by which time they have thorough training in all the necessary branches of government. Furthermore, they are required to retire by the time they're 68. Even within those eighteen years, 62% of the members only sit on the Central Committee for one, five year, term. What this ultimately does is to ensure that there's very little point to the formation of political factions that could become rival parties. I don't know if the Chinese based this idea on the Venetian Great Council, on which forty capable members of aristocratic families were trained to govern from the earliest age and upon reaching adulthood each would take on a different ministry every year, but I can guarantee that the Chinese government has done a thorough study of previous governments through world history to ascertain which are most stable, and the Venetian Great Council lasted for six-hundred years.

But where ultimately is China headed next? So much prudence and parsimony, so much thrift and saving, so much policy whose obvious end is maximum economic growth. What, ultimately, is the purpose of all this economy? If it is merely to save to prevent a potential catastrophe that could never be a bigger than the catastrophe that was Mao, China will have yet again become its own kind of prison from which there is no escape for a billion people.

But, if the Chinese eventually cash in to yield some dividends, if they ever choose to spend more than is absolutely necessary on public works, if they really begin to allow for political dissent, if their authoritarianism becomes, at least for a time, relatively, more enlightened, the difference in the quality of Chinese life will eventually be exponential.

Just think of the difference in Prussia from Frederick the First to Frederick the Second. Directly from the stern near-totalitarian approach of the first there afterward arose an explosion of creativity and individuality that pointed the world in its modern direction ever since, because the heir to this caricature of frugality was a Renaissance man, one of the most intelligent men of his era, and from Frederick the Great arose a liberal monarchy that was the hope and envy of the entire world, and he could do so because his father bequeathed him with the largest imaginable treasury.

Thomas Carlyle defined the ideal government very succinctly: "Find in any country the ablest man that exists there, raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him, you have a perfect government for that country." Here is what the much forgotten Viennese intellectual historian Egon Friedell had to say about Frederick and that definition:
A recipe as admirable as it is simple, but, like almost all good and simple recipes, very seldom followed. Obviously it would be the most natural thing if the best were always at the head of things, the cleverest and wisest, the strongest and best-armed, the eye that sees furthest with past and present, the gleaming focus in which all the world's rays unite: if, in a word, the brain were in command as is the case with the simplest human individual. Yet this self-evidently normal case has happened at most a dozen times in the better-known sections of the history of humanity: a dozen times in three thousand years. One of these few cases was Frederick the Great.
I would put this slightly differently. To take just the European example: there existed a kind of blueprint for a better world in Europe since Renaissance Humanism, which is pretty obviously the most important ancestor to the Enlightenment. The foundations of Renaissance Humanism go back to at least to the 14th century, but it gained no mass traction until the 18th. In the meantime, the Renaissance didn't truly have any progressive impact except for those aristocrats literate enough to know about such ideals and clergy literate enough to suppress them. The reason for that is because when the world is ruled by hereditary monarchies, the idea of a king who can also be your best thinker is at the mercy of a genetic lottery, a genetic lottery preserved by a series of inbred families who may not have been particularly bright to begin with. But with Frederick the Great, a European King finally won the genetic lottery, and true progress in Europe for more than a very small aristocracy was finally able to commence. All Europe had to do was wait 400 years.

Frederick the Great was not only one of history's greatest generals who transformed Prussia from a backwater in East Germany to a world power, but also a philosopher in both war and economics, an urban planner and environmental conservationist, speaker of god knows how many languages, and in his spare time a playwright, musician, architect, and composer. I suppose it's minorly possible that some of these achievements history attributes to him are exaggerated, but what matters is not the achievement but the aspiration. Because Prussian progress made the benefits of great learning so obvious, other court societies were also inspired to become better learned and base their policies on what their most intelligent and well-informed counselors advised.

But there is also a contradiction in Frederick the Great. There were many contradictions in his character - he was a monarch who hated much about monarchy and an autocrat who tolerated most forms of dissent, but the contradiction that's important in this case is his impact on the German zeitgeist. The enlightenment which Frederick espoused was French ideals, put into practice on German land, and the differences in quality of life between the two monarchies became grist for the French revolutionaries against the Ancien Regime. Thinkers tend to identify Frederick the Great as the pillar on which the entire Enlightenment's permanence sits, perhaps because Frederick the Great created a home away from home for Voltaire and sponsored Immanuel Kant.

But except for thinkers a generation older like Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, born before Frederick the Great ascended to the throne in 1740, most of the German thinkers and artists to come out of these newly enlightened German lands in Frederick's time were not enlightenment thinkers at all. They were, in some ways at least, severely critical enlightenment, or at least stand in stark contrast Enlightenment's ideals even as they would not at all be possible without the Enlightenment. One of the great paradoxes of the Enlightenment is that one of its two most important thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, demanded a return to the natural. Perhaps Rousseau conception of nature was unrealistically extremely benevolent, but it was formulated from the confines of the tightly wound Rococo society whose chateaus let all kinds of light in from the outdoors yet hardly permitted any person of high birth to get his hands dirty. This call for a return to nature was omnipresent in the 18th century. Perhaps Rousseau gave it the first real voice, but it was an impossible plant within the strictures of late French classicism. In the end is the beginning, and in Germany, rather, this return to the natural could take root in the soil. Not just the return to outer nature, but the return to inner nature, feelings, within a society where Frederick I had until 1740 practically outlawed feelings.

Once we focus as a society on feelings, we much more readily perceive the feelings of others and we sympathize with them. The barriers of separation are torn down, and we see solidarity between people. Just as it happened in the Modern West, it happened two hundred years ago in Europe. Such an historical explosion of sentiment results in many young people who suddenly find their voice as writers to express what no one before them could. But they couldn't sustain their achievement, and as they aged, they simply couldn't summon the same magic and retreated  Just think of all those rock singer-songwriters in the late sixties/early seventies: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Levon Helm, Van Morrison, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Lou Reed, Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Brian Eno. This explosion of a new music and poetry for a new generation with a completely different sort of ethos. But even the ones who are productive until the end, it's very difficult to say that the songs of most of these songwriters were as magic at the end of their careers as at the beginning. The energy and dynamism of rock is grounded in youth, and if the songwriters can't find a way to accommodate costs and benefits of getting older, the music will simply not be as good. But the ones among them who might be convincingly called something like genius: Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, perhaps David Bowie, and some would of course say Dylan, are geniuses not because of the brilliance of their early light, but because their gift was so indestructible that it could describe all the seasons of life with no decline in their quality. Their artistry is not just one kind of song or one artistic personality, their artistry is many faceted. They are completely different people at twenty-five to forty-five to sixty-five, but always excellent.

And this is the difference between Klopstock and Leisewitz and Klinger and Lenz on the one hand, and Goethe and Schiller on the other. One type of poet was only capable of one kind of lyric, they couldn't evolve with the times and eventually their names were only remembered for a kind of nostalgia for a time of more innocent experience that could not again be. Schiller, and Goethe even much moreso, continued to evolve just as the world did.

But right away, you can see the difference between a talented poet who taps into the zeitgeist to articulate it like Klopstock, and Goethe, who understands the zeitgeist every bit as well, but has enough foresight to see the  problems in its sentiments and express the spirit of the times with ambivalence. First, let's just read Klopstock's poem: The Rose Garland. I'm going to read it first in English, then in German, so you hear how much better it sounds in German:
In the shade of spring I found her
then with garlands of roses bound her;
she did not feel it and slumbered on. 
I looked at her: my life hung
upon her life with this glance;
I truly felt it, and knew it not. 
But speechlessly I whispered to her
and rustled with the rose garlands;
then she woke from slumber. 
She looked at me; her life hungupon my life with this one glanceand around us rose Elysium.
Im Fruehlingsschatten fand ich sie,da band ich sie mit Rosenbaendern:sie fuehlt es nicht und schlummerte. 
Ich sah sie an: mein Leben hingmit diesem Blick an ihrem Leben:ich fuehlt es wohl und wusst es nicht. 
Doch lispelt ich ihr sprachlos zuund rauschte mit den Rosenbaendern:da wachte sie vom Schlummer auf. 
Sie sah mich an, ihr Leben hingmit diesem Blick an meinem Lebenund um uns wards Elysium. 
This is not deep stuff. In English, it's not even a particularly good poem. But German has a kind of suggestiveness to its cadence you never get in English. Shade of spring is not particularly evocative, but that one word Fruehlingsschatten can evoke so many different images of spring. German has the ability to compound any two or more words into one word, and therefore can describe all kinds of poetic states of experience you can never get in English, which lends itself particularly well to both poetry and philosophy, but also perhaps makes concrete images a little more difficult. If Fruehlingsschatten means anything at all, the closest equivalent might be a one word compound: Springshadow, which perhaps can both describe the physical shade which you lie in on a perfect spring day, or a cloud that obscures the sun and briefly lowers the temperature; or perhaps it refers to the state of the air rather than a state of light, perhaps it refers to a general balm or a particularly  pleasant sudden breeze; or maybe it refers to an interior state of the soul that describes how, when someone is in love, the good cheer associated with spring enters their hearts and colors everything they perceive with more pleasant tones, or maybe it's the opposite and, as TS Eliot says, April is the cruelest month - so perhaps Klopstock is in fact describing the desperation of unrequited love during that season when everyone else seems to have a partner. Just this one poetic compound word can have this many meanings and many, many more. That is the magic of the German language, which so easily connects its speakers to the spiritual world in a manner that English, with its much more diverse vocabulary, would insist on trying to form a separate word for each, and therefore there's nowhere near so much potential meaning in any one word. English is much better for describing concrete images, but nowhere near so good at elucidating the inner relationships between things. 

