Tag Archives: Philosophy

July 2020 – Issue 15(2)

This special issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum contains the refined version of the papers presented at the conference on  reason and passion in politics, held in a period of two days at the University of Bergen in November 2019. The conference was organised as a joint effort by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, and the Department of Antiquity, Philosophy and History (DAFIST) of the University of Genoa, Italy.

The purpose of this conference was to approach the topic of the relations between rationality and emotions, wondering which part do they actually play in politics. In many ways, politics is the art of persuasion and often people are indeed persuaded to position  themselves on a given subject by emotional appeals rather than reasonable arguments. Within the political sphere, both past and present, one can actually find a complex mixture of rational arguments and emotional discourses.

In the dominant Western philosophical tradition, the relationship between reason and emotions has been marked by a conflict between various contrasting models of rationality and emotions. The sphere of rationality and that of passions have been often categorized according to a fundamental dichotomy: either the triumph of reason against the weakness of sentiments or, in the popular interpretation of Hume, the triumph of passions over reason. This dichotomy has also served as a starting base for conceptualizing politics, where already early-modern political theorists defined political autonomy as reason dominating the emotions and passions.

In The Passions and the Interests (1977), Albert Hirschman described how, in the process of modernization, the “passions”, motivating social and political behavior were transformed into modern “interests” and they were thereby assigned the role of containing the social and political destructive passions.

Until recent times, theorists have described both political movements and political affiliation as based on beliefs, ethics, and sentiments. In the last years, though, an “Affective Turn” has taken place both in analytic and continental philosophy, and in contemporary political studies. Emotions and affects are now becoming the object of extensive, multidisciplinary studies that challenge political liberalism’s idea that the emotions must be relegated to the private sphere. This “turn” highlights that the political cannot be understood without reference to human feelings.

However, the fundamental dichotomy between emotions and reason has not at all been overcome in the forms of current politics. While it is true that, today, emotions and passions are returning to the centre of the political scene, they often do so in a passive form. Contemporary politics consists more and more in an abuse and manipulation of the passions. Social media, for instance, has redefined the public sphere in ways that allow charismatic, intimidating and even hateful rhetoric to stand unchecked by editorial control. The space of public discussion has also increased to the point where quick “instinctive reactions” replace careful reasoning. One could ask if the “affective” political change consists in an increasingly oppressive use of the passions as forms of domination. The active function of passions and the way they can contribute to the processes of political democratisation and the conscious involvement of citizens need to be duly analysed; albeit always keeping in mind that  passions are ambiguous, for any feeling within a given political context, even the noblest – compassion and love, inter alia –, holds its limits and presupposes dangers.

This motivates the following questions: Do emotions, of any kind, pose a dangerous threat to rationality and political life? What, for instance, becomes of democracy when a rigorous and rational language in political debates is replaced by one that focuses on emotions, like hope or fear? Is it possible to build  up a democratic society with no recourse to passions, mutual trust and a belief in the right of every individual to participate in the social and political debates? If so, what kind of emotions are positive and what kind of emotions do hinder this development?

A key aim of the conference was seeking to define the possible paths of reflection on this topic and study the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings” as a marker of the political arena.

The European research team that has long been engaged in social and ethical reflection about cultural changes in the modern and contemporary epoch chose to address these questions by a variety of approaches.

(Paola De Cuzzani & Mirella Pasini)

Fictional Utopias, Dystopias, and the Problem of Evil

Fictional utopias of the early modern time, as an alternative and an opposite to classical social contract theories, and fictional dystopias of the 20th century, as the opposite of the democratic and liberal rule of law, remain a major reference or for our contemporary political debates when it comes to characterize warn against considerable dangers entailed in political options, regimes, opinions etc. Today, classical utopias are mostly overwhelmingly considered in a negative way, although there were initially designed to be a more comprehensive solution for the problem of political evil than the social contract theories. From the beginning, dystopias were designed as the greatest political evil ever. Yet, both are not only fictional, but also radically impossible to ever b realized, for reasons that have not been really analyzed yet. In the following, I enquire into these reasons.


Part 1: What do classical utopias lack in order to offer a feasible solution to the problem of evil?

Utopias offer a full-fledged, maximalist solution to the problem of evil: Unlike political contractualism, the other major modern political tradition that deals with the problem of evil, utopias offer not only a minimalist remedy for the worst evil, which is considered by contractualist theories to be Hobbes’ state of nature with a war of all against all. They also offer a model of a perpetually stable community in which all members enjoy the highest possible happiness. Unfortunately, these are either fictions or projects that have never been fully realized. It is important to note that not all utopias are fictions, some are projects. This is the case in Charles Fourier’s New Amorous World, John Rawls’ “realist utopia” (Rawls 1999, 13) and Robert Nozick’s “framework of utopia” (Nozick 1974, chapter 10) as well as of the numerous real, although short-living utopian communities that have existed since the 19th century (cf. Meißner, Meyer-Kahrweg et Sarkowicz 2001). But classical utopias, mainly from the early modern period, are fictions, and I will discuss them in what follows. According to fictionalist theories, some fictitious constructions may still have a practical value, because they present the conditions of the possibility of experience, and, more precisely, of both real and possible experience, and of both desirable and non-desirable experience. In the case of classical utopias, the practical value would be obvious: They might help with achieving the greatest happiness as the most radical remedy for the problem of evil. However, classical utopias constitute a certain kind of fictionalism, i.e., the kind of fictionalism in which fiction not only refers to nothing in the real world, but also cannot refer to anything in the real world.

In the following, I understand fiction as what is described by the authors of these fictitious utopias. By fiction, I do not mean the presuppositions or theses of utopian authors that we may consider as improbable or even as false. Fictions contained in classical utopias are really useful for the constitution of real experience. In fact, contrary to some interpretations of classical utopias (see for instance, Forst 2006), there has never been any utopian writing that intended to be either a mere satire of the utopian fictitious community that it describes or a mere critique of the real society by means of a comparison with a utopian one.

Who does use fictionalism in classical utopias? No member of the utopian community does this, because none of them consider their utopia as a fictitious world that they must pretend really exists. For each member of a utopia, the utopia does exist. The founding fathers of these utopias formulate utopia as a project, i.e., as a normative model that they implement, and not as an actual reality.  Only the authors of classical utopias present their utopia in a fictionalist way of the kind mentioned above, i.e., as something that not only does not exist, but also could not exist.[1] In the following, I will explain why it seems to me that these authors use utopias in the aforementioned fictionalist way. For the sake of convenience, I will refer only to three major classical utopias: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Tommaso Campanella’s Città del Sole (1602), and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624).

Classical utopias teach us (1) what the greatest good in a human community consists of, and (2) that it is impossible for human beings to achieve the greatest good, at least during their life on earth.[2] These two theses are not trivial. In fact, a typical contemporary interpretation asserts that the authors of dystopias (for instance, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, the most well-known writers from this genre that was born in the early 20th century) teach us that the greatest happiness, as it is shown by classical utopias – which these authors of dystopias supposedly referred to in their writings – is not the greatest happiness, but instead either the greatest infelicity or the worst evil. This widespread opinion is false, because – for several reasons that I will not address here – dystopias follow a radically different intention and model than utopias. Thus, dystopias are not appropriate for either demonstrating or refuting the aforementioned thesis (2). Besides this, thesis (2) does not imply that the attempt to realize utopias leads to the establishment of a dystopia or to the greatest happiness or to the worst evil. For explaining why exactly, from the point of view of the authors of utopias themselves, it is impossible to realize utopias, i.e., the greatest good in a human community, I will inquire into the way in which these authors use fiction in their utopian works.

At first sight, the fiction that stands at the core of utopia is not related to its functioning, but also to its perfect perenniality. Yet, this fiction has a lesser fictionalist significance than one may believe at first sight, as I will explain in the following. I will then address a second fiction that, although at first sight it stands in the background, has more important consequences than the first one with respect to fictionalism: the fiction related to the institution of utopia as opposed to its functioning once it is already established. Finally, I will criticize Robert Nozick’s attempt to exclude this fiction from the utopian model in order to make it easier to realize utopia.

The perfectly perennial utopian community connects the greatest happiness with virtue under a premise of equality among all of its members. The relevant virtue consists in the opposite of what justifies leaving the initial common lordship over the land, i.e., the dominium terrae, and establishing the institution of private ownership in accordance with medieval and early modern natural law theories. The justification for instituting private ownership was (1) the vice constituted by the discord among human beings, which in turn results from other vices, namely (2) the desire of each human being to benefit from the fruits of the earth to an unlimited extent, (3) regardless of others and (4) without contributing to the production of such fruits. In medieval and early modern natural law, private ownership is justified because it makes it possible for each human being to enjoy admittedly less than in the initial community of possession, yet at least more than in the Hobbesian state of discord characterized as a state of nature of all against all. In contrast, utopias institute very detailed rules for living together, and these rules are extensively obeyed.

These rules pertain to (1) the enjoyment of the fruits in common, (2) the division of labor and the exercise of labor in order to attain common enjoyment of the fruits, which is (3) supposed to suppress the causes of discord, i.e., rivalry, desire to possess, desire of domination, and desire of glory, in order to guarantee each member the greatest possible happiness. Indeed, utopias are neither the land of milk and honey, nor original paradise, and labor and the constraints of nature exist in utopias too. Furthermore, in utopias, enjoyment is never individual, but instead always an enjoyment in common, which implies that this enjoyment always happens under the scrutiny of others in a situation of transparency.

Yet, how can one set very detailed rules for living together that are extensively obeyed while there exists the aforementioned vices (2) to (4) that precisely oppose such rules, so that in natural law theories, as well as in social contract theories (including Rousseau’s social contract), the second-best solutions of introducing private ownership must be adopted? Natural law theorists mention only one exception to the development of vices, which is the case of small communities striving for the best—or even for perfection—and the example that is always given are convents, which are supposed to exercise virtue in their communal living.

Does utopia consist in the fiction of the disappearance of all of the vices of the entire human species? Utopias’ fiction does not consist in the absence of the inclination to such vices, but in the fictitious situation that hinders this inclination to face temptation. (Kant’s realm of ends works in a similar way.). If so, then utopias fiction would consist in a situation in which: (1) each member not only believes that utopia will ensure her an enjoyment of the same share of the fruits as others, and that utopia will provide her with an extensive as possible share of the fruit, but also that exercising the aforementioned vices would be obviously disadvantageous to her, and (2) no other motivation would surpass her desire to advantageously enjoy these fruits in this way.

Yet, this conviction cannot originate in the mere comparison with the evils of the existing society, although the authors of utopias extensively describe the evils of the existing society of their time, which they consider as an instantiation of the aforementioned state of vice in which no social norm is really respected, but instead in which all social norms are violated by each individual, including the norms that should rule property rights, i.e., the right of necessity (ius necessitatis) and the right of harmless use of others’ property (ius innoxia), resulting in various evils. Concerning punitive torture, More writes in Utopia:

Therefore in this point not only you, but also the most part of the world, be like evil schoolmasters, which be readier to beat than to teach their scholars. For great and horrible punishments be appointed for thieves. Whereas much rather provision should have been made, that there were some means, whereby they might get their living, so that no man should be driven to this extreme necessity, first to steal, and then to die.

However, the motivation for setting very detailed rules for living together that are extensively obeyed does not originate in the comparison between utopia and the existing society. This point is demonstrated by the two following facts. First, the fictional narrative of utopias does not pursue — directly nor indirectly — the intention of incentivizing the members of the existing society to migrate to the utopian island. Only involuntary shipwreck victims sometimes decide to remain on this island. Second, neither the founders’ generation nor the following generations ever chose the utopian institutions instead of adopting the same rules as in the existing societies. Admittedly, one does not hide from the members of the utopia the existence of other societies. Utopia prohibits its inhabitants to travel and to get in touch with other societies, but they remain free to definitively emigrate from their island. Now, none of them decides to definitively leave it, because to all of them, utopia seems to be more advantageous than any other society. Yet, it was not for the members of utopias to decide to adopt these utopian institutions, and neither did the founders make such a decision.

In the following, I will first have a look at the way in which the utopian community is established in utopian fictionalism, in order to then answer the question: What makes possible the creation of very detailed rules for living together that are exceedingly obeyed?

The utopian order is established by a founding father, e.g., Utopus in More’s Utopia, a member of the “House of Solomon” in Bacon’s New Atlantis, etc., with each founding father receiving divine revelation. As for the political and social organization of the community, this divine revelation does not have the same content as religions. The political and social organization part of utopian divine revelation (1) constitutes the main part and the core of the utopian revelation, or even the entire utopian revelation (eschatology is widely missing, as well is pure contemplation, and the purity of the earth etc.), and (2) this social and political content is very detailed (unlike e.g., the Ten Commandments), since it contains all the utopian social norms, so that the institutional powers of utopia has to make decisions only on either technical problems or on disagreements between individuals, which, unlike in existing societies, are extremely seldom. Instituting rules out of divine revelation is radically different from social contract theories. Now, utopia and contractualism both have their starting point in two fictions. Utopia and contractualism share the first fiction, but are in opposition as to the second fiction. The first fiction is the state of nature as a state of war of all against all. For contractualists, it is the initial state of humankind without social contract; for utopias it is the existing society. (In the case of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men.)

The second fiction concerns the institution of the community or of the society.  Contractualist theories explain why and how all individuals adopt a social contract and establish the sovereign. In utopias, the fully detailed divine revelation happened in the past and was experienced by the founding father(s). From this second fiction there result several consequences that are indispensable for utopias.

First, in contractualism, the submission of all to the law and to the sovereign is explained by them matching the interest of each contractor. Each contractor has a fundamental and immediate interest in her survival and for the pursuit of her happiness, i.e., to the enjoyment of a sphere of individual freedom. Now, the only way to reach this situation is the submission to the law, and the only way to protect oneself against the violation of the law by other individuals is the submission to the sovereign. In Hobbes, human beings do not have any further fundamental interests. Thus, the other interests are not guaranteed by the conclusion of the social contract, and there cannot be any unanimous agreement on them. Contractualism – whether Hobbesian or Rousseauist – consists in avoiding summon malum, because in the view of contractualism, human beings cannot reach any agreement on a more ambitious goal.

On the contrary, utopia aims at the summum bonum, on which the members do not need to find any agreement, because there is no need to determine the summum bonum. In fact, the summu bonum is already fully defined by the divine revelation. Furthermore, unlike contractualist legal provisions, the rules of the utopian community are immutable.

Second, the object of the second contractualist fiction is the process of establishing civil society, whereas the object of the second utopian fiction is the community at a much later stage than its establishment. The typically contractualist problem is the fear that others will benefit from the advantages of the social contract without contributing to or obeying it. (For the problem of the free rider, prisoner dilemma, see Gauthier 1969 ; Kavka 1986). This problem does not exist in utopias, because in the utopian community it has already been established, social norms are already much more obeyed by all than in the contractualist society. The famous argument of the “fool” is indispensable to Hobbesian contractualism. It shows that the one who decides to violate the law of the Leviathan, to which she declared full submission, is in a situation that is much worse than the state of nature as a state of war of all against all. Indeed, this violator faces the risk that the others obey the Leviathan and that she be destroyed by the Leviathan and by all united citizens of the Leviathan, which is an extremely unequal situation, unlike the initial state of war of each individual against each individual, without a unanimous and stable coalition of other individuals. Thus, the equality of vulnerability, which characterizes Hobbes’ state of nature, no longer exists for this violator.

Such a violation is foolish. In a utopia, an argument such as Hobbes’ argument of the fool is unnecessary because each individual who might submit to the temptation of free riding does not face the risk of facing a united society, but will certainly face an existing community that is even more united than a society that is governed by much more extensive rules guaranteed by full transparency. Indeed, almost all activities (labor, exchange of goods, meals, hobbies) take place either in common or according to common rules (see conjugal life in More and reproduction in Campanella). Thus, the one who violates the utopian norms must be a true fool, that is, not merely a reasonable person tempted by a behavior the foolishness of which she ignores. In other words, only the utopian fool, not Hobbes’ fool is a true fool. Although, like the contractualist society, the utopian community punishes the fool, the utopian punishment is slavery, not the death penalty or torture. Now, according to Aristotle, slavery is the status appropriate for those who are unable to lead their own life.

At first sight, there is less to learn from the second utopian fiction than from the second contractualist fiction. Indeed, it avoids two problems: (1) the problem of a disagreement on the determination and the interpretation of the institutions and rules, thanks to a divine and fully detailed revelation, and (2) the problem of the free rider, thanks to the presumed existence of a rather wide majority of the utopian community obeying the utopian order. On the contrary, the second contractualist fiction explains how political institutions can exist in spite of two real problems, and it explains it by referring to a situation in which those problems are raised in the most extreme way, i.e., the thought experiment of the state of nature. Utopia presupposes that the two problems mentioned above are already solved. A reason why utopia and contractualism are so different consists in them not dealing with the same issue, as we have already seen.

Now, whereas human beings can avoid the summum malum thanks to the social contract, of which they are the authors, they cannot reach on their own the summum bonum, since they are not the authors of divine revelation. Now, none of the authors of the classical utopias claim to report on a true revelation. The revelation reported on is explicitly a fiction. But from this, we can learn that it is impossible for human beings to reach sovereign happiness, at least in our life on earth. Unlike dystopias, classical utopias do not suggest that this implies that the pursuit of the greatest good on earth is either not desirable or even damaging. Because of the mere negative conclusion that can be drawn from them, classical utopias have never been conceived of or considered as a competitor of either political contractualism or religious conceptions of the highest good.

The intention of Robert Nozick’s “framework of utopia” formulated in his Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) is to (1) realize utopia through suppressing the second fiction mentioned above through (2) taking into account all consequences of the renunciation of the second fiction, while (3) not renouncing of some aspects of the utopian project, but instead while (4) realizing it more perfectly than the second fiction.

Robert Nozick (Nozick 1974) provides the following reason for rejecting the second fiction of classical utopias. Desires, ends, talents, relations and emotions among individuals etc. are inherent to human nature and are so complex that it is extremely unlikely that one is able to determine the highest happiness and the virtue that is necessary to reach it. Even if a genius — like the founding father(s) of classical utopias — were able to do it, it is very unlikely that all individuals trust in the infallibility of this ability. By the way, Nozick observes that among all utopias that have been presented until now, there is not a single pair of utopias that would be compatible with one another. Therefore, Nozick replaces the second fiction of classical utopias by a double disposition.

First, the problem of the too high complexity of the utopian task is resolved by including in Nozick’s model the possibility to modify or to replace any utopian order, in order to experimentally find out what is the best utopian project. Second, the problem of the lack of trust is solved by the principle of the consent to utopia. Each individual is free to choose either one utopian community of her choice or not to choose any, each community is free to either accept or reject any participant as a member, and any member is free to leave her utopian community whenever she would like. This double disposition fulfills the two tasks of the second fiction of utopia. The first task was to avoid through revealed rules having members determine and interpret in a consensual way the rules of the utopian community, which they are unable to do. The second task consisted in avoiding the problem of the free rider through the already established existence of the utopian community.

At first sight, Nozick’s utopia of utopias seems to better realize the core intention of utopia than any other utopia. In fact, on the one hand, it guarantees that no individual will be coerced to enter a utopia she does not want to. Nozick assumes that the person who can best make a judgment on the individual’s happiness is the individual herself. Thus, if a utopia does not make its members happy, they will leave it, and it will disappear. This, in turn, motivates the members of any utopia to contribute to the happiness of each member, i.e., to be virtuous. Indeed, if some members did not contribute to the happiness of others, the other members would refuse to remain living in the same utopian community. Of course, some members might be tempted to leave the community only in order to take the benefits to which she did not contribute. In order to fix this problem, Nozick sketches a system of compensation. Thus, the Nozickean utopia, based on mutual consent instead of the obedience towards the institutions and their founding father(s), seems to ensure, on the one hand, happiness, virtue and the equal freedom of all members, and, on the other hand, the possibility for each individual to freely adhere to a very hierarchical and restricting utopian order, if she would like.

Last but not least, Nozick’s framework of utopias authorizes all utopias that have been formulated until now, with the exception of “imperialist utopias” that requires all individuals to become its members and to obey its rules. Since classical utopias do not intend to exercise domination over the whole humankind, the exclusion of imperialist utopias does not seem to modify the concept of utopia. Since Nozick’s model of utopia provides each individual with the framework that allows her to find out what she considers to be the true utopia, i.e., the utopia that will give them the highest happiness, Nozick’s model claims to be both a framework of utopias and a utopia in its own right for each member of a utopia, while allowing those people who do not wish to live in a utopia to remain in the sole contractualist framework.

In fact, for Nozick, the contractualist framework and the framework of utopias are the same. To this extent, Nozick’s work can be understood as an attempt to demonstrate that contractualism is the theory that is best able to make utopia possible without coercing anyone to enter in any utopia. In other words, utopia is made possible by the fiction of social contract. This raises the following question: Does the condition of possibility of any true utopia consist in abandoning the utopian fictionalism and adopting the contractualist fictionalism? One remark made by Nozick casts doubt on such an idea: The framework of utopia “is compatible with the realization of almost all particular utopian visions, though it does not guarantee the realization or universal triumph of any particular utopian vision.” (Nozick 1974, 319)  Indeed, it remains possible that there is no solution to the problem of determining the greatest possible happiness for all and the virtue leading to this happiness. Let us assume that it is impossible to demonstrate that there is no solution to the problem of determining the greatest possible happiness for all and the virtue leading to this happiness.

Still, it remains true that, until now, all attempts — whether actualized or merely projected — to provide a solution obviously failed, with the exception of what one never tried to realize, i.e., classical utopias that are the fictions of the realization of utopias. Utopian projects have always had few followers, and all real attempts to realize utopian communities have been short-lived and on a small-scale. All of them failed to consensually determine the greatest happiness for all and the correlative virtue, as well as—first of all—to solve the problem of the easy-rider. Now, consensus and perenniality are core elements of the concept of utopia, so that only fictitious utopias are really realized, although only within fiction. In other words, Nozick’s framework for utopias allows it to try to realize utopias, but it does not make it possible to realize utopias in any way. Asserting that it does would be a non sequitur similar to the following implication: Since the rule of law does not prohibit us to live in Socrates’ century, it makes it possible for us to live in Socrates’ century, which a time machine could make possible. The most likely outcome is that the permission given by Nozick’s framework of utopia would be used successfully first of all by communities that are neither contractualist nor utopian, that is, for example, by religious communities. In fact, religious communities can and do exist in a contractualist framework.

It belongs to the core concept of utopia in its fully developed form that utopia is a fully determined and immutable order so that it is already realized. Thus, such a utopian order is possible only in the realm of fiction. Therefore, theories that value emancipation against fixed orders — for example Nozick as well as Ernst Bloch who theorized the “spirit of utopia” — cannot account for any fully developed kind of utopia. Nozick accounts only for the permission to try to realize utopias. In the three volumes of his classical work, Bloch does not inquire into classical utopias, but into fragmentary dreams and strives that he considers as being utopian. The failure of all utopias that have been attempted has confirmed what we can learn from the fictionalism of classical utopias, i.e., the thesis according to which it is impossible for human beings to reach the greatest happiness, at least in our life on earth. The fiction represented by classical utopias shows what would be required in order to enjoy the greatest happiness, but it does not show how to reach it, which suggest that although human nature could live without evil, human beings cannot find the way to such a life without evil.


Do dystopias, which systematically destroy memory, really succeed in trying to make any resistance impossible?

The intellectual and emotional bugbear of the early modern time certainly was the experience of civil war as theorized by Hobbes’ state of nature as a war of all against all. The most formative intellectual and emotional experience of the 20th century certainly was the possibility of nuclear annihilation of the earth – in the 21st century gradually superseded by global warming – and, first and foremost, totalitarianism. And it still is. Almost all of the academic or political theorizations and instrumentalizations of these 20th century and early 21st century experience refer at some point to a fictional corpus that is still exerting a stronger impression than did fictional utopias in the early modern time: dystopias. Yet, between dystopias and totalitarianism, there is a decision difference, which I try to explain in the following.

Dystopias are conceived as the opposite of classical utopias, since they do not depict a community experiencing the greatest happiness, but, instead, a state of the world in which prevails the greatest unhappiness for human beings (or for animals meant to symbolize human beings). In fact, dystopian regimes are even unhappier than Hobbes’ famous state of nature that is a state of war of all against all. Social contract theories draw their legitimacy primarily from being the remedy against this Hobbesian state of nature that they conceive as the summum malum, the greatest evil. Now, the evil entailed in dystopias is even bigger than what social contract theories consider as the summum malum. This fact results from at least the three following reasons. All three of these reasons seem to imply the impossibility of any resistance to dystopia, despite each human being having numerous major reasons to resist them, whereas, in classical utopias, nobody has any reason to resist the utopian regime.

(1) The first reason for the impossibility of any resistance against dystopias: Hobbes’ state of nature is a thought experiment intended to demonstrate the legitimacy of the Leviathan, i.e., the legitimacy of the power of the sovereign state and its laws. This legitimacy results from the contrast with the evils that are unavoidable in the state of nature, which only the Leviathan can remedy. However, the infallible means for implementing this remedy already lie entirely in the state of nature, as an analysis of the state of nature reveals. This analysis of the state of nature, which I will contrast with the second and third reasons for the impossibility to resist dystopia, provides hope to anybody who complains about the evils of the state of nature (or of civil war) and who strives for escaping it.

On the contrary, a core and constitutive feature of dystopias is that it is allegedly impossible to leave them. This explains why in dystopias the resistance is limited to a single individual, and why there is no real organized resistance against dystopias. On the one hand, all dystopian novels detail the measures taken in order to hinder anybody to leave them, while, on the other hand, all dystopian novels tell the story of the failed attempt of a single dissenter or of a small group of dissenters not to destroy or remove the dystopian order, but merely to escape it for herself, at least in some sphere of her life. Like the gate to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the title page of every dystopian novel could bear the inscription “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. The impossibility of escaping from a dystopian regime, even individually or even only in some sphere of one’s life, results from the negation of the two following elements constitutive of the Hobbesian state of nature.

(2) The second reason for the impossibility of any resistance against dystopias: In Hobbes’ state of nature all individuals are equal with regard to their permanent, entire and mutual vulnerability, that is, with regard to their very self-conservation and to all of their belongings, at least while they are either sleeping or when they momentarily find themselves facing a coalition of other individuals. Only the Leviathan is able to guarantee the life and belongings of each individual. As soon as the Leviathan no longer guarantees them, the Leviathan would not only become illegitimate, but it would also no longer exist.

In dystopias, one person or more, and, first and foremost the dystopian order itself, are not vulnerable towards anybody whereas each individual is permanently and entirely vulnerable towards those few persons and the dystopian order itself. This is obvious in the case of the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all of whom are vulnerable against the pigs and dogs. It is also obvious in the case of the hybrid monsters in Herbert George Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, as well as in the case of the humanoids devoid of many human capabilities, that is, the epsilons, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is less obvious, but still a matter of fact, in George Orwell’s 1984, in which Winston Smith’s failed attempt to write a diary provides the evidence that he is unfortunately not capable to have more structured thoughts than those of a toddler. On the contrary, utopias either care about equally developing the capabilities of all of their members, as is the case in Thomas More’s Utopia, or establishing institutions that ensure that everyone has access to knowledge, as it is the case of the House of Solomon in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis.

(3) The third reason for the impossibility of any resistance against dystopias: In Hobbes’ state of nature, individuals are able to behave in a fully rational way, and they exert this ability: They rationally pursue their fundamental interest, that is, the guarantee of their self-conservation and of the possibility to pursue happiness. Utopia’s members know that there exist other models of social organization and they know of which evils our societies are suffering. They understand of which advantages each member of utopia is benefiting from. The distributive advantage provided by a utopia is the greatest happiness for all. They also understand that the condition for enjoying such an advantage is that everyone be virtuous and obey the strict utopian norms.

The inhabitants of dystopias are not only unable to think and act rationally, but they are even, in the first place, incapable of developing this ability. Here I distinguish the ability from the capacity. For instance, I am unable to understand Chinese, but, because I have no pathology affecting my organs of language, I am capable of learning it if circumstances and my will are favorable. Contrary to this, the embryos and toddlers of Brave New World, who are not alphas, are submitted to a chemical and physical treatment as well as to psychological conditioning that destroys their capacity to develop any rational judgment. Among the alphas (and even the alphas plus), only the capacity of judgment related to the rationality of the ends is destroyed. Before Big Brother’s dystopia had been established, Winston Smith benefited from only the emotional education of the first stage of childhood, not the ability to rationalize or make critical judgments, which belongs to a later stage in the growth of the child in non-dystopian societies. Therefore, Winston Smith can experience the nostalgia of the society before Big Brother, but his attempt to write a diary that fails right from the beginning shows that he is not capable of thinking. The “two minutes of hate” and the fake news produced by the “ministry of truth” provokes in him, unlike in the other members of Big Brother’s dystopia, a feeling of strangeness. Yet, he is not capable of conceptualizing this feeling of strangeness into a rational judgment, and even less to transform it into a rational motivation to act for the removal of Big Brother’s regime. The intellectual capabilities at stake are also missing in the hybrid beings living in torments of Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau as well as in the animals of Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which even the necessary physical capacities are missing.

One –and perhaps a major– cause of the worst evils constitutive of dystopias is the definitive lack of two premises that utopias share with social contract theories: the equal, mutual vulnerability of all human agents and their –instrumental as well as formal– rationality. But one should critically inquire into whether this definitive lack can really occur in a dystopian regime. Yet, this decisive question is not addressed in essays about dystopias, nor do those essays provide any elements for answering this question. This may be due to the fact that, at first sight, dystopias look much more realistic than utopias to the extent to which they appear much easier to be realized than utopias. However, this appearance might result from circumstances related to the later period of history in which they were written. This later period of history introduced new fictional elements: new techniques of monitoring and control (for instance, the ubiquitous cameras and television screens as well as the medias of propaganda in Orwell’s 1984, and in-vitro-fertilization, somatic conditioning and synthetic drugs in Huxley’s Brave New World).

