Intellectual history

Marxism and Religion: A Reply to Graham Priest

By guest contributor, Jake Newcomb

Last year, philosopher Graham Priest published an article in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association titled “Marxism and Buddhism: Not Such Strange Bedfellows.” In the article, Priest aimed to highlight the complementary elements of Buddhist philosophy with Marxist political theory, while acknowledging that, as schools of thought, these two ways of looking at the world diverge drastically. The crucial similarity between the two, Priest rightly points out, is the fact that both schools “reject the existence of a self/soul; both see being human as being involved in natural processes and natural laws; and both move toward thinking of people in mostly structural terms,” (Priest 7). They also, according to Priest, both make the argument that people are subjected to illusions about the true nature of reality, and provide a framework by which people can see these illusions. Priest suggests that the structural analysis of capitalism provided by Marxism can help to elucidate the philosophy of the human condition presented by Buddhism, and vice versa. A comparative analysis along these lines appears to be possible, and there has been a long tradition of comparing Marxism to religion. The following essay will be a brief history of the relationship between Marxism and religion. It will attempt to highlight, through Hegelian philosophy, another similarity between Marxism and Buddhism, as well as describe the relationship between Marxism and Christianity.

The keystone which links Marxism to Buddhist philosophy is Hegel. Hegel’s conception of reality, as a series of dialectically intertwined processes, was reinterpreted by Marx and Engels as a framework by which all of reality could be explained without theology. The important element here is that these men believed that all the things and processes that make up reality could not be understood in isolation, but only in relation to other things and processes. Hence, in Hegel’s Logic, the very mention of “Being” implies the existence of “Nothing,” (Hegel, Logic, 82) This fundamental inseparability of objects and processes appears to be the primary way in which Marxist thought, which was inspired by Hegel, is similar to the Buddhist thought that Priest presents. In fact, the philosopher Michael Allen Fox’s book The Accessible Hegel presents the Hegelian dialectical framework as sharing this same fundamental quality with not just Buddhist conceptions of reality, but Taoist ones as well. Both of which, Fox argues, present reality as being a collection of interrelated processes, by which nothing can be understood in isolation. Fox says that “the idea that opposites are interrelated and define one another, as we have seen, conveys an insight that is truly cross-cultural,” because of its appearance in Hegelian, Buddhist, and Taoist thinking (Fox 48).

Despite this apparent connection between his philosophical framework with Buddhism, and Taoism, Hegel argued that Christianity was the highest expression of religious truth in Phenomenology of Spirit (Fox 99-100). According to Fox, Hegel wanted to merge Christianity with the belief the reason governs the development of the universe, although this caused major backlash from non-Christians and Christians alike such as Marx and Kierkegaard (Fox 100). Hegel was not unaware of the existence of philosophical frameworks from Asia. In fact, in Reason in History, Hegel suggested that the “highest thought” of the metaphysics that came from Asia rested in their proposition that “ruin is at the same time emergence of a new life, that out of life arises death, but out of death life,” (Hegel, Reason in History, 88) However, despite this acknowledgement, Hegel argued that the religions of China and India “lack completely the essential consciousness of the concept of freedom,” which, he argued, was what separated these philosophies from those of Europe (Hegel, Reason in History, 86) Today, we consider this to be regarded as an expression of orientalism, à la Edward Said. But it’s important because it denotes the limits of what Hegel and his contemporaries could appreciate from systems such as Buddhism. According to Nicholas A. Germana in a recently published article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Hegel believed the religions of India and Asia morphed into Christianity over time.

It was Hegel’s support of Christianity that Marx first took issue with in Hegel’s schema, which he himself was heavily influenced by. In 1844, Marx published Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In the introduction, Marx wrote the now famous line, “[r]eligion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,” (Tucker 54). Here, as elsewhere in this essay, Marx is clear in what he believed to be religion’s function in human society: a human-constructed refuge from the suffering of life. A few lines down from this oft-repeated quote is a fundamental claim made by Marx which helps contextualize his later work:

“The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form. Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” (Tucker 54)