But even if this is a beautiful poem in German, it's a sentimental one. You're not entirely sure if it's describing mutual love or unrequited love. That last line: und um uns wards Elysium - And between us rose Elysium; 'rose' is more poetic than the proper translation, which is simply 'was.' But the difference is that when you say 'between us was elysium', The Elysian Fields are the heaven of Greek Mythology. But that image of 'between us was elysium' has at least a triple meaning. One is that between them is mutual love. The second is that between them was mutual love, but the love was not to last. The third is that an image of perfect love stood between them and their ability to appreciate each other. Like the rest of the poem, it's gorgeously complex image, much more complex than it seems at first glance, but it's still a sentimental poem. There is nothing darker to it than unrequited love, and even unrequited love is still very much a belief in the power of love. 
So against that, let's consider this famous short poem: Heidenroslein. A lyric in extremely strict metric and rhythmic form that repeats the same refrain at the end. It practically cries out for music, and perhaps it was always meant to considering that it was based on a very short duet in Mozart's Magic Flute. By the end of Goethe's life it was transformed into one of Schubert's most beloved songs, and over the years was also set by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Franz Lehar along with dozens of composers whose music nobody's heard in over a hundred years. But the song was also :
Once a boy a Rosebud spied,
Heathrose fair and tender,
All array'd in youthful pride,–
Quickly to the spot he hied,
Ravished by her splendour.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

Said the boy, "I'll now pick thee,
Heathrose fair and tender!"
Said the rosebud, "I'll prick thee,
So that thou'lt remember me,
Ne'er will I surrender!"
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

Now the cruel boy must pick
Heathrose fair and tender;
Rosebud did her best to prick,–
Vain 'twas 'gainst her fate to kick–
She must needs surrender.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

This poem from around 1771 is part of a movement called for a return to nature at the very moment before the industrial revolution declared war on nature. Poems like this are almost hippieish in how it immerses itself in nature in a manner that's both spiritual and sexual. The spiritual side of the poem comes from a literal reading - you so commune with nature that nature talks back to you. Perhaps it comes as much from the Spinoza idea that God is nature itself as it does from Rousseau's that nature is the ony place where man's nature can truly stay unspoiled. But is that truly what Goethe believes? The sexual component is hardly benevolent. Rosebud has always been a barely concealed metaphor in many cultures for a vagina. If you take the meaning more anthropomorphically, you could see this poem as just a light lyric about sexual teasing between the sexes. But it could also be taken as a process of sexual assault or rape, in which this anthropomorphic female rose clearly does not indicate her willingness to be picked. And then, if you transform it back into a nature poem, you see that this could be a metaphor for the process by which humanity rapes nature itself, using everything within it for its own purposes. A meaning which becomes ever more potent as the planet's ecology draws ever closer to a cataclysm. Like all the best art, this poem has many more meanings than there are words.

But at the same time that there's something quite hippieish about it, it's also quite archetypally German; extremely strict in meter and rhythm, and because it's so strict it lends itself particularly well to music. Mother nature always finds a way, and in some ways the greater the discipline, the greater the freedom. If the iron discipline of Prussian culture didn't allow for anything more than a generation's explosion of literary brilliance, the discipline allowed for perhaps the fullest expression of music the world has ever seen. Music, not literature, was Germany's greatest contribution to world culture. Just listen to Schubert's beloved setting of Heidenroslein for Piano and Voice: 'Sah ein Knab, ein Roslein stehn/Roslein auf der Heiden' (first 33 seconds). Now listen to Schumann's setting . Or Brahms's... not his best work. Or Franz Lehar's, perhaps the most imaginative setting, set in an operetta during which Goethe himself sings this song to his young love Friederike von Brion, it's certainly the only one from a major composer that has any irony in it at all.

Furthermore, if this were written in English rather than German, it would be pretty clear that its writer is no Keats or Wordsworth, and every German speaker will tell you that Goethe doesn't translate particularly well. 'Sah ein Knab, ein Roslein stehn/Roslein auf der Heiden' sounds a lot more interesting than 'Once a boy a rosebud spied/Heathrose fair and tender.' What's poetic in poetry is virtually untranslatable. I used the most interesting translation of the poem I could find, but fitting all the meanings into the same meter is nearly impossible. The best I can do is to translate those first two lines with all their meaning intact is to say 'saw a youthful boy, a little rose stand/little rose on heath.' But even that doesn't translate the two most important meanings.

1. When you hear the word 'Knab,' think of the British slang 'knob.' Which is a pejorative literally meaning a 'penis' but also generally to mean a person who acts like an asshole. Knab is a dated term in German, it literally means boy, but it can also mean an apprentice or a servant. In other words, when Goethe uses Knab, the association called to mind is that of an obnoxious teenage boy.

2. The word heiden - which is translated all sorts of ways: heath, heathrose, heather, field, moore, but heiden literally means 'heathen.' As with so much Shakespearean nature, there is an extremely pagan connotation in which the laws of the wild prevail and lots of things are done which offend our sense of morality. So when he says 'Roslein auf der Heiden,' there is an association of 'little rose on the heathen,' meaning perhaps a young girl, of indeterminate age but perhaps very young indeed, in an environment which would terrify any good Christian.

Make no mistake, whether or not his lyrics immediately call to you, genius does not get more powerful than Goethe's. He is right there in the top echelon with Shakespeare, Homer, Tolstoy, Dante, Chaucer, Montaigne... The neglect of Goethe in our era and place is one of the great scandals of modern intellectual life, because more than any writer I can think of, Goethe is exactly what we need right now. Is Goethe as boring as his reputation? Well, the only answer I can give from personal experience that has integrity is... often. But Goethe's peaks are so high that he's entirely worth the valleys.

Talents can ride the wave of a creative explosion, but real genius can survive in much more arid climates. The greatest art exists with all kinds of meanings, it refuses to exist in just a single dimension where the meanings, however interesting or moving, are extremely clear. The greatest of these brilliant German flashes is generally acknowledged to be a poet named Novalis, a decade or two younger than the other great German romantics. who died of tuberculosis before he was thirty. Had he lived past thirty, perhaps he would have developed into a true heir to Goethe. I'd like to look at one particular Novalis poem, famous among Germans: Longing for Death. I won't quote the whole thing, just a few stanzas. 
What are we to do in this world
By loving more, by staying true?
All that is old is set aside,
What then of all that is new?
O! deeply sad and alone you’ll stay,
With your pious hot love for a bygone day. 
In a bygone day, when ancient stalks
Still shone forth replete with flowers,
And children longed for pain and death
Driven on by heaven’s power.
And when life and longing also spoke,
So many hearts for love were broke. 
In a bygone day, when in blush of youth,
God announced his own arrival.
And to early death in courageous love
He renounced his sweet survival.
And drove away not pain nor fear,
So that to us he would stay dear. 
What delays our return still?
Those we love are long at rest.
The course of our life is buried there,
And now we know only pain and stress.
We seek no more, we have no care,
Our heart is full – the world is bare. 
German or English, verse does not get more powerful than this, all the moreso for being so morbid, but there is no mistaking what is being said here. Once you realize what's being longed for, there's not much more to analyze. A little bit about Jesus, a bit about depression, some about the life cycle, but on a cerebral level, it's pretty standard stuff. You can bathe in the beauty of it as you might a song by Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, but it's difficult to see how the intellectual meaning of this poem would ever change when you return to it. The reason that verse, so simple but so powerful, retains its power is not because the poem ever appears differently, but that we are different people when we return to it. Think of Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now.' She might have written it in her late 20s, but it seems to be a song precisely meant to mean something different when you're on the other side of life. As we age, death becomes a far less abstract phenomenon. Perhaps death was something we sometimes longed for as young people because our emotional pain can be too great, but as we age and the body becomes less firm, intimations of mortality begin to take a more finite shape, you realize it's a force you can't outrun, and there are moments when the body is feeling particularly bad that you begin to think 'come on, get it over with.' A teen might understand that abstractly, but until you really know what it feels like to have your body begin its decline, you have no way of understanding that inner experience. So a powerfully morbid poem like this will mean something extremely different than it will to even the most emotionally traumatized youth.

But this, perhaps hormonal, fetishization of death by depressed youth requires the belief that life will always be the same, which therefore sparks the desire to leave it. Novalis wrote it between 1799 and 1800, perhaps right before he contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him within seven months, so perhaps some eery mixture of the two sentiments provoked him to write these verses. But that kind of longing for death seems so completely alien to the Goethe we know. The Goethe we all know is the Faustian, who was always longing to move forward. The Goethe of Werther is completely different, and yet, like Faust, he's clearly a self-portrait. Even the very name, Werther, sounds so close when pronounced properly to Goethe, that the similarity cannot be mistaken.

So in order to understand what Goethe was expressing, we must briefly tell some tales of Goethe and his loves. As a writer, Goethe didn't have much ability to get inside the heads of women, but he was a master in portraying how men can hurt the hearts of women, particularly because he seemed so expert at that himself. Goethe had a series of 'almosts' in his life, charming, intelligent women, whom he fell in love with, and she of course with him, only to back out at the last moment. He would give himself emotionally to woman after woman, only to withdraw himself at the moment marriage seemed likely, sensing that with with a wife he could not devote of himself fully to his interests. The first love is not the most important, but as we've all known, it's the one that leaves the biggest impression. Goethe's first love was Gretchen the Waitress. It was this Gretchen, whom he once saw sitting at a spinning wheel at a tavern, whom he memorialized as Margeret, or Gretchen, or Gretchen am Spinrade, or Grete, in the first part of Faust. Then came Anna Schönkopf, with whom he had a seemingly never-ending series of lover's quarrels. Then came Friedrike von Brion, whom he thought he was merely a friend with whom he had a reciprocal passing fancy, only to find out via letter that she would be smitten for the rest of her life. Friedrike lived another forty years after their brief dalliance, and never married. One can only assume she felt as though she was a hare's breath away from marrying the world's most interesting man, only for him to rebuff her at the last moment - any other marriage prospect after that must have felt like a horrible compromise. Then, closest of all to marriage came Lili Schönemann, who hurdled through every obstacle -  the dislike of her four brothers for Goethe, the dislike of Goethe's beloved sister for her, the reservations of both their mothers. But once the match was officially made, Goethe took the first opportunity to leave Frankfurt to become a state official in Weimar. 
And when he arrived in Weimar, there was Charlotte von Stein, the noblewoman whose son's education Goethe undertook. After eleven years of the most intimate friendship in the same house, Goethe absconded to Italy for years without so much as telling his closest friend that he wanted to leave. There was Ulrike von Lewetzow, to whom Goethe attempted a marriage proposal when she was still a teenager, Goethe was seventy-two. Ulrike would live until the age of ninety-five, and never marry. Nobody knows why she didn't, but one can't imagine the proposal of an old man left her excited about the institution of marriage. 