A widespread explanation of the unrealism of utopias is that human beings are allegedly not capable of complying with the strict rules and the demanding virtues underlying such utopian societies as Thomas More’s Utopia and Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun. This explanation is wrong, since human beings are capable of such compliance. In fact, the fundamental anthropological premises of utopias are the same as those of existing societies. The part of the utopian fiction in classical utopias that cannot be realized pertains to the transition from a pre-utopian society to the utopian community. This unrealistic transition entails the following elements: (1) It arises with a catastrophe that breaks the link to the former society in a nonreversible way; (2) institutions and rules of the classical utopian communities are presented as the product of either a divine revelation of a transcendent inspiration of a remote founding father or as never needing any modification, since they are allegedly perfect, perfection which, in turn, is due to their origin. These two features of the transition to utopia –and particularly the second one– could never be realized as they presuppose an unrealistic transcendent revelation that would be immediately and definitively adopted by all future members of the utopian regime because of its evident perfection, thereby excluding from the outset any skepticism thus ensuring its immutable validity. Utopia is attractive because it is an experiment beyond the existing societies, but it is also repulsive because it prohibits any other experiment.

The transition from existing societies to dystopian regimes shares only the first element of the transition from existing societies to utopian regimes: (1) It begins with a catastrophe that breaks the link to the former society in a nonreversible way: a war that annihilates existing societies in their deepest roots and plunges them into duress, in Brave New World as well as in 1984, the alcohol addiction of the farmer who neglects his animals so much that he lets them starve, in Animal Farm, the scandal resulting from the uncovering of Doctor Moreau’s experiments by the press in The Island of Doctor Moreau, his subsequent flight to a desert island, his odd experiments on that islands that cause the most painful torments to his hybrid and monstrous creatures. (2) The chaos and the misery that result from these catastrophes seem, at first glance, to lead to the easy establishment of a dystopian regime. But where does this impression originate? This impression is due only to the fact that (a) this catastrophe seems to completely sweep away any element of the past and that (b) the establishment of a dystopian regime occurs in a way that is no more likely than a miraculous revelation. Now, these two elements that lead to the dystopian regime easily establishing itself are not convincing. In order to demonstrate it, I must first distinguish between two kinds of dystopias as well as two kinds of explicatory factors for the irreversible establishment of the dystopian regime.

A dystopian regime may originate either from a non-utopian will of unlimited domination or from an apparently genuine utopian intention that nevertheless represents, in our view, the worst evil. The showcase example for the second kind is Huxley’s Brave New World, because it seems to have truly realized the goal of all utopias: At first sight, Brave New World is a society in which everybody seems to be entirely happy. On the contrary, in the first kind of dystopian regimes, most of the members seem to be even unhappier than in the state of nature. This is the case with 1984 and Animal Farm, for example. In the following I will call the first kind dystopias of domination, and the second kind dystopias of utopian intention.

The explanatory factor offered for declaring irreversible the establishment of dystopias of domination is the disappearance of any division of powers and of any institution of control as well as the disappearance of social norms caused by a catastrophe. Additionally, there can be a state of (real or fake) war, as in 1984, in which three empires are allegedly in constant conflict with each other. In 1984, one may doubt as much the existence of that war as the existence of the domestic enemy Goldstein, to whom a daily “two minutes of hate” are devoted, because there is no way for the inhabitants to obtain evidence of the existence of either external or internal enemies. What matters though is the everlasting state of war.

These factors (the disappearance of any division of power and of any instance of control, and the constant state of war) make it possible for the leaders to generate a full atomization of society and an omnipresent fear –or even a constant terror– which motivates the inhabitants to blind and unlimited obedience. A total lack of interpersonal sentiment prevails, with the exception of a general and radical distrust of everybody towards everybody. For instance, in 1984, the members of the party are forced to adopt sexual and sentimental abstinence and children are trained to denounce their parents, while in The Island of Doctor Moreau, Doctor Moreau terrorizes his hybrid creatures through practicing cruel surgery in the so-called “house of pain”. During the daily “two minutes of hate” that refers to the external and the internal enemy, Big Brother intends to arouse an ostensive, yet fake communion among the members and a real and direct subjection of each towards him, Big Brother.

In the case of dystopias of appearant utopian intention, the circumstance that makes it possible for dystopias to establish themselves in an irreversible way is the fact that they seem to pursue a rational project: to achieve the happiness of all members. For example, the establishment of the Brave New World was based on a diagnosis related to the causes of the economic catastrophe and of the war that overthrew the previous society: (a) imbalances between supply and demand, (b) underlying demographic fluctuations and (c) rivalries and social tensions and fights. Brave New World follows the following principles: (a) establishing a permanent and perfect equilibrium between supply and demand, (b) a strict demographic planning, and (c) a conditioning as well as a permanent drug supply and constrained drug consumption, which is supposed to ensure the happiness of all members in all social classes. We certainly have good reasons to consider Brave New World as a nightmare, as its author himself did, but, contrary to Big Brother’s intention in 1984, pig Napoleon’s intention in Animal Farm, and of Doctor Moreau’s intention in The Island of Doctor Moreau, Brave New World seems to pursue the common good, or more precisely the happiness of all, by seemingly rational means, although at a closer look, it pursues stability rather than the happiness of all members.

All circumstances mentioned above are designed to ensure, on the one hand, the establishment of a dystopian regime and, on the other hand, its irreversibility.

Let us first examine the case of dystopias of domination, especially the case of those staging animals (Animal Farm) or hybrid creatures (The Island of Doctor Moreau), which I distinguish from the epsilons of Brave New World, who are humanoids void of numerous human capabilities, because the dystopian regime designs them to feel happy –and therefore not to be unhappy about the lower tasks that are assigned to them–, which is the opposite of the farmer’s animals and of Doctor Moreau’s hybrid creatures. All animals of the farm are vulnerable to the pigs and the dogs, and all hybrids monsters are vulnerable to Doctor Moreau, without the reverse being true. With the exception of the pigs, the animals of the farm cannot read, nor remember, nor think rationally. The animals of the farm merely have emotional reactions of a low degree of complexity, and the hybrid creatures feel emotionally confused and are deprived of any genuine instinct. They know neither how to resist nor why they should resist. They just express their deep dissatisfaction or even fugacious aggressiveness, the cause of which they are unable to analyze.

Therefore, they are unable of any preventive attack, which would generate a Hobbesian state of war of all against all. Now, since this one-sided vulnerability and this lack of rationally originate in their very nature, they are not capable to overcome them, and their offspring has the same incapacity. The demonstration of the impossibility to resist would be almost made, if it would be about human beings. The reason why I say “almost” is that, even in the case of Doctor Moreau, for hybrid monsters deprived of any rationality, resistance is possible, and it can even reach victory. Moreau’s hybrids creatures finally kill Doctor Moreau and, thus, they seem to escape dystopia. Although their lack of rationality and of any genuine instinct doom them to a fatal war of all against all without any way out, Moreau’s hybrid creatures victoriously resisted their torturer. The pig Napoleon could also end up like the farmer.

Let us now assume that resistance is impossible and doomed to fail in the case of the animals as well as in the case of the hybrid creatures. Human beings –including the human beings represented in 1984 and Brave New World– are different from these animals and these hybrid creatures. Winston Smith in 1984 and Bernard Marx in Brave New World show several times that they are able to (1) make an overview judgment of the whole dystopian regime and understand its functioning, (2)  overcome fear, (3)  use cunning ruse, and (4)  become active dissenters, if necessary. The latter eventually leads them to be arrested, but this provides the evidence that they in fact resist, such that it is not impossible to resist. Additionally, nothing shows, in these two writings, that Winston Smith and Bernard Smith will always remain the only dissenters. Admittedly, both heroes have characteristics that make their case special. Winston Smith can remember the family feelings of his childhood. But perhaps other party members or proletarians outside the party have similar remembrances. Furthermore, dystopia had been established before the young Winston Smith reached the stage of his development at which intellectual education would have been given to him. Could other party members or proletarians outside the party have received such an intellectual education?

One could not answer negatively without fully skipping a generation or two. Now, without these intermediary generations, the population of 1984 would not exist, because 1984 does not foresee any system of artificial procreation including a moratorium of a generation or two. Such a generation gap is not only as unlikely as the miraculous revelations of the classical utopias, it is simply impossible. Additionally, despite his lack of intellectual education, and despite his lack of any contact with persons who would orientate him in this direction, Winston Smith is able to analyze the functioning of the so-called “new speak” and of Big Brother’s propaganda, for which he is working at the “Ministry of Truth”. He is also able to refer to a factual criterion of truth as well as to the principle of non-contradiction, which is incompatible with this propaganda. If he is able to this, there is no reason why any other person of his generation would not be capable to develop this ability, as well as any person of future generations in this dystopian regime. Furthermore, since the existence of Big Brother’s domestic enemy Goldstein is asserted only by Big Brother himself and since Big Brother systematically lies, one may doubt the existence of Goldstein and of his opposition network of active resistance, but there is no evidence either that Goldstein’s opposition network does not exist. The arrest and the brain washing of Winston Smith obviously show that resistance may fail. Yet, they do not demonstrate that any attempt to resist must inevitably fail, because logically an example can refute a universal thesis, but it cannot demonstrate any universal thesis.

What about the case of dystopias of utopian intention? Brave New World, based on the search for stability at any cost, seems to sincerely intend to make all members of society happy, including those of the lower class, i.e., the epsilons. We may disagree with the underlying conception of happiness that considers happiness as the absence of any pain. Another more widespread definition of happiness, formulated by John Stuart Mill, sees it as an entire set in which pleasure, or joy, alternates with pain, the first one being the predominant feeling, to the largest possible extent. However, despite this concept of happiness that is likely to be erroneous, and contrary to dystopias of domination, Brave New World partly shares at least one premise of equality with utopias: the goal to make all members as happy as possible, although, unlike in the case utopias, this greatest happiness is radically not the same for all, because alphas and epsilons do not experience the same amount of pleasure, since they are not capable of experiencing the same amount of pleasure. If Brave New World realized this greatest pleasure for all, one would observe at the same time an absence of any motivation to resist and an absence of any coercion, i.e., of any sanction.

Now, this is obviously not happening. Admittedly, the preference of the dissenter Bernard Marx for freedom and for experimenting with other ways of life is explained at the beginning of Brave New World as the result of a defect in the industrial artificial procreation process, that is, i.e., by the accidental addition of acid in the test-tube containing his embryo. But all inhabitants of the “brave new world” are regularly subject to moments of pain and depression, for which they must immediately take a pill in order to forget. Abstaining from immediately consuming this drug at such times amounts to an immediate resistance to the dystopian order. In Brave New World, a woman becomes pregnant, which is a serious violation of the social order and a reason for banishment, the hero Bernard Marx develops a predilection for useless aesthetic experiences, Marx’s favorite colleague is interested in knowledge for its own sake, i.e., for useless knowledge, and both are tempted to strive for banishment in Iceland, although this banishment is designed as a severe kind of punishment.

The need for the drug mentioned above shows the imperfections of industrial artificial procreation and of the somatic conditioning of embryos and, later on, of children. Furthermore, in the novel, nothing demonstrates that the combination of either displeasure or depression, on the one hand, and the command to immediately take this drug in such situations necessarily results in individuals taking this drug in order to feel relieved. Even with the most elementary knowledge of psychology, one knows that the reaction to either displeasure or depression does not necessarily consist in trying to get immediate satisfaction, nor in having recourse to a drug in order to temporarily relieve oneself from the feeling of pain or depression. Displeasure and depression can also lead one to behave in a way that violates the dystopian order of Brave New World. Now, the lack of any true punishment and of any real fear in Brave New World should certainly contribute to the success of any resistance. The suicide of the member of the Indian reservation that Bernard Marx exhibits in the “brave new world” should also been seen as a form of resistance against the utopian social order.

The thesis of the unavoidable failure of any resistance in dystopian orders does not pass the test of an analysis of the dystopias. Instead, analyzing dystopias shows that resistance remains possible. The reader’s impression that any resistance in dystopias is impossible originates in stylistic techniques. On the one hand, the dystopian novels show the broad range of technical and institutional means used by the dystopian regime as well as its monitoring and control over all spheres of life. On the other hand, the dystopian novel tells the story of an isolated individual that fails in its attempt to resist the dystopian order. The contrast between both arouses an impression of oppression that suggests unavoidability, irreversibility, and thus the impossibility to resist. Now, the impossibility to resist presupposes the lack of any capacity of will and efficacy, how ever strong or weak they may be.

Yet, one would misunderstand my analysis of dystopias if one concluded that its intention is to deliver a message of optimism. Indeed, although, on the one hand, as long as there are human beings, resistance will always be possible, even if it is eventually defeated, there is, on the other hand, an evil that is even worse than the Hobbesian state of nature as a state of war of all against all and that might make it extremely difficult, or nearly impossible, for resistance to be successful. In real life, extermination camps and nuclear weapons make it possible to destroy several times over the entire planet earth. Unfortunately, it is neither utopian, nor dystopian, yet it belongs to the real world.



Forst, Rainer 2006: Zur Normativität der politischen Philosophie des Nirgendwo. In: Abel, Günter (eds.): Kreativität. 20. Deutscher Kongress für Philosophie. Hamburg: Meiner, 92-103.

Fourier, Charles 1816. Le nouveau monde amoureux: http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/fourier_charles/nouveau_monde_amoureux/nouveau_monde_amoureux.html

Meißner, Joachim, Meyer-Kahrweg, Dorotee, Sarkowicz, Hans 2001: Gelebte Utopien. Alternative Lebensentwürfe, Frankfurt a.M. 2001.

Nozick, Robert 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books.

Rawls, John 1999: The Law of Peoples, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Walton, Kendall 1990: Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.



[1] For this reason, nobody suggested to apply Kendall Walton’s « make-believe » theory (cf. Walton 1990) to classical utopias so far.

[2] Utopias do not deal with the greatest happiness in the life after death.

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics (Leiden: Brill, 2019)

The compilation of texts under the title Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics is Volume one of a trilogy named Dialectics, Deontology and Democracy by Asger Sørensen. The collection is a child of its time: ambivalently modest and dashing when stating its aim, it scratches the surface of vital questions about human prospects impregnated in a global capitalist system and goes in-depth at others in the same class of issues, offering both less and more than what one might expect under certain headings.

The volume includes seven main Chapters divided in two parts (i.e. Economy and Dialectics) and throughout comes back to the initial argument that dialectics, deontology and democracy are “obligatory and necessary ways of relating to social reality” (p.11). Notwithstanding that ‘necessity’ arguments invoke primarily the necessity of immediate syllogistic precision, the exploration is generally done without being oblivious to the need to question various claims on ‘validity’ or to think of (social) science as a political practice. The included name index with bibliography and a separate subject index could well serve students stepping into the world of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, getting inspired by the Hegelian dialectical nuances of Aufhebung, or discovering briefly Durkheim’s sociological conception of value as a way to situate persistent to this day realities, in which liberal politics ‘liberate’ the economic decision-making from moral reasoning.

An Interlude considers the potency of the classical Critical Theory and its current relevance, whereas the work concludes with a Postscript where the critique of political economy is continued from the first part and refreshingly deepened. This last and closing section in fact abounds with solid critique of several layers of capitalist ideology and is perhaps what one might prefer to read precisely in the first part dedicated to Economics, rather than an analysis of George Bataille’s quasi-political and neo-gnostic flow-of-energy concept on general economy in a macro- and micro- perspective.

The second part dedicated to Dialectics has a low start. Its beginning chapter dedicates only few lines to summarizing Aristotle’s contribution to the topic. The point is not that there is no mention of Topika or Analitika protera or that relevant works from Aristotle’s deeply political anthropoeia philosophia are, as if, footnoted (and briefly abstracted in other chapters), but that in the volume’s Introduction, the author summarizes this Chapter as the one where “dialectics is presented in a very classical philosophical way, i.e. taking it all the way from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx […]” (p.14). A careful reader (or simply a radical one in the sense of going back to the original ancient text in the spirit of the Hegelian Bildung tradition) can arrive to Aristotle’s dialectics either through his logic and the understanding of dialectic premises, or his Metaphysics and the theory of ousia. At least, this is what one would expect from a classical philosophical treatment.

Hence, the reader gets the impression that Aristotle somehow falls under the ‘et al.’ category, which the author uses throughout the entire volume. No matter how playfully or only practically intended, the ‘et al.’ practice is at points inadmissible for arguments’ sake, opening up with no need a dismissive context which inadvertently goes against the author’s own hailing of credible normative frameworks and emancipatory politics. At times the usage is outright obdurate as in “[…] and the discovery of Auschwitz et al. […]” (p.49). In any case, even if the promised classical treatment is missing as a simple consequence of preference or choice of focus, we should be mindful that these themselves might be due to a long tradition of ‘readings’ of Aristotle which sometimes impoverish dizzyingly (Kant), adapt fecundly (Hegel) or appropriate catachrestically (Heidegger) Aristotle’s potent theoretical system and dialectic approach.

In this sense, by being too eager to ‘move on’ in his argumentation at points too quickly, Sørensen risks being not radical enough in the most necessary sense, the political one. Leaving unmined treasures of insights and knots that could have been brought to light is evidenced also when the dynamic of lotteries, gambling halls, internet scams and casinos is put under the umbrella of ‘ideology of hope’ (p.290), without mining one’s own or contextual anthropological assumptions as crucial for giving a consistently critical perspective. The work itself, for instance, is seen as seeking to contribute to the establishment “of credible normative frameworks enabling us to comprehend conceptually, and hopefully also to cope with, the current human predicament, while remaining painfully aware that such an ambition may in fact be overly presumptuous” (p.20). Perhaps claiming an aim only to give it up rhetorically in the same assertion might be attractive to a certain readership, but some might see the claimed scope as complacent and missing any substantial ethico-political challenge. Moreover, even though Sørensen is afraid that Honneth’s critique might be politically impotent “due to its very radicality” (p.12), the reader might wonder what in particular is radical in reducing Critical Theory to social philosophy, given also the well-presented argument on Honneth’s approach in light of the classical critical project (p.67-82).

Imprecision, inaccuracies, and possible contradictions are thus somewhat burdensome, even though the volume is not lacking in solid demonstrations; among else, into how the ever-growing mathematization of political economy is covering up its deeply ideological violence, which leaves out the problem of social (and political) justice. Nonetheless, the claim that an apolitical relation to social reality fails to recognize the value of all intermediary institutions, since it subscribes to the idea of a single individual facing the absolute (p.122), is potentially ideological itself if left unpacked, despite one’s otherwise evident dedication to the critical project. The fact that Durkheim’s or our current intermediary institutions would condition an answer to relevant questions, or aim to eliminate the challenging ethico-political questions altogether, does not cancel or salvage us from the human condition and facing ‘the absolute’ whose historical trajectory, from God to State to Market, is only a potent soil to plough into critically.

The collection is therefore a good reminder of a struggle. A struggle of weakened States embedded in the new practices of imperialism and fragmented by the cynical ideology of global capitalism, which relies on the displaced likelihood that once something happens, it can be quickly renormalized as already having been possible. Examples abound, but think of a recent one: the imposition of a European State onto a non-European one to change its name even in its relation to all other states, against the clear will of the only sovereign (i.e., the people) and through an openly illegal and anti-constitutional process, but such that the first (politically) demarcates the (ethnic) identity of the ‘Other’ by claiming exclusivity over cultural history and even symbols. It is such political violence par excellence that defines our current world, alongside the direct one and the one that counts several millions of people as nothing, for they are neither consumers nor employees. But, if we do not see that all three orders of violence sit in the lap of greed, force and ‘this is mine’ ideology so typical of capitalism, we have understood nothing of its nature.

Hence, if our aim is effective change of the conditions currently guiding people’s lives, the grand problem might not even be how do we system-wise sustain such change and reach those that are most in need of justice and equality. Badiou has already addressed this question elsewhere. Rather, are we aware that an ‘all-inclusive’ proletarization is already underway? Such that we are all (beyond the classical image of proletarians) potentially stripped of our substance? We could, at least potentially, imagine a rich rather than a meagre symbolic life offered to newborns brought to a world of biogenetic manipulation (geared, likely, out of any democratic oversight) and threatening ecological breakdown, coupled exponentially with freedom reconfigured as being able to follow one’s whims: yet lo and behold, our political problem is deeply ethical. It reconfigures for each of us the quintessential question of what do you believe in and hope for, and how do you live in the name of it.

There was a reason why Marx was concerned with raising the awareness of the working class and the need for unity in making a change that will indeed not be in the interest of the few only, and why education is such a potent ‘game-changer’, or why for that matter Hegel was obsessed with Bildung in line with the tradition of the classical Athenian polis, and his view that critique presupposes alienation. Potentially excluded from our very substance, each-of-us a Homo Sacer might be the only proper conceptual start.

An introduction to the proceedings of the conference “‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’: The rhetoric of ‘othering’ from Aristotle to Frank Westerman”

Everyone who deals with the issue of polarization cannot but study the rhetorical tools available to politicians, theorists, political philosophers, journalists and media experts to construct the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy and apply it to public and everyday discourse.

The present issue hosts a number of papers on this topic that scholars from different countries   discussed in a research meeting at the University of Genova – Italy last November. The field of polarization, political rhetoric and discourse analysis had a long tradition of studies, from the classical Aristotelian Rhetoric to the rise of the New Rhetoric approach developed by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca in the late ‘50s, until the significant recent multidisciplinary researches.

In fact, a great number of works have been published in order to enlighten the evolution of democratic societies and the recent escalation of violence, focusing on the rhetoric as the art of influencing the thought and conduct of an audience and the ability to use language effectively.

Furthermore, in the last years, we have witnessed the rise of xenophobic political discourses, populist rhetoric and hate speech in European public space, and some scholars have lately focused their research on these themes. Ruth Wodak in The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean has paved the way for other studies that emphasize the degeneration of language and its socio-political impact, such as Mark Thompson’s Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? and Benjamin Moffitt’s The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. However, it should be mentioned that social media offer to haters an invaluable tool, the consequences of which for democratic discourse have been highlighted in Cass Sunstein’s #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

The European research team that has long devoted itself to the study of political feelings, as well as ideas, and of social cohesion in democratic societies has chosen to start discussing works and ideas of the Italian moral and political philosopher Flavio Baroncelli (1944-2007). Michael Karlsson gives an affectionate philosophical and personal portrait of him, deep and passionate. The portrait is completed by the witty philosophical dictionary à la Baroncelli reconstructed by Giorgio Baruchello.

Baroncelli in his most relevant book, Il razzismo è una gaffe (Racism is a blunder, 1996), analysed the possible social effects of the use and the misuse of political correctness, focusing on its performative efficiency. Today, after more than 20 years,  a lot of individuals, though scholars or not, believe that p.c. is a falsification of reality; that is necessary to use a simple, truthful and raw language since each correctness would be a limitation of free speech.

Moreover, in a global, hyper-connected society, everybody can insult and offend her/his political adversary or simple neighbours, more than ever when relying on social networks, without any visible responsibility.

Hate speech, divisive rhetoric, damnation of the Other, populism, friend-enemy distinction:  those patterns, and many more, are the issues discussed in these papers according to different points of view: philosophical, political, sociological and anthropological dealing and, what is more, with both synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

The starting point is the process of the construction of the Othering, a typical issue of Anthropology. Marco Aime (The Other) tells us that producing the other, the stranger, is an essential step in the definition of ourselves, at least in the definition of what we would like to be or to look like. Having an enemy is important for defining our identity. Besides, discrimination cannot be disabled if we replace racial differences with a sort of “naturalized” cultural difference and we consider culture as an essential entity. In order to overcome discrimination we have to accept that cultures and identities are mobile and changeable.

Changing and the psychological reactions to metamorphoses are the issues of Pascal Nouvel (The changing feeling of Otherness). In his paper, he choose to express the nature and challenge of the change examining the feelings we prove during the process we are involved into.

The question is particularly significant if the changes are involving our identities. Indeed, the plasticity of identities is at the core of any change and especially of those which involve mixing people of various origins.  Nouvel face this task by   examining Frank Westerman’s book El negro and me, “because it describes very vividly a large array of feelings that persons can experience from each other when a change in their vicinity occurs”.

A particular divisive polarization concerns the theme of religious faith, of churches and their believers. Philosophers and theologians has often found the theoretical solution to conflicts in the concept and practice of tolerance. Daniele Rolando (Conversion and Inclusiveness) compares the current notion of religious freedom or freedom of conscience with the current notion of tolerance. His aim is to prove that this connection is far from being plain and easy-to-use. By an accurate analysis of the different answers offered in contemporary moral and political philosophy to the tolerance question, Rolando concludes that the setting given by F. Baroncelli, and namely his idea of an “indifferent” tolerance, is the best way to set it correctly.

In counterpoint, Paola de Cuzzani (Political cohesion, Friendship and Hostility) discusses the return to friendship in current political thinking, communitarian as well as liberal: can friendship be the emotional foundation of social-political cohesion in a modern state? From the radical normative approach to civil friendship proposed by Saint Just to the Carl Schmitt’s emphasis on the friend/enemy divide, rather than proposing other emotional relationships for uniting and directing a political community, de Cuzzani proposes a “Spinozian turn” to fight back the “sad political passions”.

Certainly opposed to the dichotomous vision friend-enemy is the perspective taken into account by Franco Manti (Diversity, Otherness and the Politics of Recognition) from F. Baroncelli’s essay on “Recognition and its sophistry”: the focus is the reflection about otherness, the incommensurability of cultures, their translatability and their being open systems. In fact, we read a critique of communitarian positions based on the idea of plural and mobile individual and cultural identities. The recognition should primarily concern what unites us, just like our belonging to the same species and being inhabitants of the Planet, and, at the same time, in taking on the challenge of cultural otherness. Manti deduces the need for a planetary ethics, founded the non-reducibility of the part to the whole and of the individual to the community.

Polarization in political thinking and attitudes is discussed by Alberto Giordano in Us and Them the Logic of Othering from Pink Floyd to Populist. Giordano offers, at first, a concise sketch of the development of the us/them divide in the realm of political theory since the 18th century to the first half of the 20th.  He goes on, then, in highlighting the changes undergone by the same dichotomy within populist ideology and discourse, focusing on three discursive patterns which marks contemporary political communication.

In turn, a brief speech by Marianna Mancini compares the intellectual and communicative tools shared by different blends of populism in the cultural and political area of ​​the French-speaking world. In particular, the comparison between La France Insoumise and the Front National helps us in the understanding the plural nature of polarization and its likely fashions.

Throughout the debate, the important role of the media and in particular of social media in the construction of the us / them divide was not neglected. Micol Burighel tries to discuss the idea that group polarization is a dangerous phenomenon developing in democratic societies. This mechanism leads to strong fragmentation on political and social issues and, in certain cases, to extremism and fanaticism. Nevertheless, how much did Internet and social media shape group polarization? The answer is based on a review of the current state of the art, referring particularly to Cass Sunstein’s works.

At last, Mirella Pasini questions the possibility of a non-exclusive us / them divide, discussing the Reports of the American Immigration Commission (Washington 1911).

The us/them polarization in public discourse is not really a contemporary phenomenon: just think of Aristotle and oi barbaroi (the barbarians). Today, however, it is close to  racist approach, as van Dijk says, like never before. His ideological discourse analysis is useful to clarify the connection between polarization and racism, through the analysis of a particular case-study, i.e. the construction of prejudice and stereotype about the Southern Italian “race” at the beginning of the 20th century in the USA. This past case is set by Pasini as a model to analyse the political and ordinary language of our time, in order to define a non-discriminatory approach to differences.

Us and Them: The Logic of Othering from Pink Floyd to Populists

On the eve of March, 1973, Pink Floyd published their most renowned and exciting album – at least according to many fans: The Dark Side of the Moon. The ninth song on the playlist bore the title Us and Them; the lyrics, written by Roger Waters, endorsed the vision of a class-cleavage embodied in the juxtaposition of ‘us’, poor and labouring people sent to fight a distant war by ‘them’, the ruling élite who cannot but command and exercise its power:

Us and them

and after all we’re only ordinary men

me and you

God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.

‘Forward’, he cried from the rear

and the front rank died

and the General sat, and the lines on the map

moved from side to side.

Black and blue

and who knows which is which and who is who

up and down

and in the end it’s only round and round and round.

‘Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words’

the poster bearer cried.

‘Listen, son’, said the man with the gun,

‘there’s room for you inside’.

It might seem odd to open a scientific paper quoting a rock song, but it is not. Us and Them, in fact, vividly portrays one among the traditional patterns of the logic of ‘othering’, anything but a distinctive feature of contemporary political theory and discourse – the belief, included, that populists make an exclusive use of it. The story of polarization, in fact, is much longer and its roots deep and plural; however, in the last 30 years on, the approach has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. In this short paper I will try, at first, to present a concise sketch of the development of the us/them divide in the realm of political theory since the 18th century; I will subsequently highlight the changes undergone by the same within populist ideology and discourse.


Us and Them: to cut a long story short

The us/them divide – that is, the call for identity – Is as old as the world can be, anthropologists have often claimed (Berreby 2006). After all, it was Aristotle to state that barbarians were not entitled to the political privileges of the polis since «non-Greek and slave are in nature the same» (Aristotle 1998: 2 [1252b]). However only the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of the first modern sample of the aforementioned dichotomy.

After the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, Great Britain saw the consolidation of the Whig regime, embodied by the long government of Robert Walpole, who served as prime minister 1721 to 1742 (Langford 1992: 9-57). Walpole’s public policies, and the absorption of power in his hands, caused the rise of a strong opposition movement all across England, led by a group of intellectuals and politicians who labeled themselves and their acolytes ‘country’ in front of the ‘court’ led by Walpole and developed an innovative ideological stance grounded – broadly speaking – on natural rights, rotation of offices, separation of powers and accountability (Dickinson 1979: 90-192).