The self-alienation in its “secular form” that Marx claimed existed, appears as the form of commodity fetishism in Capital Vol. 1, published in 1867. Here, Marx argued that the pricing of commodities depended on the total aggregate relationships between people, and not the utility of the object itself (Marx, Capital, 165). This reality, according to Marx, tricks people into thinking that commodities have an autonomous value, independent of the sum of human relationships. An illusion of the mind which Marx liked to the illusions of reality brought upon by theology. Capital, as a project, was an attempt to demystify the pricing of commodities and the capitalist system of production as a whole, in a similar fashion to the deconstruction of Christianity that he participated in during the 1840s. The mystification of capital, for Marx, created alienation in people in the way that he argued Christian theology did. In Marx’s world, capitalism and Christianity were not so strange bedfellows (Marx, Capital, 174-175).

But, as numerous scholars have pointed out, Marx and further proponents of Marxism carried on the legacies of Christianity in several respects. William Clare Roberts, for instance, argues in Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital that Marx based the structure of Capital on Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno. Even though Marx rejected the Christian moral ontology, espoused by Dante, that “[n]o one is responsible for their sins but themselves,” Roberts argues that he replicated the structure of Inferno in order to liken capitalist society to a social hell (Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, 21). Then there is Bertrand Russell, who in 1946 published History of Western Philosophy which clearly cast Marxism as a secularized substitute for the Judeo-Christian understanding of history. Russell argued that Marxism simply cast the theological understandings of history’s teleological trajectory in new terminology:

“Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism

The Messiah = Marx

The Elect = The Proletariat

The Church = The Communist Party

The Second Coming = The Revolution

Hell = Punishment For The Capitalists

The Millenium = The Communist Commonwealth”

(Russell 338)

787px-Vaclav_Havel_croppedIt stands to reason that Russell’s typecasting of Marxism as a new form of Christianity was influenced by the rise of the Soviet Union. Vaclav Havel, the last President of Czechoslovakia who presided over the collapse of the Soviet system, also likened the practical application of Marxism to a modern form of theocracy. In his masterful 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel argued that the “hypnotic charm” of the Soviet ideology was due, in part, by its insistence that its legitimacy derived from the authenticity of the social movements that gave birth to the system, and the supposed objective righteousness of those movements (Havel, Open Letters, 129). This created a situation whereby ordinary people within the communist world, including Czechoslovakia, consigned “reason and conscious” to the state, who were the sole possessors and arbiters of truth. Which, for Havel, directly reflected a Byzantine-esque theocracy because the “highest secular authority [the state] is identical with the highest spiritual authority,” by having authoritarian control over truth and a claim to a sacred history (Havel, Open Letters, 130). These works indicate in differing ways the extent by which Marxism, in Marx’s Capital and in twentieth-century communist practices, bore resemblances to Christianity.

It is thus clear that there is sufficient cause to acknowledge similarities between Christianity and Marxism. Today, in the twenty-first century, there is a striking trend in Christianity that is adopting political positions that would be considered Marxist not so long ago. This is expressed most potently in Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home in which he argues that wealth inequality, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity are interconnected with the rise of global capitalism. Pope Francis considers this to be an issue that transcended national boundaries, and he advocates on global cooperation in order to adjust our value-systems in order to move toward ecological balance and wealth equality. Graham Priest forces us to recognize that there is a deep philosophical relationship between Marxism and Buddhism as well. These similarities are very different from the aforementioned similarities between Marxism and Christianity, but both sets of similarities invite us to reconsider the history of Marxism itself. Marxism has often been understood as an atheist political ideology, whose practitioners took drastic measures to curtail the influence of Christianity and Buddhism. But the work of Priest, Russel, and Havel beg the question: to what extent was Marxism a religion?

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and a musician. His essays on his personal experience with music can be found at

Think Piece

Nomadic Thought and the Creation of New Utopias

By Anne Schult

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in many ways the most well-known proponents of conceptual nomadism, took the nascent idea of the ahistorical nomadic and its complex relationship to the state one step further. Their ideas on nomads were first tentatively formulated in L’Anti-Oedipe (1972), which introduced the technology-infused universe of machines, codes, and flows that fueled their shared narrative of state critique.  Here, the nomadic appeared linked up with the schizophrenic as a resistance in form to capitalist modernity, suggesting the same connection between nomadism and anti-psychiatry that Duvignaud alluded to around the same time. Yet, in their follow-up volume Mille Plateaux (1980), the nomadic began to take shape as a concept more fully and was presented as a comprehensive anti-statist, anti-structuralist “Traité de Nomadologie” that has subsequently taken on a life of its own.

