Essay:Black Bile and Polemic
- 1 Preliminaries
- 2 Introduction to a multi-dimensional subject
- 3 The ever-present intentionality or the present self-investment of melancholy
- 4 Same fabric, three kinds of melancholy
- 5 No pessimism, no optimism, just polemic action
- 6 Relative, correlative, manifold
- 7 The multifarious ideal types of melancholy attested in history
- 8 The melancholic is no nihilist, first level
- 9 The melancholic is no nihilist, second level
- 10 Coursing the third level, processes of history and culture
- 11 A game between actors in a violent drama
This brief synthesis approaches the reality of the militant nature of intellectual production using as a starting point a brief exploration of the psycho-intellectual phenomenon of melancholy, i.e. the sense of resignation and hopelessness. We assert that melancholy itself is just another conceptual weapon in the arsenal of the human spirit. It's important to repeat that this a synthesis, albeit a brief one. Not least because the English language is heavily analytic, a certain feeling of heaviness and monotony will be even more visible in this otherwise bound to be a heavyweight and austere reading given its strictly synthetic character. If the interested but at any rate the laboriously and not just trivially curious reader who will bother with pushing through the entire text should notice typos, lack of semantic clarity or whatever other mistakes, he is encouraged, according to his good judgement, to either honorably undertake to correct them himself or report them to me.
Introduction to a multi-dimensional subject
By alluding here to a relation between melancholy (black bile) and the activity of the polemicist what we have in mind actually are those products in the history of ideas which derive their inspiration from critiques of history and culture but also from anthropology, and in which products, the pessimistic stance and posturing does not bear the practical consequence of some paralytic resignation or final parting from the affairs of this sad world but instead functions as an intellectual weapon. It namely serves to formulate and embody claims of social power. As far as the issue of melancholy itself is concerned, we are to note that although the transition from the realm of individual psychology to the sphere of cultural and sociopolitical measures is by no means a straightforward and linear one, nevertheless we need to begin with highlighting certain aspects of the former (individual psychology) because in that manner the anthropological substrate of the latter (cultural and sociopolitical measures), which we’ll be referring to as we follow up, will become more a lot more conceptually approachable.
In a particular, — but strictly in a particular — sense, the same thread connects both of those levels which means that the fabric of the crucial measures of human intellect/cognition as well as the manner which these measures may be combined is cut from the same cloth. This similarity won't of course imply that the anthropological or psychological measures are ferried across in an unmediated fashion and become forces with particular content - ('Content' refers to the opposite of 'form'. The distinction between 'content' schema and 'formal' schema. Between 'content value' and 'form' or 'structure, for those who are familiar with sociological and philosophical literature this distinction should be already known) - and influence within the context of culture and the history of ideas. It means rather that these forces reach deeper the more powerful their anthropological and psychological supports really are. Given the manifold dimensions of the subject we are dealing with, the psychological view of melancholy cannot be limited to the findings of psychopathology. At the same time however we have ought not overlook that melancholy, being a mental disorder, features an extreme intensification of fundamental, mutually-excluding and at once complementary phenomena of what is otherwise so-called 'normal' mental life, with all its incessant fluctuations and mood sways. What we always encounter within normal mental life in turn takes its rooting in the bottom layers that assemble the constitution of the living being called 'man': no passive pessimism and no active optimism remains impartial to pleasure and pain, to fear and to the will to power. The examples of attested mixtures between pessimist and activist stances which we’ll be discussing shortly beginning with examples of central import from the history of ideas, rest similarly from an anthropological perspective in the multiple possible crosses of those fundamental measures in spite of the fact that their abstract content depends on the respective given cultural constellations and hence inevitably presents itself in innumerable variations.