The opponents were mostly Whig – more precisely, the liberal-republicans who renewed the old, glorious tradition of the Commonwealthmen (Robbins 2004) – but alongside with a bunch of Tories led by the well-known Henry St. John, viscount Bolingbroke (Kramnick 1968). The men who built up the ‘country paradigm’ perceived themselves as ‘other’ from those who embodied real power and corruption, i.e. the government and the politico-economic élites whose closed ties with the Whig establishment they repeatedly denounced.

No surprise, then, that John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon – two renowned Commonwealthmen – maintained in one of their famous Cato’s Letters (no. 62) that «whatever is good for the People, is bad for their Governors; and what is good for the Governors, is pernicious to the People» (Trenchard and Gordon 1995 [1720-23]: 423). The approach marked by the antagonism Country/People vs. Court/Governors rapidly gained popularity and ignited much of the ideological production at the time of the American Revolution (Wood 1998).

Still, so much more was yet to come. The early nineteenth century saw the rise of socialism in England, France and, finally, Germany (Newman 2005: 6-45). It was precisely in 1848 that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party, prepared under request of the Communist League, that soon became a powerful tool for socialist intellectual and workers in order to spread their belief. The Manifesto was conceived by Marx – who wrote it almost entirely – as a summary of his and Engels’ «joint efforts up to 1848», focusing on «the development of modern capitalism [and] its ruthless overthrow of older social and economic systems» to deliver his newly-coined doctrine of the class struggle and place «revolution at the centre of Marx’s narrative» (Claeys 2018: 119-120). A revolution which was grounded on the premise of an irresistible antagonism between ‘us’ (the proletariat) and ‘them’ (the bourgeoisie):

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman  and  slave,  patrician  and  plebeian,  lord  and  serf,  guild-master and journeyman,  in  a  word,  oppressor  and  oppressed,  stood  in  constant  opposition  to  one  another,  carried  on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in  the common ruin of the contending classes. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society  has not done away with class antagonism. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our  epoch,  the  epoch  of  the  bourgeoisie,  possesses,  however,  this  distinct  feature:  it  has  simplified  class  antagonisms.  Society  as  a  whole  is  more  and  more  splitting  up  into  two  great  hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat (Marx and Engels 2016 [1848]: 9).

Near the end of the century, however, something started to change: the past two cleavages seemed to converge towards a new synthesis which appeared at first in the United States. A.D. 1892 saw the official birth of the People’s Party, the first populist party to stand against traditional politics and reproduce the logic of othering following the pattern ‘the people vs. the élite’, where ‘the people’ were «the good rural farmers…who tilted the land and produced all the goods in the society», while ‘the élite’ was formed by «the corrupt, urban bankers and politicians» (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 23). An excerpt taken from the first party’s electoral program, the so-called Omaha Platform, deserves to be quoted at length:

We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, every issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires (People’s Party 1892).

And yet, while class and political cleavages combined in a patchwork synthesis, we can still trace back its expression to a number of traditional patterns. However, somewhere between the 19th and 20th centuries Europe witnessed the insurgence of a special blend of nationalism, one with a strong ethnic flavor where ‘us’ and ‘them’ responded to an anthropological divide, Drawing on an extensive intellectual framework outlined by many nineteenth century philosophers and political theorists (Todorov 1989: 105-308) and intertwined with coeval reflections on imperialism and racialism (Arendt 1962 [1951]: 3-302), in what has been called ‘the short twentieth century’ (Hobsbawm 1994) «ethno-nationalism draws much of its emotive power from the notion that the members of a nation are part of an extended family, ultimately united by ties of blood. It is the subjective belief in the reality of a common ‘we’ that counts» (Muller 2008: 20).

When the echo of such a dichotomy reached the shores of the institutional realm, it suddenly found a theoretical translation in the juxtaposition of the categories of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ within the political theory of Carl Schmitt. As he himself stated in his short essay The Concept of the Political, the significance of this opposition goes well beyond the traditional conceptual contrasts such as «good and evil in the moral sphere, beautiful and ugly in the aesthetic sphere, and so on»; being confined to the dominion of politics, and defining it as an autonomous dimension, it «can neither be based on anyone antithesis or any combination of other antitheses, nor can it be traced to these» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 26). More specifically:

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation. It can exist theoretically and practically, without having simultaneously to draw upon all those moral, aesthetic, economic, or other distinctions. The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. […] The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship. The enemy is hostis, not inimicus in the broader sense (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 26-27, 28).

If it is true that the friend/enemy divide was conceived by Schmitt as a means of overcoming «the concept of a neutral liberal State» (Cassini 2016: 99), he pointed out, nevertheless, that his dichotomy served as well to surmount the «antagonisms among domestic political parties [since they] succeed in weakening the all-embracing political unit, the state» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 32). And this, in turn, ignited Schmitt’s holistic view of ‘the people’ and his denial of proceduralism and representation in favor of «a plebiscitary form of democracy» (Cassini 2016: 100).

No surprise then, as we shall see in the next paragraph, that populists learnt his lesson well and quickly in the aftermath of WWII. And this is why, according to Jan-Werner Müller, Schmitt has something to teach them yet (Müller 2016: 28, 56-7).


Us and Them, Populist Style

Populism is by no means a contemporary phenomenon: its roots trace back at least to the end of the nineteenth century, as we have already noticed, with the birth of the People’s Party in the United States (Kazin 2017: 27-48) and to the first decade of the twentieth with its Latin-American version (Conniff [ed.] 2012). Hints of its past are detectable in Western Europe as well, mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s, when Guglielmo Giannini in Italy and Pierre Poujade in France institutionalized the us/them divide as a pattern of their political discourse.

Giannini, founder and leader of the Everyman’s Front (Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque; see Setta 2000), which won huge but short-lived consent, was crystal-clear in his depiction of an irreducible contrast between ‘the crowd’ (us) and the «poisonous professional politicians» (them), pleaded guilty of any social evil and asked by the crowd – literally – «to break not our balls anymore» (Giannini 2002 [1945]: 160, 184). Poujade, by his side, was more than ready to address a parallel rhetorical outline which opposed ‘us’ (common people represented by the members of his Union et Fraternité Française) to ‘them’ (corrupt minority of bankers, politicians and polytechniciens): «nous sommes le mouvement de l’honnêteté, de la probité, de la justice face aux vautours, aux politiciens, aux intrigants» (Tarchi 2015: 99). The approach was shared by the first, real founder of contemporary European populism, i.e. the Danish lawyer Mogens Glistrup, who in 1972 gave birth to the Progress Party on a no-tax and anti-immigrants platform which gained him and his party 28 seats in the 1973 general elections.

Broadly speaking, and referring to the populist political discourse that has been constructed in Europe and the United States since the 1980’s, I think we may identify at least three main narratives through which the us/them dichotomy has been developed and implemented:

1) the good and honest people vs. the evil and corrupted élites;

2) the people of our nation vs. the ‘other(s)’;

3) ordinary citizens vs. professional politicians.

Needless to say, these patterns are strictly connected the one with each other since they define a common framework «that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ (as the ‘underdogs’) and its ‘other’», while it must be noted that «the identity of both ‘the people’ and ‘the other’ are political constructs, symbolically constituted through the relation of antagonism» (Panizza 2005: 3). However, it is also true that each one holds its own peculiar character, which we are going to sketch briefly.

As to the first, it is widely recognized that the fight against ruling minorities marks any type of populist rhetoric, though right and left-wing (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 11-16). In the last years, in fact, we had witnessed a growing accent on this feature, mostly in official/institutional occasions: for instance, Trump’s election was celebrated by Marion Maréchal Le Pen as a «victory of democracy and the people against the élites, Wall Street and politically correct media» (Maréchal Le Pen 2016), while her aunt Marine Le Pen, running for the French presidency, claimed her being «the candidate of the people» set to «free the people of France from the rule of arrogant élites ready to influence its conduct» (Le Pen 2017a).

But it is in Donald Trump’s political discourse that such a design reaches its climax. His inaugural address may be seen as a perfect manifesto of this peculiarly populist attitude:

Today’s ceremony…has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land (Trump 2017).

Trump’s rhetoric is exemplary to understand, as well, the second pillar of the us/them divide. He has never ceased to boost the fear of the stranger, not merely the migrant but the ‘other’ at an almost ontological level: we just need to recall his long-lasting campaign against Mexicans («they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people», Vinattieri 2016: 45) and his promise that «from this moment on, it’s going to be America First» (Trump 2017). But every populist leader relies strategically on the policy of fueling the ethnical separation of the citizenship of a given nation-State and anyone who comes from the outside, fundamentally described as a sort of free-rider.

All along her 2017 presidential campaign, Marine Le Pen repeatedly claimed the need to «re-establish the control of national borders and exit the Schengen agreement» in order to «find our liberty anew and restore the sovereignty of the French people», stop illegal migration and «reduce the number of legal migrants to a quota of 10000 per year» (Le Pen 2017c). The United Kingdom Independence Party, on the other hand, maintained (and still does) that Brexit was the only way of putting an end to uncontrolled immigration, that «has placed huge pressure on public services and housing. It has affected the domestic labour market, where wages for manual and lowpaid jobs have stagnated» and even «community cohesion has been damaged» (UKIP 2017a). The emphasis is placed here on what has been called the ‘welfare chauvinism’, a phenomenon perfectly highlighted by the guidelines on immigration submitted to public opinion by The Finns’ Party in 2015:

The asylum procedure was initiated to help people that were fleeing persecution but it has become the most important modus operandi for the present stream of migrants – many of which have questionable backgrounds as to whether persecution is the real issue. Extremely high unemployment, already existing throughout much of the EU, together with the present public sector austerity programs make the integration and absorption of a huge number of migrants prohibitive. Immigration will change, irreversibly, the host country’s population profile, disrupt social cohesion, overburden public services and economic resources, lead to the formation of ghettoes, promote religious radicalism and its consequences, and foster ethnic conflicts. Actual outcomes of these factors can be seen in the many riots, brutal events, and the formation of violent gangs in a number of large European cities (The Finns’ Party 2015).

The most renowned and popular technique of implementing the us/them dichotomy, however, is seemingly the opposition drawn between common people and professional politicians. The Five Star Movement, once led by the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, has built its own political reputation on a staunch and fervent campaign against ‘la casta’ (the ruling élite), where politicians and technocrats are described as enemies of the people since «they have become our masters, while we play just the role of (more or less) unconscious servants» (Tarchi 2015: 342). To be sure, it is this precise issue that defined, at least until 2018 (see Jacoboni 2019), the identity of the movement, so that at the end of 2013, campaigning for the European elections to be held in May 2014, an article published on Grillo’s blog announced that «the Five Star Movement isn’t right nor left-wing. We stay on plain citizens’ side. Fiercely populists!» (Blog delle Stelle 2013).

But they are not alone in their contempt for la politique politicienne. According to Marine Le Pen, politicians (herself excluded, of course) are not reliable because «they are not willing to do anything for you [common people], since they are submitted to Brussels, Berlin, to corporate interests and financial powers» (Le Pen 2017c). Quite similarly, the UKIP leaders have always stressed their being close to the people (a collective, powerful ‘us’) and thus structurally different from their opponents whose lack of transparency endangered democracy in Britain:

People see a lack of democracy and connection with the three old parties. UKIP brings a breath of fresh air into politics and offers the electorate a real alternative to the old status quo. We now ask you to continue to vote UKIP in order to ensure that the politicians are reminded that real people must not be ignored (UKIP 2017b).

All in all, each one of the narratives which we have rapidly outlined may be understood if, and only if, a further question is answered: who are ‘the people’? If it is true that «’the people’ is a construction which allows for much flexibility» and for that reason «it is most often used in a combination…of three meanings: the people as sovereign, as the common people and as the nation» (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 9), populists often go far beyond any flexibility.

Delivering a speech in the middle of his party’s (Akp) electoral convention, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan derided his opponents addressing them a provocative (and staggering) question: «we are the people, who are you?» (Müller 2016: 5). Additionally, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, interviewed by the journalist and anchorman Giovanni Floris, some months ago innocently stated that «’the people’ is, first and foremost, the aggregate of the shareholders who support our government» (Conte 2018), i.e. the electors who voted for the Five Star Movement and the League, being these parties involved in the coalition which backs the so-called ‘yellow-and-green government’.

And even though it was Ernesto Laclau who notably highlighted the fact that «populism requires the dichotomic division of society into two camps — one presenting itself as a part which claims to be the whole» (Laclau 2005: 83), it seems quite hard to view such a phenomenon, even in the light of a so-called «’return of the political’ after year of post-politics», merely as «a discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’» – which should define, more than ever, left-populism (Mouffe 2018: 6). It rather feels like a rhetorical plan aimed to weaken the substantive features of liberal democracy, to begin with the same existence of a majority and a minority: both, in fact, must acknowledge the legitimacy of each other while the us/them divide, where ‘the people’ is confronted with its enemies, hinders any room for dispute, bargaining and compromise.

As things stand, if populism may be correctly viewed as «a growing revolt against politics and liberal values», it is highly questionable to consider «this challenge to the liberal mainstream…in general, not anti-democratic» (Eatwell and Goodwin 2018: xi). In fact, as Jan-Werner Müller has correctly pointed out, «in addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people» (Müller 2016: 2). That’s why almost any populist leader or movement shows a deep despise for constitutionalism and its tools, imperfect as they are, designed to enable but check popular sovereignty, grant individual rights and guarantee socio-political pluralism. And here, in the end, we are confronted with the biggest shift which the us/them paradigm has experienced so far.


Concluding Remarks

In this paper I have tried to draw attention to the metamorphoses undergone by a peculiar pattern which has embodied – in the public realm – the logic of othering, i.e. the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as a means of framing the political arena, that has recently regained a certain popularity because of its massive use in contemporary populist rhetoric and ideology.

Along with posing a threat to liberal democracy, some scholars are beginning to notice its impact on fundamental constituents of public life and culture, for ex. the pursuit of truth as a shared social goal. Analyzing the connections between populism and ‘post-truth’, i.e. the «circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief» (Oxford Dictionaries 2016), Silvio Waisbord wrote:

The root of populism’s opposition to truth is its binary vision of politics. For populism, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ hold their own version of truth. Preserving a populist, fact-proof narrative is necessary to safeguard the vision that truth is always on one the side and that lies are inevitably on the other side. Facts belong to one or other camp. Facts are not neutral, but they are politically owned and produced. They only make sense within certain tropes and political visions. Facts that contradict an epic, simplistic notion of politics by introducing nuance and complexity or falsifying conviction are suspicious, if not completely rejected as elitist manoeuvers […] Post-truth communication is exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication. Populism rejects the politics of deliberation and truth-telling; it thrives amid the deepening of rifts in public communication and society. It appeals to identity politics that anchor convictions unconcerned with truth as a common good. Populism’s glib assertion ‘you got your truth, I got mine’ contributes to fragmentation and polarisation. Public life becomes a contest between competing versions of reality rather than a common effort to wrestle with knotty, messy questions about truth (Waisbord 2018: 26, 30).

Whatever accurate and appropriate this description may be, it shows quite evidently how much the logic of othering and the us/them divide are shaping our public sphere almost anew. In the era of social media, after all, like never before «the medium is the message» (McLuhan 2003 [1964]: 7). Something we should definitely be aware of.



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Trump, D.J. (2017), Inaugural Address of President Donald J. Trump, January 20, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.

United Kingdom Independence Party (2017a), Britain Together. UKIP Manifesto 2017,  http://www.ukip.org/manifestos.

United Kingdom Independence Party (2017b), UKIP Local Manifesto 2017, http://www.ukip.org/manifestos.

Vinattieri, V. (2016), I top 100 di Donald Trump. I migliori tweet selezionati e tradotti per voi, Florence: goWare Publishing.

Waisbord, S. (2018), The Elective Affinity Between Post-truth Communication and Populist Politics, Communication Research and Practice, 4 (1); 17-34.

Wood., G. (1998), The Creation of the American Republic, revised ed., Charlottesville: The University of North Carolina Press.

In Lightning Memory: A Philosophical Dictionary à la Baroncelli

The following definitions combine insightful personal memories and personally memorable insights that I recall from, or associate with, Flavio Baroncelli (1944–2007) qua eloquent and witty teacher, brilliant and ingenious writer, fast and sharp conversationalist, generous and kind human being, and committed promoter of the teacher- and student exchange programmes linking together Iceland, my adoptive country, and the University of Genoa, my alma mater. Not all of them must be taken literally or too seriously; besides, I would not agree with some of them myself! All of them are, however, sincere tokens of gratitude, friendship and love to a truly remarkable individual, who enjoyed entertaining and shocking his audiences, but above all liked making them think, debate, and think some more. Furthermore, these definitions are a creative and inevitably poor attempt at exemplifying for the Anglophone public the sort of pithy and humorous style that, inter alia, made Baroncelli famous in Italy in his day.



Another word for potentiality.



A disease mistaken for moral failure.



Causing pleasure by sly words, even when the listener knows that they are lies. Philosophers, in their stately parlance, would call it a perlocutionary speech act.



The daily demonstration of how little control we have over our own will.



A polite way for educated people to be open-minded pluralists in theory but narrow-minded atheists in practice.


Analysis (of concepts)

The bizarre tendency to turn ambiguous profundity into unambiguous superficiality.


Analytic (philosophy)

A typically modern attempt at making self-conscious philosophers sound like respectable scientists.



The best way to acquire power in a capitalist society, especially if one wishes to destroy it.


Beauty (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the good luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



A seemingly private place where both neighbours and State authorities seem often eager to enter.



The least understood yet most important principle of the French Revolution: without a modicum of genuinely felt compassion among fellow citizens, both liberty and equality will get used to ruin someone else’s life.



A dangerous and stupid way not to listen to dangerous and stupid claims.



When rasping hopelessly and continuously on a hard road surface, they exemplify instinctual behaviour as opposed to deliberate.



Powerful, sweet, devious killers.



The curse of any philosopher who may wish to come across as deep, original and worthy of enduring attention.


Coherence (aka consistency)

The unhealthy obsession with getting rid of all the instances of personal diversity, creativity, capriciousness and experimentalism that make individual life interesting and collective life possible.



The 20th-century political scarecrow that, for the duration of about one generation, made the de iure liberal countries of the world be actually a little more liberal than their de facto oligarchic past and present flag out.



The most important virtue cultivated by Christianity.



A much-cherished liberal value, as long as it does not apply to oneself.



Generally loathed by the very same people who have most reason to complain—an instance of slave morality.


Continental (philosophy)

A not-so-modern attempt at making self-important philosophers sound like profound mystics.



Someone else’s form of madness.



The folklore of the rich.



Coping with far-too-real nightmares.



Its training in infancy reveals how people prefer freedom to be qualified and circumscribed.


Discipline (and Punish)

The most important book by Michel Foucault, who taught us that the more societies publicly incense liberty and call themselves “liberal”, the less freedom common people truly enjoy in order to do as they please.



The ideal sort of loyal, selfless, hard-working and simple-mindedly grateful employees that employers would like to have.


Economics (contemporary)

A branch of mathematics mistaken for empirical science.


Economics (modern)

A branch of philosophy mistaken for empirical science.



Clarification articulating possible meanings of a pithy expression, with consequent loss of aesthetic and thought-provoking value of the latter. Sterilisation by explanation. (E.g. paraphrasing a poem, explaining a joke.)



The possibility for all people to be as bad and as silly as the rich and powerful minorities frequently are.



Aristocracy’s last ditch at controlling modern society.



See “Get lost!” below.



It is only after Darwin that people understood what the heck Lucretius and Telesio were talking about.


Exceptions (making)

The first step towards tolerance and pluralism.



An option generally available only to a person who stops doubting.



The culture of the poor.



Birds that can be confused with swans, especially in Iceland.



An exact formal science that can be used rhetorically as a persuasive labelling method for inexact metaphysical reasoning.


Get (lost!)

Uttered in a timely fashion, it can save a person the trouble of having to answer a difficult question.



If ancient, it is an excellent way to display one’s own erudition.



The true source of happiness, yet regularly forgotten until missing.


Hegel (Georg Friedrich)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that nothing stays the same.


History (of ideas)

A way to find out why we think the way we think.



The equalising social process deplored by anthropologists whereby identifying the poor, the outcast, the loathed, the derided and the downtrodden becomes a little less easy.


Hume (David)

An uncharacteristically prodigal Scotsman, he noticed that the only way to be sure that all matches in the box do work is to light them all up.



The misunderstood virtue of avoiding conflict in reality by accepting conflict in principle.



A set of loosely interconnected concepts, some of which may be even mutually contradictory, that allow people to feel justified in their claims and actions, or at least to project an air of justification for them.



The demonstration of the bodily basis of the mind.



The least acknowledged yet most important virtue in a pluralist society: by caring little about what other people believe or do, mutual tolerance can be the norm.


Insight (aka Intuition)

Prejudice we like.



The remarkable social invention whereby to preserve the memory of past errors and make the inexorably ignorant new generations somewhat less likely to repeat them.


Intervention (by the State)

A much-loathed socialist value, which liberals accept as soon as they are in trouble.



A valuable means of instruction that can reach even those who do not wish to be instructed.


Kant (Immanuel)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote two tomes to undo an earlier one.



That which philosophers seek and analyse most, and yet have the least of.



The precious and inevitable source of all misunderstandings.


Lashes (by whip)

As long as someone else gets more than you do, most slaves will not rebel against slavery.



Another good way to show one’s own erudition.



The political wisdom teaching that State authority should be used only to protect a person from her worst enemies: her neighbours.



A rather bothersome business, but also the only one in town.



An open motive among men; less so among women. Gender equality’s lewd horizon.



Another way to understand religion.


Marx (Karl)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that, normally, if the employer gets more, the employee gets less—and vice versa.



A neologism by the privileged.


Mixed (marriage)

The easiest and fastest way to explain why a marriage did not last. No such option is available for divorces between people of the same ethnic origin, the explanation of which may then take years of keen psychological scrutiny.


Montaigne (Michel de)

His essays became so famous and commonplace that later philosophers forgot to mention the source of the ideas that they discussed and, eventually, Montaigne himself. There can be such a thing as too much fame.


More (Thomas)

Great wisdom expressed with clarity.


Nietzsche (Friedrich)

An atypical German philosopher, he wrote aphorisms to acknowledge a major yet neglected motive of human thought and action: resentment.



The likeliest outcome of a person’s life, which we spend trying not to think about it.



In practice, the supreme official principle of social life.



The future outcome of the present ignorance about the past.


Pain (and Pleasure)

The fabric of our inner tapestry.



When good, it is the playful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to break apart, toy with and recombine concepts, beliefs and habits of thought, in order to make better sense of them. When bad, it is the skillful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to do the same and, in the end, be even more confused.



An artificial reminder of life’s beauty.


Political (correctness)

The ungainly social process whereby the less respected members of a community can have a chance to be paid a little more respect.



A widespread yet uncomfortable signpost of liberal freedom.



Another word for actuality.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes deplorable or intolerable to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



Insights we dislike.



A vice leading frequently to virtuous behaviour.



Often confused with quantity.



Often confused with quality.



The best instrument available to reveal how ignorant we are, no matter the number of university degrees we may have.



A historically popular but unnecessary notion which justifies people being nasty to one another. In its absence, freckles or bad pronunciation can serve the same purpose.



The art of making outlandish ideas sound plausible, thus duly impressing unsuspecting young minds and potential sexual partners.



The perplexing faculty to take apart whatever solid conclusion we had reached before.



The unjustly neglected study of how language shapes people’s life under all circumstances.



The most dangerous virtue cultivated by Christianity.



Unwise over-intelligent overthinking—it is by far too delightful an endeavour for most philosophers to resist the temptation of indulging in it despite their own better judgment.



A natural reminder of life’s beauty.


Spinoza (Baruch)

Great wisdom could be expressed with more clarity.



Having someone below you is usually more important than having someone above—another instance of slave morality.


Straw-man (fallacies)

Mistaken by logicians as fictional errors, they are the far-too-real claims of ordinary men and women; if one is willing, and brave enough, to listen to real people.



The regularly underplayed yet visibly increased outcome of greater freedom in human societies.



Birds that can be confused with geese, especially in Iceland.



A structured way of thinking and talking that allows the person using it to come across as astoundingly intelligent and thereby force another to shut up, even if the latter may actually be right.



The socially crucial ability to endure people that we dislike.



The perplexing notion whereby tolerance is not enough in society, for we must also like the people that we dislike.



The most efficient way to get bad information from innocent weaklings and no information at all from guilty brutes.



To modern eyes, an old form of cannibalism.


Ugliness (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the ill luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



That from which all great ideologies wish to free us once and for all, but which all great historians tell us that we must accept for any human endeavour to have a chance to work at all.



See defecation.



Whether threatened or applied, it is in practice the supreme unofficial principle of social life.



The best example of how being a master of style condemns a man to being remembered as a minor thinker.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes invisible to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



We like thinking of it as free, despite all contrary evidence.


Wittgenstein (Ludwig)

A Continental philosopher mistaken for an analytical one.



One of the many words for the imaginary place of endless joy that all cultures have concocted and that only some silly philosophers would state not to want to go to.



The time of peak performance in a person’s life, the rest of which is spent trying to make use of ridiculous concepts that can help that person to enjoy some respect and self-respect: the wisdom of old age, the charm of grey hair, the value of experience, etc.



Often confused with “Jewish” and “Israeli”, it can be combined with them in the following matrix:

Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

The Rhetoric of Identity in Right- and Left-wing Populism: A Brief Survey

Among all the theoretical contributions on the topic, I will rely on the approach which classifies populism as a political style, marked by a set of rhetorical and discoursive practices. In this sense, it seems possible to find some connections even between apparently opposite positions when it comes to the adoption of a common populist strategy and its communicative codes. Within this discursive pattern, shared by a politically heterogeneous group of actors, contemporary politics tends to rely more intensively on the logic of othering, namely a process through which the affirmation of one’s own identity depends on the positioning in an opposite front compared to the one of the different enemy. The us vs them rhetoric showed itself efficient because, by simplifying public space, it allows an immediate identification of the individual with a collective front, in addition to a clear discovery of her/his political rival. But how does populism make the spreading of this discursive divide concretely operational? Benjamin Moffitt has persuasively claimed that the appeal of populist rhetoric results from the adoption of a series of narratives, actions and linguistic choices through which populist parties establish a privileged communicative bond with their public. Under these terms, populism as a political style achieves a performative act, and through its discoursive practices ties in a political relationship which «typically consists of a proclaimed relationship with the ‘public’, an us/them attitude and […] a period of crisis and mobilization» (Moffitt 2016: 31).


Laclau: the Populist Construction of Political Identity

Among the most discussed theorists who adopted and developed this interpretative approach we may find Ernesto Laclau, who based his research precisely on the performative features detectable in populist political discourse. In his well-known On Populist Reason the Argentinian scholar proposes an original reading of the phenomenon as he starts wondering: «why could some political alternatives or aims be expressed only through populist means?» (Laclau 2005: 17). The identity crisis that, on different levels, is affecting the traditional actors of the political arena is self-evident: but what are the trajectories of possible evolution of this crisis? Is there any social rationality behind populism? Would it be possible to take advantage of its impetus?

Setting himself apart from the many scholars and policymakers who deem it a pathological disease of contemporary politics, Laclau considers populism an occurrence to study in the light of social dynamics in the process of community building, as a natural process of articulation of the various issues, inscribed in the grammar of the political itself; that is, a natural expression of the political character organic to each individual. From this point of view, populism refers to «a constant dimension of political action which necessarily arises (in different degrees) in all political discourses, subverting and complicating the operations of the so-called ‘more mature’ ideologies» (Laclau 2005: 18). From this constructive approach, which evaluates the performing acts achieved by populism through its discoursive and rhetorical practices, we could try to draw an analytic framework in order to understand the nature and legitimacy of two political movements featuring a different ideological baggage but linked by a common political style.


The New Heroes: Right-wing and Left-wing populism

In particular, it aims to consider how the current political background tends to shape up in a dichotomic distinction between right-wing populism and left-wing populism, evolving from the traditional right and left positions. Populism is no longer to be understood as a distinctive feature of both extreme right and left: its historical developments, indeed, «followed the inner opportunities offered by the particular dynamics of competition» (Tarchi 2015: 71), so as to generate different outcomes in different backgrounds (that’s the case when we compare European and Latin American populisms). To make my point clearer, I will rely on the contributions by two scholars which are expressly fitting in the explanation of this approach, both based on the interpretative structure of Laclau’s populism: the political theories of Alain De Benoist and Chantal Mouffe. In fact, they have been trying to sketch a populism vision rooted, respectively, on the traditional values of the right and the left through a bunch of very close discoursive practices and namely through the us vs them logic. The first pattern which leaves the mark of populism on the political outline provided by De Benoist and Mouffe is precisely the rhetoric of antagonism, which must be understood as the ground of the associative practice. The expression of the different souls that make up a community must depend, according to this logic, on the grouping of issues and positions along a frontier, which would set up the conditions for a dialogic struggle for hegemony (in Gramscian terms). The need to resort to populist discoursive strategies arises, according to De Benoist and Mouffe, when the demands of the various social groups of a given historical society become aware of their public role and ask for the building of new frontiers in order to articulate themselves and express their own political identity, positioning on one of the two sides of this frontier.


The Populist Democratic Revolution

The institution of a new antagonistic frontier serves as a tool to guide public opinion and comes in response to the tendency to occupy the central stage of the political spectrum that marks, according to both De Benoist and Mouffe, most traditional parties in many European democracies. This process reveals itself through the rise of anti-establishment, grassroots movements who claim their political autonomy and the satisfaction of their demands, while their ideological roots may equally be right-wing or left-wing. The democratic balance is broken, according to the analysis of both theorists, when centre-right and centre-left parties merge into a dominant ideology which «argues that there’s no alternative to the neoliberal order and that the break-up of people in the global market is the only horizon of human history» (De Benoist 2017: 29). They identify this unifying tendency as a direct consequence of an ‘original sin’: the surrender of the traditional left to the laws of globalisation.