To start with, Deleuze and Guattari made a clear distinction between nomadism as a concept rooted in historical nomads and their suggested nomadology as a distinct study of the nomadic as characteristic. The latter, they posited, was recognizable as a state of “becoming, heterogeneity, infinitesimal, passage to the limit, continuous variation” (363), which in social organization presented itself as a rhizome structure instead of being centralized around a power core. Previous writers, they wrote, might have recognized the nomad, as told in and by state history, but not the defining features of the nomadic. Collapsing the pre-modern and the post-modern into a timeless vortex, nomadic societies in their account could not become extinct or be superseded by the state because the two forms no longer stood in a sequential relationship to one another. “It is true that the nomads have no history,” Deleuze and Guattari thus asserted, “they only have a geography” (393).

Mille Plateaux (1980)

Paradoxically, what emerged from this purely spatial relationship between state and nomad was a very particular vision of the future that was thus not so much about life after the capitalist state, but life with and beyond it. Notably, it no longer required the figurative nomad, as Deleuze and Guattari insisted specifically that it had no embodiment, such as in the form of postcolonial subjects or migrant, in the present. Rather, nomadology was to be understood as a rigorously practical anti-structuralism that could arise both from without and within the state.  After all, they pointed out, nomadic features were detectable in nearly every aspect of contemporary society: music, architecture, games, technology, mathematics, science. The idea of “nomad thought” in Mille Plateaux thus formed a sub-commentary on the authors’ own endeavor of text-as-practice.

The premise of this “nomad thought” was that in order to truly resist the state, one did not only have to do so in social organization, but actually think against and outside of state forms. The first difficulty, according to Deleuze and Guattari, was to recognize the nomadic beyond its opposition to the state, as the contemporary way of thinking has been conditioned by the state apparatus, creating an interiority of binaries. Seeking examples, Deleuze and Guattari dove into the history of Western thought and declared Hegel and Goethe to be “state thinkers” (356)— following the intrinsic rules on a limited intellectual territory controlled by the state—while applauding their nomadic counterparts Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The latter, they wrote, categorically rejected universality and instead deployed their thought “in a horizonless milieu that is a smooth space, steppe, desert, or sea” (382) as a particular milieu, thus acting as vectors of deterritorialization and posing questions and problems that were always local and particular.

Although it had its echo within and beyond French theory, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “Traité de Nomadologie” marked both the peak and the beginning of decline of a more critical concept of nomadism. Much of contemporary scholarship has put forth the argument that theories around nomads—in particular those proposed by Deleuze and Guattari—mark just another form of neo-primitivism and remain ignorant of actual nomadic populations, such as the Romani, in the French or broader European context.  Indeed, towards the end of the Cold War, the concept became increasingly streamlined, globalized, commodified, and institutionalized. As a result, the nomad encountered in Western popular culture today is typically taken to be a rootless post-industrial subject eluding the bureaucracy of the state apparatus by way of digital technology but existing entirely within the logic of capitalism and consumer culture.  Perhaps the changing political climate proved problematic: In its insistence to be divorced from migrant bodies, nomadism appeared to have little to offer for understanding the growing “immigrant problem” that emerged in the French electoral politics of the 1980s. Similarly, the idea of a “deterritorialized” world was uncomfortably mirrored in the process of globalization, which became a prime concern in both politics and theory during the 1990s. But for a brief moment, in the post-1968 era, nomadology offered a glimpse of one possible landscape of future France.


This piece marks the third and last installment in a three-part series on nomads and the nomadic in 1970s French thought. The first part explored anthropologist Pierre Clastres’s projection of nomads as an alternative, more egalitarian society within prehistory that has been lost due the rise of the capitalist state. The second part focused on the short-lived interdisciplinary journal and collective Cause Commune and its attempts to resituate the nomadic as a subversive tactic for the present. This final post will take a step further by exploring the development of nomadism into a broader, more abstract antistatist concept in 1980s French philosophy.