The ever-present intentionality or the present self-investment of melancholy
Just like consciousness in general, so too melancholy is characterized by intentionality: it’s always melancholy in reference to something regardless how someone is supposed to answer the (non-constructive) question whether this “something” causes or merely triggers melancholy. The intentionality of melancholy entails that the reference to reality, (i.e. reference to that which occurs despite the human subject’s wishes) can never be scrapped completely even as the melancholic human claims that he’s forevermore burned down all bridges that heretofore connected him with the rest of the world. In that case the intentionalistic “something” in melancholy is pushed aside or brushed off for easy to understand reasons of mental economy. When “everything loses meaning and value” then that certain “something” becomes meaningless too and as it gets lost in the ocean of melancholic indifference it is no longer considered worthy and able to form the main source for the melancholic person's misery: for that reason exactly further thematic extensions or further deepening into the feelings of melancholy provides relief. By removing meaning and value from the world, the melancholic exacts his revenge on the intentionalistic “something” for his melancholy. In that mental state however there’s no other way out of the dead end except the lack of meaning. So lack of meaning is defined and perceived always in its relation with some meaning (Therefore, indirectly, also in its relation with the intentionalistic “something”), or at least it is evaluated on the basis of the ability for meaning to exist and the nostalgia for that. In any case, the unperturbed, sober conclusion as to the fact of the lack of objective meaning and the instantaneous insight into the subjective necessity of meaning are not in any way the area of expertise for melancholics as melancholics.
So the intentionalistic “something” continues to linger, regardless of its investment and its posturing, steadily present within the melancholic mental world of our subject and is, to paraphrase and distort the famous biblical passage, “spirit from the spirit” of the melancholic mentality and the axis around which its shifting humors revolve. These (especially relevant to our topic) shifts hover between two states that in their pure form may be summarized as follows: on one hand, the inability of that intentionalistic “something” to be realized spirals into self-chastisement and a tyrannical feeling of guilt or inadequacy. The vain yearning for that something or its loss may thus lead to an insecurity crisis or even the destruction of the sense of Self: this “something” — or the world in toto as a constant reminder thereof — mauls and haunts the Self. But on the other hand the opposite may occur. The Self may in fact resist its pounding and turn aggressively against the now inimical “something” or the now inimical world, degrading them and in this way re-evaluating the Self; then from a position of newfound worth, it will feel that it has the power and indeed the right to attack what is perceived as unworthy and moreover painful. This phenomenon is followed in the study of psychotic disorders as the shift from depression to manic depression. It is however formally recognizable in crucial and totally normal situations encountered in the history of ideas, where pessimistic observations and mental states and the heaviness and sulkiness that go with them are followed intermittently by intellectual alertness and agitation while indeed the passage from the former two is accompanied by the highly anticipated arrival of the latter states.
Same fabric, three kinds of melancholy
On the basis of the same mechanism of 'mental economy', which, as observed previously, causes a discharge or letting go of precisely via a deepening or generalization of melancholy, one can try to escape from melancholy without even trying so as to relativize already beforehand the significance of the intentionalistic object. The relativization of everything can here find use as a cover so that the melancholic person won’t be forced to admit to others and to themselves that the relativization is in reality all about that particular “something”. Personal weakness isn’t here felt as melancholy following failure but as an attempt to cover up and cross over the failure through melancholically distancing oneself. But there is a third kind of melancholy; that which arises after someone “has it all” -- or at least shortly thereafter. And that is not only due to the inner gap that ensues when, after the completion of one's highest goals they remain without new objectives to replace the old. At least equally intense is the feeling of personal weakness which now derives from concluding that the power achieved by virtue of realizing his cherished goals, is bound to remain as necessarily relative as any other and therefore has to keep up the fight against those who would contest that power. This observation is especially bitter when made from a position which one held previously to be inimical to any further semblance of worthwhile resistance. The relativization of the intentionalistic object begins anew, even if from a now different perspective. One is called to see now that neither are all wishes to be met nor are they to be fulfilled to the utmost without serious compromises. At the very top of success and to the point that confidence rises, the gaze is steadily fixed on what continues to oppose. As a matter of fact, because opposing forces now harass and irritate even more sharply they become less tolerable than ever before. Hence, the feeling and melancholy of weakness can only touch those who wield the greatest power, when consciously or unconsciously they have to measure their relative strength with the absolute measure of omnipotence. Only all-powerful God may never feel down in the damps and it is hardly conceivable to think of him as melancholic although reputable theological sources cite that he may get immeasurably angry. The perception of God reveals clearly that omnipotence could be seen as that thing which is orthogonal to melancholy.