Speaking of which I find quite meaningful the analysis of the French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa, who maintains that the convergence of the right and the left towards a undefined program starts right when the left moves away from its ideological origins, joining the cultural values and codes of liberal society such as «cult of modernisation to the bitter end, mandatory and permanent mobility (both geographically and professionally) and moral and cultural transgression» (Michéa 2005: 45). Framing his analysis on a revision of the political history of French socialism, Michéa argues that the left persuaded itself of the impossibility of overcoming capitalism and renounced to the traditional connection with the working-class movements (Michéa 2005: 122). The ‘treason’ of the left converts it into a political entity incapable of grasping and meeting the needs of the various social groups that used to refer to it, through a «progressive dissolution of the socialist ideal of a society without social classes […] in the liberal night when all of the cows are grey» (Michéa 2005: 28). In the meantime, that portion of the right which does not accept any loosening of its positions to converge towards a centrist perspective, finds in populism a perfect discoursive frame in order to broadcast its most relevant purposes, often extreme in their shapes.

As a consequence of the homogenisation of the political offer, the democratic principle of a free and responsible choice between two opposite alternatives fails and citizens get deprived of the concrete chance of expression of their beliefs. This is why Mouffe demands the necessity of a democratic revolution, which would appear on stage with the rise of «new social movements» and from the «questioning of many other forms of inequality» (Mouffe 2018: 51), something that requires a new identity partition in the political scheme. The Belgian scholar takes this binary logic straight out of the definition of the ‘political’ developed by Carl Schmitt, according to whom a political community finds its identity when confronting the otherness of an enemy, whose existence comes into being «when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity» (Schmitt 2007 [1932]: 28).

The antagonistic dimension becomes an interpretative key of every aspect of the political life inside a given community, therefore requires the establishment of a series of novel politically opposed borders, which would distinguish a new us from a new them. Namely, the precise discoursive setting populism rests on. Both right and left-wing populisms build their political proposal aiming to respond to the unsatisfied demands of society, re-articulating community along a frontier. As Silvio Waisbord argues, this kind of Manichean storytelling is fostered as well by the evolution of contemporary media, more and more characterized by the communicative modality named post-truth. Denying the information model which refers to the existence of a one and only rational, empirical and demonstrable truth, post-truth assumes that «we cannot overcome subjectivity and that diverse publics lack shared norms and values» (Waisbord 2018: 4). According to the aforementioned perspective, populism looks at this fragmented and multifaceted portrait of reality and therefore chooses to highlight the alternative political choices, insofar as expressions of different souls which don’t deny each other, but clash in an hegemonic war for dominion.


France 2017: A Case Study On Populist Construction of Identity

A very clear, practical example of the meaningfulness of this theoretical approach is supplied by contemporary French politics. Recent Presidential elections held in April 2017 saw the lining up on one side of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing figure, fuelled by a well-prepared populist rhetoric; on the other, Jean-Luc Mélenchon tried to bring back together some pieces of the French left. France Insoumise took advantage, as well as Le Pen’s Front National, of the proclaimed effectiveness of populist rhetoric to present itself to the voters; an ideal case to show how two forces so distant as to their ideological origins can share a discoursive strategy. Both parties defined a collective identity – us – made up of strong symbolical meanings and created an enemy to fight against. The us pictured in  such a storytelling is represented by the people, which should be understood in term of a collective and autonomous political subject, structured around a series of cultural and linguistic features.

The myths of homeland and of the drapeau tricolore bleu, blanc, rouge lies at the heart of the Front National’s (now Rassemblement National) political rhetoric and it’s no surprise that Marine Le Pen labelled herself «the candidate of the people» (Le Pen 2017). Similarly, Jean-Luc Mélenchon fills his storytelling with metaphors taken from the natural world, suggesting the existence of a people anything but artificially built but constructed around innate and emotional boundaries: «take a listen everybody to the whistle coming from our ranks […] like the sound of wind blowing through leaves, like the one of rain on stone. This sound hasn’t a name, but a signal, the one of the strength of the people when it burst into history» (Mélenchon 2017). On the other side of the frontier, the portrait of a them with deliberately liquid boundaries and unidentifiable in a single social group: the enemy is sketched as the symbol of an external domination, applying a strong political and financial pressure over the people. A collective them occasionally embodied by the ruling class of the country, the financial oligarchy, the technocratic bureaucracy of Brussels and many more options.

This binary logic of counterposing the two fronts therefore leads to an identification process based on nationality; namely, a discoursive practice appealing to the attachment to homeland and its values in emotional terms. The political discourse is then framed not only to deliver its storytelling but to push citizens towards its internalization through a shift which involves the emotional level, in order to strengthen the bond with a collective external entity. Chantal Mouffe deems that this ‘sentimental’ blueprint is fundamental for an effective political discourse and finds its justification directly in Freudian psychoanalysis: way before speaking of rational choices, it is fundamental to get in contact with the irrational side of the individual, to the «strong libidinal investment operating in the forms of identification» (Mouffe 2018: 85). Here we may find the reason why of the myths of the France Fière, la République, the flag and the defense of the national idiom, recurring in the discursive practices of both Rassemblement National and France Insoumise, as a plea to the emotional sphere of each individual.


A Common Style with Many Variations: The Value of Ideology in French Populism

While we can assert that a faint line runs between left and right-wing populist discourses, both adopting a language equally aimed at identifying a frontier defined by an emotional connection to the nation, it is not necessarily true that populism flattens the ideological stances cherished by its actors. Mouffe herself remarks that the same discoursive practice of dividing public space in two opponents could be developed in the light of different ideological criteria. When right-wing populism builds its concept of ‘nation’ not merely in patriotic but nationalistic terms, it implies that we should exclude from the collective us immigrants and people belonging to different cultures, none of which would find her/his own space in the national storytelling pattern. According to her, instead, the project for a left populism should extend the democratic horizon towards everyone opposing the hegemonic domination of the oligarchic and financial establishment, including in the project «workers, immigrants and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands such as the LGBT community» (Mouffe 2018: 27).

Drawing on this outline, all through the 2017 presidential campaign the alignment of the two parties along a frontier showed up to be divergent in many topics and mostly when the identity discourse went through the immigration issue. Le Pen’s right-wing populism maintained a coherent approach with the most radical conservative tradition on this matter, putting the safeguard of the French cultural baggage and the highest standards of national solidarity over the opening of society to multiculturalism. Resorting to the motto «rétablir les frontières nationales et sortir de l’espace Schengen», even through the militarisation of borders, Le Pen stands against ius soli as well: «L’acquisition de la nationalité française sera possible uniquement par la filiation ou la naturalisation» (Front National 2017). Instead of seeking for compromises and practical solutions to the integration issues, right-wing populism rather goes for a neat rhetoric according to which every single hole in the wall endangers community as a whole.

On the other side, France Insoumise sets out the limits of its frontier fostering a strong patriotic pride but still tracing its identity border along a more inclusive line, strengthening its own idea of national identity through the need to integrate outer elements in the horizon of the country: «France is a political community, not an ethnic reality. It’s therefore the existence of a common destiny who should ground access to nationality» (Féraud and Senon, 2017: 23). A left-populist social model needs to be based on shared but not exclusive cultural elements, which could be imparted to individuals and social groups who want to join the community. In his fight against political élites and financial oligarchy Mélenchon includes migrants as well, since they become the first victims of the common enemy, instead of being its instrumental allies. The only immigration to fight against is the one which comes through the «free trade routes» and gets abused as regard to the lowering of «wages and putting an additional pressure on social rights» (Mélenchon 2018).

In sum, both Front National and France Insoumise share a common, divisive rhetorical pattern, while pursuing partially different ends and targeting somehow diverse segments of public opinion in terms of ideological belonging.


Speaking of Left-wing Populism: A (Momentary) Conclusion

Laclau argued long ago that «between left-wing and right-wing populism, there is a nebulous no-man’s-land which can be crossed — and has been crossed — in many directions» (Laclau 2005: 87). Until recently, right-wing populism proved to be more efficient in leveraging the emotional sphere of many citizens and drawing an identity narrative which expressed people’s frustration for its exclusion from political life. According to Chantal Mouffe this is the place where the challenge for a left populism lies: the aim should consist in the adoption of an alike rhetorical pattern supporting an identity discourse set to build a collective opposition to the historical hegemonic élite while inclusive of any social force oppressed by the actual dominion, driving this emotional identification towards «better and more egalitarian perspectives inside the national tradition» (Mouffe 2018: 85).


De Benoist, A. (2017), Populismo. La fine della destra e della sinistra, Bologna: Arianna Editrice.

Eatwell, R.; Goodwin, M. (2018), National Populism: The revolt against liberal democracy, London: Pelican.

Féraud, B.; Senon, É. (2017), Livrets de la France Insoumise, Respecter les migrants, régler les causes des migrations: https://avenirencommun.fr/le-livret-migrations/.

Front National (2017), 144 Engagement Présidentiels. Election Présidentielle – 23 avril et 7 mai 2017: http://www.rassemblementnational.fr/pdf/144-engagements.pdf.

Laclau, E. (2005), On Populist Reason, London: Verso.

Le Pen, M (2017), Tweet, April 23, 2017: https://twitter.com/mlp_officiel/status/856223578957766656.

Mélenchon, J-L. (2017), Défilé pour la 6e République – #18mars2017, Youtube video, March 18 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3153&v=b5atq_VZd2M.

Mélenchon, J-L. (2018), Tweet, August 25, 2018. Web. January 1 2019, https://twitter.com/jlmelenchon/status/1033399841752317957?lang=it.

Michéa, J-C. (2015), I misteri della Sinistra. Dall’ideale illuminista al trionfo del capitalismo assoluto, Vicenza: Neri Pozza.

Moffit, B. (2016), The Global Rise of Populism, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mouffe, C. (2018), For a Left Populism, London: Verso.

Schmitt, C. (2007 [1932]), The Concept of the Political, edited by G. Schwab, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Tarchi, M. (2015), Italia populista, Bologna: Il Mulino.

Waisbord, S. (2018), The Elective Affinity Between Post-truth Communication and Populist Politics, Communication Research and Practice. Web. January 19 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/22041451.2018.1428928

Flavio Baroncelli: A Personal Recollection

This memoire begins, as it must, by recounting some of the facts about the academic life of a good friend—too early departed and profoundly missed—Flavio Baroncelli.1


Flavio the Academic: A Brief Curriculum

Flavio was born in Savona on January 15th, 1944. He attended the University of Genoa and completed his laurea degree in 1969 with a dissertation on David Hume, written under the supervision of Professor Romeo Crippa. Between 1969 and 1975, Flavio worked as Crippa’s assistant and in 1976, in the light of independent research conducted in the U.K., published his first book, Un inquietante filosofo perbene – Saggio su David Hume (A Disquieting, Respectable Philosopher – Essay on David Hume; Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1976).Between 1974 and 1977, Flavio taught History of the Age of Enlightenment at the University of Trieste, returning to Genoa in 1977 to teach History of Modern Philosophy. He was co-founder, with Gianni Francioni, of the journal, Studi settecenteschi, and worked together with Giovanni Assereto, Franz Brunetti, Salvatore Rotta and other historians of the Enlightenment.In the early 80’s, Flavio’s examination of the cultural and political processes of modernity caused his attention to shift towards the ideological and social aspects of inequality and poverty. In 1983 he and Giovanni Assereto co-authored a book entitled Sulla povertà, idee leggi e progetti nell’Europa moderna (On Poverty. Ideas, Laws and Projects in Modern Europe; Genova-Ivrea: Herodote), whose content is indicated by its title.

In 1981, Flavio was appointed Full Professor in Moral Philosophy at the University of Calabria, returning once more to the University of Genoa in 1982 as Full Professor in Moral Philosophy.

In the early 90’s, his interests shifted once again towards issues in contemporary political philosophy: the theory and practice of toleration, the causes and evils of racism, the standing of liberal theory vs. the communitarian challenge, and the faults and virtues of “political correctness”. Along with many journal articles on these topics, he published two books: Il razzismo è una gaffe. Eccessi e virtù del “politically correct” (Racism Is a Gaffe. Excesses and Virtues of the “Politically Correct”; Rome: Donzelli, 1996) and Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti. Perché gli americani votano Bush e se ne vantano (Voyage To the Limits of the United States. Why the Americans Elected Bush And Boast About It; Rome: Donzelli, 2006).Il razzismo è una gaffe is an analysis of political correctness as a cultural phenomenon. Flavio explains how it came about in the United States and examines the main debates that it generated. The first part of the book, which is mainly reconstructive, paints a very illuminating fresco of the cultural and political processes behind the battles around speech codes on American campuses and their reception in Italy. In the second part of the book, through a very deep analysis that resorts to the conceptual tools of moral and political philosophy and pragmatics, Flavio defends political correctness as a way to achieve a fairer and more tolerant society, notwithstanding its excesses and faults. To Flavio’s surprise and delight, this book was adopted as an introductory text in sociolinguistics in more than one university course in Italy.In his last book, Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti, Flavio follows a formula very similar to the one used in the preceding book: he intertwines a narrative description of a long trip to the United States (written in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was intermittently treated for the protracted illness that ultimately killed him) with philosophical reflections on the opposition between the liberal culture and the neo-conservative culture that was at its apex at the time.

In 2006, Flavio changed the institutional disciplinary area of his professorship to political philosophy.

Flavio died on February 20th, 2007, at Saint Martin’s Hospital of Genoa after a long battle with leukemia. He was in his 64th year2.


Flavio the Philosopher

Flavio Baroncelli was a formidable philosopher, albeit an unusual—and even “disquieting”—one. His work is well known in Italy, but little known in other countries. The obvious explanation for this is that Flavio wrote and published almost exclusively in Italian. And that was no accident, for he knew English well and could easily have written much more in English in order to raise his international profile. But for Flavio, the Italian language was a basic philosophical instrument. He employed a great deal of straightforward (and clever) analytical argument. But he also argued (like Nietzsche) by means of humor, irony, story-telling and various forms of linguistic artistry. For this, he needed Italian, in which language he was a master craftsman.

Flavio understood and cultivated the rhetorical aspect of philosophical writing. He seems not to have viewed rhetoric and reasoning as disjoint enterprises, in the manner of Socrates (who also viewed them as antagonistic enterprises), but rather as intersecting. Of course he understood that rhetoric could be malignant, but, like Aristotle, thought that there was also benign, or constructive rhetoric—rhetoric with a legitimate, and thus rational, persuasive force. His admiration for Hume was in large part based upon his appreciation of Hume’s skill as a rhetorician, but what he valued was Hume’s employment of constructive rhetoric, while he rejected Hume’s all-too-frequent descents into sophistry.

In a short piece that recently appeared in English translation, “Rawls and Hume: A Fable” (tr. Gillian Parker),3 Flavio imagines a conversation between Hume and Rawls upon the latter’s arrival at the Elysian Fields. Hume there is made to remark to Rawls that “rhetoric really isn’t your strong point”; and this is meant as a criticism. More specifically, Flavio’s Hume chastises Rawls for having “invented a ridiculous term”—the original position—to describe a “simple and brilliant idea”. Part of constructive rhetoric consists in the apt, lucid and illuminating choice of terminology. On the other hand, Hume is made to chastise himself for being unable to make his own account of justice sound appealing “except by adulterating, by subjecting to the most bombastic propaganda, the psychological mechanisms available to me”.4 This is the sort of rhetoric for which Flavio had little tolerance.

The philosophical methodology that recognizes rhetorical, or perhaps one should say, aesthetic, modes of rational persuasion is indicative of a deeper commitment that Flavio shared with Hume. Humean scholars tend to call this “sentimentalism”, a label Flavio would surely have resisted. But whatever one calls it, the idea is that there is a shared human nature which is at once discursive and sympathetic. Rational appeals may be made discursively or sympathetically; it may even be difficult to view these two elements as entirely distinct. As I understand Flavio, this was his view; and I perceive it to be Hume’s as well. Indeed, I think that this was Hume’s main appeal for Flavio. Flavio felt that the Socratic (or ancient Greek) disjunction between reason and sentiment—or between reason and sympathy—was a false one: one that distorted the nature of human rationality. It was therefore that Flavio rejected all forms of traditional rationalism. In the fable of Rawls and Hume mentioned earlier, Hume confronts Rawls in the following manner:

There’s something I just don’t get; for instance, resorting to practical reason for stability seems odd to me, a sort of oxymoron, because I’m used to thinking it’s the passions that create a minimum of stability, of similarity between us . . . as well as a semblance . . . of brotherhood. . . . [F]or the last two hundred years now you’ve been ashamed of having an idea of human nature and pretend you can do without it, but what’s the result? That you, for example, . . . try to restrict the things for which you require mutual consent, as if all you were worried about were restricting the grounds on which someone different from you could say no, while in this way you actually exclude the grounds on which someone different from you could say yes.5

Of course, Flavio is here speaking for Hume; but I believe that he was also, in this place, speaking for himself.Both Flavio and Hume treated philosophy as a human activity, situated in history, culture and tradition. It addresses itself to people who have the shared nature mentioned above, who have specific traditions and concerns, and who, in any particular discussion, share a certain language which resonates with their beliefs, emotions and sympathies. Rationalism, on their view, attempts to address bloodless wraiths—parodies of the human being. It is exaggeratedly discursive, ahistorical, unsituated, and liable to slide into fanaticism.While one can never, I think, fully appreciate Flavio as a philosopher without reading him in Italian (for the reasons I have explained), I believe that understanding the way in which he conceived and practiced philosophy can help those who read him in other languages (and it is to be fervently hoped that his works will be widely translated) to appreciate his work6.


Flavio the Humanist

Flavio identified himself as a philosopher, and he was, indeed, a philosopher by any standard. But he was perhaps even more a humanist.If you conceive and practice philosophy in Flavio’s way, you are almost necessarily drawn to humanistic subjects and are less concerned with the analytic-synthetic distinction or the question whether it would be possible for something to be red and green all over. Flavio began his philosophical researches in the history of modern philosophy; but even in that period, it is clear that what interested him most was the significance of philosophical movements and they way they shaped Modernity: the way they influenced the manner in which people understood themselves, one another, and human relationships (especially moral and political relationships). What did Modernity have to offer in the face of poverty? In the face of war? In the face of racism and oppression?

These are the things that Flavio thought and wrote about—and he cared what philosophy could say about them and wanted philosophy to have a positive and wholesome influence. And of course he moved on from thinking about the significance of modern philosophy for the human condition (Locke, Smith, Hume, Kant) to thinking and writing about the significance of contemporary philosophy (Rawls, Walzer, Rorty and others). His movement from the history of philosophy and the history of ideas into moral and political philosophy was inevitable and inexorable.

Flavio’s humanism found expression in his intense activity as a contributor to various Italian national magazines and newspapers, such as La VoceVillageIl diario della settimana and Il Secolo XIX. His writings there focussed almost exclusively upon cultural, social and political issues, and he was an insightful and incisive critic of the contemporary scene. Unlike many such critics, he eschewed all forms of fanaticism, while at the same time offering scathing critiques of the beliefs and practices that conduce to human misery.Flavio’s humanism also expressed itself in research. He co-directed various research projects at local and the national level, sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Universities. Particularly important projects were The Ethico-political Philosophical Lexicon in the Italian Culture of the Eighteenth Century (part of a larger project for the creation of an internet library of the Italian culture, Biblioteca Italiana Telematica), and the work on Equal Respect: Its Nature and Its Normative Implications for Institutions, co-ordinated at the national level by Salvatore Veca.


Flavio the Human Being

Flavio’s philosophy and philosophical humanism were of course reflections of the soul of Flavio the man. Like the author of this memoire, Flavio was in certain respects a superannuated hippy. He was, after all, 24 years old in 1968. There were no doubt many earlier occasions; but the only time that I actually saw Flavio dressed in a dark suit was when I paid my respects to him, or rather to his earthly remains, in the hospital morgue. He most often appeared at the university dressed in blue jeans and a sports shirt. He confronted people on a social, intellectual and emotional basis—not a sartorial one.

And Flavio was a biker! Of course, many if not most younger Italians are devotees of scooters and cycles, but Flavio continued to ride and travel on his motorcycle long after most of his colleagues had moved over to their more comfortable Lancias (or whatnot). In 1988, Flavio had a serious motorcycle accident while traveling in Turkey that incapacitated him for more than a year and kept him from teaching and research. Right up until his death, he suffered from pain in his foot and leg that made it difficult for him to walk for long distances and sometimes kept him in bed.

Flavio was not a softie. He set severe standards for himself and others but was generally (although not always!) gentle in applying them. Humor, irony and sometimes sarcasm were his weapons, rather than aggression or intimidation.

He was typically adored by his students and had the ability to get them deeply engaged in philosophical questions. A class with Flavio did not end when everyone left the room; some of his classes may never end, even now that he’s gone.

The highlights of Flavio’s personal life were his marriage to Annalisa Siri and the adoption of Gurol, their Turkish son. I met them both at the hospital on a very sad day in February, 2007. In 1997, Annalisa had arranged for my own son to participate in cancer research at the institute where she worked as part of his medical education. This was an indirect consequence of my cooperation with Flavio in the Erasmus program, discussed further below.

During his long, final illness, Flavio was often unable to work at the university. His colleagues missed him and his influence in university affairs, and they were mostly in denial about what from the outside looked clearly like a terminal sickness. “When is Flavio going to come back to work?” one of his close colleagues complained; “We need him!” Of course, I had no answer.

The final period of Flavio’s life was unfortunate for more reasons than one. He had had to spend a number of years caring for his aged, and rather difficult, father, which prevented him from traveling and, often, from working as he wished. And when at last liberated from the duties of a faithful son, he became aware of the illness that eventually ended his life.

Being unable to travel was a serious loss for Flavio. He was fascinated by the similarities and differences among peoples and nations and relished international contact in a way that could not be fully served by the Internet. In 1991-92 he was an honorary fellow at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Iceland (1994), Glasgow University (1994) and the University of Bergen (1996). He was also instrumental in organizing Erasmus exchanges for students and colleagues in philosophy.It was through the Erasmus program that I first met Flavio; and it was also through this program that he visited—and became a friend of—Iceland.

We went together with a group of students to a country retreat in mid-winter. Ever the speculator about human motivation, Flavio gazed wonderingly out of the window of our bus at the bleak, frozen landscape. “What did those people think when they came here?” he asked, referring to the settlement of Iceland, which began in 874. “What could they have been thinking of?” He also warned me, “I hope that you are not sleeping with me in the same cabin. I snore like a bear!” He did snore a bit, but not really with bear-like intensity (as I imagine it).

The Icelandic students were as inspired by him as his Italian students, and discussions continued far into the night. Flavio arranged to send students, and a number of colleagues to Iceland, and to receive Icelandic students and colleagues in Genoa. Eventually, others took over this work, but the lively interchanges between the University of Iceland and the University of Genoa continue.

Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death. But Socrates viewed the body as a kind of prison for the soul, and daily life (and perhaps even human intercourse generally) as a distraction—at least so Plato tells us. Socrates looked forward to bodily death as a liberation of the soul. This was not Flavio’s view. For Flavio, as I maintained earlier, human nature was inseparably discursive, sentimental and sympathetic, with human rationality encompassing all of these elements. This, I maintained, was a Humean vision. Flavio did not understand himself as a soul imprisoned in a body; and he reveled in human intercourse. Despite his fable about a meeting of Hume and Rawls in the Elysian Fields, Flavio did not (I think) believe in an afterlife, any more than Hume did. Even if Flavio had believed in an afterlife, he would surely have wanted to put it off as long as it was possible to live fulfillingly in an earthly life: a life of language, culture, history, society—and in short what I have twice referred to as “human intercourse”. I know from our personal conversations that Flavio—long before he became terminally ill—was disquieted by death. He was afraid of contracting breast cancer, as had one of his male relatives. Philosophy for Flavio was not a preparation for death; it was a preparation for continuing, deepening and advancing the dialogue.Flavio faced illness and death bravely, and was able, despite weakness and pain, to write out of his experience a remarkable book (Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti); but I doubt that he “went gentle into that good night”; and why should he have?


Flavio Altogether

I have given a somewhat kaleidoscopic recounting of Flavio as a human being. This was the only way I could think of to present him to the reader, not as an academic, but as a person of flesh and blood.

But what unified the kaleidoscopic Flavio was his curiosity about the human animal and about human relations and his passionate hope that people might grow to treat one another better than they do. This curiosity and hope guided his personal life, his interaction with friends, students, and colleagues, his choice of a career, and his philosophical humanism: the honed instrument of his life pursuit.

We have now lost the bodily Flavio, but the spiritual Flavio lives on—not in the fifth dimension, but in Flavio’s own way, in this world. He lives on as long as we remember him, study his work, and are moved by his influence. We will be the better for it.



1 I express my special thanks to Valeria Ottonelli, who helped me to collect together some of the essential material concerning Flavio’s life and work.

2 A bibliography of Flavio’s most important work can be found here:

1975 Un inquietante filosofo perbene. Saggio su David Hume, La Nuova Italia, Firenze
1977 Blaise Pascal, Solitudine e storia, antologia degli scritti, scelta, introduzione e note di F. Baroncelli, La Nuova Italia, Firenze
1980 Pauperismo e religione nell’eta moderna (con G. Assereto), «Società e storia», n. 7, 1980
1981 Tra Locke e Smith. Alcune immagini del rapporto col “povero”, «Studi Settecenteschi», n. 2
1982 La droga, il sesso, l’Iliade e l’Odissea in Piacere e felicità: fortuna e declino. Atti del 3° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia Morale (Chiavari – S.Margherita Ligure, 15-17 maggio 1980), a cura di Romeo Crippa, Liviana, Padova, pp. 247-63.
1983 (con Giovanni Assereto) Sulla povertà, idee leggi e progetti nell’Europa moderna, Herodote, Genova-Ivrea
1985 Contro la carità discreta. Misericordia, raziocinio e volontà di non sapere in una polemica cinquecentesca sulla povertà, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XV (1985), 1
1987 D. Hume, Scritti morali, traduzione, introduzione e note a cura di F. Baroncelli, La scuola, Brescia
1987 I filosofi e la pace. Atti del 5° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia Morale in memoria di Romeo Crippa (Sanremo, Villa Nobel, 13-15 dicembre 1984), a cura di F. Baroncelli e M. Pasini, Ecig, Genova
1987 Corpo e cosmo nell’esperienza morale. Atti del 4° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia morale (Pietrasanta, 30 settembre-2 ottobre 1982) a cura di Romeo Crippa, edizione a cura di F. Baroncelli e D. Rolando, Paideia, Brescia
1989 Suicidio e garanzie. Riflessioni a proposito di un libro recente, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XIX (1989), 2
1993 L’incerta fortuna della critica all’immaginazionismo di James Augustus Blondel, «Studi Settecenteschi»
Cinici e scimmie. Osservazioni sull’anti-etnocentrismo di Montaigne e Rousseau, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXIII (1993), 1
1994 Il linguaggio non offending come strategia di tolleranza, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXIV (1994), 1
1995 Razzismo e verità, «Ragion pratica», III (1995), pp. 79-97
1996 Il razzismo è una gaffe, Eccessi e virtù del “politically correct”, Donzelli, Roma
1997 Giustizialismo, «Ragion Pratica», n.7, pp. 119-137
Post-fazione a Lysander Spooner, No treason n.6. La costituzione senza autorità, ed. e trad. di V.Ottonelli, Il Melangolo, Roma
Etica e razionalità. Un finto divorzio?, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXVII (1997), 1, pp. 230-260
Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, in F. Manti (a cura di), La tolleranza e le sue ragioni, pp. 120-147.
1998 Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, «Quaderni di Bioetica», pp. 120-147.
Come scrivere sulla tolleranza, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXVIII (1998), 1, pp. 49-68.
2000 Razzismo e correttezza politica: la riscossa della natura, in Mezzadra, I confini della globalizzazione, Manifestolibri, Roma
Giudizio, giustizia, giustizialismo, in S. Nicosia (a cura di), Il giudizio. Filosofia, teologia, diritto, estetica. Carocci, Roma, pp. 320-339.
2001 Liberalismo e multiculturalismo in Liberalismo e società giusta, a cura di M. Marsonet, Name, Genova
Le quattro indegnità dei liberali irresoluti. Teoria politica, XVII (2001), pp. 23-47
Il chiliagono della politica mondiale e la povertà della nostra immaginazione, «Ragion pratica», 16 (2001), pp. 135-138
La tolleranza dell’errore e del disvalore, in V. Dini (a cura di), Tolleranza e libertà, Eleuthera, Milano, pp. 257-276
2005 L’onore dei Labdacidi: religione, politica e familismo nell’ Antigone di Sofocle, in M. Ripoli – M. Rubino (a cura di), Antigone. Il mito, il diritto, lo spettacolo, pp. 21-44
2006 Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti. Perché gli americani votano Bush e se ne vantano, Donzelli, Roma.

3 Published in Emilio Mazza & Emanuele Ronchetti, eds. New Essays on David Hume (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2007), pp. 259-63, and originally presented in Italian at the seminar “La filosofia è politica”, held in honor of John Rawls at the University of Milan, 31 Janary 2003.

4 “Rawls and Hume: A Fable”, p. 260.

5 “Rawls and Hume: A Fable”, p. 261.

6 Others who know Flavio’s work may think differently than I about how it should be understood. This piece reflects my personal view, and should at least be of help to those who have yet to encounter Flavio’s philosophy.

Introduction to the papers from the June 2017 conference “The Sick Action”

The papers in this collection deal with the theme of evil, interpreted according to various points of view: psychoanalytic, anthropological, philosophical, religious, mythological and legal. Indeed, the authors themselves have diverse professional and geographic origins: they are Italians and Icelanders, and they include university professors, psychoanalysts, philosophers, judges, and anthropologists. The discussion of these works occurred in Palermo, Italy, 9–10 June 2017, and was organized by the Sneffels Psychoanalytic Circle of Palermo, headed by Dr Roberto Buccola, an Italian psychoanalyst who, among his various papers, led two seminars at the University of Akureyri, Iceland, in 2016. The presentation of the articles occurred, with few exceptions, in Italian, so in some of these articles the reader can encounter peculiar Italian expressive forms translated into English.