Goethe failed many loves over the course of his life. Some commenters write that most of these love affairs were consummated, others write that Goethe was a virgin until well after forty. But love, as we understand it today, was a very different concept. It was not too far off from the world of Jane Austen. It was neither our complete casualness nor the medieval courtly love from afar that preserves the poetic image of the other person as a superior experience to the real thing. It was love with enormous restrictions, with extreme potential for misunderstanding. For perhaps the first time in history, it was conceivable that marriages would be made for no other reason than that two people loved each other very much.  

And this is why we must save the story of Charlotte Buff for last. Everything in Werther, from the previous engagement of Lotte to a mutual friend, to the way Lotte raised her younger siblings in lieu of a mother, to the way the two once danced all night at a party, to the heartrending letters Goethe wrote, to the way that Goethe's passion for Lotte was so great that he could no longer stand to be in the same room with her. All of this and much more is the lot of Werther, and more importantly, the lot of Lotte.

There is something about Werther that has always been fundamentally misunderstood. In country after country, there seem to have been copycat suicides by lovelorn loons who sigh for the love of a lady, thinking that Werther is a model of the glamorous romantic to be emulated; a patron saint of unrequited love who at least will be remembered by posterity for his love, even if not remembered properly by the woman he loves. Like everything about Goethe's feeling toward Romanticism, the true nature of Werther is much more ambiguous, much darker, even. This dark, almost evil, masterpiece of the human imagination is not about love, but about obsession. Yes, Werther deserves compassion as all crazy people do, but his insanity makes him a monster. 

The Sorrows of Young Werther can be described very simply. Werther is a young man of some means and promise who conceives a passion for a female friend so overwhelming that he feels that he feels the need to kill himself lest he kill anyone else for the love of her. Werther's love, however real in some senses, is a narcissistic passion that has everything to do with him and nothing to do with the object of his affection, and we must use the word 'object' rather than 'subject' deliberately. Charlotte is never allowed to truly be a character, and while we read her struggling mightily to register to us as one, we never see as much more than an apparition through Werther's eyes. 
Werther is about many things; it is about obsession, it's about mental illness, and it's about our powerlessness in the face of them both, but it is not about love. It asks the question, how do people fall into this morass of emotional turmoil; a place where the rightest feeling thing in the world is lethally wrong? The key to understanding that is the realization that insanity, obsession, narcissism, are so embedded into the human subconscious that there is no ridding ourselves of it. The dysfunctionality of the human brain is more powerful than its functionality, and even if the functionality of your particular human brain is more powerful than its dysfunctionality, the dysfunctional neurology of someone close to you will eventually subsume your functionality, and you will become as entangled within the messiness of being human as all the rest of us. The more the demonic side of ourselves is ignored, the stronger it shouts within our brains to make itself heard.  

Werther is, for the most part, an epistolary novel, meaning that it's told through a series of letters. In the 18th century, the novel through letters was a genre unto itself. Samuel Richardson's Clarissa is still often thought of as the first modern novel. Letters are a place where people can convey their inward thoughts to others, it's a setting where the natural stakes of what makes the form tick are heightened, so perhaps it's as natural for a novel to take place over a series of letters as for a play to take place in a courtroom or a movie to take place on a battlefield. 

As the writer of his own novel, it is clear that Werther is colossally intelligent. He is also not a young man of compassion and heart as large as he thinks it is. I'd like to read to you the first half-paragraph or so of the novel, which portrays Werther being Charlotte to someone else's Werther. Perhaps this is based upon Goethe's situation with Friedricke von Brion when Goethe first fell in love with Charlotte Buff. Werther reacts as Goethe did to so many women who loved him in his younger years, and as most people would in that situation: as though the situation were a flatteringly adorable sort of puppy-love, with just enough remorse for how he treated this love-besotten girl named Leonora to put the entire situation out of his mind. He judges this young woman's love for him as a weakness of character, he resolves to move on, which of course he does with very little trouble, because he's so relieved that he no longer has to deal with the burden of being loved by someone whom he doesn't love back. 
How happy I am that I am gone! My dear friend, what a thing is the heart of man! To leave you, from whom I have been inseparable, whom I love so dearly, and yet to feel happy! I know you will forgive me. Have not other attachments been specially appointed by fate to torment a head like mine? Poor Leonora! and yet I was not to blame. Was it my fault, that, whilst the peculiar charms of her sister afforded me an agreeable entertainment, a passion for me was engendered in her feeble heart? And yet am I wholly blameless? Did I not encourage her emotions? Did I not feel charmed at those truly genuine expressions of nature, which, though but little mirthful in reality, so often amused us? Did I not—but oh! what is man, that he dares so to accuse himself? My dear friend I promise you I will improve; I will no longer, as has ever been my habit, continue to ruminate on every petty vexation which fortune may dispense; I will enjoy the present, and the past shall be for me the past. No doubt you are right, my best of friends, there would be far less suffering amongst mankind, if men—and God knows why they are so fashioned—did not employ their imaginations so assiduously in recalling the memory of past sorrow, instead of bearing their present lot with equanimity. 
Ahem - that last long three-quarter sentence could stand as the entire argument of Werther, and the entire argument of what constitutes mental illness. We must all so best as we can bear our present lots with equanimity. But why can't we? Why do so many of us always recall what once made us suffer, which then in turn makes us suffer still more, and then in turn make us still more likely to inflict our sufferings upon others? Werther tries to stifle that part of himself which ruminates too morbidly on his past miseries, and in doing so, he lets that part of him fester, so when it returns, it's much stronger. 

And this is why Werther is the opposite of the person, the Faustian, whom Goethe later became. Werther's hubris made him incapable of evolution. He believes what he believes, and he never seems to question it. Werther is an endless monologue from a character who has no interior thoughts except his own thoughts, which it never occurs to him to ever doubt.

As we've said already, the similarities between Werther and Goethe seem quite deliberate. It sometimes seems as though Goethe wrote Werther as a means to exorcise those existential demons within himself. Had he not written Werther, perhaps Goethe might well have become him. But having rendered this cautionary tale on the page, by portraying his demons so openly, Goethe was free to become Goethe; not another Novalis or Keats who died before 30, but a constantly evolving and progressing sage who accumulated wisdom his entire life long and bestowed it on whomever was open enough to be receptive to it.  

I think I might be the first person in history to ever say this, but in this way, it strikes me how American Werther seems. He always believes so completely in whatever he believes, no qualifying thought ever occurs to him. He, as so many young people are, is so determined to stay perpetually in the mentality of the young that the inevitable process of aging, the process which allows Father Time to put our hurts in the pass, is a process which Werther never allows himself to experience. He would sooner die in a picturesque death than admit that life has a different plan for him. There is, once again, a creepily direct line between this pastoral suicide of obsessive love with which Goethe ushered a beginning for Werther and the Gotterdammerung like Battle of Berlin with which Hitler allowed World War II to finally end. 

Today, so much of Werther, like so much by Goethe, seems incredibly classical and restrained. And it speaks to the decadence of the society which birthed Werther that in its time, Werther was thought by many intolerably passionate, barbaric, disproportionate. It is neither classical nor barbaric, passionate nor restrained. It's all those things, because it's a masterpiece. I'm now going to read for you what I think is probably the most meaningful chapter of Werther, a kind of debate about suicide between Werther and Charlotte's fiancee, Albert. This chapter is ultimately about the fundamental differences  between Werther and Albert, in which we contrast the worldview which lets Albert live on and live well, with the worldview that sends Werther to an early grave. The reason that Werther is such a wonderful book is that while Werther's point of view is clearly more exciting, more glamorous, more interesting, more accomodating, it has only detrimental value when it comes to allowing a person to lead a better life. So even if Albert seems a little dull, maybe he's the true hero, and Werther is just an idiot. 