When the peripatetics first made the henceforth oft-repeated assertion that all great men without exception and independently of their field of endeavor, are found to be melancholics, they presupposed, perhaps unwittingly, that the chasm between the powerful and all-powerful could be more onerous than the chasm separating weakness and strength. Seen in this way, the feeling of powerlessness ultimately overrides each particular reality of the state of power and melancholy ominously envelops weak and strong alike — the former for lacking power and the latter for lacking ultimate power. All the cases we spoke about (melancholy without effort and without failure, melancholy after failed effort and melancholy after successful effort) attest to the deeper inner resonance that resides between melancholy and the state of weakness at all levels. The feeling of weakness is thus the inverse side of the will to power — otherwise it wouldn’t be so painful and in fact it would remain unseen; in the same sense, melancholy can be transformed into polemic activity and conflict, just as the feeling of weakness can start to give way to the yearn for power. It is evident that this twofold transition is a potentiality and by no means ever-present in all cases. But what’s of interest here is the frequent activation of this potentiality since it illuminates from a different angle that very same thing which manifests itself after the shift from depression to manic depression has occurred or which alternatively manifests during analogous mental changes within the confines of so-called mental normality; melancholy is the (due to external or internal barriers) resignation from the will to power and at the same time the nest where a sudden but still predictable and traceable explosion of that will is hatched. If melancholy (especially so but not just melancholy) didn’t have the face of Janus, then it couldn’t find use (e.g. under the form of the attested anthropologically or culturally pessimistic theories) as a kind of starting point to dare highly specifically-targeted and highly dynamic offensive charges against present reality.
No pessimism, no optimism, just polemic action
Based on all we’ve said above, we can now form a picture as to how our views of melancholy on the anthropological, cultural and psychological level as well as that of the history of ideas, are found to be linked to each other. The intentionality of melancholy is always present and can bring to light objects that may be obscure and with which it is related, thus paving the road to action. The great common denominator of all the levels we referred to concerns the general structure and the force of unraveling in a given phenomenon, not the multiple investments of content, i. e. the specific content by virtue of which it’s particularized or objectified. The fundamental conceptual distinction between the formality or structural framework of mental activity and the investment or content of intellectual constructs explains a common and at once enlightening phenomenon, that namely no correlation exists between pessimism and optimism as subjective moods one one hand and as worldview stances on the other. People that are widely considered to be of “optimistic” or “pessimistic” dispositions (if we even accept that it’s allowed to make use of abstractions for something as complex as human character), co-exist in all kinds of philosophical, religious or political camps. Therefore, the credo of a party in reference to its contextual investment or content doesn’t arise straight out of the special mental inclinations of the human subjects representing them nor does it form the resultant force of several such inclinations. Nevertheless, a human subject that is not melancholic and as such not a a bearer of the mental structure of the melancholy phenomenon that we described, can imprint this structure in a general blueprint of ideas, which are then objectified and thus receive their contextual investment with the necessary mediation of the historical constellation, personal preferences or totally circumstantial factors. The given subject internalizes this structure by having first abstracted the psychological investment or in other words the subjective factor and the reason for that is because this structure alone allows the transformation of melancholy to polemic activism; the pessimistic position and the pessimistic starting point of attack is chosen merely because the opponent champions an optimistic view. This of course implies that the opposite could well have happened too. Polemic that starts out bent to make some “pessimistic” point is simply a form of polemic among others: the “pessimists” are not in themselves more polemically-inclined and more venomous in their fluids than the “optimists”. But here we’re interested to examine solely their case.
There is a quasi or a priori reason that forces “pessimism” (just as it forces “optimism”) to assume a polemic and virulent character and carry out similar tasks ever since it is obliged to appear under some theoretical and intellectual guise and form within the certain confines placed by culture and and the history of ideas (which is itself a necessary product of culture). Pessimism and optimism are born out of the inner workings of the human condition and thus are not up to the task of facilitating and producing a total theoretical view of that condition from the outside nor are they able to formulate a binding and final evaluating (i.e. objective) judgement as regards the human condition. Being side, marginal and relative phenomena within broader human reality, they have to define themselves through their hedging in view of the other relative, subjective phenomena; in fact the way they define themselves comprises (and often only just signifies) a diagnosis for that broader reality but that diagnosis is carried out from a view that lies within broader reality and occupies inside there merely a particular and limited place. No pessimism can be understood or conceived beyond the reference to an expressed or implied better reality that at some point existed or should exist; and we know to reason no optimism unless it will refer to a call and objective to overcome current ills. For, if we accept human reality as it has been and persists in being, without succumbing to any fear or hope in reference to the possible ways human reality could go down to shit, whatever that shit means, then every optimistic and pessimist stance becomes obsolete and redundant. Bu something like that would mean that the world must freeze under the eyes of an infinite, unlimited intellect. Human reality exists and subsists on fears and hopes, on the positive and negative evaluations that are essentially connected in perpetual reference to the same and indeed such evaluations are not simply the results but the motivating forces themselves which cause all the inner shifts and alterations of human reality.