Anne Schult is a PhD student in the History Department at New York University. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Featured Image: Nomad Chariot, Entirely of Wood, Altai, Fifth to Fourth Centuries B.C. Illustration taken from Mille Plateaux (1980).

Intellectual history

How do we understand each other? The Contemporary Relevance of Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s Historic Disputation at Davos

By contributing editor Andrew Hines

How do human beings understand each other? This question has both a linguistic and a political dimension. Last month, as world leaders gathered at the Swiss town of Davos for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, key faces were absent. Both Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron sent their excuses.It is a dark, but increasingly common irony that a geopolitical event designed to promote collaborative problem solving is disrupted by a dramatic lack of understanding in the domestic politics of major western nations.

This lack of political understanding seems to be about the clash of viewpoints or worldviews. A clash, for example, like the wildly different views on a Mexican border wall that fuelled the US government shutdown and kept Trump from his Davos visit. The question of understanding, in this political sense, seems to be fundamentally different from the question of understanding in a linguistic sense. In linguistics, we often think of understanding in terms of semantics, or how we convey meaning to each other through language (viii). While there is a clear difference between conveying meaning with words and disagreeing with someone, so much political rhetoric of the moment is continually framed as ‘subjective’ and ‘irrational’. This appeal to subjectivity and rationality suggests more basic issues typically associated with semantics. As it is increasingly associated with contemporary political rhetoric, a re-assessment of the link between political and linguistic understanding is needed.

Often associated with sociolinguistics or perhaps critical theory, the idea of a basic connection between language and politics has a particularly poignant moment in the history of ideas. Almost ninety years ago in March 1929, another event designed to promote international collaboration was held in Davos, Switzerland, the second annual meeting of the Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse (International Davos Conference). Attended by influential twentieth century academics such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice de Gandillac, Joachim Ritter and Rudolf Carnap, it is perhaps most famous for its debate between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger on the question “what is the human being?” The debate is at times portrayed as a titanic clash of worldviews or as an epochal shift. As one of Heidegger’s students said of Davos, ‘from here and now a new epoch of world-history begins’ (2).

Ernst Cassirer (left) and Martin Heidegger (right) in March 1929 at the second annual meeting of the Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse (International Davos Conference)

To understand this ‘epochal shift’, the debate is often framed by the conceptual presuppositions with which Cassirer and Heidegger begin their philosophical questioning. Heidegger asserts that his philosophy is concerned with the terminus a quo(from where) of a philosophical question, and that Cassirer’s is concerned with the terminus ad quem (to where) of a philosophical question (202 – 203). This characterisation has stuck. Many commentators, including Peter Gordon in his intellectual history of Davos, have used this framing, and while more nuanced than a simple binary opposition, Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s position have come to be associated with objectivity and subjectivity respectively. While very helpful in understanding much of the debate, there is an often-overlooked section in Cassirer’s closing reply that frames his theme in a different manner. Here, Cassirer marvels that, despite the fact that each of us speak in our own subjective language, we still manage to negotiate a common linguistic understanding through language (205). It is here that an implicit link between linguistic and political understanding emerges.

In keeping broadly within the theme, “what is the human being”, a question arose in the debate relating to human finitude. Cassirer and Heidegger clashed over how the human imagination, which aids cognition in concept generation, was related to finitude. Here the traditional division of objectivity and subjectivity is useful. In keeping with the key thesis of his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923), Cassirer asserted there must be some objective symbolic forms, like language, art, and myth that functioned as ‘synthesising activities of human reason’ (319). Heidegger rejected the idea that something like language, art or myth could be objective and instead, asserted that all the concepts we produce with our human activities are radically conditioned by our finitude (197). In keeping with the thesis of Being and Time (1929), Heidegger asserted that any attempt at objective description misses the real question, which, for Heidegger, is the conditions of our finite existence that allow for such a question in the first place. As the reader may know, for Heidegger, this was the question of Being (31). Cassirer agreed that Being was the fundamental question of metaphysics, but in his final reply to Heidegger, he wondered how it is that, despite, our radically subjective, finite experience, we still manage to communicate. In response to Heidegger Cassirer says,

each of us speaks his own language, and it is unthinkable that the language of one of us is carried over into the language of the other. And yet, we understand ourselves through the medium of language. Hence there is something like thelanguage. And hence there is something like a unity which is higher than the infinitude of the various ways of speaking. Therein lies what is for me the decisive point. And it is for that reason that I start from the Objectivity of the symbolic form, because here the inconceivable has been done (205).