"Certainly Albert is the best fellow in the world. I had a strange scene with him yesterday. I went to take leave of him; for I took it into my head to spend a few days in these mountains, from where I now write to you. As I was walking up and down his room, my eye fell upon his pistols. "Lend me those pistols," said I, "for my journey." "By all means," he replied, "if you will take the trouble to load them; for they only hang there for form." I took down one of them; and he continued, "Ever since I was near suffering for my extreme caution, I will have nothing to do with such things." I was curious to hear the story. "I was staying," said he, "some three months ago, at a friend's house in the country. I had a brace of pistols with me, unloaded; and I slept without any anxiety. One rainy afternoon I was sitting by myself, doing nothing, when it occurred to me I do not know how that the house might be attacked, that we might require the pistols, that we might in short, you know how we go on fancying, when we have nothing better to do. I gave the pistols to the servant, to clean and load. He was playing with the maid, and trying to frighten her, when the pistol went off—God knows how!—the ramrod was in the barrel; and it went straight through her right hand, and shattered the thumb. I had to endure all the lamentation, and to pay the surgeon's bill; so, since that time, I have kept all my weapons unloaded. But, my dear friend, what is the use of prudence? We can never be on our guard against all possible dangers. However,"—now, you must know I can tolerate all men till they come to "however;"—for it is self-evident that every universal rule must have its exceptions. But he is so exceedingly accurate, that, if he only fancies he has said a word too precipitate, or too general, or only half true, he never ceases to qualify, to modify, and extenuate, till at last he appears to have said nothing at all. Upon this occasion, Albert was deeply immersed in his subject: I ceased to listen to him, and became lost in reverie. With a sudden motion, I pointed the mouth of the pistol to my forehead, over the right eye. "What do you mean?" cried Albert, turning back the pistol. "It is not loaded," said I. "And even if not," he answered with impatience, "what can you mean? I cannot comprehend how a man can be so mad as to shoot himself, and the bare idea of it shocks me."
"But why should any one," said I, "in speaking of an action, venture to pronounce it mad or wise, or good or bad? What is the meaning of all this? Have you carefully studied the secret motives of our actions? Do you understand—can you explain the causes which occasion them, and make them inevitable? If you can, you will be less hasty with your decision."
"But you will allow," said Albert; "that some actions are criminal, let them spring from whatever motives they may." I granted it, and shrugged my shoulders.
"But still, my good friend," I continued, "there are some exceptions here too. Theft is a crime; but the man who commits it from extreme poverty, with no design but to save his family from perishing, is he an object of pity, or of punishment? Who shall throw the first stone at a husband, who, in the heat of just resentment, sacrifices his faithless wife and her perfidious seducer? or at the young maiden, who, in her weak hour of rapture, forgets herself in the impetuous joys of love? Even our laws, cold and cruel as they are, relent in such cases, and withhold their punishment."
"That is quite another thing," said Albert; "because a man under the influence of violent passion loses all power of reflection, and is regarded as intoxicated or insane."
"Oh! you people of sound understandings," I replied, smiling, "are ever ready to exclaim 'Extravagance, and madness, and intoxication!' You moral men are so calm and so subdued! You abhor the drunken man, and detest the extravagant; you pass by, like the Levite, and thank God, like the Pharisee, that you are not like one of them. I have been more than once intoxicated, my passions have always bordered on extravagance: I am not ashamed to confess it; for I have learned, by my own experience, that all extraordinary men, who have accomplished great and astonishing actions, have ever been decried by the world as drunken or insane. And in private life, too, is it not intolerable that no one can undertake the execution of a noble or generous deed, without giving rise to the exclamation that the doer is intoxicated or mad? Shame upon you, ye sages!"
"This is another of your extravagant humours," said Albert: "you always exaggerate a case, and in this matter you are undoubtedly wrong; for we were speaking of suicide, which you compare with great actions, when it is impossible to regard it as anything but a weakness. It is much easier to die than to bear a life of misery with fortitude."
I was on the point of breaking off the conversation, for nothing puts me so completely out of patience as the utterance of a wretched commonplace when I am talking from my inmost heart. However, I composed myself, for I had often heard the same observation with sufficient vexation; and I answered him, therefore, with a little warmth, "You call this a weakness—beware of being led astray by appearances. When a nation, which has long groaned under the intolerable yoke of a tyrant, rises at last and throws off its chains, do you call that weakness? The man who, to rescue his house from the flames, finds his physical strength redoubled, so that he lifts burdens with ease, which, in the absence of excitement, he could scarcely move; he who, under the rage of an insult, attacks and puts to flight half a score of his enemies, are such persons to be called weak? My good friend, if resistance be strength, how can the highest degree of resistance be a weakness?"
Albert looked steadfastly at me, and said, "Pray forgive me, but I do not see that the examples you have adduced bear any relation to the question." "Very likely," I answered; "for I have often been told that my style of illustration borders a little on the absurd. But let us see if we cannot place the matter in another point of view, by inquiring what can be a man's state of mind who resolves to free himself from the burden of life,—a burden often so pleasant to bear,—for we cannot otherwise reason fairly upon the subject.
"Human nature," I continued, "has its limits. It is able to endure a certain degree of joy, sorrow, and pain, but becomes annihilated as soon as this measure is exceeded. The question, therefore, is, not whether a man is strong or weak, but whether he is able to endure the measure of his sufferings. The suffering may be moral or physical; and in my opinion it is just as absurd to call a man a coward who destroys himself, as to call a man a coward who dies of a malignant fever."
"Paradox, all paradox!" exclaimed Albert. "Not so paradoxical as you imagine," I replied. "You allow that we designate a disease as mortal when nature is so severely attacked, and her strength so far exhausted, that she cannot possibly recover her former condition under any change that may take place.
"Now, my good friend, apply this to the mind; observe a man in his natural, isolated condition; consider how ideas work, and how impressions fasten on him, till at length a violent passion seizes him, destroying all his powers of calm reflection, and utterly ruining him.
"It is in vain that a man of sound mind and cool temper understands the condition of such a wretched being, in vain he counsels him. He can no more communicate his own wisdom to him than a healthy man can instil his strength into the invalid, by whose bedside he is seated."
Albert thought this too general. I reminded him of a girl who had drowned herself a short time previously, and I related her history.
She was a good creature, who had grown up in the narrow sphere of household industry and weekly appointed labour; one who knew no pleasure beyond indulging in a walk on Sundays, arrayed in her best attire, accompanied by her friends, or perhaps joining in the dance now and then at some festival, and chatting away her spare hours with a neighbour, discussing the scandal or the quarrels of the village, trifles sufficient to occupy her heart. At length the warmth of her nature is influenced by certain new and unknown wishes. Inflamed by the flatteries of men, her former pleasures become by degrees insipid, till at length she meets with a youth to whom she is attracted by an indescribable feeling; upon him she now rests all her hopes; she forgets the world around her; she sees, hears, desires nothing but him, and him only. He alone occupies all her thoughts. Uncorrupted by the idle indulgence of an enervating vanity, her affection moving steadily toward its object, she hopes to become his, and to realise, in an everlasting union with him, all that happiness which she sought, all that bliss for which she longed. His repeated promises confirm her hopes: embraces and endearments, which increase the ardour of her desires, overmaster her soul. She floats in a dim, delusive anticipation of her happiness; and her feelings become excited to their utmost tension. She stretches out her arms finally to embrace the object of all her wishes and her lover forsakes her. Stunned and bewildered, she stands upon a precipice. All is darkness around her. No prospect, no hope, no consolation—forsaken by him in whom her existence was centred! She sees nothing of the wide world before her, thinks nothing of the many individuals who might supply the void in her heart; she feels herself deserted, forsaken by the world; and, blinded and impelled by the agony which wrings her soul, she plunges into the deep, to end her sufferings in the broad embrace of death. See here, Albert, the history of thousands; and tell me, is not this a case of physical infirmity? Nature has no way to escape from the labyrinth: her powers are exhausted: she can contend no longer, and the poor soul must die.
"Shame upon him who can look on calmly, and exclaim, 'The foolish girl! she should have waited; she should have allowed time to wear off the impression; her despair would have been softened, and she would have found another lover to comfort her.' One might as well say, 'The fool, to die of a fever! why did he not wait till his strength was restored, till his blood became calm? all would then have gone well, and he would have been alive now.'"
Albert, who could not see the justice of the comparison, offered some further objections, and, amongst others, urged that I had taken the case of a mere ignorant girl. But how any man of sense, of more enlarged views and experience, could be excused, he was unable to comprehend. "My friend!" I exclaimed, "man is but man; and, whatever be the extent of his reasoning powers, they are of little avail when passion rages within, and he feels himself confined by the narrow limits of nature. It were better, then—but we will talk of this some other time," I said, and caught up my hat. Alas! my heart was full; and we parted without conviction on either side. How rarely in this world do men understand each other!


Is Werther inherently evil? Of course not, but his mental delusion is brought on by his arrogance. This is true of so many crazies in World Literature - Hamlet, Quixote, Ahab, and a whole blessed gallery of them from Dostoevsky, as it is for so many crazies in reality. Their lack of humility before life, their belief that they should be masters of their own destiny, their implacable resolve in the face of life's battles, is paradoxically the force which causes their overwhelming personalities to disintegrate. However much they brought ruin upon themselves, a small corner of us will always have sympathy for these characters, and it would be fruitless to deny it because it's an involuntary perceptive reaction.  

The term Tragedy is what happens when flawed people are brought to a great spiritual height, but their human flaws, so often flaws of the flesh, make them fall from the elevated world of the spirit in which they previously dwelled. In truth, it's not important whether one feels sympathy or an urge to vengeance at characters, or people, whose selfishness has brought them to a low state. Aristotle called this the reason which tragedy affects us 'catharsis.' It is, in fact, cathartic, to see this process, because we realize that supposed half-gods like Agamemnon, or Othello, or Louis CK, are in fact human in the most disgusting way - no better than any of us, and in fact, worse in so many ways because fate allowed them to make real those instincts that were worst within them.  Over the years, catharsis has come to mean many different things. According to Lessing, another great German thinker who was a friend of Goethe's, catharsis brings pity and fear into proper balance. By pitying the tragic hero who elicits the catharsis from within us, we become more afraid of making the hero's mistakes, because if such a mistake can affect someone so great so greatly, how much more could such a mistake effect the lives of little people like us? According to other thinkers, more modern ones, catharsis is a term that in today's terminology that is almost medical. It means that we are restored to a state of inner health, our psychological burdens are relieved, and most importantly, we are purged of our excess passions. 

And because sympathy for those who fall from a state which the rest of us could never attain is an involuntary reaction, the only true effort we would have to make is to repress compassion for these fallen figures. A lot of writers complain lately about what many commentators oriented in social justice call 'himpathy.' When celebrities have lately been accused of sexual harassment, there are inevitable internet think pieces accusing other internet think pieces of sympathizing more with the accused rather than with the victim. What this neglects is that every article written which piles further atop an already accused celebrity is time which writers could have been used to investigate the claims of more victims. The world is complicated, and people will feel sympathy with abusers of power even if they're told many times that they should be ashamed for doing so, and if anything, being told so will make most people much more resentful of victims. What requires effort, now as ever before, and perhaps now as never before, is to make the effort to sympathize with suffering. When already demeaned people continue to be demeaned, what an outside witness to the scene would observe is called pathos. Think of the term 'pathetic.' We think of it as a term of contempt, but the word technically means exactly the opposite, 'a state deserving of compassion.' So modern English, the language that has a word for everything, no has so much as a word for a state deserving of compassion. 

Justice will prevent future crimes from being as widespread, and sometimes we can even sympathize with perpetrators of vengeance as we might for any criminal, but Aristotle called 'pathos' one of the three modes of persuasion. The onus for the crimes themselves is, of course, predominantly on men. But the persuasion that will make the average man understand the necessity of changing his behavior is not justice or vengeance, it is pathos. 