The issues dealt with in this volume resonate with contemporary incidents of international terrorism in Europe, as these articles examine possible causes and ways of confronting them.

Palermo, 17 February 2018

Gaetano Roberto Buccola

On a Conversation between Socrates and Meno in the Dialogue “Meno”

Meno is divided into 3 parts:

Part I 70 a – 81c is a conversation between Meno and Socrates as to whether or not virtue can be taught which cannot be done unless it is known what virtue is.

Part II 81c – 86c Socrates tries to convince Meno that Meno’s servant can recollect – i.e. bring to mind something that he already knows – the relation between a given square and one twice its area.

Part III 86c – 100c  (where the discussion concludes) where Socrates claims that “the truth about reality is always in our soul”

What follows discusses only Part II in which Socrates asks the boy to construct a square twice the area of a given square. Socrates presupposes that the boy already knows what a square looks like (“what it is” in everyday language), knows (accepts) that the four sides of the square are equal and that two are parallel to the base, two to the vertical.

The boy is presumed to “see” (“accept”) that within the original square there are four equal squares. When asked to describe a square twice the area of the given square he suggests that the solution would be to double the length of the sides of the given square. Socrates brings him to discover that, were that done, the resultant square would be four times the area of the given square rather than twice its area. He eventually gets the boy to discover that that diagonal of the given square is the length of the sides of the square twice the area of the given square.

Socrates knows the answer to the question; the boy does not. Socrates brings him to discover the answer by asking questions which the boy is able to answer. Evidently the questions to be of any value in this context must lead to answers that will bring the questioner to the solution. Socrates asks the questions but it is worth remarking that the questions become questions for the boy only when he takes them to be questions that he considers worth asking and is willing to try to answer .

There remains an unnoticed feature of the discussion between the boy and Socrates. The boy is led to discover how to construct a square twice the area of the given square. Obviously it is possible to construct a square twice the area of the constructed square and another twice its area and so ad infinitum. Evidently, there are squares squares three times the area, half the area, a fifth the area of the original and so on …

There is an infinity of squares. What makes each one a square is its form. Its matter the possibility of being one of infinitely many.

The boy saw what Socrates had drawn in the sand and took it to be – understood it to be;  – a square. He already knew “what a square was” in that he knew that it was a four sided figure with equal and parallel sides – two horizontal and two vertical. He also took implicitly for granted  that there were infinitely many squares equal to the given square and also infinitely many squares twice the area of the original. What remained unique is the form which can be understood but cannot be seen.

Young children can easily see that one square is bigger than another and  may be told that the bigger  of the two is described as being twice the size of the first and so has a rough idea of “twice the size” –    something like “quite a lot bigger” – and as we grow up our everyday understanding of “twice the size” (or, “twice as big”) becomes more delicate and more exact when we learn measurement but  we continue to use “about twice as big”or “ about twice the size” in everyday conversation as we should not see – or claim – that something was “seventeen times the size”.

The boy in Meno learns that the diagonal of a square is the length of  the  sides of a square twice the area of the original square. He does not, and cannot, literally “see” that it is. In Meno Plato does not say the discovery is the discovery of a feature in the form or nature of the square; nor does he  advert to the fact that the new square is half the size of a square based on its own diagonal. He does not say that the boy has discovered a feature or element in form of the square, nor that there is an infinite number of squares each one based on the diagonal of the preceding square.

However, this much is clear. The boy sees a shape in the sand; he “sees it as” (Wittgenstein) a square; as what is called “a square”. In the dialogue, he is said to know the basic features of a square. He does not know how to discover  or construct a square double the area of this square. But he accepts that there is such a square. Implicitly he accepts – as, crucially, does the reader – that there is no largest square.

It is a fundamental and inescapable feature of a square that there is a larger square; in the dialogue the question is how to discover a square twice the area of the given square but it is also true that there is a square three, four, five …..&c. times its area. Thus, the question of the size of the largest square does not properly arise because there is no largest square. Equally, there is no smallest square.

The nature of a square can be known but cannot be seen.

Similarly, the shapes 1,2,3 can be seen. Children who have been taught that they represent numbers and have learnt how to deal with numbers see that sequence of shapes as the second, third and fourth number in the infinite sequence 0,1,2,3,…&c. (Children often mistakenly take the sequence to represent the first,second and third number.) There is a property of the sequence 1,2,3 that is shared by no other sequence of three consecutive numbers in the infinitely many sets of three consecutive numbers -.e.g. 2,3,4; 3,4,5; 4,5,6…1001,1002,1003; 1001,1002,1003  ….. Why that assertion is true cannot be seen but can be understood.

1,2,3 is unique because all three numbers in that sequence are prime including 2 which is the only even prime number. The sequence 11, 12, 13 contains two prime numbers (11, 13) but, as is true of every sequence,  contains at least one even number, and no even number other than 2 is prime because every even number is divisible by 2.

Someone who can see a square, sees a diagram that represents a square, and is told the opposite sides of the drawn square are to be taken to be parallel and equal –  it is worth remarking here that that diagrams in Euclid represent lines, squares, rectangles, ….but that a Euclidean point or line (and other figures) as defined cannot be seen. In Book I, 1. A point is that which has no parts, or which has no magnitude. 2. A line is length without breadth.

In Meno the boy sees a figure that he has learnt is called “a square”. When a “diagonal” is added he sees it. When he is told that the diagonal is the length of the lines in a square twice the area he may believe that to be the case but he does not yet know. When he discovers that to be so he sees no more than before;  but understands and knows.  What he understands is the form of a square. His movement from seeing to questioning, to  understanding and knowing is, perhaps, not unlike that of those in the cave in the Republic.

John McMurtry, La fase cancerígena del capitalismo, de la crisis a la cura (Valencia: Tirant Humanidades, 2016)

Las reticencias y críticas contra la globalización neoliberal nacieron prácticamente con la emergencia del fenómeno mismo, sin embargo, en los últimos años de crisis se ha venido fortaleciendo una nueva tendencia, creciente y heterogénea, de posturas críticas y acciones contestatarias contra este modelo de producción y comunicación mundial. La desconfianza y rechazo hacia una  integración global de las comunidades humanas dentro de los márgenes del neoliberalismo se dejan ver en movimientos sociales, partidos políticos y propuestas teóricas que, desde orientaciones políticas y morales distintas, cuando no opuestas, exhiben sus deficiencias y consecuencias negativas , así como el extravío e inviabilidad de su presunto horizonte emancipador.

La obra del filósofo John McMurtry, La fase cancerígena del capitalismo, se integra dentro de esta tendencia crítica, con la destacable ventaja de que su primera edición fue lanzada en 1999. En aquellos años, en los que aún predominaba un aire de triunfalismo liberal sobre las experiencias históricas que pretendieron acabar con el capitalismo, McMurtry lanzó su diagnóstico sin complejos: el sistema capitalista es un trastorno cancerígeno que puede acabar con la vida humana y con la base natural que la soporta. Es posible que hace quince años, cuando diversas regiones del planeta vivían un auge económico, esta valoración haya podido generar ciertas dudas en algunos sectores, pero con la crisis económica, política, ecológica y cultural que se ha cristalizado desde el 2008  a nivel mundial, su pertinencia es innegable. Debido a esto, el autor lanzó una segunda edición aumentada en el 2013, en la cual añade y analiza los datos y acontecimientos más determinantes de los últimos años retomando el marco analítico de la primera publicación. La edición que a continuación referiremos es la primera traducción al castellano que acaba de publicar la editorial Tirant Humanidades (McMurtry, 2016).

La investigación que nos presenta McMurtry parte de la idea de que todas las sociedades tienen una estructura de reglas subyacente, un tipo de gramática nos dice, que rige las acciones, el discurso y el pensamiento de sus miembros. Estas metareglas son la codificación del sistema de valores prevalente. Es en el metanivel  de los sistemas sociales donde el autor cree que la filosofía debe excavar para poder evaluar “su verdad y su valor en la búsqueda de su forma más completa” (p.19). Por consiguiente, en esta obra se abordan los valores que regulan, en última instancia, el mecanismo del sistema capitalista, partiendo del supremo principio que lo define: la maximización del beneficio privado monetario en detrimento de las bases naturales y civilizatorias de la vida humana.

A lo largo del texto se despliega una ontología social que postula como primer  y necesaria instancia de la existencia humana y sus sociedades el ámbito natural-material y socio-cultural, los cuales integran el life capital[1]. Éste comprendería “(…)las riquezas naturales y las creadas por el hombre que más producen en el tiempo sin pérdidas”(p.420) y estaría constituido por el capital de la tierra, el capital del conocimiento, el capital social y el capital ecológico. En esta propuesta el concepto de Capital desdobla su significado y trasciende al de la economía política clásica y neoclásica, ya que es concebido como la riqueza total –material, cognitiva y simbólica- que sostiene y garantiza la vida y, por ende, deja de limitarse al de una magnitud de valor social  tendiente a la infinita valorización del valor monetario y a la totalidad de los bienes mercantiles de los sujetos individuales y colectivos. Es así que, el life capital constituye la corporeidad y las condiciones de posibilidad reales de los sistemas sociales.

Para abordar la condición actual del sistema global y del life capital que en última instancia lo sostiene, el autor trasladara desde la medicina el marco conceptual clínico del cáncer. Pero, antes, nos aclarará que esta traslación no busca la postulación de una metáfora sino la construcción de un “modelo explicativo” (p.p.64-5) que dé cuenta de un trastorno  que invade literalmente los cuerpos orgánicos y los cuerpos sociales por igual. El principal y determinante agente cancerígeno que opera en nuestras sociedades sería las Secuencias de Dinero Privado Transancional (SDPT), aquello que la prensa mundial llama, con sospechosa neutralidad, los mercados o los flujos de capital. Estas secuencias son reproducciones monetarias anómalas de las dinámicas de intercambio y producción social que tienden a la automultiplicación sin ninguna función vital, operando igual que las células cancerígenas que invaden los organismos biológicos: “(…)Ambas se multiplican fuera de control. Tampoco tienen ninguna función  en compromiso con la vida. Ambas invaden y se extienden  al depredar y despojar al anfitrión de sus recursos. Y la clave para sucumbir en cada nivel, es la insuficiencia del sistema inmunológico en reconocerles” (p.91).

Precisamente en el no reconocimiento del trastorno radica parte de su fuerza. Al respecto, McMurtry percibe una pasividad en los economistas y los filósofos por no cuestionar estructuralmente las bases axiomáticas del sistema cancerígeno: “(…) Ningún economista hace esto porque cada paso es bloqueado a priori  por la estructura profunda de la doctrina y su modelo cientificista. Ningún filósofo moral lo hace tampoco, en la medida en que está por fuera de los límites el reconocerlo dados los tabúes metodológicos y sociales” (p.31). El cáncer capitalista se ha convertido en un tabú social, toda vez que los medios de comunicación y las instancias del conocimiento presentan profundas lagunas respecto a su análisis.  Ante esta situación nos recuerda que en la era del oscurantismo medieval :

(…)La reflexión social registrada está mas o menos confinada  a la teología moral especulativa  decretada por Roma. Las cuestiones de fondo se hacen a un lado en el plano normativo. Las relaciones sociales preestablecidas, bien se mantienen por fuera de la discusión en su conjunto, como un tabú innombrable de los medios del momento, o se les concede una mera disculpa y justificación. A esto le llamamos <<Era del oscurantismo>> por una buena razón. Pero una Era de Oscurantismo puede volver a ocurrir.(…) ¿No nos enfrentamos a una nueva teología absolutista, de las leyes eternas del mercado, en lugar de las de Dios, como los mandamientos del mundo?. (McMurtry, 2016, p. 205)

El período cancerígeno que se analiza en la obra tendría sus orígenes en la derrota estadounidense en Vietnam, el golpe de estado chileno del 73, el cambio del patrón oro por el patrón dólar en 1974 que permite la reproducción de moneda fiduciaria sin arraigo directo en la materialidad y la llegada al poder de Donald Reagan y Margaret Thatcher y la consecuente liberalización de los mercados. En los años que van de 1973 a 1999 nuestro autor observa la consolidación de una nueva “soberanía supranacional” , un tipo de “poder colectivo de secuencias monetarias” (p. 32), que circula por todo el planeta destrozando por igual las soberanías de los estados nacionales, los ecosistemas, los ámbitos culturales locales y la salud misma de los organismos humanos. A partir del 9/11  se despliega una estrategia que busca consolidar el poder global de las Secuencias de Dinero Privado Transnacional después del reacomodo que supuso la caída de la URSS y de la emergencia de varios fenómenos contestatarios que empezaban a  tomar consciencia de los impactos dañinos del sistema. Esta estrategia estaría basada en la reconstrucción de un enemigo , habida cuenta de la caída del monstruo soviético, para justificar la ampliación de la metástasis capitalista.

Pero, a pesar de el sombrío diagnóstico que nos presenta, McMurtry también se encarga de proponer unos principios mínimos, una “ontoaxiología”, que en la práctica funcionaría como “la cura” contra el cáncer capitalista. Esta “cura” estaría basada en una de las facultades naturales de los cuerpos sociales: el “(…)sistema inmune social de capacidades y competencias sobre el que todo el funcionamiento de la sociedad y cada vez más personas y especies dependen para su supervivencia y prosperidad”(p.320) . Este sistema inmune social expulsa o elimina los agentes extraños y dañinos que amenazan con desequilibrar, atacar o destruir al organismo social que supone una comunidad y estaría constituido por un conjunto de prácticas, regulaciones, prescripciones, instituciones y procesos que están orientados a proteger la vida general. Los agentes encargados de desplegar y operar la potencialidad del sistema inmunológico de la sociedad  serían los “comunes civiles” : “(…)cualquiera y todas las construcciones sociales que permiten el acceso universal a los bienes vitales” (p.497). De esta forma, “(…) el movimiento progresista, la izquierda, la comunidad, los sindicatos y las cooperativas”(p.497), explícitamente avocados a la defensa y garantía de la vida, serían los elementos operativos del sistema inmunológico social.

Mcmurtry no se limita a sostener su propuesta curativa sobre una ideal moral, sino que también lo argumenta con algunos ejemplos socio-políticos actuales que  considera saludables. Estos ejemplos serían las actuales políticas en defensa y protección de los ámbitos públicos, los recursos naturales y la vida humana que han implementado países como Venezuela, Brasil, Ecuador, Argentina y Bolivia por medio de nacionalizaciones, renegociaciones de la deuda pública, recuperación y protección de zonas naturales estratégicas, así como la revitalización del cuerpo social por medio de programas sociales orientados al fortalecimiento de la salud, la educación y el conocimiento de la población. Por ello, nos dice que “En toda iniciativa política y legislativa en América Latina existe una lógica unificadora de recuperación: la reivindicación pública de la economía al servicio de las necesidades conocidas de su gente y sus condiciones de vida.” (p.80).

En lo referente al aspecto teórico-critico de esta obra, nos parece relevante destacar que su análisis no se integra en la línea del pensamiento marxista o posmarxista. El propio autor  marca distancia con algunos aspectos de esta corriente porque que considera  que el life capital no es captado en sus postulados. Y es que Marx, nos dice, centró su atención en las células básicas del capitalismo, la mercancía-dinero p. e., sin mirar las auténticas fuentes de la riqueza , las cuales no pueden ser reducidas a la fuerza de trabajo, ya que  ésta se encuentra también sustentada sobre las mismas, es decir, sobre el life capital. A pesar de ello,   McMurtry no duda en reconocer la importancia de la obra marxiana:

(…)Lo que abre el espacio de reflexión para el análisis crítico  de los presupuestos sociales de una vez por todas, es el profundo trabajo estructural sin precedentes de Karl Marx(…) su obra rompe de forma decisiva la larga aquiescencia de la teoría con el statu quo y los privilegios de clase dominante (…) Yendo mucho más allá de Sócrates o Rousseau, él expone a la crítica sistemática la estructura de poder material de todo lo hasta hoy hay de existente en la sociedad civil(…) Ningún filósofo de la historia antes de esto se había atrevido a ir tan lejos. Desde entonces, la obra de Marx ha sido un punto de referencia fundamental en el panorama filosófico: un punto de referencia para los pensadores cuya preocupación por las estructuras subyacentes se extiende a las formas sociales dominantes, y no meramente a los ordenamientos naturales y conceptuales. (McMurtry, 2016, p.212)

Para finalizar, diremos que, al margen de las diferencias onto-epistémicas que hay  entre McMurtry y Marx, las propuestas de ambos se emparentan en el hecho de que están enfocadas en el análisis de las condiciones materiales, sociales y culturales de la existencia humana. En consecuencia, ambos toman como primer principio de referencia los hechos históricos y la estructura constitutiva y causal de los sistemas sociales que los genera. Por ello, es de agradecer que en La fase cancerígena del capitalismo las críticas y argumentos se sustentan en diversos escenarios y acontecimientos históricos actuales, con lo cual, McMurtry, como Marx en su tiempo, rompe con la endogamia metafísica de algunas corrientes de la filosofía que han decidido hacerse a un lado ante la acuciante realidad de nuestros días. Creemos que esta obra nos recuerda que, en los tiempos vertiginosos que corren, es un imperativo ético para los filósofxs  exponer  el potencial crítico de la filosofía ante un sistema desconocedor de la vida que está dominado por “egoísmos atómicos automaximizadores”.

[1] No hay traducción posible en castellano que haga justicia al concepto de Life capital, ya que capital vital y capital de vida tienen una connotación distinta en castellano

Classical Political Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity – An alternative to the competition State

Our times have be characterized as a post-political age at the end of history[1], where all political ideologies are dead and economic prioritization according to utility-maximization in the neoliberal competition state has become the only purpose of political decisions. The citizen of modern welfare society has become a work and consumption man that is not interested in the common good of community, but only wants to satisfy individual and often opportunistic preferences. At the same time modernity is characterized by wars and catastrophes (Holocaust, Yugoslavia and more recently Iraq and Syria) where the desire of power by tyrants lead to great suffering and unhappiness. On this basis of this perplexity of politics, the conservative Jewish, German and American philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) proposes an interpretation of the causes of the crisis of modernity and argues that the only way in which we can reestablish social stability is to go back to classical political philosophy by Plato and Aristotle. In the following, I will introduce thought of Leo Strauss in order to show how we here can find a well-qualified concept of political conservativism. It is however clear, that this intellectual aristocratism is different from dominant conservative at the political right that also can be accused of having reduced politics to economics and utility maximization where focus is on promotion of personal privileges and interests rather than a concern for the common good in a strong political community.

A critique of radical conservatism

At the same time as he wants to distance himself from the contemporary conservative ideology, we can consider Strauss’ philosophy as a criticism of radical conservatism that in our time has resulted in Nazism and fascism. According to Strauss tyranny and totalitarianism, represent a disturbing consequence of the modern break-through of political thought by Machiavelli and Hobbes where politics is no longer concerned with the common good, but has become power politics in order to secure the privileges of the ruling tyrants and supporting classes.

This criticism of the radical conservatism is closely related to Strauss’ own lives. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish home in Hamburg and completed in 1922 his doctorate in a Neo-Kantian university environment. In the late 1920s, he was in Berlin and worked on a book about the Jewish philosopher Spinoza’s critique of religion. In this regard, began his political philosophy to take shape in a showdown with the famous Catholic-conservative constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt who, later for a short period (1934-35) was to become Hitler’s crown jurist and main ideologist. Schmitt had several times after Strauss-depth comments revised his work On the concept of the political.[2] At the same time, Schmitt helped paradoxically Strauss to escape from Nazism by making sure that he in 1932 was awarded a scholarship to first study in Paris and later in Cambridge. It was later the start of Strauss’ career in Anglo-Saxon political science where he after immigration to the United States, as a professor at the University of Chicago came to found a school of political philosophy. Moreover, he influenced several generations of American political scientists to be interested in the political philosophy classics instead of election research, “rational choice” theory and utilitarianism, disciplines that were on the top of the American political science. That Strauss’ influence is enormous proves an opinion of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who complained that the US Government had several employees who knew more about Plato and Aristotle, than they knew about empirical political science.

The dialogue between Strauss and Schmitt continued for some years after that Strauss had moved abroad. We can say that this discussion between the young unknown Jew and the famous Nazi law professor, who even stated that Strauss was the only one who really understood his philosophy,  shows how Strauss on the one hand shares Schmitt’s diagnosis of liberalism crisis, but at the same time will find another way out of this than Schmitt’s power politics. Schmitt defines the political as the choice of the enemy and, which accordingly, is the choice of the aim of one’s own life, because we have something to believe in. The political involves the permanent possibility of war. Schmitt sees liberalism in a Nietzschean perspective as a concept of the political which is doomed in a world where slaves have triumphed where people no longer have obligations and do not fight for their ideals and recognition, but simply are pursuing their own goals in a general nihilistic atmosphere. Schmitt was extremely concerned about the increasing fragmentation of the Weimar Republic’s social order as a threat to the state, because there was no empowered central body to ensure the political sovereignty of the state.

In fact, Thomas Hobbes’ notion that people let themselves subordinate the sovereign’s power to prevent the condition of unlimited war in the natural condition reflects a theoretical anti politics because he wants to avoid hostility by replacing the natural condition by a universal and homogenous state. Schmitt maintains instead that politics is defined by having enemies and he has no alternative to the liberal protection thinking other than power politics. He puts the permanent battle mode against Hobbes’ attempt to civilize the state of nature. This means, according to Strauss that Schmitt cannot avoid being a Nazi. For Carl Schmitt, the political legitimate sovereign is the one who has the strongest will and can seize the leadership position in society and thereby realize its set of core values based on the will and decision. For such a decisionistic political theology liberalism is the real enemy, because it dissolves religion and ideals of value pluralism and will not recognize politics as a struggle for absolute beliefs.[3]

Strauss puts his political philosophy up against Schmitt’s political theology. Unlike value-nihilism and power politics, he wants to go back to the perception of the political in the classic tradition of Plato and Aristotle as an alternative to liberalism’s dissolution of the concept of politics.

A Socratic quest for the best political regime

Strauss’ systematic position is hidden in a jumble of interpretations and comments to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions in political philosophy. According to Strauss is a hermeneutics that aims to reconstruct the historical conditions of work a type of text explanation that is not true to the author’s message.[4] The consequence is that you do not get hold of the work’s real meaning, the esoteric saved opinion. There is always a political-philosophical text because the author has often been politically persecuted and therefore have not been able to present his or her opinion directly, but could only write for a select elite of smart aristocrats who in contrast to the vulgar mob could break through text’s surface and decipher its esoteric meaning.[5]

When Strauss defines interpretation doctrine as a reconstruction of the author’s original intention it is a problem, how he can avoid falling back into a subjectivist hermeneutics, where you will do the impossible by looking for the author’s psychology behind the work. This problem is solved by defining the author-intent as a meaningful whole in the work that can be deduced taking into account the esoteric terms of the production of the work. Meanwhile, Strauss’ position becomes an archeology in the sense that it comes to reconstruct the true message that has been forgotten by previous interpreters. The text of the past is a true mystery for the reader. The starting point of hermeneutics is ignorance, finality and interpret the certainty of their own prejudices, and thinking about past non-historicity must be understood on its own terms within the historical understanding of the text.[6]

Against this background Strauss defines the goal of political philosophy as to arrive at the proper nature of the case in relation to the whole. The starting point for reflection may be man’s participation and allegiance to the state. The understanding of man as a political animal comprehends the (city) state as a whole. To think politically is to think the “Politeia”, the “best regime” by fitting the nature of man in relation to the whole (The Whole). This concept of wholeness is not determined as a totality in the Hegelian sense and not as a definition of man as a part of the cosmos.[7] Strauss believes that it is wrong to understand the classic natural law and the Greek political thinking as based on the participation of man in a cosmic whole. Therefore, classical political philosophy cannot be accused of running an outdated cosmology. The whole does not imply a particular cosmological reference. Rather it should be interpreted as the logos that connects man and the state. But at the same time, to think the concept of a whole in Strauss’ political thinking seems to go beyond the concept of logos, because logos is often defined in the cosmology that political thinking rejects. Strauss emphasizes the phenomenological and pre-philosophical base that characterizes the classical political philosophy when it comes to describing the political phenomena as they appear in man’s everyday political reality.[8]

In this way, the concept of  the whole receives nature a basal function in Strauss’ view of politics. The concept of nature refers to the expression of the human soul and its relationship to the whole. The aim is to understand the policy limits and the difference between the best political regime and the here and now real possible state. The practical State of factual politics varies according to time and place. The form of the state depends on the particular circumstances and problematize whether there really is an Eidos for all states. The political reality of the state in practical political life means that the state’s idea is used differently in different states, so the notion of the best regime must be seen in relation to the particular circumstances of a specific political reality.

Thus, the philosophy of the best regime represents an alternative to historicism and power politics. The modern historicism argues that political regimes are nothing, but functions of ideological power relations and that there cannot exist an idea of the best state. Strauss believes that historicism is an expression of modernity’s oblivion of absolute values and that it nullifies itself because to assert that everything is historic in itself is a universal statement that require a trans-historical truth. Historicism contains an internal contradiction and therefore cannot counter Strauss’ project to find the good as the natural order of the best regime.[9]

To describe the political Eidos as the best regime also implies the abolition of the distinction between “facts” and “value”. The point is to show how political thought cannot work with this distinction and how the normative and descriptive are mixed in any theory of politics. Although Weber’s sociology, for example, can be value free, it is in itself a normative position to say that sociology should not have normative assumptions.[10] It is in itself a normative position to claim that sociology is value-free. Even science without values is based on values. Therefore, all political thought is normative science.[11]

Strauss illustrates the task of philosophy with reference to Plato’s cave image: philosophizing, it is to get from the darkness of the cave into the light of day, ie  the world of truth and cognition as opposed to the confused sense world in the cave.[12] In this way, Strauss’ philosophy is essentially a Platonic and Socratic mode of thinking. The separation between the state’s idea and the actual political reality remains a real possibility because the philosopher tend to seek world of ideas outside the cave, while the general state policy decisions are determined by rhetoric, power and subjective opinions. The truth about the political is obtained through the Socratic communication, a maieutic dialogue that modestly will rediscover the eternal ideas and philosophical realization of the political. Nevertheless, it is also facing the difficulty of realizing the political truth confronted with the variety of opinions in the actual political life.

The tension between City and Man

The basis of classical political thought is, according to Strauss the bond between man and the state and the notion that the state should be a good for man. It is also important to be aware of the limits in the relationship between man and state. In reality, the classical political philosophy shows that the ideal of the state’s perfect utopia can hardly be reconciled with human nature.

In his reading of Plato’s Republic Strauss shows how the philosophical man, despite the fact that he must be a philosopher-ruler in fact come into conflict with the state.[13] He would not be king, but would rather withdraw from the government to sacrifice himself for the wisdom and contemplation of the eternal ideas.[14] There is also no room for eroticism and poets in the ideal state and so the paradox is that the ideal state excludes what is very human and the humanness of humanity. Plato’s dialogue universe must be seen as an ironic and dialectical universe that juxtaposes different positions to emphasize the complexity of being.[15]

The ironic elements of the State in the Republic proves that the attempt to think the completely just, fair, ideal regime is contrary to human nature. This is because a state that is only conceivable after the idea of justice must isolate everything that is specifically human; Eros and poetry and also in the fact that the philosophers who are not interested in politics, but live for philosophical wisdom, suddenly have to rule in the ideal state. This original interpretation is in contrast to many modern interpretations of Plato’s philosophy.[16]

Plato is in many interpretations considered an authoritarian thinker that will make the philosophers to dictators and destroy the possibility of public opinion and democratic dialogue about the state’s future because philosophers are the only ones making the decisions. Therefore, the ideal state is changed into tyrannical totalitarianism. In addition, Plato was described by many interpretors as initiator of political idealism that had fatal and terrorist implications in modern society, for example in the form of Nazism, communism and fascism. Literally, the ideal state is also a representation of all the horrifying elements of utopia where citizens are sacrificed to state rationality and utility interests. The social classes are divided according to labor and natural capacity. Warriors, workers and merchants have each their function and philosophers then determines sovereignly, what is the best and most practical thing to do according to the idea of justice.

The irony of the fact that the regime envisaged by the idea of justice becomes an inhuman dictatorship shows that political philosophy cannot ignore human nature’s lack of perfection and arbitrariness by the historical situation. Strauss says that the Republic is the most profound analysis ever of the impossibility of political idealism and that the ideal state is impossible because it is contrary to the nature of the case and the whole.[17] The esoteric and ironic truth that lies behind the rhetorical game in Plato’s Republic is that a regime that is thought abstractly according to the idea of justice cannot overcome the fundamental tension between man and city. This tension between humans and the state, Eros and justice, philosophy and the real case of the political facticity continue to persist because the nature of facticity is not the same as the ideality of the world of ideas. Thinking about the best regime must not follow the idea of justice, but be balanced against the actual life of the state.

The ironic elements in Plato’s Republic are also illustrated in the course of development of the dialogue. The discussion about ideal justice begins with a critique of legal positivism, which claims that the righteous and just should be defined in terms of power, i.e., that the one who has the power decides what is fair. Socrates does not want to be involved in the dialogue, but is provoked to criticize this view, and he wants to show that justice as such is good, even though he does not yet know the content of the concept of justice. He then decides to drive the defense of the concept of justice ad absurdum in order to show the characteristics of the political. Later in the discussion of the guardians of the state, he points out the difference between the Eros and the idea of justice. In the ideal state, there is no room for eroticism and love, because sexuality is determined to serve the common good. The paradoxes of the State appear as follows: it should be the good and righteous state, it must be based on the absolute communism, but at the same time, the contingency and bodily existence is eliminated from the state, everything that characterizes the finite human nature.[18] Man in mainstream political life would by his very nature never be able to feel at home in the ideal state.