While it is obvious that Cassirer’s response is framed, first by the objective, terminus ad quem (to where) of a philosophical question, there is a second framing in this response that is overlooked.

The question implicit in Cassirer’s reply is “how do we understand each other?” This second framing wonders at the inconceivable fact that we understand each other despite it being unthinkable that we could overcome our subjective experiences of finitude. Looking at the ‘inconceivable’ fact of communication between radically subjective languages, puts linguistic understanding on a political footing.

In the year before he died, while living in exile in the United States, Cassirer continued work on this question in An Essay on Man (1944). In it, Cassirer radically interprets lines 368c -369b of Plato’s Republic. Here, Socrates and his interlocutors are attempting to understand the nature of justice. In the end, they decide that, to understand justice in the individual, it needs to be understood on the level of a just republic. Cassirer reads Plato as suggesting that “philosophy cannot give us a satisfactory theory of man until it has developed a theory of the state” (63). For Cassirer, this also connected linguistic understanding and political understanding. From an anthropological perspective, before human beings had discovered the state as a form of social organisation, language was one of the key attempts to organise feelings, desires, and thoughts on a communal level. Therefore, for Cassirer, the historical evolution of language is closely connected with the development of the state (64). Here in this late essay, whether intentional or not, Cassirer is echoing his implicit question from Davos.

Whether we agree with Cassirer’s characterisation of historical evolution or his appeal to objectivity, his awareness of the social and political aspects that shape linguistic meaning are a reminder that neither a subjective finite experience of language nor an objective unifying symbolic form of ‘The Language’ accounts for the muddle that is understanding each other. Today, this is relevant because we often feel a common understanding is under threat and have a tendency to frame the crisis as a battle between a quasi-objective rational debate and subjective popular rage. However, I fear it is unhelpful to demonise populist rhetoric as purely subjective and irrational. It is certainly worrying but it is still communication however much we may object to it. The liberal academic may not ‘understand’ populist rage in the political sense, but he or she certainly does linguistically. How else would such umbrage be taken to the content of that rhetoric? Therefore, the 1929 Davos disputation poses several timely questions for us.

Philosophically and politically, it suggests a need to revisit an interlinking of a theory of language with a theory of the state. Linguistically, it prompts us to ask, just what does it mean when communication doesn’t seem to work, and understanding is a struggle to achieve. Part of what is so inconceivable about language is the fact that understanding is accomplished even when we don’t follow the rules and seem bound by our own radically subjective languages. Perhaps this is the political and linguistic mystery we must turn to in this time of crisis. What does it mean to understand ourselves, and the state, when the rules we thought we knew, don’t quite tell the whole story. The way that Cassirer frames the question is so brilliant because it allows for multiple answers and continual re-evaluations. Cassirer’s answer may have been objectivity, but at Davos, we see a glimpse of the mysterious fact that understanding persists despite our radically subjective experiences and use of language.

Intellectual history

Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man, or the Impossibility of Thought

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

In his L’Oraison funèbre en l’honneur des citoyens tombés of August 10, 1792, the French writer and priest Cousin de Grainville preached a funeral oration full of revolutionary fervour for those killed during a recent insurrection. In it, he painted an enthusiastic picture of the future in which “from dawn till sunset, the people will reign” as “happiness awaits this moment to descend from heaven to earth” when “men will find a brother and abundance.” Deploying a millenarian tone, Grainville enjoined his audience to be “big as the revolution” for “the victories of our brothers in arms [would] change the world” and “all countries become fertile.” He wanted to help “engrave in indelible traits the memory” of those who had helped herald a new dawn and if possible, render it “hereditary, by showing from what dreadful precipice their memorable victory has saved us, and of which good deeds it [would] be followed.”