The discourse of 
#metoo has so dominated 2018 that it feels like an evasion to have spoken about it so little this year in a podcast that's supposedly about relating current events to history. But it is such a minefield of potential misunderstanding and outrage, and it's so easy to misunderstand, and frankly, I don't think anybody quite understands it yet. If you live in coastal America, it seems by far the most impactful event of this year, as though a revolutionary spark has kindled. #metoo is certainly present all around the world, but I doubt that it feels so completely dominant over the discourse as it does in what we call 'Blue America.' If you live anywhere else in the world, I doubt you could have felt anything like the full impact of it - where it dominates every conversation, every social media newsfeed and every news broadcast. No doubt, it's partially a way of subordinating rage at the Presidency of Donald Trump with some kind of change we can affect. But the long-term takeover of China by Xi Xinping and the implementation of China's social credit system is exponentially more impactful to the state of the world. And yet who knows? To speak with any authority about a shift in the way a society relates to itself so fundamental, and so visceral in its impact, is impossible. How can any of us know what impact a movement will have which is both this localized, and yet this seizmic within its own locale? 
It's quite possible that a movement as tectonic as this can eventually cause a chain reaction as enormous as the events that led to the Russian Revolution, it's also possible that in another year, the whole movement will have disappeared. We have no idea yet about its results or impact. 

The reasons to be hesitant to talk about a movement where discussions are so personal for so many people should be relatively obvious. There is nothing to add to a discussion of an issue so urgent for so many people unless you might have things to say about it which might regarded as controversial. But to not speak directly about it when this historical moment is so dominated by discourse on this topic is an incredibly dishonest evasion.

To me, the best thing said so far about the topic was said by, of all people, Stephen Colbert, when talking about his boss, Les Moonves, so I'll cede the floor to him for a moment.  

That one Kennedy quote: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." The problem is that we have avoided hearing the stories of what women have undergone for so long, and so completely, that this explosion of sordid tales of exploitation and abuse and still far worse are so voluminous that the entire American ethos can seem a country built on a cesspool. Not only will love and sex never be the same after #metoo, but the entire culture of celebrity, which depended so highly on worshipping notions and icons of masculinity and femininity, and propelled so much of 20th century America's cultural economy, might be rendered completely obsolete. 

We can claim that we didn't know, but if we didn't know, it's because we didn't want to know. The stories were always there, and many of them were truly horrific. We were all complicit in the behavior of men we whom knew had clear issues with the boundaries of women, but we didn't further investigate the matter. We kept our ears and eyes closed, and anything we did know, we forgot conveniently for years because it didn't seem that important. But it was that important, it always was, and any man who does not see the extent of this suffering by now is lacking in basic human qualities. We all have to prioritize, and even if sexual harassment is no Shoah or Gulags, it's bad enough, and it's easy enough to change that if we as a society have a chance, we should make it happen. 

So if I don't want to evade the most talked about issue of our time, I have to be honest in a few different ways, some of which would be controversial if anybody actually listened to or read anything I have to say. It is incredibly difficult to eradicate a culture of silence. There are all sorts of steps we have to take to move forward as a society, and I will aim to, in my own small way, help two of them along to the path of progress and healing. 

The first is that we have to eradicate the silence about our own actions. If men are being honest with themselves, I doubt many men I know would see that they are blameless. Whether it was our own actions or the actions of others, there are all sorts of times when I believe that every man has acted less than perfectly. If sexual misconduct is half as widespread as is now claimed, then there is no way to count the millions of progressive men who are now most passionate about changing the boundaries of consent whom it is most likely also violated those boundaries. I have no way of knowing if they're simply dishonest in their outward presentation to cover up the truth or if the loudness of their vituperation is a way of repressing their active role in it to themselves. But what I do know is that, to one extent or another, all of us were complicit, and to one extent or another, the vast majority of us were active participants. 

The second may be seen by some people as a particularly outrageous provocation in light of what I've just said. But in this current environment of hatred and fear, the most important thing one can do is to not imitate the morals the enemy. If one side is the side of authoritarianism and one side is the side of democracy, then we have to show our democratic colors. And if a democracy wants to remain a democracy, then even the saintliest of icons are not above criticism from the lowliest sinners. Criticism can always be ignored, and even if the fact of people criticizing us is never ignored, the substance of criticism usually is. 

I believe these two points, for men to own up to the extents of their complicity, and for all of us to accept that people in a struggle can't afford to be choosy about their allies, are the two flanks that will ultimately change the culture of how the genders relate to each other. A struggle is a struggle because the struggle may be lost. In order to win a struggle, some allies will inevitably be extremely imperfect embodiments of the behavior you wish to see from them, or at least they will be until they resolve to change. But what is the alternative? The alternative is for every man from whom you wish to see change deny that the problem applies to themselves in any substantive way. Change begins from within, and if substantive criticism about the nature of the #metoo movement from both men and other women is not more allowable, there are only three choices: for many millions of men to lie to women about what they believe, for many millions of us to live in a state of denial about the actions of ourselves and those we love, or for many millions more to hate and work against feminists who insist on consequences for sexual misconduct which they, perhaps wrongly, consider unacceptably severe. 

When silence about an issue is finally broken, the silence often continues, but in the opposite direction, as many people become consumed by remorse for their complicity. But if we all are to take account of ourselves as a society, we have to investigate our issues in all three dimensions, and that means all sorts of unpleasant facts we neither want to hear nor tell. So I therefore feel an obligation to say that at least a bit of the public shaming we've seen would not be possible unless some people are motivated by vengeance, not justice. Here are perhaps the two most obvious cases.

Junot Diaz, the eminent novelist, wrote an article for the New Yorker about how he was raped when he was eight and kept it a complete secret for forty years. A month later, he was nearly as publicly shamed for forcibly kissing a women, persistently asking a friend for sex she didn't necessarily want to have until she said yes, and losing his temper to the point of shouting abuse at a few other women, and for this he was nearly as pilloried in major publications as Harvey Weinstein was for preying on women in Hollywood in quantities that must number in the hundreds for decades on end. I even went to college with one of the women who was yelled at by Diaz in an objectionable manner, and we share a number of friends in common, but this particular act of public shaming, this almost complete indifference to the horror Diaz underwent, struck me as shameful in itself. He was accused by many about writing the essay in order to diffuse allegations of his own behavior, but if he did, what's wrong with that? What he did was so insignificant compared to what was done to him, it doesn't excuse what he did, however minor, but it's most certainly a reasonable explanation of adult dysfunctionality. 

Or in the Aziz Ansari accusation. He was publicly accused of not being immediately receptive to stopping hooking up after a woman silently indicated that she was no longer receptive to doing anything with him. If this is the standard to which men are now being held, I owe it to honesty to admit that there were moments that, in retrospect, I wonder if I've 100% passed the same test; not many, and definitely not as blatantly as Aziz Ansari seems to have, but there are a number of moments in my life that return to me with a haunting regularity that could invalidate anything else I've said about this issue. 
So now it gets personal.

 One or two moments during a hookup after a six-hour first date when I felt enormous connection with the woman. The date was in Washington DC, and I deliberately missed the last train back to Baltimore. And as we were doing all sorts of things in public which neither of us should have done were we not both quite drunk, I tugged on the woman's hair, I meant for it to be firmer than merely gentle, but it must have been quite harder than I realized I was doing. Until that night, I'd have been much too scared to do anything like that. She responded by mischievously saying 'you don't play fair do you?'. She took it, as I also did, as liberty to get rougher. She had an international flight the next morning. At the time, she was new to the city, and living with her recently moved parents before finding a place of her own to live - so it's not like we could go back to her place. At some point she said 'I need to go home,' and she repeated it a few times. I interpreted it as her saying 'I need to go home but I would rather stay here.' Yet I can't deny the thought that briefly occurred to me that she might be afraid, and yet it took me a few more minutes to say to her 'we can stop whenever you want' rather than say it right away. She gave no indication at that point that she wanted to stop, but this, of course, has lead me to wonder if I crossed an unforgivable binary boundary between sexual congress and sexual misconduct. To this day, I wonder if she was the most colossally missed opportunity for a long-term relationship of my entire life. Perhaps the reason I never heard from her again was simply that a first date on which both people get drunk and paw all over each other is not a great prospect for a long-term relationship. But if the reason I never heard from her again was because I didn't handle a situation of consent better than I did, then I can't begin to convey the extent of my remorse. 

There are other moments too. When I was younger, college age or a year or two after, there were a few female friends whom I grabbed the boob or ass of friends in what I thought was a joking manor, and as I write it, I realize just how sick it is to say it was a joke, but at the time, I thought I was being funny, and I honestly thought the friends thought it was funny too. It was not a grab, it was a grope, and there was a time just a few years ago I similarly did that in what I thought was a joking manner in public to an ex-girlfriend, and after she was correctly furious about it, I realized how incredibly stupid I'd been. I apologized later that day and did my best to have an honest conversation about it. 

There was also the time I directed an opera and staged a sexual assault unwritten in the scene in spite of the fact that the star, who was also the producer, was clearly quite uncomfortable with it. She phrased her objection to that particular staging in such a manner that it sounded like she just didn't like how the scene departed from the text, which led to more confusion because she clearly wanted me to depart from the text much more than I had until that point. The truth is that I could sense that her discomfort was probably more than just an artistic level, but I was so obsessed by using my one shot to direct my favorite opera to get the best possible production that I didn't care. I was in a bit of a bind. The producer was also the leading lady, she and the conductor had both made it clear to me that they wanted a much more untraditional, more daring and even risque production, than I first had in mind to stage. So I changed course, and since we were doing a bare-bones piano version that cut nearly 50% of the show, I came to realize that, when she said that if we wanted to impress people, what we lacked in music we had to make up for with a provocative theatrical presentation, she was absolutely right. Both of us were difficult collaborators and shouldn't have been working together. From the vantage point of nearly five years, I now see that I wasn't so much a director as a dictator, and as she said, she clearly was only producing the show to give herself a star vehicle. Once I'd heard her say that, I should have realized that we had a disagreement about the nature of this production too fundamental to work together. I probably should have gotten out then and there before anybody got hurt, and though I didn't know anybody in the Baltimore arts world at the time, I should have tried to help her find other potential directors who might have been more obliging. I'd barely ever met either the producer or the conductor before, but I was brought in as a director the moment they heard from me that I knew The Marriage of Figaro really well. We all started with exceedingly high hopes and ideals about a new opera company that could do things differently and better than the lavishly costumed singers who park and bark for elderly retirees. And yet, the whole thing turned into such a miserable experience that the company never tried another complete production, and the incomplete production of scenes from Mozart operas they did afterward didn't involve me at all. This was the first theater production I'd directed in ten years, and I suspect it will be at least another ten after I did The Marriage of Figaro that I try again. I don't doubt that the subconscious of creative people gives vent to what the conscious mind refuses to think, but I was directing a two-hundred-thirty year old opera that was literally about sexual harassment, and in all those productions I had yet to see anything like what was staged. I thought I had a great idea in a difficult scene to stage, I fought for it, and I got carried away. Today, the atmosphere of the #metoo movement would completely preclude a staging like that. Once I was involved, I should have backed down 100 times instead of steaming full speed ahead, but the biggest mistake was getting involved at all with that production. I already knew from experience that theater collaboration was oil to my water, but I thought to myself 'hey man, it was college, maybe it's different now.' Of course it wasn't different. Whatever humanity it takes to work easily with other people in high stress situations, it's a humanity I lack, and am rather ashamed at myself for the dictatorial steamroller I inevitably seem to become. 