In this way, one should not interpret Plato’s Republic as a criticism of any political philosophy or as a defense of a political utopia. Instead, the book presents a description of the difficulties of thinking the best political regime, about the tension between the idea of justice and the concrete justice in relation to the whole, human nature and the state. The Socratic reflection can be considered as a reflection on the limits of the just state and the need to consider the justice in a realistic relation to human nature. However, according to Strauss there is implicitly in the Republic implied a different view of justice as the art that on the one hand, gives every citizen, what is good for him, and on the other hand, determines the common good of the state. The purpose of the good political regime is to shape a state that follows human needs and thus becomes a healthy and happy state. In this perspective, Eros, poetry and wisdom could also be present in the good political regime as the realization of justice in the relationship between historical facticity, human nature and the order of the whole.

The best regime and the political reality

A provision of the best political regime that realize the impossibility of utopia, is according to Strauss found in Plato’s Laws and Aristotle’s Politics. Here you will find the essence of the classical political thinking that is far removed from modern power politics and ideology. Plato’s  late dialogue Laws, where Socrates quite interestingly is not present, contains a vision of the best regime that is not based on abstract idealism, but is about how to solve specific practical problems in a state. In the dialogue a number of experienced state men are involved who must reach a common understanding about which laws the state should have. They do not justify the good state by virtue of a social contract as in the modern philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, but from the consideration of the best state in a natural law perspective. Practical sense and understanding of the good order, not inter-subjectivity, rights, equality or discursive rationality is the key element for ensuring the good laws.

The premise is that man only can be happy in the state, if he lives by what is natural and good for him, i.e. by the telos of virtues. Where the wise philosopher is placed as ruler of the utopian state, it is according to the classical natural law the most experienced, virtuous and best citizens who for the common good, and by force of law should govern in the actual state. The virtuous and good citizen appears as the one who cares for the state’s future. The good man is not just the good citizen, but the good citizen who govern in a good society.[19] To become a good and virtuous man, one must live in a good and orderly society.

The main characters of the Laws are the Athenian, Cleinias and McGillis, who in Crete  are discussing what would be the best and most virtuous laws at the same time as they try to understand the laws originating in human nature. The theme is not the tension between man and state, but the practical matter of a formulation of state laws here and now.[20] It is the stranger from Athens, who begins the discussion. He argues that experienced states men at a long day may well find the best laws for the state, and so they begin to ponder about the basis of the laws.

Because laws have divine origin, you might think that they have been justified by a cosmology, but the point is precisely that the Gods perfection is not human, and that laws should apply to the earthly life. Another interpretation is that the laws have their origin in logos. Yet another possibility would be that the laws are derived from the divine and ideal perfection, but at the same time humans are using the ideas in relation to the human reality. One must admit that the divine quest is part of the Platonic political thought and that Plato did not completely detach natural law from the divine reality, and that politics has a divine inspiration because it is important to realize virtue in society. Therefore, there is no conflict between the law and logos, reason and its dissemination in the actual state, even if the law on certain points depending on the situation goes beyond logos.

This view of natural law can be compared to Strauss’ analysis of the Jewish and Islamic philosophy by Farabi and Maimonides.[21] Here it is explicitly about a divine foundation of the law of human society, in which the philosopher has an important role to ensure the correct interpretation of the divine law. Although he takes the side of the Greek philosophy, for example, in his criticism of Carl Schmitt, Strauss believes that the theological-political problem about the law’s origin is extremely important. This is not to ignore the fact that religion is needed to hold together the state, and the state will collapse without a set of values as the foundation for social integration. Perhaps the philosophical prophet who interprets the divine law can function as an alternative to the tyrannical clergyman and thereby mediate between religion and philosophy to ensure that there will not be a complete questioning of the state’s Gods with potential disintegration as a result.[22]

After this discussion of the origin of the law, the question is who will govern in the actual state. Democracy is rejected because the mob does not have the experience and ability to take virtuous and right decisions. It is recommended that the city-state is ruled by a council of experienced wise men who take decisions based on the law, judgment and practical sense. Then is given an estimate of the city-state’s actual organization in the classic areas: Education, production, administration, sports, judiciary and election of judges. The rest of the Laws are about how to regulate these things and not on abstract political theory.[23]

Aristotle’s political philosophy in his Politics continues according to Strauss this project on the best political regime. Aristotle continues Plato’s analyzes by systematically comparing the constitutions of the various regimes in order to identify their advantages and disadvantages. Aristotle’s social science is at once ideal, hermeneutic and empirical.[24] Strauss says that for Aristotle, political philosophy is from the beginning the quest to find the best natural political order in any place and at any time.[25]

It is in a more modern perspective a question of finding the good life at the community level, to define what is good for a given factual political community. In this way, we must identify the community that is the best for the state’s population. Aristotle criticizes more explicitly the notion of an association of citizens in the ideal state. The State unity must not be absolute, and the policy should not include all areas of life. A state is defined in the Politics as a collection of citizens with a certain kind of constitution for a certain time at a certain place, and this means that citizens’ duties will change from state to state, from time to place. The ideal of the best regime is a series of links of friendship according to virtue, judgment and common sense to ensure the good life.

Aristotle also believes that the aristocracy, where it is the best, the most experienced and the wisest who rules, as opposed to democracy, oligarchy and tyranny is the best form of government. It is not whether you are a Democrat or non-Democrat that is the focus of Plato’s, Aristotle’s (and Strauss’) concepts of the best political regime. It is rather about safeguarding the best decisions in a given political order, and here one cannot escape the fact that a democratic majority rule tends to result in loss of practical reason, because it no longer is the best that rules for experience and wisdom, but instead the mediocre. Aristotle criticizes democracy as a state where everyone is made equal, although they are very different in virtue and character. On the other hand, there can be traced an egalitarian aspect of Aristotle’s thinking in the sense that the people who govern in the aristocratic state are equal and free. The government of the wise and experienced politicians can be seen as a limited democracy that can be translated into oligarchy or representative democracy, where the best people in society with practical wisdom discusses the state’s goals and future. This virtuous aristocratic equality is not the same as exists in democratic demagoguery, diversity and mediocrity, because we are talking about the best citizens who are above average in experience, virtue and judgment abilities.

Practical wisdom and political judgment

The question of virtue and justice is developed especially in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle describes judgment and practical wisdom, which are the core concepts of classical political philosophy.[26] The purpose of the Aristotelian ethics is to think about the practical wisdom to form the elites who must be able to reign in the Greek city-state. For Aristotle, man is essentially a political animal, and he gives the practical wisdom great importance to the training of the aristocratic citizen. The aristocrat replaces philosopher-king of Plato, who in reality stands on the border of the state, because he would rather search the philosophical wisdom. And here the philosophical wisdom is on the contrary integrated in the good regents practical sense.

Aristotle discusses the Nicomachean Ethics the way to the good life, both individually and in society: justice, virtues and love of wisdom are pillars of happiness and the objective of the ethics and politics. Happiness is to live with each other in friendship in the just and the good state by the virtues throughout life. A distinction is made between the intellectual and practical virtues; wisdom, intelligence and practical sense towards moderation, temperance, courage and justice, virtue, practiced through the good and righteous deeds. Virtues as “Standards of Excellence” are realized through the experienced dispositions to act in a certain way. As virtue of deliberation, the practical wisdom is at once theoretical and practical. It must ensure the right action in the center between the city-state custom and culture, ideal justice principles and happiness.

The practical wisdom is about how to use a general principle in relation to the particular situation. Therefore, the practical wisdom must be thought of as an art because it deals with the arbitrary and contingent and not in relation to what is necessary as wisdom, science and intelligence. The good construction and the common sense of the good man is the political action art because it comes to applying the general principles of happiness in relation to the particular conditions. The Good Man follows the golden middle way virtue that implies always to find the right center relative to the extremes in a situation. In every situation the middle is different and virtue is reflected in the way the common sense is choosing the right center. In the practical reflection, the subject submits the will of reason to the detection of the right middle of the action, and the good man chooses from this experience center, the middle, and the virtue of moderation.[27]

Justice is understood not only as an idea of man, but as a virtue of action. It is applied directly in relation to the situation of action. As virtue justice is both proportional and egalitarian. You cannot treat unequal people and situations in an equal way. One should, for example, find the proper relationship between children and adults in order to understand justice. This fairness opinion of justice is based, as in Plato, on the fact that there are different justice spheres of society in law, economics, medicine, etc. Here, justice and equality are defined in relation to the natural order of things in that particular sphere, for example, the definition of the distribution of goods is not the same on the hospital as on the free market, and it is not the same goods to be distributed. It is the judge’s job with judgment to find the right middle between the parties involved, and he practices the practical reason and virtue as part of justice. He seeks the proper distribution of wealth from the right proportion and balance conditions to avoid too much and too little. This ensures the good laws of the State, based on the friendship between the virtuous people, a friendship that also applies to the political life and goes beyond the life as a citizen.

Also by Aristotle, one can detect the tension between man and state. Man transcends the state and seeks true happiness in the contemplation of the world of ideas and the intellectual virtues are more important than the practical life of politics.[28] Strauss emphasizes the contradiction between theory and practice in the state as an expression of man’s dual nature. The ethical and political life is pointing beyond itself to the intellectual wisdom. Strauss says that political life is a life in the cave, separated from the life of light of cognition where you know the world of ideas.[29]

The crisis of modernity and classical political philosophy

Based on this analysis of classical political philosophy, the question is how Strauss can make an offer for the solution of the crisis of modernity without falling into flat liberalism or radical conservatism. As I said, modernity crisis is primarily a loss of practical reason because the thinkers of modernity in different waves have more and more rejected the practical wisdom as the basis of political thinking.[30] This crisis of knowledge has led to historicism and positivism in the sciences, which appears as modernity’s two main philosophies. Martin Heidegger’s adherence to Nazism, but also as already demonstrated Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy illustrates this loss of reason in modern political philosophy.

The crisis of modernity is also a cultural and educational crisis.[31] The modern society has forgotten the virtues and classical culture as the real basis for training and shaping of the citizen to the state. The secularized modernity, described by Max Weber, with different value perceptions and different subjectivist conceptions of the good life has made it difficult to talk about a common good life as a guideline for state policy. The individual freedom is in contrast to the common good, and people do no longer respect the virtues of the classical political philosophy and natural law, but put an equality and rights philosophy against the notion of the common good.

It is against this background the big problem, how to avoid tyranny and the totalitarian regime and at the same time how to find the good regime of today’s society. By going back to the classical political philosophy Strauss finds an argument against tyranny. He analyzes Xenophanes’ dialogue Heiron as an attempt to show how tyranny is not an appropriate regime, because it is not a regime that can make people happy.[32] This dialogue between a tyrant and a poet shows that every tyrant will be appreciated by the people, but cannot be the because of his status as a tyrant. Even the tyrant is therefore happy in tyranny. The analysis is based on the question of happiness and the good life and on this basis it shows, that tyranny is a bad regime.

Should we thus draw some implications of Strauss’s political philosophy for today’s practical politics and political practices, it must primarily be made up with the widespread notion of politics as a power struggle and a party political dogfight. Also in today’s political life, we must let our actions and opinions be guided by concern for the common good (Res Publica) and the formation of the best state (Politeia) instead of just wanting to secure its own short-sighted personal or partisan interests. Politics should not be seen as a confrontation of subjective positions where everything can be a basis for negotiation and it should be maintained there could always be a rational and virtuous decision in the political process. It is important to see reason and philosophical reflection as a basis for political decisions, as the best way to ensure the common good.

The reason for the crisis of the modern liberal democracy is also linked to the ideology of equality, where the political culture forgets the difference between the wise, virtuous and the vulgar. In many cases, it is the vulgar and tyrannical, who follow their own interests, rather than the wise, who are in power. To avoid this we need recognition of the virtuous elites as the best rulers. The importance of the liberal constitutional democracy is not the democratic process as such, but that those who govern take the best decisions. The elite is the experienced, sensible politician that stands in contrast to the impulsive, charismatic tyrant.[33]

A minister and a governor should be a person who you can trust and admire for his practical sense. One must be able to trust the minister’s judgment and experience as decision-maker. This ruler type stands in contrast to the vulgar fool who has bartered his post to promote its own interests.

It is also about rediscovering and recognizing citizen virtue as an essential feature of a functioning democracy. Here the individual citizen not just follow their own interests but takes his responsibilities and his obligations to the community very seriously in a commitment for the common good.

Unlike many modern political ideologies that considers everything to be politics – included Carl Schmitt’s radical conservatism that tend to assert that man lives only authentic in the political state of emergency – Strauss’ philosophy includes an important definition of the limits of politics, which also can be applied to modern society. One never becomes a whole person if they do not live outside of public life with his friends in the erotic relationship, in the joy of the theoretical virtues, philosophy and literature. And this private life is also not possible without the good state and this is why the responsible and committed participation in public life must never be forgotten.

To reintroduce the notion of the best regime is a reaction against the reduction of politics to the economy and to the struggle to get the biggest slice of the pie. Instead, the political consideration, deliberation and action must be guided by a philosophical reason and conviction, based on an understanding of society and the whole of humanity. For example, social welfare, education and health cannot just build the economy, but implies a view of humanity and a vision of the citizen’s role in the good political regime.

At the same time, politics must fundamentally have a communitarian starting point where one requires cohesion between citizens and the state and consider the willingness to ensure that cohesion as policy basis. In contrast to other communitarians, emphasizing tradition and the importance of culture in the community,[34] Strauss highlights as shown philosophical reflection on the good life and trans-historical truth in relation to the political life of the state as it characterizes a communitarian view of political philosophy. Therefore, every culture and tradition could include meeting with philosophy’s critical distinction between quality and non-quality.

The political conservatism must however emphasize religion and values as an important communitarian foundation of modern society that can prevent social disintegration. Although “the wise” have understood that certain values cannot be justified philosophically, and are afraid of Nietzsche’s nihilism that may in reality be the truth, they may not say it to the people, the ignorant and vulgar, who should preferably stay in their childhood belief in order to avoid disintegration of society. From the point of view of social utility religion, tradition and values are great importance to social integration – even if they cannot be justified philosophically.

Strauss’ philosophy implies that the modern state must not understand justice as abstract equality, but always in relation to a situation. The concept of spheres of justice is important to include in the understanding of the welfare state, where increased differentiation makes it difficult to apply the same measure of justice in different sectors of society. Justice must be measured in the right proportions according to the context.[35]

Distribution of goods happens in relation to the various concepts of equity in the different spheres of justice. And there is the possibility to develop a complex equality, in which each person is assigned goods with respect to his nature and needs. For example, we can mention special education, health care and honors or services for the virtuous and talented in society.

This is also a criticism of a realistic and positivistic legal understanding that considers law as a function of power and perceive any argument for a particular law as subjective and ideological. Instead, we must restore political judgment as central in the judicial and political decision-making. Judgement was expelled as unscientific by legal realism that wanted to ensure the scientific objectivity and application of rules. Instead, following Strauss we should make the decision guided by an understanding of the nature and wholeness. At the same time, there is need for expansion of the sources of law to better include philosophical beliefs, culture, custom and tradition. Judgement presupposes a truth about the individual case, its nature as it is the good politician’s and lawmaker’s task to bring this to light.

One way to retrain today’s citizen to have and exercise judgment, is the concept of “Liberal Education”,[36] which could address training in classical formation and introduction to the European cultural heritage as an integral part of the education system. At the university, this could for example mean that not only students at the faculty of humanities, but also lawyers, economists, doctors, scientists and future decision-makers got a broader cultural and educational formation. Such a “Bildung” would put them in a position to take more informed decisions, which would be rooted in a view of humanity and imply a conception of the common good. With this we could achieve a higher standard of virtue as the basis for a better society that might help to realize Strauss’ aristocratic ideals as an alternative to the contemporary competition state.




[1] Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, New York (1989).This is the book where Fukuyama argues that economic liberalism with the end of the cold war has led to the end of history has replaced the political war of ideologies in the struggle of universal history. Instead, liberal democracy has been the dominant ideology with no real alternative.

[3] Heinrich Meier: Die Lehre Carl Schmitts: Vier Kapitel zur Unterscheidung Politischer Theologie und Politischer Philosophie, Stuttgart, (1994): Verlag J.B.Metzler.

[4] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1959), Chicago: Glencoe Press p. 143

[5] Ibid p. 25

[6] Leo Strauss: De la Tyrannie, (1954), Paris: Gallimard p. 46

[7] Ibid p. 4

[8] Ibid p. 24

[9] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 34.

[10] Ibid p. 50

[11] Ibid p. 23

[12] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. pp. 145-46.

[13] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 137

[14] Drew A. Hyland: “The Irony of Plato’s Republic”, Révue de Métaphysique et morale, Paris (1991): PUF. According to Hyland it is human nature that is the source of irony because the erotic in human nature is in tension with the world of ideas.

[15] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 161.

[16] A good example is Sir Karl Poppers critical Plato-interpretation in The Open Society and its enemies, London (1946): Routledge. Here Plato is characterized as the father of all totalitarianism.

[17] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 163.

[18] Ibid. p. 163

[19] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 126-139.

[20] Leo Strass: The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 42.

[21] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Chicago (1959): Glencoe Press.

[22] In Socrates’ Apology this issue is discussed. The philosopher is persecuted by the state, because he will not accept its gods. According to Strauss, this is a modern problem. Nietzsche was persecuted because he pointed out that the gods do not exist. The lack of faith in the state’s values is serious because it ultimately leads to the dissolution of the state. Drury argues in this context that Strauss should be construed as a conservative who has discovered Nietzsche’s truth about the absence of God and morality in the state. The philosopher does not care. He does not see this as a political problem, but for the wise and experienced politician and a good man to govern the state this becomes a problem. He cannot tell the truth to the people, for it would lead to the dissolution of the state. It is therefore the hallmark of the conservative position that it from the point of view of social utilitarianism is very keen to keep religion as a basis for the state. Shada B. Drury: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), London: Macmillan.

[23] Leo Strass, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 38.

[24] S. Salkever: “Aristotle’s Social Science” , Political Theory,  Vol 9, no. 4, (1987), New York: Sage Publications.

[25] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 28.

[26] Aristoteles, Den nikomakiske Etik, French translation, Tricot: Ethique à  Nicomaque, (1987), Paris: Vrin, p. 75.

[27] ibid s. 220.

[28] Malgan: “Aristotle and the Value of Political Participation”, Political Theory, Vol 18, no. 2.

[29] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 43.

[30] Leo Strauss: “ Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Ten Essays by Leo Strauss (1989): Detroit: Wayne State University Press p. 82.

[31] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone. In this book continues Bloom Strauss’ project by making a cultural, critical, intellectual aristocracy analysis of American society, and Bloom considers how consumption-ideology, value nihilism and relativism has destroyed American intellectual life and university system.

[32] Leo Strauss, De la Tyrannie, Paris 1954: Gallimard.

[33] Here it seems that Strauss is inspired by Max Weber’s discussion of charismatic identity and the possibility of a plebiszitär-charismatic domination, where the good manager is opposed to the colorless bureaucrat who heads the government. Weber was worried about that the Weimar Republic because of its constitution could get such a leader. An example of where time is de Gaulle’s status as France’s president. See also Max Weber: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Tubingen (1972): J.B.C Mohr., p. 141.

[34] Alistair MacIntyre: After Virtue, London (1981): Duckwood.

[35] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, New York 1983: Blackwell

[36] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone.

Site-specific Perception. Philosophical reflections on the impact of environment on perception

The question raised here is about the differences in perception between people due to different environmental backgrounds. The assumption is that we learn to perceive and that the environment is essential for this learning. This is discussed by taking a classical philosophical view on perception from Leibniz and Baumgarten’s aesthetics, recently revived in the concept of atmosphere, as proposed by Gernot Böhme. The conclusion points to questions of the consequences of the environment for our perception as well as to the importance of aesthetic education in training perception.

Continue reading Site-specific Perception. Philosophical reflections on the impact of environment on perception

Jacob Dahl Rendtorff, French Philosophy and Social Theory. A Perspective for Ethics and Philosophy of Management (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

It might be argued that a rigorous study in the field of business and management theory could not adopt a pure philosophical perspective. By contrast, the peculiar effort of this book is precisely to present scholars perspectives useful for academic research in the areas of business theory and philosophy of management, without dealing with specific topics of these fields.

Continue reading Jacob Dahl Rendtorff, French Philosophy and Social Theory. A Perspective for Ethics and Philosophy of Management (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

Francesco Giacomantonio, Sociologia dell’agire politico (Rome: Studium, 2014)


In his recently published Sociologia dell’agire politico (Sociology of Political Action) Francesco Giacomantonio focuses on the material and cultural conditions that are adversely affecting the possibility for effective political action, where the latter is broadly understood as “the set of all the activities that influence politics or have political repercussions” (16). Notwithstanding the book’s title, in fact, its main concern does not appear to be the study of political action itself, but rather a reflection on the nature and causes of its current crisis.

Giacomantonio understands the analysis undertaken in the book as an exercise in “theoretical sociology”, meaning by this that he does not engage directly with the sociological facts at stake, but tries instead to reconstruct the conceptual coordinates through which such phenomena can be understood and analysed. The central part of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of three leading paradigms that have had an enormous influence on the debate about the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies, as they are expounded in the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek.


Bauman’s account is presented by Giacomantonio as the most “apocalyptic” of the three; its dismal description of the “liquid society” cannot be redeemed by the counter-measures Bauman advocates, such as the appeal to personal responsibility and the re-establishment of a public agora, which appear to be vacuous and unfeasible. A more optimistic outlook, Giacomantonio points out, is the one proposed by Habermas. Even if Habermas insists on the depoliticization of the public sphere brought about by late capitalism and on the technocratic turn of the liberal state, his theory of democracy also points to the communicative resources that can still be mobilized in our societies. Giacomantonio also pauses to consider how Habermas tackles the challenge of multiculturalism and the role of religion in the public sphere. Žižek’s position, finally, is presented as a bold call for radical social change and the re-thinking of the very conceptual landscape on which our politics is taking place. Giacomantonio stresses the importance of Zizek’s reflection on the subject, his appeal to the re-politicization of the economic sphere, and his critique of the neo-liberal order.


In the final part of the book the author draws from the works of the authors discussed in the previous chapters in order to summarize the major sources of the crisis of political action in our societies. The main focus, here, is on the erosion of a shared social space, and of the common meanings and practices that are needed for individual action to have content and purpose, thus creating a world of “freedom without autonomy” (89). The erosion of a shared social space is connected to the privatization of the public sphere, which leaves individuals isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless, as public intellectuals are relinquishing their role and the leading cultural trends promote what Marcuse would have called a “closing of the universe of discourse” (94). Giacomantonio does not seem to have any ready solutions to this predicament; however, he suggests that a good starting point might consist in the rejection of radical individualism, by “freeing ourselves from egocentrism and utilitarianism” and learning “to be better rather than to have the best” (102). The closing pages of the book also remind us of the importance of imagination in politics, because only through imagination we can open the door to moral, cultural and social progress.


Giacomantonio’s reconstruction of the thought of Bauman’s, Hayek’s and Žižek is clear and accurate (only a couple of reservations might be raised, about the idea that Žižek can be taken as “last true heir” of the tradition of the Frankfurt School (84), and what I believe to be an overstatement of the role of religion in Habermas’s account of cohesion in contemporary societies (61-2)). Moreover, Giacomantonio’s choice of Habermas, Žižek and Bauman as guiding references for the critical analysis developed in the book is considered and fruitful; there is no doubt that these three authors deserve attention by whoever wants to reflect on the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies.


Still, Giacomantonio’s way of tackling the issue of political agency seems to be somehow off-target. His analysis throughout the book focuses on the social processes that are depriving members of contemporary societies of the psychological and social resources that are needed for individual action to be meaningful, effective and genuinely free. There is no doubt that the erosion of these preconditions for successful individual action is also affecting the chances for constructive political engagement. However, in democratic politics – and indeed, we might argue with Arendt and other eminent thinkers of our tradition, in any kind of politics – political action is always and essentially the product of joint or collective action, rather than individual action. The crisis of politics in our time concerns above all the constitution and the operation of collective political subjects, and focusing on the sociology of individual action, like Giacomantonio does, tends to obscure this important fact about the ontology and the sociology of politics.


Giacomantonio’s discussion, then, should be taken as a useful – indeed, necessary – preliminary analysis of the sociological conditions that we need to consider when thinking on the possibility of political action. The study of the modes and sources of present and future political action needs to come next, and should have in view collective action as an essential element of politics.

Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas


‘Crisis’ can mean a confrontation between old and new. ‘Crisis’ can mean a rupture with the old ways of thinking and a chance of dislodging rigid ways of thinking, including those in the academy. There is a crisis of a notion of any stable ‘subject-hood’ in which new critical theories and philosophical ideas might also have a place. We could propose ways of looking at ‘crisis’ in gender relations, the arts and the humanities, and the continuing debates on the crisis of the current capitalist practices. Why is it that the latter has so far not produced any real change? A discussion of ‘crisis’ and the ways in which the notion is impacting culture and society might be of interest.

  Continue reading Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas

A reply to the reviewer of “Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica”

As it is written in the foreword, what the book offers is, immediately, an overview on the current status of the moral and political philosophical debate (each chapter is a sort of piece of this mosaic). But reading deeply the book is possible to find, as is normal, a fil rouge, a background thesis, that runs through all the chapters: an attempt to define in a critical way the moral and political framework of the current society, trying to delineate alternatives in the way in which we intend our aggregative forms – especially starting from the idea and the practice of democracy, nowadays reduced into formal mechanisms –, and possible escape lines.


As for the quoted authors, as ever happens in the essays, I made a selection – it’s strange having to specifying this. And so, I chose the authors that, for me, are fundamentals and those that are secondary, in the economy of my speech, deepening the first – and the same with the arguments, some are main themes same are collateral analyses for me. And so, I criticized the authors with which I disagree, specifying why – without obscure them from the philosophical scene, for their impact on that –, and I used quotations with which agree, specifying the source – for not assign to me those ideas – but declining them in the economy of my personal speech. And about some mentioned contents of my discourse, I would like to clarify in short at least two important issues. First, Arendt and Jonas sit well together for me because in Arendt is possible to find an indirect but very cogent critique to the naive and dangerous stances of Jonas: the sacralization of biological life, the mythologizing and the normative use of the nature, is at the ground of the Nazi ideology, as Arendt shows speaking about the modern triumph of the anthropological figure of the animal laborans, emblematically represented by Eichmann. Second, to affirm that the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is universal, modern and Western, is not a disclaimer of its advancements – why should it be so is not clear for me – but is a reasoning on another level than that of the socio-political decisions: that of the conceptual background of our society – that contains also its advancements. This critical view is extremely important because permit us to intend our society – and its advancements – not as the only one possible society – like for example in the Eurocentrism or now, we can say, in the “Westerncentrism” – but as a possible society; avoiding so also the theoretical “Westerncentrism” that is given in the reading of authors that are not modern and/or Western with the eyes of a modern and Western person – e.g. the sui generis Popperian reading of Plato, Hegel and Marx.


For me too the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography, it is a pity that the publisher has not made, however, as is written in the premise, the footnotes are enriched with the necessary bibliographic details.

Federico Sollazzo, Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica (Rome: Aracne, 2011)

In the first part, Sollazzo tracks recent evolutions in the theoretical and historical understanding of social and political control of human collectivities, such as: (1) “totalitarianism” (17) in the work of Vaclav Havel and his mentor Jan Patocka; (2) “system” (20) in that by Herbert Marcuse; (3) “terror” (25) in Max Horkheimer’s; (4) “stereotyped reasoning” (28) in Theodor Adorno’s; (5) “rationality deficit” (28) in Juergen Habermas’; (6) “empire” (30) in Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s (30); (7) and “culture” according to Pier Paolo Pasolini (34). This initial section is followed by an exposition of the philosophical anthropology of three great minds of the 20th century, namely Arnold Gehlen, Helmuth Plessner and Max Scheler. A common theme is retrieved in their thought about human nature and the human condition, that is, the uniqueness of humankind’s inextricable admixture of biological and psychical elements, which allow the human being to be part of nature as well as to transcend it through its “peculiar” (43) intellectual—for the first two authors—and spiritual—for the third—abilities. The ensuing chapter stresses the crucial role played by the species-wide biological and emotional make-up in providing a valid ground for the establishment of credibly universal philosophical anthropology and ethics. Remarkable is the attention paid to the notion of vital “needs” (47) as a stark and straightforward reminder of our common humanity. The field of ethics is further explored in a chapter devoted to communitarianism as a representative reaction to utilitarian individualism, which fails to acknowledge the deeply interpersonal preconditions for any meaningful human existence.


In the second part, Sollazzo explores the issue of totalitarianism with special reference to the seminal work of Hannah Arendt and her ability to perceive the totalitarian threat of numb conformism in modern mass cultures, and not just in the key examples of totalitarian regimes, namely Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. This line of analysis is deepened by means of a discussion of the notion of “bio-power” (84) and of different conceptions of totalitarianism beyond Arendt’s one, such as Marcuse’s, Horkeimer’s and Neumann’s. Sollazzo then returns to Arendt’s work and her study of the anonymous, grey “model citizen” (108) of modern societies, who is incapable of challenging the received views of her socio-political community and participates dutifully in whatever life-destructive systemic horror such received views may entail. This study is followed by a reflection on genuine democracy as Alexis de Tocqueville and Arendt would have it, so that model citizens be not as incapable of Socratic critical reflection as previously discussed. Considerations on democracy are furthered by a presentation of Karl Popper’s ideal of democracy as open society and his profound distrust for any “utopian engineering” (135) that may prevent tolerant coexistence of different worldviews in peaceful conversation with one another. Adorno, Norberto Bobbio and Zagrebelsky are then utiklised to criticise Popper’s seemingly wilful blindness to the darker areas of actual democratic communities, such as techno-scientific “chains” (150) to free human agency, dehumanising “mass conformism” (150), economic “commodification” (150) of human relations—including political ones—and “political apathy” (153). Zagrebelsky’s work is also utilised to assess the issues of social justice and human rights in allegedly democratic societies, whose enduring and entrenched inequalities fail regularly large sectors of the population.