Relative, correlative, manifold
As relative phenomena that rest in hedging themselves and must maintain borders, pessimism and optimism are forced to refer to something that lies beyond their borders despite their insistent claim to monopolize the image of reality each on their own account. Therefore, they admit, despite their wishes, their interdependence within that broader context. That context area is the multidimensional human reality which although they like to pretend to be able to describe as a whole and on the outside they nevertheless never manage it since that would necessitate the annihilation of one of these two otherwise interdependent measures. But what holds true for something as general as human reality as a whole, holds true for every historical epoch and every single historical moment as well. For, in every epoch and moment of history, human condition is attested in its entirety despite of the facets that sit temporarily under the spotlight. Pessimistic and optimistic sides therefore exist within every culture and every time in history and they either fulfill complementary functions within the same intellectual artifact or are compressed within separate constructs that combat each other. The several “optimistic” and “pessimistic” ages one reads about in epigrammatic assertions about the history of ideas are without depth and gravity, they are based on a highly selective and one-sided handling of the material and besides they do in fact implicitly serve to make periodizations with polemic allusions. It’s precisely the co-existence or blending of the most radically different elements in every epoch that allows A. the sometimes unforeseeable and unexpected shifts of position within the fabric of ideas. B the multi-varied use of a single and unique idea or C. the succession of different ideas in the service of the same individual or collective subject.
After reminding of the correlation between pessimistic and optimistic view of the human condition -- correlation which from an anthropological perspective is characterized by the same absolute necessity as the polymorphous co-habitation of pain and pleasure, fear and will to power -- we will now deal with the pessimistic view which we perceive as being expression of melancholy just as we described it above in its twofold structure at the levels of culture and history of ideas. The differentiation between melancholics on the psychological level and melancholics on the level of culture and history of ideas serves to protect us from unproductive psychologisms. The fundamental feature of the “pessimistic” view is the escape from reality and people while at the same time reference is precisely maintained to all of them on behalf of the melancholic subject through that escape or refuge, which functions and at once signals as an act the posture of resignation from every act; because escape is not mute even as the one who departs remains silent. In itself it presents in action and in act a denigrating judgment as to the cause that catalyzed this intellectual or social melancholic distance while it extends an always open invitation for that cause to change its course such that a possible return within society could be considered an option. A melancholic escapist tendency where escape is experienced as faith towards a better world and a superior ideal can all by itself widen so much the rift between reality and vision/ideal to create an explosive situation which one way or another will be discharged in an outflow of action. This doesn’t necessarily imply the passage from melancholy to insurrection -- such as it occurs e.g. with the passage from the phase of depression to manic disorder. The intensity can invest itself in multiple forms and reach several heights. This depends on whether the melancholic person will remain A. a single persona that speaks exclusively on behalf of itself B. a single persona who nevertheless presents itself and takes action in the name of binding normative principles C. on whether it desires to join forces with a collective entity in order to bridge the gap between reality and ideal via the struggle for the victory of the latter.
The multifarious ideal types of melancholy attested in history
To illustrate the three above cases, we chose as examples three "ideal types" derived from the wealth of samples offered by the most prominent melancholic persons of culture and the history of ideas: Dante understands himself as an especially refined and totally irreplaceable individuality and the spleen which characterizes his individuality is the price it has to pay for this refined and irreplaceable nature -- a price it bears of course without regret. For spleen might indeed mean internal trial and flirting with the abyss but it is at the same time a mark of the select few and a noble title, above all it’s a blatant distinctive feature and a means of hedging off limits the multitudes who are naturally unable to experience such select feelings. The melancholic habitus contains a sharp polemical edge and therefore it cannot hide itself; as it is considered an essential product and quintessence of individual refinement it lies totally in the open so as to put the profanum vulgus before the mirror. But for the provocation to carry its merit, it is not allowed to give the impression that melancholy is nothing but weakness of character or escapism from those struggles that demand getting rather hardened as opposed to more refined; therefore it enters the stage aggressively and cloaks itself in seething irony that could be shining for all to see but maintains a secondary role and becomes perceived only in the backdrop of irony. To the extent that melancholy loses in quality in order to become hostile or protestant, irony degenerates too in order to become brash and irritable provocation. This combination gives rise to the modern journalist and critic of culture who could be termed as the vulgar Dante or the Dante of modern mass-consumerist society.