But most dramatic of all is a memory from my thirtieth birthday party, when I was so drunk as to be not in complete control of my motor functions, I'm not even 5'5, and when I went to greet a female friend, who was at least 5'10, with a hug, she was sitting down and moved slightly up to hug me, I found myself with my hand down her underwear and feeling her butt. I apologized immediately and repeatedly with what I would imagine, or at least I hope, was the most horrified look and tone, and was so haunted by what I'd done that I went outside and cried for two hours in front of my best friend who'd flown halfway across the country. But I should not have been that drunk to begin with, even at a birthday milestone, and even today I wonder if people believe it was an accident. 

Later that same night, I hooked up with a friend with benefits, and in retrospect, there were occasions before that night when she was clearly didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about what we were doing together, and even though I most certainly stopped whenever she said out loud 'I don't want to do this', I think I should have been much better about taking hints. But that night, after she 'finished,' I told her I wouldn't ask the same of me because she was clearly drunk. I certainly don't think myself at all honorable for having done so, I did that because I was still disturbed by what had happened with the other friend, and I don't doubt that if that's the way I felt, I shouldn't have even done anything with her at all. But when I said that, she broke down crying. Not just crying, but bawling, for over an hour. She absolutely refused to tell me what was wrong no matter how many times I asked, but it didn't take long to figure out that she was bawling because there were times with others when she did not have that option. It was, all in all, a birthday party night full of sadness.

It will inevitably sound as though I'm giving certain exculpatory details about all this to put myself in a better light, but whatever ambiguities inevitably surface when talking about personal actions, it still remains true that I don't say any of this to justify anything. Confessing to these actions is not about trying to clear myself as having owned up to actions in case I'm accused and the accused paints a worse picture than I think is merited. If I wanted to do that, I could name far more malicious actions which my memory at least tells me I did before I was an adult, actions that will probably haunt me every day of my life. The reason for giving this much detail is that I don't think my mistakes of character can be understood without the ancillary details. I can just as easily name a few other incidents in which I think my actions were within appropriate boundaries but I think the woman misinterpreted them; the point is not to preempt any kind of dirt on me with a kind of confession, but to personally square my actions with my own conscience. To admit to those times when, as an adult, I've fallen far short of the man I'd like to be, and hopefully by doing so, I've demonstrated in at least a small way that I would like to be a better person than I am, and hope to become a better person in the coming years of my life. 

I similarly wonder about certain passes I've made to women who clearly weren't interested the first time, and yet I tried again, sometimes rather often. I've certainly lost my temper at female friends who rejected dating me, or women I've met who dropped me after a few dates. And there are other situations too, that, in my anxiety addled mind, I certainly wonder all the time if they've have been misinterpreted, or perhaps that I've even misinterpreted my own actions as benevolent. 

And this is only the behavior of my adult life, not the behavior from the violent madness of my late childhood and the delusional insanity of my adolescence. If someone were to call me, in the words of contemporary parlance, 'problematic,' I wonder if I could ever disagree with a clear conscience.
 Among the more common among us who will never achieve much eminence in life, no political stand we take matters nearly as much as our personal conduct. If we want to see the women we care about have better lives, there's something we must do that's much more important in this historical moment than to advocate publicly for politically positions that women can advocate quite a bit better than we can, and that is to reckon with our own behavior. Somewhere in that chaos of emotions which constitute love and sex, there has to be a truthful, objective definition of what constitutes consent. Even if we might personally disagree that this dramatically more rigid standard is an inherently objective definition, even if affirmative consent is now the de facto 
definition of consent, even if something less than affirmative consent is the standard - like an immediate reading of a social cue which one might interpret as anything less than absolute 100% enthusiasm, then we owe it to the women we care about to figure out when we've crossed that line, and for most of us, it's a 'when' not an 'if.' Whether I ultimately agree or not that anything like affirmative verbal consent is the true boundary of consent, it would be ridiculous after this year to completely dismiss the necessity of such stringent standards out of hand. Particularly because by that standard, I can guarantee that the vast majority of men we all know are assaulters; the honest among us will have to live with that haunting knowledge as best we can, and it will never be easy. 

Perhaps the best evidence that I'm problematic is that I feel so little need for restraint in criticizing a movement I agree with but whose goals I know I've violated in some degree. I may not know nearly as much about as I should about how to treat women, but I do think I know a little bit about history. So this is where it gets particularly difficult, because, on the one hand, I know what I'm doing is, to use contemporary parlance: mansplaining, perhaps egregiously so. By the metrics of many, it would seem by saying all this that I haven't learned a thing. It makes me sad that some would think that, but so be it. I believe my problem came from refusing to listen to my conscience soon or often enough. And while I'm sorry my conscience conveniently returned in time to remonstrate the people I want to help, I don't want to make the same mistake in reverse. 

It would be fruitless for me to deny that I think the movement has made a series of disastrous errors which set back every goal they and I want to see enacted. There are moments when the tenor of online discussions have eerie familiarity to anyone with any knowledge at all of what local Communist party meetings used to be like. Anything but complete agreement with the party line is heresy that must be silenced. Every semantic ambiguity becomes a potential misstatement. This is a climate which happens when true believers mean to coerce dissent into silence. As happened with 19th century Communism, I think this trend will only become stronger with time. 

I'm hardly the first to make such points, and the fact that so many people make them is often shown as evidence that debate is not being silenced. There's a terrible irony in that. The reason dissent has not been silenced is because the position of women's rights in society is still so much lower than the position of misogynists. Intersectional feminism does not have much power over anyone who does not believe what the movement itself believes, while misogynists very much do. Again, people in a struggle can't afford to be choosy about their allies, and in such a militant climate, even the few victories usually have grotesque unintended consequences.

The evidence of a small tent's dangers is plainly in front of everyone - the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton has many authors, and cannot be explained away as simply misogyny, neither can the probable appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, neither can the rise of the alt-right, and all sorts of leaders abroad for whom incitement to hatred of women is part of their platform rather than merely a sin of personal conduct like Bill Clinton: leaders like Vladimir Putin, Roderigo Duterte of the Phillippines, and Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. There can be no doubt that something of a Blue Wave has come by the time this episode airs. The House of Representatives will certainly be Democrat. The Senate may be as well. But consider what we're facing in 2020. Even a majority of three million votes is not enough to secure a Democratic President. Within the Democratic party, the party is divided into at least three camps: moderate, liberal, and progressive, the two outer flanks both having a series of non-negotiable demands which come in direct contrast to what the other flank wants. Meanwhile, the Green Party, Democratic Socialists of America and the Libertarian party all want to pick votes off from the Democrats, and between all three parties, could pick a few million votes off from Democrats. And even if there's a large chance of Democratic victory in spite of all this, Russian and Chinese hackers stand at the ready to make sure a Democratic victory does not happen. Once a Democrat recaptures the White House, whether in 2020 or later, that President will have to face emboldened dictatorships in Russia and China, who have already come to like their greater share of power relative to the US and who knows to what means they'll resort before they give it up. A second recession looms on the horizon, possibly a worse one than The Great Recession of 2008,  The last time we might have been able to get out of this mess with relatively little trouble was to convince the country to vote 'with her.' Now Trump is President, in part from misogyny and racism, in part from Russian involvement, in part from the authoritarian rage of the Right, in part from the complacency of the political Center, and in part from the intransigence of the most strenuous anti-misogynists and anti-racists on the Left. No matter who wins the nomination, no matter who wins the Presidency, country is about to be chastened with still more hard lessons than we've been already, perhaps much harder. 

So in light of all that, I feel the need in my own small way to issue a warning about what is dangerous in a movement that, at the moment, seems like it could not be more on the side of right. 

These are my warnings: for so many who consider themselves liberal Democrats or far to the left of that, an accusation of misconduct is considered tantamount to proof. And yet it's almost a cliche among trial lawyers of long practice that the disbelief of other women is more common among jurors who are women than jurors who are men. I don't doubt this will change dramatically as the women of our generation are selected for more juries, but just for a moment, consider what this might mean. Are women in our generation just so much more prone to have sexual misconduct happen to them than previous generations? Or is it more likely that the definition of what constitutes abuse has changed incredibly dramatically, and almost overnight? I'm sure that many older liberal women are looking back at experiences of their past and reinterpreting them in light of new standards, but the majority of older women are not liberal or left-of-liberal democrats. Many younger women believe they speak with the voice of oppressed women of older generations who never had a chance to be heard. Perhaps they do, I can't imagine that any person of any generation would refuse bodily autonomy, but previous eras had worldviews very different than our own, and it's just as foolish to think that later eras will judge with our sense of morality either. Many of those women who were oppressed by our contemporary definition would look at what we consider oppression, and well might consider it insulting for us to think of them as victims. 

There is also a simpler problem which no one wants to discuss. Goethe himself put it best: "Whatever emancipates the mind without giving control over ourselves is dangerous." One has to be careful making this argument to avoid what's often been called 'your skirt was short' logic. There are no circumstances in which assault is ever deserved. That's a statement so obvious that I feel stupid even saying that. All I can say in my defense is that this point is much, much more abstract and complicated, and neither holds woman responsible on any individual level or on a collective level except to say that they are the victims of history's machinations, still more than men are. 