Cousin de Grainville, Le dernier homme (1805)

And yet, a little more than ten years later, in February 1805, Grainville threw himself into the Seine, leaving behind him his epic, The Last Man (Le dernier homme), in which he staged the extinction of mankind and the destruction of the earth. This was the first work of its kind, a subgenre of apocalyptic literature he was credited with pioneering, and which would spawn various other novels in the course of the early nineteenth century, including contributions from Byron to Shelley. While it fell into oblivion soon after its publication and has only  ever been sporadically examined since, Grainville’s Last Mandeserves to be revisited for its ability to qualify traditional accounts of the passage to modernity, and as a literary testament to the devastation the author experienced first-hand after the foundering of the revolutionary project and the gaping disillusionment that followed.

Divided into ten cantos, the nameless narrator of The Last Man travels to a cave in the ruins of Palmyra, where a mysterious spirit reveals to him the future of mankind through enchanted mirrors—a future in which abundance has been replaced with sterility when crops fail and thehuman race loses its ability to reproduce and starts dying out. The survival of mankind, which here goes against God’s will, depends solely on the marriage and procreation of a chosen man, Omegarus, with a chosen woman, Sydaria. This they succeed in doing, with the help of the Genius of the Earth, until the last man, Omegarus, upon having a vision of the degenerate and cannibalistic race he would father, chooses to obey God and abandon Sydaria to die, thus precipitating the destruction of the world.

The story itself is a fascinating mess, a confused bundle of different, unfulfilled typologies and often contradictory strands, which never lets itself be pinned down and from which no clear-cut conclusion or unequivocal moral lesson can be taken away, no new vision allowed to emerge.Omegarus inhabits a world no longer ordered by God and seemingly devoid of the promise of messianic redemption or revolutionary palingenesis. The traditional eschatological motif has been eviscerated and divorced from its doctrinal dimension and brought to human scale, offering the reader instead a phenomenology of the apocalypse which constantly alternates viewpoints. Linear and sequential chronology has been broken up in favor of a radically fragmented temporality and extreme historicity which Grainville manipulates to exhaustion through the use of reiterations, pictures, tableaux, and flashbacks.

In fact, the initial premise is paradoxical, for time itself has been upended from the very inception. The narrator witnesses these future events as they unfold, events which the Spirit tasks him with memorializing even before they have occurred, so that people can know of the last man, who “will have no descendants who can know and admire him. My desire is that before he is born, he will be known in memory. I wish to celebrate his struggles and his victories over himself—to tell of the pains he will suffer to shorten those of humanity, to end the reign of time, and to hasten the day of eternal recompense that awaits the just.”

While the modern project served to consecrate man’s conquering of an uncertain and open-ended future, here that future already appears foreclosed and, so to speak, dead before being born. It is, in fact, in its self-abortion and as a future already past, that it is to be memorialized. Upon reaching Paris, Omegarus contemplates a sea of ashes. The city has vanished and been reduced to “an extensive waste, an immense field of dust.”

Paris was no more: the seine no longer flowed amidst its walls; its gardens, its temples, its Louvre have disappeared. Of the great number of buildings that covered its heart, there was not even a little cabin left where one could rest.

Aside from a statue of Napoleon, the sole object that survives and to which Omegarus pays a final homage as his “name cannot live longer in memory,” nothing remains of the past—nothing, not even the sight “of the grave of [Grainville’s] brothers” who “[taught] him his duty” as he once put it in his Oraison Funebre. The break from the past is such, in fact, that he is denied even the possibility of mourning an irrevocably lost past. “Even the ruins have perished,” exclaims Omegarus as he mourns the fact that he cannot even find a ruin to feel melancholic about.

Are those the remains of this superb city of which the slightest movements agitated both worlds? I did not find a ruin, not even a stone over which I could shed my tears.

The Last Man’s narrative goes nowhere, and offers no resolution. Grainville’s account constantly oscillates between hope and bleakness, visions of paradise and gratuitous suffering and cruelty and it is impossible to make sense of it. The apocalyptic event itself—presented as the culmination of the narrative—is muted and the resurrection of men does not occur, nor does the final judgment, in the process rendering Omegarus’ design to conquer history by tragically fulfilling it, futile. Grainville baffles every expectation and hope he raises including the final possibility of regeneration or renewal of possibility.