The third part of the book opens with a survey of the so-called “rehabilitation of practical reason” in the German-speaking philosophical world of the 1960s and 1970s, especially with reference to Hans-Georg Gadamer and Habermas. The threat to social cohesion and human well-being emerging from pseudo-rational individualism is presented and then addressed in a chapter on leading libertarian thinkers, such as Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek. Bobbio and John Rawls are introduced and presented as attempts to rectify from within the liberal tradition the many weaknesses and blind spots of several libertarian stances. Communitarianism is addressed subsequently as an attempt to rectify them too, though this time from without the liberal tradition. Ferdinand Toennies, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre are the pivotal references in this context. Amartya Sen is used eventually to propose a tolerant, pluralist form of communitarianism that describes cultural identities as inherently diverse, “always in fieri” (212) and analogous to an ever-shifting mosaic requiring the person’s free consent and critical self-reflection. The theme of a species-wide ground for life-enhancing social and political self-organisation is brought back in a chapter devoted to Hans Jonas and his call for human ethical responsibility vis-à-vis the planetary environment, which human ingenuity and techno-scientific advances are threatening as never before in human history. The final chapter outlines the understanding of human alterity in the works by Emmanuel Lévinas, Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida.


The book is most erudite and shows how well-versed the author is in the works and terminology of the many thinkers that he cites and presents to the reader. Still, after reading the book, it is not clear what the author wished to accomplish with it, apart from charting a number of interesting issues and related reflections by famous thinkers. In short, the book has no clear thesis to offer. Also, the critical assessment of the thinkers tackled in the book varies considerably, thus a few thinkers are duly presented and equally criticised for what Sollazzo argues to be their theoretical weaknesses (e.g. Jonas), whilst others are just outlined and never criticised (e.g. Havel) or timidly rebuked in a few footnotes (e.g. Arendt). By this lack of critical evenness and courage, Sollazzo comes across as sharing claims by some of the thinkers that he refers to (e.g. Arendt’s negative assessment of the modern political emphasis upon human biological necessity) that do not sit well with those of other thinkers that he includes in his book (e.g. Jonas’ call for immediate global ethical responsibility in the face of the modern techno-scientific threat to the continuation of biological life on Earth). Analogously, it is not clear whether some rare yet conspicuously superficial analyses, such as the one that he provides about human rights (159-65), should be ascribed to him or to the thinkers that he makes use of therein. Specifically, as human rights are concerned, they are reduced to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which is claimed to be “universal, modern and Western” (163), as though there had never been thereafter any advancement, such as the actually binding sister covenants on civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic social and cultural rights on the other; or the pronunciations of the related United Nations’ human rights committes. Finally, the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography.


Viorella Manolache (ed.), Centru si margine la Marea Mediterana. Filosofie politica si realitate internationala (Bucharest: Editura ISPRI, 2009)

This journal has proven a wide opening to a great diversity of recurrent themes present now within political sciences. Certain “marginal” areas of interdisciplinary investigation are also present, included in this same broad philosophical view. The volume maintains precisely this type of innovative ambitions and the manner of relating to contemporary tendencies as the journal, hence approaching through its several original studies select newer theoretical concepts adequate to the complexities associated with the research of the chosen theme. These studies are coming from different scientific areas. Estimating the present geo-political research of the Mediterranean community, it endeavours to enter into a dialogue within the Mediterranean scientific community. Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality) accesses scientific contributions from seven countries (Romania, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil, USA, Italy) providing a rich mix of theoretical and philosophical comparative, international and transnational issues, addressed to all who are interested in the contemporary political Mediterranean phenomena. The three constant investigated dimensions are placed into a dynamic formula described by the three parts of the volume: Political philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin; Cultural approaches on the Mediterranean Margin and International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea.


The volume is integrated within a theoretical landscape and is justified by the anticipative answer offered by the authors to a series of variables with which the imperative of the current European politics operates, of the “maps projecting the macro regions” – a decentralized space of cooperation. The volume anticipates the conclusions of the European Council (June 24, 2011) which counts especially on the coincidence of culture and creative industries, on the capitalization of historical, linguistic and, in general, cultural diversity, and also on the application of a macro-regional strategy. All these dimensions illustrate the potential of catalyst of the “Union for the Mediterranean area”.


The volume’s approach indicates significant insights, pre-figurations of the European imperatives correlated with the analysed theme, with a double effect: the analysis of the international implications of the Mediterranean space and of the considerations concerning soft power; and a withdrawal within the philosophical, theoretical and political framework that configure the dimensions of this profile. The approach is explained in the introductory chapter – Political Philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin.


According to Abderrazzak Essrhir, the idea of the centre is the indicative of the systematic invention of a peripheral space – racial, geographical, religious, cultural – resulting in a binary opposition that is the outcome of reciprocal experiences between the centre and its assumed periphery. It is in this very context that the relations between the East and the West can rightly be appreciated to have always been conducted, marked by conquest, demystification, subjection, or colonial confinement. The centre assumes in this perspective a position wherein it perceives itself as the nucleus of authority and power, the source of emanation of knowledge, the cradle of high culture and civilisation. The margin, as a consequence, turns out to be a mere indication of that “positioning is best defined in terms of the limitations of a subject’s access to power.” It is, in this respect, perceived, and indeed made to be, as the consumer, the dependent, the subaltern, or the anarchic space. This type of centre-margin binary opposition is multi-dimensional in the sense that the centre, conscious of its identity, systematically locates and confines its margin by devising a set of strategic practices such as othering, ethnic categorisation, subjugation, and discrimination (Abderrazzak Essrhir).


For Abdenbi Sarroukh, the question that arises is whether the new U.N partnership will contribute to the blossoming of at least a positive Mediterranean pluralism that goes beyond the borders of the nationalism that is still recast in ethnic identities, so as to reshape them to conform to the new cultural exigencies. The author refers to the universal values that tend to homogenise specificities and the spirit of communities that are irreducible and resist being explained away by the power of discourse from the point of view of the dominating centre.


The historical registration appears as architecture and even as a film of the Mediterranean space diving into the discourse of postmodernity as post-tradition, either rebuilding the cultural referential of the marginal discourse of the Mediterranean space – a system of indexes, emblems, constituents of a typical language that asks for deciphering, first and foremost politically speaking, in order to deserve to be termed of a Mediterranean polis  (Viorella Manolache), or the investigation of the communicational ethical and political implications of this fascination of the interlocutor via Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard or Simon Critchley (Henrieta ?erban).


The chapter Cultural Approaches on the Mediterranean Margin reaffirms the dependence of the imaginary on the mise-en-place of a very special Mediterranean syntax. The relationships between the “full and signifying forms” and the “determinations” of symbolical images, conferring them a “particularizing function” are emphasized (Gheorghe Manolache), within an analysis that employs essential (proto)types (present in the works of Eugen Lovinescu, Anton Naum – e.g. the Don Juanic character, Ulysses –, or Vasco da Gama). These profiles express the metaphoric idea that the waters of the Mediterranean space have a vocation of refrain: they are always the ones which bring boats, and invite the analyst to imagine Ulysses abandoned on the rocky shores of Portugal in distress; one sees Vasco da Gama directing his ships and people on the warm and quiet waters of the Mediterranean Sea, with an impact on the symbolic-cultural map of the countries washed by the Mediterranean waters. What remains behind is precisely what should happen: a silent revolt of the water and then, the numerous endless tides, the tides which charmed the sovereigns and awarded gold and glory, the waters of the bereaved bride named melancholy (Diana Adamek).


The philosophical and metaphorical level is completed by a more investigative and practical level in International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea that assesses the Mediterranean space as one of the important geopolitical and geostrategic pivots in world history. The geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean realm is not quite constant along the entire history of the region. For a while, the geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean decreased, because the “center” of the world gradually glided to the Atlantic. But, starting with the opening stages of the Cold War, the geostrategic importance of the Mediterranean realm grew again, a trend which is still maintained to a certain extent nowadays as well, in the context of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ and of the global war against terror. Other important events, connected with the war in the Caucasus region, prove again – similarly to the era of the Cold War – how important is for the West to control the Mediterranean Sea, and how ambitious post-communist Russia already is on the international arena (Florin Diaconu).


In this analytical key, the international realities operating in the Mediterranean space raise the question of how culture and identity contribute to the lasting peace, facing the geopolitical context and the efforts of a generation of intellectuals who have implemented this idea by building a unique and successful structure such as the European Union. It is thus important to examine the possibility of designing a community of security in the Mediterranean region through economic growth, with the contribution of this regional culture, without which any construction will be only short-lived and deprived of depth (Lucian Jora).


Beyond this snapshot of the main dimensions of the volume Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality), one can easily identify the need to re-evaluate in a more complex light the Mediterranean space, accepting a cultural and reconciliatory mental map – a matrix where the Mediterranean space does not cease to provide to an equal extent, both philosophies and realities.


Joseph V. Femia and Alasdair J. Marshall (eds.), Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (Surrey, England and Burligton, USA: Ashgate, 2012)

The volume opens with a jewel introduction. It contextualizes Pareto historically and it offers the big pictures in which to fit all the pieces of Pareto’s intellectual production. Pareto was an engineer involved with the running the newly nationalized Italian railroad system, but his claim to fame is for his sociological work. He wrote hundreds of pamphlets calling for change, free trade, small government, and pacifism, all of which fell flat. And “his youthful idealism soon gave way to skepticism, even cynicism, about human potential” (p. 2) so that today he is best known for his theory of human rigidity and inflexibility which make the world fundamentally unchangeable. His mathematical training and skills made him a professor of economics at Lausanne University (1893-1900), but his discontent with the model of a rational homo economicus led to his interest in and research on human irrationalities. During a time in which disciplines fought to establish their boundaries, Pareto broke them and refused to be confined in any one. For him comprehension of the complexity of human behavior came from the complexity of a boundless knowledge.


The rest of the book reflects the introductory claims. The first chapter, “Pareto and the Elite”, by John Scott, describes the not always successful balance of an open definition of elite that Pareto offers us. This analysis smoothly continues in Chapter 2, “Talents and Obstacles: Pareto’s Morphological Schema and Contemporary Social Stratification” (Francois Nielsen). Pareto’s empiricism allows him to analyze data from across the world and across time and see patterns in the wealth elites. Wealth is not distributed normally, but more “like an arrow”. Regardless of time and place, income inequality seems to be a natural and inevitable pattern: 80 percent of income is distributed among 20 percent of the population. This 80-20 distribution seems to be a constant pattern in many natural phenomena, from elites to genes, not just income distribution. This raises a question, not raised by the author, but that any post-2011 reader may ask: does ‘Occupy Wall Street” know about Pareto? And assuming that by some miracle, Occupy Wall Street is successful in changing the distribution of wealth in rich societies, will it be a sustainable change? Or will we move back, inevitably, to the arrow-shaped income distribution that Pareto kept finding in his data? The inability of society to change, to be stuck with certain patterns or with certain equilibria becomes a major theme in Pareto’s thought. While some of his contemporary sociologists and political scientists would theorize beneficial changes in society, Pareto focuses on dysfunctional evolutions and sticky points where societies may be unable to get out of detrimental conditions. So Chapter 3 is the chapter where Charles Powers describes “The Role of Sticky Points in Pareto’s Theory of Social Systems”.


The empirical and pessimistic eye of Pareto is also present in his visions of political theory, as Joseph V. Femia describes in Chapter 4—“Pareto, Machiavelli, and the Critique of Ideal Political Theory”. A scientific understanding of human behavior requires that we look at human beings as real and not ideal creatures. This is why Pareto leans on the realism of Machiavelli, rather than the idealism of Kant, in his theories. And this realism, when combined with modern risk analysis, allows us to link Pareto to a variety of cultural and psychological patterns widely recognized and accepted today, as Alasdair Marshall and Marco Guidi demonstrate in Chapter 5—“The Idea of a Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty: Insight from Pareto”.


The relevance of Pareto in today’s debates and research agenda is pushed further by John Higley and Jan Pakulski in their chapter on “Pareto’s Theory of Elite Cycles: A Reconsideration and Application” (Chap. 6). They apply what may seem a vague theory of elite to the UK and the US governing elites of the twentieth century. It is unclear whether Pareto works or not when applied today. This question mark comes at a perfect time in the volume. So far one is exposed to the marvel of Pareto’s thinking, its correctness and applicability. One may be starting to question whether Pareto was this infallible intellect, underappreciated in his time and also in ours, who deserved a much larger role because of his continuous correctness. Higley and Pakulski remedy that sensation and bring back the fallibility, or at least imperfections, in a genius’ work. I see their chapter as sort of refreshing watershed, as it is followed by two other chapters more prone to see some of the deficiencies of Pareto. Alban Bouvier shows how Pareto may be more indebted to J.S. Mill than he is willing to admit—or than his readers are willing to admit (Chap. 7: “Pareto, Mill and the Cognitive Explanation of Collective Beliefs: Unnoticed ‘Middle-range Theories’ in the Trattato”). Similarly, Giorgio Baruchello shows how Pareto may be more indebted to Aristotle than to Plato in his understanding of the role of rhetoric.  Interestingly enough, in these two chapters, as well as in some preceding ones, there is subtle emphasis on the importance of language in communicating effectively and how Pareto may not have been gifted with it: a possible reason for the fact that his popularity does not necessarily reflects his contributions.


The breadth of Pareto’s understanding, or his willingness to accept the complexity of human behavior, is returned to in the last chapter of the volume (“Pareto’s manuscript on Money and the real Economy”) where Micheal McLure describes how Pareto rejects the quantity theory of money and is willing to integrate money in the general equilibrium model of Leon Walras, despite the unwillingness of the discipline to bridge the monetary and the real analysis.


The volume is an impressive and yet balanced testament of the breadth and stature of Pareto. Pareto does come out as a rounded Renaissance man, who for all that is pessimistic about the possibility of human improvement. He does come out as a scholar willing to break all disciplinary barriers and one who, as a consequence, stands alone. And probably today and more so in the future, when we also realize that many of the existing disciplinary boundaries are artificial constraints that limit our creativity and intellectual development, we will come to appreciate Pareto more. This volume is a step in that direction. 


Beyond Subjectivity. Levinas, Kierkegaard and the Absolute Other


However, since the thinkers both passed away, there are two possibilities: to side with one of them, thus criticizing the other, or to analyze their writings, in order to individuate analogies and differences from a third perspective. I would be a very bad lawyer, so I prefer to be a peace officer, opting for the second choice. I will show that, notwithstanding the deep divergences separating Levinas and Kierkegaard, there are also clear points in common, that the former (and perhaps even the latter) would never have admitted. The tension of subjectivity beyond itself, toward Infinity, will be the key point of their encounter.

1. The refusal of impersonal totality

First of all, Levinas and Kierkegaard are thinkers of singularity. Their philosophical reflection starts with a critique to Hegel and to the universal Spirit. The latter manifests itself in history, knowledge and ethics. The so-called Totality involves all the aspect of human life, considering individuals as parts of a greater plan, the immanent becoming of the Spirit toward the highest awareness of Itself.1 Each man is considered as a necessary, but only functional element of a super-individual entity, whose norms rule thinking and action.

Kierkegaard strongly lashes out against Hegel and his oblivion of singularity. It does not mean that the former denies the existence of universal principles of knowledge and ethics. As a matter of fact, societies are ruled by norms that everyone is expected to follow. One of these norms is the respect of human life, especially of the members of one’s family.

When Abraham, in Fear and Trembling, is commanded by God to kill his own son, he falls into a deep crisis.

There is no higher expression for the ethical in Abraham’s life than that the father shall love the son. The ethical in the sense of moral is entirely beside the point. Insofar as the universal was present, it was cryptically in Isaac, hidden, so to speak, in Isaac’s loins, and must cry out with Isaac’s mouth: Do not do this, you are destroying everything.2

Abraham knows that the sacrifice of Isaac means both a transgression of Jewish ethics and an unbearable suffering for the lost of his only child. God wants His gift back, without giving any reason. Abraham, a man of faith, obeys to the divine command and prepares his son for the sacrifice. His knife is ready to get dirty of his own blood. God then decides to hold the hand of the patriarch, who has proved his obedience enough.

Notwithstanding the reassuring epilogue, Abraham makes his choice for God’s sake and despite ethics. Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in Fear and Trembling, justifies this decision as the highest expression of singularity. Faith is defined as a paradoxical push, according to which “the single individual is higher than the universal” and “determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to absolute by his relation to the universal”3.

The highness of singularity is then due to its relation to the Absolute. Totality and God are the two extremes among which the individual takes place. To follow the former or the latter is due to a choice.4 The weight of each alternative is different: faith requires a leap, an act of courage and will directed to the highest task of a human being, ethics is a renounce to a real subjectivity. Shortly, the utmost duty of a person is to become singular, which requires one to be a believer.

Even if Silentio does not understand the movements of faith, because he does not experience them, he sees them through other men’s actions. The example of Abraham, and of other knights of faith, is the expression of a path toward infinity and real happiness.5 Silentio, talking about the story of the patriarch, admits the impossibility to know the secret of his interiority. He describes the experience of another man, without understanding it, without grasping the relation between the latter and God. Here two important aspects come out: the first is the irreducibility of an individual to another, the second is the uniqueness of the relation to Infinity.

Levinas seems to forget both when he criticizes Kierkegaard in Difficult Freedom and Proper Names. He denies every commitment of the latter with Jewish philosophy. First of all, the concept of faith as a leap, as a decision of free will, has to be excluded. Judaism believes in the Torah, in the law belonging to the religious tradition.6 Secondly, Levinas reproaches Kierkegaard to put religion above ethics. According to the former, the latter is guilty of the amoralism of Nietzsche and other contemporary thinkers, who philosophize with the hammer, regardless of everything.7

Defining ethics as belonging to Totality means confusing the tyranny of the Same with the one-for-the-other, the pre-original push of first philosophy. If the faith was an act of freedom, it would be considered prior to responsibility. And the latter is, in Levinas’ thought, the principal feature of ethics.

Subjectivity is in that responsibility and only irreducible subjectivity can assume a responsibility. That is what constitute the ethical. 8

Levinas does not agree with the concept of ethics expressed by Silentio in Fear and Trembling and proposes another view, which is not in contrast with religion. The author of Difficult Freedom is right in underlining the differences between Jewish tradition and Kierkegaard’s thought, but he seems to ignore what the latter writes in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Here another pseudonym, Climacus, expresses his concept of ethics. If becoming a subject is the highest duty of a human being, as it was said before, it is what both ethics and religion ask him. While objective thought, and totality, demand the individual to become an observer, giving birth to an impersonal ethics, subjective thought does not claim to grasp external truth but inner one. Ethics is present everywhere God is, in the historical process as in the secret of inwardness.9 However, the individual cannot have a perfect knowledge of the former as he has of the latter. According to both ethics and religion, the man has to become a subject.

Therefore, says the ethical, dare, dare to renounce everything, including this loftily pretentious and yet delusive intercourse with world-historical contemplation; dare to become nothing at all, to become a particular individual, of whom God requires everything, without your being relieved of the necessity of being enthusiastic; behold, that is the venture! But then you will also have gained that God cannot in all eternity get rid of you, for only in the ethical is your eternal consciousness; behold, that is the reward! 10

Even if Levinas has read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, criticizing the “becoming subject” of the individual,11 he does not consider that religion here agrees with ethics. He seems to ignore that Kierkegaard always writes through pseudonyms and that every pseudonym has a singular perspective, which never coincides with the perspective of another pseudonym. This is why Silentio and Climacus have different views of ethics and religion. What Climacus says seems to be more detailed and, perhaps, similar to Kierkegaard’s thought: he underlines the difference between objective and subjective ethics. While the former expresses totality, the latter belongs to singularity.

Subjective ethics is very close to Levinas’ one, since the individual is seen in his uniqueness of election. He emancipates from totality and objectivity, looking for his principles in relation to God, to Infinity. The criticism of Hegelian thought is strong both in Levinas and Kierkegaard, thus leading to singularity and to a responsibility which cannot be transferred to anyone else.

The philosophers both contest the absorption of the Other in the Same and state the necessity of an individual ethical answer. They are, generally, against every impersonal system, even if Levinas does not recognize this aspect in Kierkegaard’s thinking. Accusing the latter of violence and amoralism seems really unjustified.12

Anyway, Levinas is not always severe with his predecessor. He appreciates Kierkegaard’s scepticism towards objective truth and the immanence of thought. Actually, in the Postscript, Climacus points out the limits of disciplines as mathematics or history, which are inevitably incomplete and make the subject accidental. Becoming an observer deprives the latter of its individuality, whose existence is wholly indifferent.13 Levinas makes the same criticism to Husserl’s intentionality, which sees the ego as an impersonal “who”. The immanence of thought, the sleep of il y a (“there is”), is the greatest alienation for a human being. He becomes an individual only when he is independent from theoretical activity.14

Being subjective is thus a necessary task for both philosophers. It implies a separation from universal knowledge and, furthermore, a relation to absolute alterity. Kierkegaard states that subjective truth involves a passion of the infinite. What really matters is not the correspondence between the thought and the object, that is the idea of God and God Himself. Subjective thought is focused on inwardness, on the relation between God and the ego. Subjective truth is nothing else than faith. Objectively, it is a paradox and implies uncertainty.15 However, Kierkegaard gives it the highest value and Levinas clearly appreciates it.

Thus Kierkegaard brings something absolutely new to European philosophy: the possibility of attaining truth through the ever-recurrent inner rending of doubt, which is not only an invitation to verify evidence, but a part of evidence itself. I think that Kierkegaard’s philosophical novelty is in his idea of belief. Belief is not, for him, an imperfect knowledge of truth, a truth without certainty, a degradation of knowledge.16

Doubt implies a continuous retreat from certainty, presumed by the right sciences and historical knowledge. It pushes toward the pursuit of something else, whose existence is not proved. Doubt is inseparable from belief, from subjective truth. Objectively, it is an expression of an imperfect knowledge, while, subjectively, it is the expression of truth itself. The uncertainty of the latter implies justification, or even silence.17 The choice of “Silentio” as a pseudonym for Fear and Trembling reflects the impossibility of Abraham to communicate his behaviour to his people. Subjective truth is an individual experience, requiring a relation with an absolute and unknowable alterity.

The uncertainty of faith does not imply either degradation or negativity. The same can be said about the idea of God in Levinas’ philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, the Infinite in the finite causes a breach in theoretic intentionality, overflowing every concept. Human thought is imperfect, because it is incapable of containing God. It does not mean that the perfect (infinite) is a negation of the imperfect (finite), but that the perfect transcends the imperfect. The idea of Infinity is then positive: it is not a lack of relation, but a relation to the absolutely distant.18

This relation, according to both Kierkegaard and Levinas, cannot be expressed with an objective knowledge. Turning to transcendence means separating from universal thought and becoming a subject. Furthermore, recognizing one’s own individuality means, at the same time, recognizing the irreducibility of the other person.

Even if the philosophers agree on this general statement, there are some differences separating them. While Kierkegaard is more concerned for the subject, Levinas gives priority to the other. According to the former, truth is subjectivity because it is focused on individual experience: “that every human being is such an entity existing for himself, is a truth I cannot too often repeat”19. It implies that one is able to know one’s inwardness, one’s own existence, but is unable to grasp alterity.20 The irreducibility of the subject is the condition of the irreducibility of the other.

The author of Totality and Infinity thinks in the opposite way: the irreducibility of the other is prior to the individuation of the self. While Kierkegaard focuses only on the separation of the ego from totality, Levinas has two concerns: the individuation of the subject and the irreducibility of the other to the violence of the ego. Thinking through intentionality and acting through free will are means of power on the other person. This is why Levinas puts responsibility before freedom and the other before the self.21

The subject, in Kierkegaard, follows its own will: the leap of faith is an act of freedom. It does not mean that life involves egoism, since the other person is important. The relation to God does not make sense without a commitment to the neighbour.22 Levinas does not say that the subject is not free, but that responsibility precedes will. At this point, the subject is considered in a passive acceptation (“subject to”), not as an “I”, but as a “me”.23

The priority of the other on the self is what differentiates Levinas from Kierkegaard. That aside, they both refuse impersonal totality, conceived as a theoretical and/or ethical system. They also assert the relation to Infinity as a modality of subjective uniqueness, that leads to recognize the irreducibility of the other person.

2. The irreducibility of the Infinite

Another point in common between Levinas and Kierkegaard is the view of Infinity itself. It coincides with God, who is absolutely Other and distant from the subject.

Precisely because there is the absolute difference between God and man, man expresses himself most perfectly when he absolutely expresses the difference. 24

Kierkegaard’s thought is extraordinary. This sentence places him in the middle of Christian tradition and contemporary philosophy. The author of Fear and Trembling never hides his protestant culture and concern for the life of faith. Anyway, his thought is not strictly theological, but primarily existential. The relation to Infinity, apart from its religious meaning, gives the highest sense to individual life. It does not matter if God exists or not, if He is a supreme being or something else. This is a concern of observers, of objective thinkers. What is really important is the relation between the subject and the divine, the finite and the infinite. Turning to transcendence, to the absolutely Other, is the only way for the individual to be itself. God is distant and irreducible to the subject, but, at the same time, extremely close. Dealing with infinity means dealing with one’s inwardness, with one’s utmost secret (Deus in interiore homine).

This secret cannot be communicated, only justified or expressed with silence. Saying the difference means exactly this: going beyond thought and language, thus facing incomprehension. The only way to express difference is manifesting Infinity in a finite existence.

Becoming subjective means becoming an extraordinary being, in the middle of worldly immanence and divine transcendence.25 The individual is called by God to follow a vocation in everyday life, to be a witness of His will. It implies going against the universal systems of thought and ethics, against an established order, to affirm individuality and follow what is asked to inwardness.

Notwithstanding the impossibility to grasp Infinity, the finite being answers to its call. The relation between the two goes beyond ontology and leads to ethics (not the universal one, but the one following religion). Infinity manifests itself through the evidence of a singular existence, so that the latter is, at the same time, the object of transcendence and the condition for its incarnation.26 There is a sort of exchange between Infinity and a finite being: the latter gives space to the former through transfiguration, while the former knows itself through the gaze of absolute alterity.27 Transfiguration (Forklarelse) is not an explanation (Forklaring), but an expression without words, recalled by the witness of faith.

The separation between man and God, that initially causes anxiety and a sense of alienation, becomes a push towards one’s own existence. When Abraham raises the knife over Isaac, he is answering to the divine call, even if he does not understand it. Leaving aside his people’s ethics and his sadness for the lost of the only child, he directs his free will toward the will of God. Abraham expresses Infinity through a finite action. And, when his hand is drawn back by a new command, he rejoices. He has obeyed and, at the same time, his son is alive. The epilogue of the story gives sense to the choice of Abraham: only through the paradox of the patriarch’s action the goodness of God is revealed. The passion for divinity, that pushes the individual toward an incomprehensible choice, leads to transfiguration. Infinity is expressed through the existence of a finite being.

Even according to Levinas, the distance between the finite and the infinite is overwhelming, though the latter is inside the former. The subject is separated from God and lives an independent life. It does not need anything else, but feels a tension inside. The relation between the finite and the infinite is Desire, which is not directed to fulfilment, but to absolute alterity.

Desire is absolute if the desiring being is mortal and the Desired invisible. Invisibility does not denote an absence in relation; it implies relations with what is not given, of which there is no idea. Vision is an adequation of the idea with the thing, a comprehension that encompasses. Non-adequation does not denote a simple negation or an obscurity of the idea, but – beyond the light and the night, beyond the knowledge measuring beings – the inordinateness of Desire. Desire is desire for the absolutely other. 28

This tension towards the absolutely Other is primarily affective. It goes beyond the limits of thought and the adequation of the object to its idea. The Desire of Infinity originally belongs to subjectivity, which is affected by transcendence in an exceptional way. It is the trace of absence, of otherwise than being. It is called illeity (from the latin ille, “he”) and is nothing else but the mark of an original creation. It cannot be grasped by thought, because it goes beyond ontology and does not imply the existence of the creator. It is a semantic ambiguity, what unsays itself without negating. The trace of Infinity cannot thus be represented, since there is nothing in common between the subject and God.29 Levinas’ concept of transcendence refuses theology and every interpretation of the man as representing God. The affective relation to an absolute alterity, paradoxical and impossible to be explained in words, thus unites both Levinas and Kierkegaard.

However, the former does not agree with the latter, when he describes the nature of the metaphysical desire. First of all, it has nothing to do with need or passion. The subject feels a tension to Infinity when its separation is complete: the ego is wholly atheist and its material needs are satisfied by the external world (“without separation there would not have been truth; there would have been only being”30). The Desire of God is not looking for fulfilment, but pushes the subject to ethics. The command of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of moral action and establishes freedom on responsibility.31

Levinas’ desire of Infinity is thus very different from Kierkegaard’s passion of Infinity. First of all, the latter has its root in anxiety, the former in responsibility. The revelation of God strikes Levinas’ subject when it is quiet and satisfied, pushing it towards the other person. Kierkegaard’s individual, instead, is troubled by doubt and looks for the unity with Infinity. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s passion is oriented towards activity, Levinas’ desire to passivity. Even if they are both sources of morality, the former is based on freedom, the latter on responsibility, which precedes freedom itself.

Shortly, the infinite is, according to both the thinkers, absolutely different from the finite. The latter is moved by the desire of the former, even if the authors do not agree on its nature: the tension is active and passionate for Kierkegaard, passive and responsible for Levinas. However, the desire of Infinity leads, according to both, to the ethical/religious behaviour.