About ten years ago, Fred Kaplan wrote a book with an interesting thesis, that 1959 was the year that truly birthed Modern America. It's always stupid to make a historical argument which says that 'this year was the crucial year that changed everything', because history IS change. But there's a kind of truth to this thesis, even if your eyesight for historical dates has to be fuzzier than you should let it be. 1959 wasn't particularly significant in its immediate importance, but in terms of how it laid a foundation for the future, or at least the future until very recently, it's difficult to come up with a confluence of events that can be comparable, because it was a year that birthed so much which soon became known as 'the counterculture.' It was the year , jazz musicians like Miles and Coltrane and Cannonball and Bill Evans came together to do 'Kind of Blue', the first modal jazz album, a development which led directly to free jazz; Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were in the middle of their six year romantic relationship, which laid the foundations of 'Pop Art'; it was around this time that Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso met up with William Burroughs in Paris and went to Tangiers, laying the foundation for the Beat Generation as a true Movement rather than a loose coagulation of seeming slackers; it was around this time that Mailer and Capote and Didion and Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese started doing 'New Journalism', using the most avant-garde literary techniques in their reporting; it was the year John Cassevetes released the final cut of 'Shadows,' the first modern film in America made independent of Hollywood, and Roger Corman founded his low budget studio: Filmgroup, which would be the studio which seemingly mentored the entire next generation of Hollywood - Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Sylvester Stallone, Dianne Ladd, and William Shatner; it was around this time that the so-called 'sick comics' emerged, whose material was deliberately challenging and even confrontational rather than merely entertaining - until the 'Sick Comics' the diet was basically borschtbelt humor from comics who grew up in the New York tenements like Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, but this was comedy for a more sophisticated, more educated, more challengeable, audience, and produced comics like Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrar, Shelley Berman, The Addams Family, and Mad Magazine; It was also the year Britain lifted its ban on obscenity, without which, the emergence of The Beatles, the Stones, and The Who, would have been completely impossible. It was also the year Barry Gordy founded Motown Records, the consequences of which I'm guessing I don't need to elaborate. All this was a new, more sophisticated, more adult, entertainment for an educated American class. Before World War II, it used to be that in order for Americans to reach the height of sophistication, they had to go to Europe. By the end of the Fifties, Europeans who wanted to do the same had to come here. The center of sophisticated entertainment that turned its nose up at the unwashed masses, and even to segments of humanity itself, was here in America, the place where European sophistication allegedly went to die. 

More important still was the politics. The emergence of Fidel Castro and Malcolm X to the international zeitgeist, a more modern vision of the far left which did not see evil in terms of class but rather in terms of race, and proscribed violent resistance to an imperialism and racism led by America rather than Europe. It was the year of the first American casualties in Vietnam. It was the year Khrushchev came to America to soften Cold War relations to lead us back off the path of nuclear annihilation. It was also the year the Soviets launched their first probe into outer space, making the Cold War into a competitive rivalry rather than outright enmity. 

But from the standpoint of 2018, the most important development now seems to easily be the Birth Control Pill invented by Gregory Pincus and John Rock. If you told anyone at a party in the early 70s that birth control was more important than putting a man on the moon, nobody would believe you, even as they told you to put your car keys in a hat. Birth control methods probably existed long before the dawn of recorded history, but never were they exponentially so reliable and secure and able to be mass produced. A reset button was pressed on the entire concept of sex, everything about sex in issues of both procreation and recreation was rendered unknowable. So much in the current debates about assault and abortion can be traced back to this development. If you want to understand what your opponent thinks, you have to see it through the eyes of how the 'pill' affects their argument. Anti-abortion activists can argue, 'Well, most of us don't approve of the pill, but it's just one more safeguard these girls disregarded, and now you liberals would rather they kill a child than live with the consequences of their decisions. It's just more evidence that the entire liberal worldview is based on an abdication of responsibility.' Intersectional feminists can argue, 'Well, you patriarchs managed to imprison us for a million years by tying us down with children, but now, we, not you, make the decision about when and whether to have children. And now that we have this ultimate power of life, we can and should take other powers from you which you've so long used to keep us down.' 

We suddenly don't hear this expression much anymore, but whenever any American says something unpopular, they generally justify it by saying 'This is America!' or 'This is a free country!' The justification may not be as true as it used to be, but whether America is as free as we once were, or whether America was never as free as it prized itself, what remains true is that we've always been a country that prizes personal expression above all else. And nothing is more personal than love, romance, and sex, nothing is more tied to both our personalities and our identities, nothing is more tied to our sense of selves, our senses of selves are just small frames on which a different infinitesimal manifestation of this janus-faced desire is hung for a short while. It is a force that predates us by billions of years and will probably be present long after we and all the humans we procreate have disappeared from the earth. Erotic desire is a force a google times more powerful than all the hydrogen bombs in the world, and given even another million years, humans will be unable to harness its power properly. So in a country where personal expression is prized above all else, it makes sense that sex would become the ultimate issue on which personal expression hinges, and potentially even the issue on which the entire American social contract can come unglued.

And as always, there seems to be a node around which two sides of an issue turn, and the positions seem to be mirror images of each other. The issue is birth control, and ultimately, who controls birth? Is sex now about recreation, or is procreation still the main function of sex? Is the uterus the sole property of the person who owns it, or is the future of families too important for it to solely belong to its owner? 

No matter where one stands on these questions, and I'm sure that questions like this are enough of a Rohrshach test that if you have a strong opinion, the answer may seem self-evident to you even if it doesn't to so many others. The similarities are not in precisely the assumptions of one side or the other about the same issue, but in the pathologies of what they believe about the issue they most prize. The prize issue of one side is the ban on abortion, the prize issue of the other side is bodily autonomy. The problem with both is that whatever one's beliefs, both sides are asking for standards that are now impossible. 

Total number of sperm and eggs that go unfertilized, inability to feed anything like the entire world population were every possible pregnancy made actual....

According to the United Nations, there are 3,776,294,273 men in the world. What protections would have to be in place in order so that the world's men can be held accountable...

 The controversial but nevertheless fact that consent would be slightly less of a concern were society not as sexualized...


As many do, I joke with friends in open relationships all the time. There's a lot to joke about, because a lot of things about it seem more than a bit like a sex cult. The pure jargon of the concepts in that world like 'polyamory,' 'prime/primary and secondary,' 'triads and quads', defining types of relationships by letters of the alphabet, this is the kind of terminology that makes the most mysterious force in the world into something incredibly clinical and dull. As far as I'm concerned, you would probably have to really love sex above everything else in the world in order for this world to have any appeal at all. 

I also think it's clear to anybody who has friends in open relationships that many two-person relationships become open because the partners should not be in a relationship at all. But ultimately, I think this is a very promising development. Some people are clearly not well-disposed for monogamy, they're going to seek more than one partner whether they're provided an acceptable outlet or not. But there is no freedom without laws and discipline. Love is the most light-giving force in the world, and as such, plays with fire. There is nothing in the world more dangerous than love, and if people want to experiment with it, they have to have a set of agreed upon assumptions and boundaries. 

Before there was open relationships, there was free love. We are now living in the world of discontents which free love left us. Conservatives, as usual, were right so long as you experience life as a series of abstractions. The free love of the Sixties was so obviously a chaos of bad faith and mixed motives; full of long-haired men who rebelled against their stern, buzz cut fathers, only to give women little more choice than their fathers did. For many women, free love was very clearly liberation through imprisonment.  

Those women who come to the conclusion that violations of new standards are not abuse could correctly point out that denying their personal interpretation of their own experience is in itself a form of disbelieving women. Some progressives would probably counter that what constitutes abuse is a personal standard, allowing for differences in what each person considers abuse. But that does not hold up in a court of law, rule of law depends on standards being universal. Even if 100% of all accusations are true, and 100% of the accusations are correctly interpreted, the idea that every story should be completely believed with a presumption of guilt against the accused is anti-democracy. Even if 100% of today's stories are true, and I'm sure well over 90% of them are, and correctly interpreted, and I'm a bit less sure of that, the assumption of guilt can only lead to many more exploitations of that assumption. 

To those who believe that this presumption of guilt is not harmful to the average person often contends, correctly, that the accused so far have almost all been men of extreme privilege, mostly white, so why should anybody care if they're brought down - particularly since most of them deserve it richly. But many of the people who believe in the presumption of guilt for the privileged also want the law to reflect the new standards of what constitutes assault. Eminently powerful people should be held to a higher standard than the general population, but by virtue of their power, they will always be held to a lower one. Meanwhile, our prison population is already the highest documented prison population in the world by far, and if the law is going to be used to prevent sexual assault far more often than it's been, it won't be the privileged who abuse their power that pay for this, it will be the same populations as ever before - men from already oppressed cultural minorities. 

We should draw a parallel with another, still even more horrific, area of abuse, familial abuse. I've heard a quote cited that more than 50% of families have some degree of abuse perpetrated at some point. I'm sure that in this definition, a vast swath of it constitutes only an occasional smack from a parent or a meltdown when the parent yells at the child, or maybe it's occasionally that the child does the same to the parent. But let's posit that, per this statistic, the amount of abuse which constitutes something abusive by any standard would surprise us. It's been established that only 1% of the population is psychopathic, 1% is sociopathic, 1.2 percent is psychotic, and somewhere around 7% has narcissistic tendencies. What accounts for the other 45-50% of families where at least some small degree of abuse happens, and perhaps quite a bit more than that? The only answer is that life is difficult and complicated, and no matter how good your intentions, the chances that at some point, the wrong circumstance will lead you to cross some sort of unforgivable boundary in life is astronomically higher than you think.

Here's a very different kind of parallel, an historical one. The early 1860s were, of course, very important event years in the rights of workers. These were both the years when the American Civil War liberated the slaves of the South and also the years when the Russian nobility had no choice but to liberate their serfs. Neither slave nor serf was liberated into any kind of desirable condition, but the Communist Revolution was advanced neither by the segregation of the former slaves, nor by the poverty of the former serfs who had no land of their own to farm unless they bought it from their former owners at grotesquely inflated prices. What dug a path directly to the Russian Revolution was January Uprising of 1863 in the then insignificant Western Russian province of Poland. On one side of the uprising, the Whites, meaning the Establishment - the gentry, loyalists to the Czar who were liberal and conservative alike, those who stood to lose everything in a revolution, both the craven who wanted to keep profiting from the suffering of others, and also principled people who worried that too quick a transition to greater equality would lead to still greater bloodshed. On the other side, the Reds, peasants, industrial workers, who demanded that the serf class be liberated unconditionally. The Polish landowners wanted to be paid for liberating their workers, the serfs and their champions demanded freedom as their inalienable human right.