From Dante who shuns society and takes refuge in the royal courts, the anchorite distances himself. This character is sulky about the course the world has taken and discovers wisdom in the tending of his garden or he might withdraw as an ascetic and prophet to the desert whence he continues to talk trash about the sinful turn in his people’s way of life. In this case, the equivalent of melancholy is no longer that certain irony which is cultured and open to many meanings and interpretations but a certain calculated sarcasm which swells and rises to become holy ire because in place of Dante’s arbitrary amoralism now enters an austere, deeply suspecting and distrusting and always high-in-alert moralism. Since the moral request is ultimate, each given touch with reality can only lead to desperation and the passage from melancholy to despondence occurs automatically along the passage from despondence to the honorable defender's aggression. But a defender may only be someone who feels his conscience is clear of all burden. For that reason the prophet (so long as he remains a prophet, i.e. so long as he loves the desert more than he can endure the tumult of political life) cannot really find authentic followers and deep-down he doesn’t want them either: the voice of proper judgement is louder and clearer when it comes from but a single elect mouth.
Here the solitary hermit and the political revolutionary part ways since the latter has to count on collective action. The social intentionality of melancholy is modified accordingly. That is no longer the product of seeing and lamenting general moral decadence which would ultimately end up in an equally general angry and pitiful homilies about human corruption but rather the comparison to what man and society are today and what they could and indeed ought to be, if they had been allowed to develop in accordance with their true nature and their true purpose. Melancholy thus corresponds to a loss or at any rate a deficit that in future shall be reinstated but until then it lends itself as a measure in order to quantify and qualify the destructive presence of affliction and evil in the world. Here the formal juxtaposition between Is and Ought, ideal and reality, makes its appearance as a lever for the revolutionary overthrow of the latter. The conclusion that every man is potentially a bearer of the Ought and the ideal, allows, independently of generalizing moral accusations, a concentration of polemic fire upon the particular ills of society and therefore also the mobilization of certain allies or organs of revolutionary will for the just cause drawn from the multitudes of those that previously the fiery but apolitical hermit rebuked and scorned. In collective action or when action cannot be collective in the sense of mass participation, the fires of activism eventually extinguish the fluids of melancholy altogether. Because in political inaction, the loss or deficit of which we spoke become flagrantly visible, egregious in the highest order. This is the reason why revolutionary action, which normally should only be the means of curtailing and reversing loss and deficit, is seen and experienced in itself as a curtailment and reversal given that it constitutes the opposite of inaction.
The melancholic is no nihilist, first level
However the issue of the internal correlation between the melancholist and polemicist isn’t exhausted in presenting formal descriptions of the greatest melancholics in the history of ideas, culture and politics. It can be followed in equally clear fashion from another perspective as well if we begin to examine the content and investment of the ideas of our particular concern. Here we must for systematic reasons distinguish between three levels, namely between A. perceptions that concern the Is (or Being) and the world in toto, B. perceptions of anthropological character, and C. perceptions regarding historical and cultural processes. On the first level, the unmitigated melancholic or pessimistic worldview theory is reflected in the perception that everything is senseless and without meaning, that life in itself has, as it is said, no value. What this view might imply for the personal life of the human subject is naturally but only one side of the issue; matters are however quite different if someone presents this view in a certain historical constellation as its public supporter. First of all we must ascertain whether and to what extent the aforementioned view can be taken at face value or whether and to what extent championing it can be interpreted as an adversarial, symbolic act intent to separate the stance or posture of its bearer from the vain delusions and senseless occupations of clueless commoners. This is what was happening for example with the several variations of romanticist cosmic yearning which quickly withdrew as the practical prospects were improving. If, on the other hand, the view is taken at face value then the possible inconsequence of its believer wouldn’t