3. From the absolute Other to the singular other

The desire of Infinity is that which primarily constitutes the subject. However, according to Levinas and Kierkegaard, it is not enough for the fulfilment of individual existence. Being subjective means, at the same time, put in practice one’s tension to ethics, whose direction is indicated by the divine command. The relation to the absolute Other thus leads to the relation to the singular other.

Levinas accuses Kierkegaard of transcending the ethical stage and ignoring the other person for the sake of religion.32 He seems not to have read the Works of Love, where the neighbour is essential for the life of faith: “the single individual is committed in the debt of love to other people”33. Stating the irreducibility of the subject and of the other person is not enough for Kierkegaard. It could lead to an egoistic life, where the relation to Infinity would be purely ascetical. The love towards the other person, instead, is a commitment that cannot be avoided.

Levinas is the philosopher of alterity par excellence, since the relation to the other, both singular and absolute, is constitutive of the subject. And this relation implies a radical view, that is the impossibility for the I to exercise its power on the other person. Even if the latter can be partially reduced to phenomenality or submitted to freedom, there is something escaping the grasp of the ego. When the subject is wholly constituted as separated, the other person reveals, through the Face, the command of Infinity.

Freedom is then inhibited, not as countered by a resistance, but as arbitrary, guilty, and timid; but in its guilt it rises to responsibility. […] The relation with the Other as a relation with his transcendence – the relation with the Other who puts in question the brutal spontaneity of one’s immanent destiny – introduces into me what was not in me.34

Immanence is considered brutal, because it submits the individual to the anonymity of Totality. The violence of thought and freedom are nothing but expressions of the tyranny of the Same. The encounter with the other person makes the subject aware not only of its own individuality (already discovered in the atheistic separation), but even of its own uniqueness. The transcendence of the Face is a transfiguration, not an incarnation, of the transcendence of God. The call of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of ethics, pushing the subject to responsibility. The latter cannot be assumed by anybody else, it is the sign of a uniqueness in election. The transcendence undoes the deepest core of the ego with an unavoidable assignation.35

Ethico-religious life is then directed by the divine call to the other person. Both Levinas and Kierkegaard see absolute alterity as directed towards singular alterity. It is a threefold relation, whose terms are the subject, God and the other person. However, the two thinkers have different views about its modality.

Kierkegaard thinks of the subject as directly relating to God, who is the very link between the self and the other: “in love for the neighbor, God is the middle term. Love God is above all else; then you also love the neighbor and in the neighbor every human being.”36 There is not any mediation between the finite and the infinite. Paradoxically, the mediation is between the finite ego and the finite other. The relation to Infinity is then primary, the real condition of the encounter with the other person.

Levinas thinks exactly in the opposite way. Even if the infinite is in the finite as a trace of creation, one has to meet the other to be aware of illeity. The middle term is, in this case, not God, but the other person.37 Singular alterity is the place where absolute alterity reveals itself. The call to responsibility happens simultaneously to the encounter of the Face. The phenomenal dimension of the other man refers to what transcends phenomenon itself. The paradox is that, without seeing the finite, it is impossible to relate to Infinity. Kierkegaard and Levinas describe the threefold relation among the subject, God and the other in two opposite, but equally paradoxical ways: according to the former, the finite needs the infinite to relate to the finite, according to the latter, the finite needs the finite to relate to the infinite.

Other differences between the two philosophers concern their general view on the subject and on the other. These poles are both important, but, as it was stated before, Kierkegaard gives priority to the former, Levinas to the latter. The author of Totality and Infinity takes the risk of alienating the subject, while his predecessor tends to fall into solipsism.

In Fear and Trembling, for instance, subjectivity experiences its vocation without being understood. Abraham, going against the ethics of his people, feels a tension between his behaviour and the external judgement. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith cannot help but feel a deep solitude.

His behaviour leads him to detach himself from the system of needs of his community, in order to follow his vocation. He is extraordinary and, for this reason, runs the risk of being misunderstood. The “tribunal of the world” condemns his actions, which are oriented to please the “tribunal of God”.38 And, since the former is always there and the latter does not need him, the individual is always on the verge of falling into the abyss of nothing.

What has been said about ethico-religious behaviour is valid also for subjective thinking, well described in the Postscript.

The reflection of inwardness is the subjective thinker’s double reflection. In thinking, he thinks the universal, but as existing in this thinking, as assimilating this in his inwardness, he becomes more and more subjectively isolated.39

The risk of solitude is then unavoidable. Even if the individual thinks to universality, he is not an abstract entity. He is a singular and concrete being, whose thought cannot be separated from his existence. It does not imply subjectivism, because the truth of an object does not depend from the belief of the subject. It is possible to have a general concept of how a human being thinks, since it is a matter of observation. The latter implies the possibility of communication and is not submitted to anxiety or other emotional states. This saves Kierkegaard’s philosophy from the extremes of solipsism, subjectivism and irrationality.40 However, subjective truth is more important than objective one. The highest task of a human being is not becoming an observer, but becoming subjective: one has to focus primarily on the relation between oneself and the object, that depends on the perception of one’s own inwardness.

Levinas, on his side, is worried about the violence of subjective thought and freedom. This is why he develops an asymmetrical ethics and puts the other above the I. The latter is called by the Infinite to a pre-original and unavoidable responsibility. This election makes the subject wholly unique, but is connected to a risk of alienation.

The subject in responsibility is alienated in the depths of its identity with an alienation that does not empty the same of its identity, but constrains it to it, with an unimpeachable assignation, constrains it to it as no one else, where no one could replace it.41

In Otherwise Than Being, the very core of the subject is undone by the other, who is inside the ego as ipseity. It is an expression of Levinas’ mature thought, where ethics is took to an extreme and identity is destroyed from inside. In Totality and Infinity, instead, the risk of alienation is avoided, because ipseity is still a nucleus of genuine egoism.42

Levinas, as much as he strives to save the subject from alienation, gives way to it in his mature thought. Kierkegaard, on the other side, is able not to fall in solipsism, but is on the edge of a cliff. Focusing on the subject or on the other leads the two thinkers to opposite forms of extremism. Notwithstanding this and the modal differences, they are united by a threefold view of the relation between the finite and the infinite: the subject (finite) relates to God (infinite), who leads it toward the other person (finite).

4. A lifelong suffering

The last aspect of the relation between the infinite and the finite in Levinas and Kierkegaard is an unavoidable suffering of the subject. The latter, in its tension towards God, cannot help but experience a pathos, inextricably connected to the conscience of its own limits.

Individual existence is, according to Kierkegaard, a synthesis of the finite and the infinite. It is the place where transcendence reveals itself through the actions of an exceptional singularity. The subject is thus in the middle between its own needs as a worldly entity and the tension to go beyond the systems regulating these needs and their satisfaction. Becoming subjective means living in this world and striving for another world. The individual who follows his vocation knows already what his priority is: he has to renounce to satisfy his needs, when they hinder the pursuit of eternal happiness.43

It is not a matter of doing something and avoiding something else. The tension to Infinity is not only a limit to hedonism or to universal ethical life. It completely changes the existence of an individual, orienting it to that which is always there. A finite need disappears according to the subjective mood or to its satisfaction, while Infinity is eternal. It does not matter if it exists in an ontological sense, because it is constitutive of the individual and transcends his inwardness.

The choice of a religious life, of following “that which is always there”, causes an unavoidable pathos.

But suffering as the essential expression for existential pathos means that suffering is real, or that the reality of the suffering constitutes the existential pathos; and by the reality of the suffering is meant its persistence as essential for the pathetic relationship to an eternal happiness. It follows that the suffering is not deceptively recalled, nor does the individual transcend it, which constitutes a retreat from the task […] Viewed religiously, it is necessary […] to comprehend the suffering and to remain in it, so that reflection is directed upon the suffering and not away from it.44

The reality of suffering implies the persistence of the tension to Infinity. God is constitutively inside the individual, but following His will is a choice. Who pursues eternal happiness cannot avoid suffering and has to remain in it. The voluntary component of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is here strongly evident.

Levinas’ thought, on the other side, refuses the power of free will in relation to Infinity.

But giving has a meaning only as a tearing from oneself despite oneself, and not only without me. And to be torn from oneself despite oneself has meaning only as a being torn from the complacency in oneself characteristic of enjoyment, snatching the bread from one’s mouth. […] Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood.45

The suffering of the subject does not depend on a choice, but happens “despite oneself” and comes from one’s original constitution. Being sensible means being permeated by the other in the fibres of one’s own skin. The divine command, which urges upon responsibility for the other person, is directed to the spoliation of one’s flesh. There is no distinction between body and soul: the man, as a sensitive being, is affected by the enjoyment of its pleasure and, at the same time, by the indigence of the other person.

Suffering is then involuntary in Levinas and voluntary in Kierkegaard. However, both agree on considering pain as constitutive of the relation to Infinity and ethical life. The individual who follows the divine command puts aside the satisfaction of his needs, in order to give himself to the other person.

The reason for suffering is the same in Levinas and Kierkegaard. What really separates them is its aim. Accepting pain of one’s existence makes sense only if oriented to afterlife, writes Kierkegaard. The pursuit of eternal happiness is the reason of renouncing to one’s need and pleasures. According to Levinas, on the other side, it does not matter if there is life after death. Responsibility has to be undertook despite any other reason.46

However, there is no certainty of an eternal happiness, neither in Kierkegaard nor in Levinas. According to the former, it is an orientation toward Infinity, a relational modality, according to the latter it has nothing to do with responsibility. They both theorize a life of possibility, of uncertainty and doubt, which, paradoxically, has a higher value than objective truth.

Levinas recognizes the positivity of possibility in Kierkegaard,47 even if he does not acknowledge the existence of a religious ethics in the Postscript. As it was stated before, Climacus distinguishes universal morality from subjective one: the former constitutes a dogmatic system, while the latter is inconclusive and ongoing. The tension to God, driving force of religious ethics, does not lead to the certainty of beatitude, but at least deploys its possibility.

Levinas and Kierkegaard, notwithstanding some differences, agree in stating the singularity of the subject, which primarily explicates itself in relation to Infinity. The absolute difference between man and God hinders whatsoever objective certainty, but it does not make it less important. To face Infinity inside oneself is inevitable and leads to the realization of one’s own existence. What is more, the divine command indicates the other person as its real addressee. Life means giving oneself to singular alterity. However, in spite of a correct ethical behaviour, striving for Infinity is connected with suffering.

An intense and almost unbearable pain, involving the body and the soul, accompanies the subject until the end of its life. Levinas and Kierkegaard both assert the inevitability of suffering, due to a uniqueness in election. Individual existence is where God reveals Himself and shows the way of giving. This path never ends, until life stops, until worldly existence gives space to a new existence, or, if faith is meaningless, to nothing else (the anxiety over doubt never ends). Subjectivity, despite its finiteness, infinitely strives for what goes beyond.


1 Cf. Hegel G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by Miller A. V., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, §§ 793, 805, 808.

2 Kierkegaard S., Fear and Trembling (FT), in Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 59.

3 Ibid., p. 70.

4 According to Pojman, the leap of faith is an act of pure free will (cf. Pojman L., Religious Belief and the Will, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 143-8), while Sagi asserts that it has its root in existence (cf. Sagi A., Kierkegaard, Religion and Existence. The Voyage of the Self, Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi B. V., 2000, p. 41).

5 Cf. FT, p. 33-9.

6 Cf. Levinas E., Difficult Freedom (DF), trans. by Hand S., London: The Athlone Press, 1990, p. 144.

7 Cf. DF, p. 117; Id., “Existence and Ethics”, in Proper Names (PN), trans. by Smith M. B., London: The Athlone Press, 1996, pp. 72-3; Id., “A propos of Kierkegaard vivant”, in op. cit., p. 76.

8 Cf. PN, p. 73.

9 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Concluding Unscientific Postscript (CUP), trans. by Swenson D. F., London: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, 1941, pp. 118-23.

10 Ibid., pp. 133-4.

11 Cf. PN, p. 76.

12 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., “Introduction: Good Fences May Not Make Good Neighbours After all”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), Kierkegaard and Levinas: ethics, politics, and religion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 2; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 22-5, 32-9. According to Simmons, Levinas criticism of Kierkegaard is due to the influence of Jean Wahl (cf. Simmons A. J., “Existential Appropriation: The Influence of Jean Wahl on Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 51-67).

13 Cf. CUP, pp. 175-9.

14 Cf. Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority (TI), Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 119.

15 Cf. CUP, pp. 181-2.

16 PN, p. 77.

17 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., op. cit., p. 3; Simmons A. J., op. cit., pp. 48-9.

18 Cf. TI, pp. 24-5, 41.

19 CUP, p. 169.

20 This is even the presupposition of Kierkegaard’s deconstructive readers, who are against logocentric and one-way interpretations. Cf. Jegstrup E., “Introduction”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), The New Kierkegaard, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 1-2.

21 Cf. TI, pp. 21-7, 203-4; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (OB), Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 15, 19-20, 88, 114-5, 138-9. Cf. also Janiaud J., Singularité et responsabilité. Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Levinas, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2006, pp. 311-4.

22 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Works of Love (WOL), ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 190. Cf. also Westphal M., op. cit., pp. 25-32.

23 Cf. OB, pp. 15-6, 50-6, 72-5, 142. Cf. also Llewelyn J., “Who or What or Whot”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 72; Lellouche R., Difficile Levinas. Peut-on ne pas être levinassien ?, Paris-Tel Aviv : Editions de l’éclat, 2006, pp. 81-3.

24 CUP, p. 412.

25 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 155, 158.

26 Cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 134.

27 Cf. Podmore S. D., Kierkegaard and the Self Before God : Anatomy of the Abyss, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011, pp. xii-xiii, 180.

28 TI, p. 34.

29 Cf. OB, pp. 12-3, 151-2; TI, p. 104. On metaphysical Desire, cf. Ciaramelli F., “Levinas e la fenomenologia del desiderio”, in Moscato A. (ed.), Levinas. Filosofia e trascendenza, Genova: Marietti, 1992, pp. 144-58; Baccarini E., Lévinas. Soggettività e Infinito, Roma: Studium, 1985, pp. 40, 46-7. Lellouche defines it as a hetero-affection (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 86-7). About the semantic ambiguity and non-representativeness of Infinity, cf. Baccarini E., op. cit., pp. 30-8; Chalier C., La trace de l’Infini. Emmanuel Levinas et la source hébraïque, Paris : Cerf, 2002, pp. 65-73 ; Moscato A., “Semantica della trascendenza. Note critiche su E. Levinas”, in Moscato A. (ed.), op. cit., pp. 58-9, 73-8; Plourde S., Emmanuel Lévinas. Altérité et responsabilité, Paris : Cerf, 1996, pp. 136-7 ; Rolland J., Parcours de l’autrement, Paris : PUF, 2000, pp. 1-2. According to Visker, the intrigue of the Infinite is anything but il y a, where the subject, being one-for-the-other, loses its individuality (cf. Visker R., Truth and Singularity. Taking Foucault into Phenomenology, Dordrecht-Boston-London: Kluwer, 1999, pp. 236-7, 241-6, 265-72).

30 TI, p. 60.

31 Cf. TI, pp. 50, 203-4. Cf. also Chalier C., op. cit., pp. 44-8, 56-60; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 19-21; Petitdemange G., “Au dehors : les enjeux de l’alterité chez Emmanuel Lévinas”, in A. Münster (ed.), La différence comme non-indifférence. Éthique et altérité chez Emmanuel Lévinas, Paris : Kimé, 1995, pp. 30-2 ; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 111-4. According to Westphal, Levinas’ transcendence is traumatic because it destabilizes the inwardness of the subject (cf. M. Westphal, “The Trauma of Transcendence as Heteronomous Intersubjectivity”, in M. M. Olivetti (ed.), Intersubjectivité et théologie philosophique, Padova : CEDAM, 2001, pp. 92-8).

32 Cf. PN, pp. 76-7.

33 WOL, p. 190.

34 TI, p. 203.

35 Cf. ibid., p. 279; OB, pp. 141-2.

36 WOL, p. 58. Cf. also ibid., p. 108. Gibbs points out that the alterity of the other person is mediated by the alterity of God (cf. Gibbs R., “I or You: The Dash of Ethics”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), op. cit., p. 146). Seeskin states that the transcendence of Kierkegaard’s God is anonymous and excludes every form of dialogue (cf. Seeskin K., Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 134).

37 OB, p. 12. Cf. also Haar M., “L’obsession de l’autre. L’éthique comme traumatisme”, Cahiers de l’Herne : Lévinas 1991, pp. 444-5; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 119-24; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 106-9; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, op. cit., p. 24.

38 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 191, 197, 308-10.

39 CUP, p. 61.

40 Cf. Gouwens D. J., Kierkegaard as religious thinker, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 49-53, 56.

41 OB, pp. 141-2.

42 Cf. TI, pp. 39, 44, 60, 117-8, 208, 277-9.

43 Cf. CUP, p. 350-3. According to Sagi, the voyage to Infinity and to the self are the same, since obeying to God’s will means realizing one’s own existence. Notwithstanding its weakness in understanding Infinity, the subject has the strenght to follow it. (cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 16, 147).

44 Ibid., pp. 396-7.

45 OB, p. 74. Unlike Westphal, Lellouche defines Levinas’ ethics as traumatic because it coincides with suffering (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 54-7, 70-1).

46 Cf. OB, pp. 6, 117.

47 Cf. Sheil P., Kierkegaard and Levinas. The Subjunctive Mood, Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 4, 144-5.

Ian Carter, Anna Elisabetta Galeotti & Valeria Ottonelli (eds.), Eguale Rispetto (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2008)

Amartya Sen asked two questions: (i) Why equality?; and (ii) Equality as to what? He believed that the answer to the first will necessarily entail an answer to the second. (XI) However, to this reviewer, conspicuous by its absence is the question “Is each human being owed equal respect?”In fact, each of the essays gives the impression of presupposing that respect for other persons ought to be equal and then striving to find justifications for that outcome. In other words, there are no essays that argue that, in fact, we do not owe one another equal respect.

The project is one of philosophy, principally, political and moral philosophy and as such, it is predominantly a theoretical one, being light on concrete application, notwithstanding the editors’ questions. Whilst illuminating the concept of equal respect as well as its importance in human interaction, the collection does not attempt to argue that equal respect is the only or principal guiding value; we are not advised as to the circumstances in which other values may prevail over our duties of equal respect.
It is deeply unfair, of course, to criticize a collection of essays for what it does not achieve rather than recognize its merits as an excellent and nuanced contribution to contemporary philosophical discourse. Thus, the reviewer will now turn to some of the articles to demonstrate what to her seemed to be the most interesting ideas and conclusions contained within their pages.
However, before beginning that task, it is necessary to clearly distinguish – as accomplished clearly in the book, in particular by Stephen Darwall and Anna Elisabetta Galeotti – between “recognition respect” and “appraisal respect.” The former indicates equal respect for each human being solely on the basis of their humanity – it is on this that the book concentrates. Appraisal respect, as the name suggests, is the respect we give to others based on their attributes, be they moral virtue, musical virtuosity, athleticism or erudition. Clearly, appraisal respect is not owed equally to everyone as everyone carries such attributes in unequal measure. Moreover, one can merit appraisal respect in one area but not in another. Noone would question Mozart’s musical talent and the due respect on that ground without respecting his personal life as one displaying moral virtual and one rather doubts he was a gifted ball player.
Beginning with Strozzi’s depiction of Mark 12: 13-17 (“Render unto Caesar…”), Darwall takes a tour of respect as recognition, illustrating the “second person standpoint” as a fundamental component. (1-23) Galeotti expands upon this theme to suggest that recognition respect and appraisal respect have closer links than first appear and argues that even recognition respect can be suspended by unspeakable crimes, justifying punishment according to law, though never torture. (The subject of the death penalty was left, disappointingly, unaddressed.) (24-53, especially at 35-36) This is because respect is not so much felt or given as done. We manifest respect through our behaviour; hence can suspend it in appropriate circumstances.
Ian Carter tackles the question of why equal respect. Given that recognition respect is based on the moral agency and personal autonomy of individuals, why should we not vary our respect based on the evident variations in capacity for the exercise of personal autonomy according to individual characteristics? (54-77, especially at 57-8, 61) Carter answers by rejecting Bernard Williams’ demand that we take the other person’s internal point of view and argues instead that recognition respect must be opaque; we must refuse to look inside the other person and assess them, thus coming to a conclusion closer to a Rawlsian position. (66-70) Carter also reverses Sen’s assumptions and argues instead that one cannot answer the question “Equality as to what?” until we have some answer to the question “Why equality?” that is, we have some justification for equality. (56)
Carla Bagnoli returns to Kant and the significance of dignity and its basis, autonomy, as the foundation of equal respect, and throws some light on the related questions: what is individual autonomy and why does it have moral value? (78-100)
Hillel Steiner, Luca Beltrametti and Lester H. Hunt all address in various modes the requirements of equal respect in economic affairs. Steiner persuades us that, despite neoclassical arguments, free trade can be exploitative. (101-112) Using an example of fair trade bananas, he demonstrates that buying at lower cost is a form of exploitation as the purchaser is benefiting from earlier exploitation – and lack of respect – that has put the producer at a long-term economic disadvantage, thus forcing him to sell at a price lower than he would have absent the earlier exploitation. (108-10) He successfully answers the question “Why pay more?” but he also turns that question around and asks the reader: “Why pay less if it means being unjust?” (107)
Beltrametti considers paternalism in economic affairs and begins from B. New’s position that market imperfection is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to justify paternalism. (113-127) Paternalism may represent a failure to treat its beneficiaries as “ends in themselves” but there are some examples where this is not so. New defines paternalism as A: an interference with the decisional autonomy of the beneficiary; B: with the intention of improving that person’s wellbeing; and C: without the consent of the beneficiary. (114) Beltrametti then distinguishes authoritarian paternalism (which is coercive) from libertarian paternalism (which changes the weights of ones’ reasons for action, such as introducing “default” options in public and private law) (115-117) and finds that the latter is not necessarily more acceptable (or respectful of its beneficiaries) even though it veils itself with the illusion of choice. (122) He adds two more which do not strictly fit with New’s definition, namely Ulysses’ paternalism (which is consensual) and donation paternalism (which requires consent of recipient). (118-120)
Hunt takes us on a disturbing tour of Auschwitz to rebut Robert Nozick’s conclusions in Anarchy, State and Utopia. (128-147) In a complete reversal of respect, Hunt describes the treatment of Jews in the labour camps of Auschwitz, reduced in the eyes of their exploiters to the ultimate “consumable resource.” Each lost 3-4 kg per week and could usually survive for about 3 months before being overcome by starvation, disease or deliberate disposal. Each body was literally consumed, with fat and proteins being converted into labour (like coal or wood burnt for energy) and even in death, body parts were consumed for gold, mattress stuffing and soap. The value of each person was reduced completely to an economic resource. (130-132) In fact, Hunt claims that the labour camps were inefficient even on their own sordid terms; they were poor factories with low output. Furthermore, there was a clear “net-loss” (Kaldor-Hicks) – the persons robbed of their own bodies lost more than was gained by the operators. Nonetheless, this economic analysis seems hardly adequate to explain why we find it so morally horrifying. Nozick’s utility analysis does not explain why it would still be wrong even if it had been economically efficient. Thus, concludes Hunt, there must be some deontological explanation beneath or beyond the economic analysis. (133) Hunt turns to Kant, reminding us that human life has a dignity and not a price; (134) thus we cannot dispose of one Jewish worker and replace him with another of greater “worth” (fatter, fitter, stronger, healthier). (135) Auschwitz’ factories represent the extreme of treating persons as means and not ends in themselves. (136) The second part of Hunt’s article, only loosely connected to the first, discusses the justifications for taxation in democratic states and ultimately concludes that although taxation might be a form of paternalistic coercion (respectful of taxpayers and their ends), in fact, it usually slides into exploitative coercion (like robbery) owing to the clumsiness of states as well as their occasional lack of moral rectitude. (143)
Valeria Ottonelli takes us on a tour of the difficulties of translating the theory of equal respect and formal equality into the realities of the public sphere. (148-173) Examining three concepts – democracy, justification and equal respect – she argues that equal respect mandates democratic governance.
Peter Jones makes an interesting and rather rare foray into the implications of equal respect internationally.(174-200) Despite the fiction that remains the basis of international law, the Westphalian model is no longer a fact of contemporary international relations: states are not independent boxes and certainly not equally independent. (178) Hence, states are not in equal positions to “tolerate” one another as it can only make sense to say that A tolerates B if A has some power to intervene in B and chooses not to exercise it. (177) Furthermore, tolerance or intervention is not a question of a cost-benefit analysis or a perspective of self-interest. (179) Jones argues against intervention as a matter of respect for individuals, rather than respect for “peoples” in some kind of artificial personification of “the state” (186) (defined by Rawls rather than by the Montivideo Convention[2]). (182-184) Some people (persons) may indeed prefer a system that is not liberal-democratic. We can still maintain that a liberal-democratic system is better – even for them – but that is not adequate reason to intervene. (192) In the end, Jones’ conclusion is in line with contemporary international law, which permits humanitarian intervention only in extreme situations.[3] Jones is perhaps over-optimistic about the extent of individuals’ consent to be governed – in liberal-democracies or otherwise – but this paper is theoretical, not practical and thus can be excused.
Elisabeth Telfer completes the book with her essay on humour and equal respect, focusing on ways in which humour can be used to undermine equal respect. (201-213)
On reflection on all the chapters considered together, it becomes less convincing that the collection justifies equal respect at all. Instead, each chapter can be considered as an explanation of and justification for a standard of “equal minimum respect.” Accepting Galeotti’s conclusion that recognition respect and appraisal respect are not of a different nature but rather shades of the same thing, each of the essays can be read as a justification of a presumption of respect at level x for each person qua person, which amount can be increased on the basis of appraisal (x + a) or can be reduced on the basis of exceptionally immoral or anti-social behaviour (x – b). However, x – b can never fall below a basic threshold (y) for example, to justify torture, non-consensual medical experimentation, or to treat human bodies as consumable economic resources. y is the level of equal minimum respect.
It has not been possible in this short review to give equal consideration to each of the commendable essays in this collection but it is hoped that this review will encourage readers to take a closer look at the book and, for those not fluent in Italian, to seek out further work by these accomplished scholars.

[1] All translations are the reviewer’s own.

[2] Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, Dec. 26, 1933, Art. 1.

[3] Cf: United Nations Charter, Art. 2(4) (principle of non-intervention in sovereign states) and Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9th December 1948, 78 U.N.T.S. 277, Art. 1 (requiring states “to prevent and to punish” genocide and indicating, therefore, international intervention). See also, Case concerning the application of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v Serbia and Montenegro) Judgment of 26th February 2007, 2007 ICJ Rep. 1.

Flavio Baroncelli, Mi manda Platone, edited by Annalisa Siri and Emilio Mazza (Genoa: il melangolo, 2009)

Flavio Baroncelli’s posthumous collection of short pieces by il melangolo is a splendid exception to standard philosophical literature. It is a slender book (157 pp.) that can be read purely and simply. Indeed, to the extent available to hopeless academically minded professional philosophers like myself, it can be enjoyed as a string of exquisite literary-philosophical vignettes. These short pieces, originally published in various Italian periodicals and newspapers, range from scholarly debates on Plato’s role in Western culture to the pride of showing scars and tattoos on one’s own body. They are divided in two parts, the former dealing with philosophical themes (15-83) and the latter dealing with ordinary life and socio-political affairs (87-149). Witty and concise, they retain the inventiveness and the curiosity that characterised Baroncelli’s life, of which Armando Massarenti, Emilio Mazza, Annalisa Siri and Gürol Sagiroglu Baroncelli provide a useful account via the preface (5-8), a short biography (151-3) and an editorial note (155-7).

Some professional philosophers, like the undersigned, may attempt to make some use of Baroncelli’s book, e.g. by writing a review of it. However, the review is bound to be fairly unorthodox. What can one say of a book that reads: refreshingly colloquial yet deep; humbly self-depreciating but highly learned; ironically sceptical though warmly humane; both open to the general public and pregnant nonetheless with precious insights for actual academics? Baroncelli’s prose, full of abstraction-averse, real-life examples and academic-pomposity-shattering vernacular gems, flows like the prose of his eighteenth-century role-models. Most of all, it recalls Voltaire’s prose, whose humour and compassion it evokes when dealing with topics such as tolerance, liberty, dignity, multiculturalism, religion and scientific realism.

Perhaps, the author of this slender book would have preferred to be compared to David Hume, whom Baroncelli admired and studied. Or even to Hume’s and the French philosophes’ much older mentor, i.e. Michel de Montaigne, to whom Baroncelli devotes a delightful sketch (23-6). Still, it is Voltaire the name that springs to mind when Baroncelli combines together, with a few touches of his pen, experience, irony, linguistic analysis, moral wisdom and intellectual acumen.

Professional philosophers may fear such a facility of expression. Clear and pleasant language is often seen as a threat to an argument’s poignancy and visibility. Long, tedious, difficult passages abound in philosophical literature. This happens not solely because philosophers are not poets or novelists, though they may be failed ones, but also because philosophers want the full load of reasoning poured into their works to be felt and borne by the reader. Whenever reasoning seems too unhindered and beautifully rendered, professional philosophers are likely to accuse it of being either “shallow” or “rhetorical”, if not even both. Nonetheless Baroncelli was a professional philosopher, and a good one. His arguments are sound, they stand on solid ground, and they are written so well and humorously – there is enough to become bitterly envious.

Certainly, the same philosophers that treat as “shallow” and “rhetorical” their literarily gifted colleagues are likely to accuse me of being partial. After all, I knew personally Flavio Baroncelli as a teacher, mentor, and friend. That is why I shall invite them to attempt to read simply his latest and, probably, last book. They should follow the advice that he himself gave with regard to Plato, whom one should read “because he is useless” (66). Hopefully, they will appreciate Baroncelli’s gentle and humorous way of being a genuine, unpretentious source of enlightenment.