In fact, the fulfilment of human agency and the course of history seem to lie in their self-abortion, harking back to the initial paradoxical premise on which the novel is built: to save mankind, it will be necessary to sacrifice it. In a sad irony, history here finds its fulfilment in its termination from within, as Omegarus places man’s newly discovered freedom of choice and agency in the service of his own dissolution. It is, ultimately, life for its own sake—in its most extreme incarnation of a cannibalistic, and meaningless, potential future mankind—that Omegarus decides against. All that remains is a general sentiment of uncertainty and emptiness.

The narrative literally goes in circles, ultimately reaching a dead-end in its closing moments, when the celestial spirit turns down the narrator’s request for knowledge about the fate of the world, “consign[ing] him [instead] to the revelation of this history of the last age of the earth,” thus looping back the conclusion to the narrative’s very beginning and restricting the narrator—and reader—to the seemingly endless reiteration of a future already past from and from which it seems impossible to break from. While Adam violated the prohibition to seek knowledge and in the process triggered the human adventure, Omegarus and the narrator -come to understand that it is simply futile and that there is no escape to retroactive self-annihilation.

What Grainville experienced first-hand, and inscribed in the body of the text itself, beyond the failure of the millennial prospects attached to the Revolution and the end of one particular world, was the impossibility of conjuring up a new world altogether, from thought itself.  The permanent state of irresolution that forms the core of the novel gestures towards the defeat of the human mind, whose “choicest productions,” in what Michelet came to refer to “l’age d’ennui,” had been reduced to “nothing” and been “abandoned to destruction”.

In the Last Man, Grainville places imagination in the service of its own defeat. And yet, even as a young man, in his 1772 essay Quelle a ete l’influence de la philosophie sur ce siècle,for which he won a prize from the Academy of Besançon, Grainville had inveighed against the steep decline in his fellow men’s ability to imagine and to project themselves, describing how the “contempt for imagination” had deprived men of the “life, fire and enthusiasm which animated [our] first artists” but had turned men into cold reasoners who “follow[ed] one another with the same care as a herd going over a mountain.” For him, the modern project could not be carried simply by “the habit of yielding to only intrinsic evidence” (l’habitude de ne ceder qu’a l’evidence intrinseque) but required poetry and fantasy to make sense of it and conjure up a new world. Now in the post-revolutionary period, reduced to misery and ostracized from society mainly for having sworn an oath of allegiance to the new revolutionary constitution, Grainville experienced first-hand the fulfilment of his prediction. It was precisely this that struck him as so extraordinarily bleak: that thought itself had been aborted.

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: September, Part 2


While generally accustomed to questions more politically utilitarian than philosophical, my recent studies have led to a new forest of questions which I am having all too much fun exploring.  These questions surround the concept of leadership. In a world with so many challenges to face, what does it mean to be a capable leader? Which qualities are understood to be the most beneficial in a leadership position?  Which behaviors might be observed to indicate the degree to which these qualities are present in an individual?

In this exploration of qualities and behaviors indicating an aptitude for leadership, Shih-ying Yang and Robert J. Sternberg’s co-authored article, “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy(Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 17, no. 2 [1997])  has been a fascinating and highly informative read.  Drawing from a cultural tradition in which intelligence is immensely valued as a sign of leadership potential, Yang and Sternberg detail the concept of intelligence as described by ancient Confucian scholars, and as a separate group, ancient scholars of the Daoist tradition.  After a lengthy analysis of philosophical texts, the co-authors reflect on the influences of these two distinct understandings of intelligence on the modern Chinese education system and leadership culture.

With textual roots and analysis strong enough to attract Sinologists and a writing style which renders the material accessible to those more generally interested in the intellectual history of intellect itself, “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy” is a work offering insights on questions of political, philosophical, and historical natures.  


Frantz Fanon, Alienation and Freedom (Bloomsbury, 2018).