consist in the fact that he doesn’t commit suicide (because suicide would be as meaningless as life itself and for the choice between two things without meaning we cannot invent binding rules over how to conduct oneself), but instead consist in the fact that from the observation and acceptance of lack of meaning in Being he endeavors to smuggle in the claim and request of other people not to believe in any sort of meaning either, overlooking thus that precisely the general subjective faith in the meaning of the world, always under differing interpretations of the same meaning, is a fundamental element of the objective lack of meaning in life. But even in making this logical misstep, again he wouldn’t have managed to do a lot. Because against him would soon rise up the individual and collective drive of people’s self-preservation, which inside human culture coalesces with the idea of meaning: what in nature appears as a biological measure, in culture (that is, in the distinctive feature of human nature) assumes by necessity the form and pretext of ideas and ideals. And it is they alone who in the context of culture posture as meaning-providers who are able to still somewhat the current of human self-preservation and in that way use it for their own ends by making it one with themselves, therefore exercise power on humans based on the selling the acceptance of a meaning regardless of form. In other words, accepting meaning gives to the powerful their power, because it provides to cronies or followers as minimal sense of power the belief that they share in the true meaning. In contrast, lack of meaning equals lack of power or, at most, power that beyond the simple spontaneous and momentary animalistic or physical employ of force cannot assume continuity and bindingness, and thus -- inside the context of human civilization -- its usefulness can only remain yet less than negligible.
We can now see why the authentic and unmitigated worldview melancholy, i.e. the loud assertion regarding the lack of meaning in Being, is a quantité négligible inside the fabric of the history of ideas of all civilizations in all ages. Even materialist worldviews that discarded for systematic reasons (i.e. reasons associated with elaborating a worldview) the primary resonance of meaning with some spiritual or divine cosmic edifice, were still forced to integrate i.e. 'smuggle in', in accordance with the concerted and tacit demands of logical necessity (i.e. systematic needs), principles and unseen forces in one or another grade of their intellectual construct so that they might rescue the faith in the meaning of moral and social activity. Because this faith is from a cultural view absolutely necessary, meaning can only be combated in the name of some other meaning that begs to differ and for that reason publicly stepping and propounding the lack of meaning is from a polemic point of view absolutely unproductive; now melancholy, to the point that it's reduced to the idea of the irreversible and final lack of meaning of Being, must remain, as it is, a strictly private issue. Positions that inspire melancholy or seem to spring out of melancholic inclinations can take up polemic functions within the context of ideal artifacts when these actually form but the one side of an ideational construct whose other side is occupied with the production of meaning and works to furnish ontological and other warrants in order to impose that meaning. As it generally happens in the human condition, so too within the domain of that certain view of the world which doesn’t wish to dispense fully with the lack of meaning, pessimistic and optimistic facets must exist in tandem, otherwise the worldview or world-image proves by itself unable to resist the competition with other worldviews and world-images, namely to carry out and fulfill polemic objectives and satisfy analogous claims of and to power. The reason should be obvious: as we begin to justify a polemic we are referring to constituent elements of reality that are unworthy and/or harmful and which as a result trigger grief and melancholy; when again we issue and justify a claim to power, we are claiming with optimism that the social approval or imposition of our position can dispel evil and the problems that cause it and indeed we are in practice identifying the triumph of our ideas with collective and social salvation. Indeed there hasn’t heretofore appeared in history a case of someone who noted that the evils against which he is protesting could also be dispelled with the recipes and courses of action of his opponents and not his own. This is how we should explain the fact that until now in all the great world-images of the history of ideas good and evil or pessimism and optimism co-exist side by side. And it is totally irrelevant whether the corresponding conceptual pairs are called God and Adversary, Self-actualization and alienation, salvation or sinful life, freedom or totalitarian oppression, diverse society or racism and bigotry.