Who can ever doubt which side was right from a moral standpoint? There was no question of who was on the side of light, who was strong in love. It seemed a case of absolute moral clarity - everything in the world that is loathsome, against everything in the world that could be great and beautiful. But what ultimately happened in the aftermath of the January Uprising? The first meeting was convened of the International Workingmen's Association to discuss how the solidarity of workers around the world can overcome the ability of owners to bring in foreign scabs to take the place of the original workers. The meeting took place September, 1864, at St. Martin's Hall, London. Radical delegates convened not only from England, Ireland, but France, Italy, Germany, and Poland. These radicals were full of the notions of then popular radical intellectuals like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and Louis Auguste Blanqui. But over the course of the meeting, and of subsequent meetings, it became clear that there was German journalist who was not only the leader intellectually, but also the leader because he had the will to incite acts of blood and betrayal which softer socialists would never countenance. His so inspired this congress that the movement they began soon found themselves with somewhere between 5 to 8 million followers. This journalist was, of course, Karl Marx.

Inevitably, the forces of power won out. And just as inevitably, they won because some of the opposition to the January Uprising argued that a capitulation to the rights of workers, a capitulation so long delayed, would cause a chain reaction that led to far greater bloodshed at the hands of revolutionaries than would ever happen if the serfs would simply consent to their continued exploitation.  The greatest injustice of all was that this argument turned out to be absolutely right. At the time, the argument seemed completely absurd. How could there be any chance that any group that disempowered with so little record of violent rebellion would ever take up arms? The motives for such predictions were a combination of principled caution and rapacious avarice. But who, ultimately, is less moral? The person who wants to save lives for the wrong reason or the person who inadvertently destroys lives for the right one? 

Liberals of the time argued that this demand for serfs to be given land without compensation for the owners was just too much too quickly. No matter what the justice of the claim, society could not handle that much change all at once. The serfs had just been liberated two years previously, it was perhaps the greatest victory in the sorry history of Civil Rights in Europe, and still it was nowhere enough for many people and they were only emboldened by the gains to demand something still more revolutionary. Conservatives would never approve of it, reactionaries would fight against it with everything they had. The liberals were right, and 2500 people died in the uprising, almost all peasants and workers. Conservatives felt they'd been proven right that progress could not be trusted, so the more strenuous the demands for progress, the harder the crackdowns on it. Which further enraged revolutionaries, and converted many of them from soft socialists who dreamed of a world without oppression into hardened communists all too willing to oppress, because, or so they reasoned, the world could only free itself of bloodshed by killing all those who would spill blood. 

Whenever a progressive movement begins that seems as though it might alleviate human suffering, the best intentioned people often join. But the best intentioned people are, in a sense at least, soft. By definition, a moral person is extremely circumspect about committing immoral acts. And therefore,  in frustration, they often concede their power to harder, more fanatical movements that match the evil they wish to defeat, blood for blood. And because these rebels have overthrow and implement an oppressive system rather than merely oversee one, their actions are correspondingly bloodier. 

But when a successful Communist Revolution happened fifty years later, the Soviet Union clearly became a manifestation of lower classes rebelling against the aristocracy and bourgeoise who kept low the workers' position in life so strictly, and simultaneously, it was not a manifestation of that at all but a new kind of power that demanded permanent revolution, and permanent revolution demanded the permanent spilling of blood. It was both justified by the horrific treatment workers endured to establish such a state, and justified the horrors of Communism not at all. The suffering that brought movements like #metoo, like Black Lives Matter, like Occupy Wall Street, is very real. Perhaps they're all just blips on the world's radar, which will continue for the foreseeable future in the same manner we've always known, or maybe they will lead to a world for our grandchildren whose horrors we would dread, or maybe they will lead to humans finally being kinder to one another in those ways that seem to have mostly eluded us so far. But what is clear about this movement is that we as yet have no idea how it will impact the world in five years, let alone seventy. 

People in Blue America can be forgiven for occasionally wondering if #metoo is a moment for women in world history as significant as the liberation of slavery. Who knows? I suppose it would be foolish to deny that the uptick in the quality of human life from this could be as large as the widespread abolition of slavery was, though slavery is literally a reservation of the right to perpetrate abuse over the span of a person's entire life, not a few minutes or hours; and maybe the Chinese social credit system, rather than a disaster in itself, is a potential January Uprising that leads to an unrecognizably dreadful world fifty years hence. It seems more than a little ludicrous to say that a movement like #metoo could lead to the Soviet Union, but consider how many quasi-revolutionary movements in America sprang up in the last ten years: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, now #metoo. Every one of them seems to gain more traction than the last. If this trend continues, it's hard to believe that one of them won't stick. As I write this particular passage, Christine Blasey Ford is testifying before congress about her attempted rape at the hands of the still quite possible Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh. For many of us, myself included, this feels more than a bit manichean. Nothing less than the fate of Roe v. Wade, the statute making abortion legal in America nationally, is at stake in the outcome of these confirmation hearings. 

I believe Brett Kavanaugh did what he's accused of doing. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme, I don't really care much whether or not Brett Kavanaugh did it. Because Brett Kavanaugh is a conservative Republican with a 100,000 page concealed record. The concealment is of his record during the Bush years. During the Clinton years, he was a right-hand man to Kenneth Starr during the impeachment trial, and during the impeachment hearings, Starr argued, over and over again, that the President had no right to conceal anything from Congress which was subpoenaed. And yet, the Bush Administration, which withheld documents over issues of torture, indefinite detention without trial, warrantless wiretapping, intelligence gathering, the Iraq invasion, findings on America's energy crisis, and so many more. The reason for not releasing the documents is pellucidly clear. Brett Kavanaugh is clearly a partisan advocate who believes that executive power should be as strong as possible when in the hands of Republicans, and weak as possible if in the hands of the Democrats. There's at least an outside chance that John Roberts would vote in favor of letting investigations of Trump continue, but Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court over 20 other Republican prospects because there is a 100% chance he would vote to shut down the investigations and not let the public see the findings. If we want to know the truth about whether or not Donald Trump is a Putin stooge, we must do everything within our power to deny Brett Kavanaugh a seat on the Supreme Court. The future of democracy may depend on it. 

The second reason should be equally obvious, Kavanaugh is yet another Republican fanatic under the ideological delusion that abortion is a preventable practice. Abortion, however one feels about it, is something that women will seek. If quality of life matters at all, for both child and parent, abortions should be procured legally. If the health of mothers who might die in pregnancy or spend the rest of their lives too sick to care for their children matters at all, abortions should be procured legally. If a life of a baby proven to have a congenital disease that guarantees a life of suffering can be prevented, abortion should be procured legally. These are questions that matter for millions of suffering women much more than the trauma endured one night thirty-six years ago by one white teenager of means who went on to have a brilliant career. Against a party that fights dirty, one must fight dirty. When pitted against the Republican party, so determined to overturn Roe vs. Wade that they necessitated a Supreme Court seat to go unfilled for nearly a year for the first time in two-hundred years, the only way for Democratic Senators to have a clear conscience is to use every single means at the Senate's disposal to prevent a conservative Republican from becoming the fifth anti-Roe v. Wade vote. This matters so much more than what Brett Kavanaugh did or did not do. 

I ultimately support fighting the Kavanaugh nomination with everything we have, I don't think the Democratic base will stand for anything less, and they're desperately needed at the polls this November. But I can't deny extreme trepidation even so. Whether or not Kavanaugh is confirmed, Donald Trump or Mike Pence will be President for at least another two-and-a-half years. Even if Democrats win back the House, a Democratic majority in the Senate is unlikely, and a Republican Senate will have at least another two years to ram through another nominee, a nominee with still more authoritarian leanings than Brett Kavanaugh. It is almost a given now that the precedent of Roe vs. Wade lives on borrowed time. By the end of a Trump or Pence Presidency, abortion will be illegal in nearly half the country. Democrats may be able to keep sexual assaulters off the Supreme Court, but there is much more documentation for who was involved in an abortion than there is for who was involved in a sexual assault. Women from red states who wish to be in public life that received abortions can not only be publicly humiliated for doing so, but depending on the new rulings, they can potentially be thrown in jail. 

Any person who pursues and achieves great eminence must be prepared to be subject to the most enormous scrutiny once eminence is achieved. That is the price of fame, and fame is not owed to anyone. I'm not much of a fan of Alain de Botton's intellectual self-help videos, but I will cede the floor to him for a problem that he explains rather brilliantly. (to 4:00)

This is as good an explanation of the problems and paradoxes of fame as I've heard or read, but it's still too empathetic for those who desire fame and glory. The desire for eminence, whether as a member of the Supreme Court or as a tabloid photo star, is inherently a narcissistic desire to prove oneself more deserving of approval than others. It is a fundamental basic flaw in the moral character of humans. Life circumstances did not necessarily make the famous want to be famous; the egos of the famous make them want fame; these egos may have been bruised by their early life, and there are certainly enough stories of the famous to back that up, or maybe the famous are just inherently narcissistic people who would believe that they are owed something greater than what other people have simply because they believe they are qualitatively better than other people. Therefore, we're left with the Catch-22 that the ambition for glory should be self-disqualifying for anyone who would want to rise to a position of great responsibility because their decisions will, inevitably, be proven to be motivated in large part by self-interest. If Brett Kavanaugh, and any other person, wanted his good name unblemished, the prudent decision as a judge would have been to not allow himself to be nominated to the Supreme Court. 

What matters far more than eminence or approval in the eyes of others is knowledge and wisdom in the brain of oneself... 

That can only be done by radically altering how we approach our thoughts, and the means to do it are right in front of us if only we can see what Goethe, what Faust, saw. Every civilization eventually is brought down, but if we're flexible enough in how we think, there may be ways to come down with a softer landing.

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