The melancholic is no nihilist, second level
Now we’ll sketch out in greater detail several examples of this scheme of thought from the second level that we referred to above, i.e. the anthropological level. The Christian-theological image of the human being was characterized structurally by dualism and both wings of this divine construct -- the pessimistic black and the optimistic white wings -- were sheltering and advancing the power claims of the Holy Church. Human degradation after original sin was described in highly pessimistic overtones and the practical conclusion was hence quite obvious: if man is in fact so weak and so unstable, then he needs constantly to be kept under guard and discipline through a principle that knows to tell absolutely what is good and what is evil, and what furthermore needs to be done for the salvation of the self. What could however guarantee the final success of the efforts for deliverance and redemption as well as the vindication of orienting and directing human efforts based on that principle? For the assurance of redemption --always under the condition of spiritual guidance-- the warrant provided was identified in the optimistic aspect of the same world image. The teachings of a humankind that was made in the image of God revealed the final ontological cornerstone and fundament of human existence and served to propagate and to chastise human subjects to the effect that anybody could be guaranteed to reach into and become one with that fundament if armed with ascesis and desire of forgiveness one sought to purify himself from the filth until now tainting him. Discipline under the aegis of the Church, the necessity of which rested on the teachings about original sin found in the teachings about man who was created in the image of God the final and most consoling justification.
In that view it was not hard to see which polemic reasons forced Luther to stress with great emphasis the pessimistic aspect of Christian theology: by removing the ontological foundation, (i.e. the necessarily stable structure that guaranteed salvation), he made that salvation to seem entirely dependent on the mysterious ways of the unknowable will of God and therefore he removed and undermined the salvation checks provided by the (traditional) Church. The fact that pessimism about human nature didn’t actually bring the activist drive of protestantism to a halt, should, after our systematic notes about the feedback between black bile and polemic, in no wise seem strange or paradoxical at all. But here we’ll have to suffice to these general notes so that we may focus more on the complementary nature of pessimistic and optimistic aspect inside the anthropology of the Enlightenment (namely one of its main currents). The Enlightenment turned overhead both of those constituent parts of the theological image of man and maintained the dualism by changing the signs. For evident reasons, the Enlightenment could not seriously challenge the social claim to power of theology and Church without wrapping up and warping the teachings pertaining to the inherent sinfulness of Adam’s descendants. Against that teaching the Enlightenment was protesting with the perception that inherent human Reason is able to poise and to uphold the moral rules of conduct underlying society by relying solely on its own strength: the main wave of the Enlightenment was in fact of the opinion that not only Reason but also the sensuous part of human nature too could all alone guarantee moral activity since the natural drives, passions etc. are either essentially good-natured or can be expressed in such a way that enlightened selfishness can defeat egomania and greed. From the polemic reversal of the teaching about God’s image came about a much less optimistic image of man. Man as an image of God -- and by extension God himself -- was abolished or degraded because he was now made to bow before the laws of natural determinism and indeed both in his being a being endowed with the faculty of reason as well as in his being a sensuous being since it was Reason precisely that could just as well be interpreted as the unique spark of God in man. Inside the Enlightenment’s entire world-image, the pessimistic-deterministic anthropology was now standing facing the optimistic anthropology (of Reason) in the exact same manner just as within the theological worldview original sin stood facing the teaching as to God’s image. The thought of the Enlightenment employed several tricks in order to find a way out of this logical dead end. Nevertheless, from the point of view not of logic but more crucially of polemic both parts of the equation were a must. And that was neither the first nor the last time in the history of ideas where during the parallel use of optimistic and pessimistic positions, polemical consequence won over logical consequence.
Coursing the third level, processes of history and culture
Since we intend this to be an essay, the available space won’t allow us to investigate the decisive polemical side of the anthropological pessimistic theories of the 20th century. Here the philosophical and literary decomposition of the Self inside functions that are connected to each other by chance or tangentially or alternatively inside intellectual and emotional currents that flow into one another in the same manner was turned against the synthetic-leaning or harmonious worldview of the urban classes (the bourgeoisie) and paved the path towards that (no more necessarily pessimistic) view about the open and fluid human subject which is very typical for the highly mobile mass society of today. Moving onto the level of history and philosophy of culture the inherent antithesis between the dual schemes of linear and cyclical historical movement which leads to a quasi dead end should become instantly understandable. But our goal is served nonetheless just as well if we are reminded how the ambivalent view of history during the Enlightenment was created. The choice of this example is recommended due to the highly instructive structural analogy between that aspect of the Enlightenment’s thought and its anthropological dilemma which we just described. In order to face up against Christian historical ecumenism that wished to subdue the history of all nations and all ages to the great common denominator of the devices of Providence, the history and philosophy of the Enlightenment was trying to stress the unique individuality of every nation and every era. Something like that could only be achieved if it was shown how historical individuality is formed in and through time under the seen or unseen influence of an etiology of materialist factors, namely geographical, economic and more, which in turn were being derived more or less deterministic-wise from material conditions. The deep pessimism that often characterizes the historical thought of the Enlightenment is born precisely out of the mobilization of an as far as possible stricter determinism to oppose to the hidden, obscure, mysterious and unstable Plan Of Divine Providence. Determinism could perhaps explain the individual case but even when the explanation of separate historical cases was successful this didn’t cover the need for a normative and moral formulation of the entire progress of history. The Enlightenment was forced to call to battle against the ethical requests of its theological opponent similar requests of his own and if possible even more demanding, which in the realm of philosophy put to a stifling halt the perpetual back-and-forth action between moral and normative or pessimistic and optimistic views. Naturally these didn’t cast aside the knowledge that had in the meantime been gained about the causal mechanisms that move history but a happy end or a perpetual betterment thereof was promised and guaranteed by presenting those individual historical cases in such a manner that they themselves unfold following an upward course of successive progress.
We lack the reasonable space to say more about the way in which the formulation of systematically pessimistic philosophies of history during the 20th century was drafted in the service of the polemic against the urban classes’ faith in progress and the Marxist eschatology of history which was the direct descendant of the former. Instead, we’d like to close our perusal of the history of ideas by a brief comment about the notion of “crisis” which lurks like a shadow behind European modernity (the era after the end of the middle ages beginning roughly with the age of discovery and the final destruction of the Greek Empire in 1457). If we measured actual reality based on the frequency in which the term was and is used, then someone would be justified in seeing the previous century for instance as the most depressive era in the annals of human history. However the concrete proofs that would vindicate the conclusion that the shares of of human happiness and misery were allotted differently in the 20th century would be woefully lacking. If after all the stuff touted here and again as “crisis” resonated with reality then modern society would have been destroyed a long time ago. Regardless of the question whether crisis exists and how to define it we must in any case strictly distinguish between the word about crisis and the true processes that manufacture crises. Here our interest lies only in the word of crisis seen in its twofold necessary relationship with melancholy and polemic. The diagnosis of crisis engineers dysphoria or fear because it opens to us the prospect of dangers and uncertainties. At the same time it encompasses or entails a genetic explanation of crisis as a condition, namely by highlighting the factors that caused it and calling for a return to normality, that is to say, calling for the imposition of a normative set of values that are impervious or insulated to crisis. This in particular means this: whoever wants to appear in the role of social therapist must first of all diagnose the sickness and crisis and then derive from the diagnosis the legitimacy of the struggle against those who are responsible. The common connection of such power claims with diagnoses of crisis in the era of modernity was due to the fact that the era presented progress as its inner law and for that reason the era lived in the constant fear that this progress might not be realized. Crisis contains a particular, directly polemic meaning that receives an activist interpretation when the persecuted ills don’t appear as the unavoidable and ineluctable will of blind and arbitrary destiny that is bound to recycle itself but as malfunctions of a broken mechanism that is in principle repairable. If the diagnostics of crisis weren’t at the same time mechanics of crisis they would sooner or later turn into stoic, inactive observers.
A game between actors in a violent drama
The distinction we made before between diagnosis of crisis and reality presupposes the general methodological need to draw as far as it goes clearer lines along the self-understanding of the actors or subjects, their actions and the true mechanisms involved. The melancholic-pessimistic position of a subject that acts in society or history reflects its self-understanding and that action can and does imply that this self-understanding is symbolic, not logical. The level of self-understanding whereupon the endlessly re-combined and re-shuffled games of the countless intellectual and ideational measures play out, often proves itself to be far more conceptually difficult and complex to access compared to the level of real-world praxis which inside particular conditions and foremost under the needs of polemic is pushed across more or less recognizable directions. In other words, action is infinitely more mundane than the self-understanding of the bearer of said action. Bestowing meaning on the level of self-understanding as efforts to escape the mundaneness of action is indeed socially and politically inescapable praxis but as we become familiar with their particular intentionality, this mundaneness becomes self-evident. However the mundane or commonplace and the self-evident are not necessarily linearly correlated. And man, in and though his mundaness remains perhaps even more inexplicable than the labyrinthine pessimistic or optimistic wisdom of the meaning-bestowing activity he engineers.