Previously unpublished writings by Frantz Fanon have been gathered in English in a new volume edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J.C. Young (translated by Steven Corcoran). Alienation and Freedom contains much literary and psychiatric work, which, when read alongside Fanon’s canonical texts on colonialism, revolution, and Blackness, should offer a new portrait of the man as well as of the oeuvre which has been so critical for thinking through what it means to be oppressed and what it might mean to be free. I’m looking forward to working through this volume in tandem with a seminar on Capital, as part of a methodological deep-dive on writing about twentieth century anti-imperialism as I move into the prospectus phase of my degree.

Reading Theory, by the Canadian writer Dionne Brand, will be a continuation of this year’s happy regimen of first-person narratives by women, and should arrive in time for me to finish Ottessa Mossfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. In Theory, an unnamed narrator labors on a dissertation that is supposed to be monumental, while being interrupted by the transformative messiness of encounters with other people:

In retrospect, I loved Selah for reasons anyone can understand. First, she loved herself more than she loved me. And this led me to think that I would get some respite from the world, and at the same time receive the little affections I required to complete my life’s work: my dissertation.

I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say much more than that, but I suspect that September is a good time to turn to books about writing, scholarship, and academic work that allow us not to take this whole enterprise too seriously, all the while underscoring the immense seriousness of even that attempt. Last year at this time I was spending a lot of time with Selin, the undergraduate narrator of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and I think Brand’s narrator will also be good company.


At a workshop and in recent articles, I’ve encountered philosophers and intellectual historians grappling with the work of Bernard Williams to understand what we’re doing when we write the “genealogy” of ideas, and why such history matters to the way we think about those ideas. I’ve been interested in the philosophical underpinnings of such stories of the origins and development of ideas for some time, so after reading the philosopher Amia Srinivasan talk about Williams’ thoughts on the topic, I decided to read for myself.

Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams (1929–2003) was a British philosopher who garnered a reputation for refreshingly elegant prose and an attention to the history of ethical ideas that is uncommon to the tradition of analytic philosophy from which he came. In his essay “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline,” Williams challenges philosophers (and by extension intellectual historians) who build normative claims through concepts to recognize that “in many cases the content of our concepts is a contingent historical phenomenon.” Even though our concepts gain their meaning through history, they often don’t feel like it. Our commitment to the natural equality of people, for instance, seems itself natural and beyond the scope of debate, even though we know that there was a time when no one subscribed to it. Even since people began to subscribe to it they’ve meant very different things by “equality” and “persons.” This orients research toward the explanatory question of why some ideas seem natural, and what conditions perpetuate them.

Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (Penguin Random House, 2014).

Williams points the way toward the natural assumptions that stay with us as phenomena in need of explaining, and we can take him further to question the sources of the perennial problems that arise when those assumptions diverge. This is the kind of framework in which Dana Goldstein, a reporter at the New York Times, approaches her subject in The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (2014). In this compelling and accessible history of the teaching profession in the United States, Goldstein illustrates the continuities in debates, separated by centuries, about the professionalism of educators, democratic control of schools and equality of students’ education. She links arguments among nineteenth-century education reformers and early feminists about the professionalization of a teaching field associated with women’s work with contemporary debates about Teach for America and the meaning of a “professional” teaching force. Goldstein doesn’t just remind us that debates that seem new actually aren’t, but also leads the reader to think about whether these disagreements emerge from a recent history of feminization, unionization or integration, or from some deeper national commitment to democratic relations in all institutions. 

Think Piece

“Every Man is a Quotation from all his Ancestors:” Ralph Waldo Emerson as a Philosopher of Virtue Ethics

By guest contributor Christopher Porzenheim

Even the smallest display of virtuous conduct immediately inspires us. Simultaneously we: admire the deed, desire to imitate it, and seek to emulate the character of the doer. […] Excellence is a practical stimulus. As soon as it is seen it inspires impulses to reform our character. -Plutarch. [Life of Pericles. 2.2. Trans. Christopher Porzenheim.]

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson has been characterized as a transcendentalist, a protopragmatist, a process philosopher, a philosopher of power, and a even moral perfectionist.” While Emerson was all of these, I argue he is best understood as a philosopher of social reform and virtue ethics, who combined Ancient Greco-Roman, Indian, and Classical Chinese traditions of social reform and virtue ethics into a form he saw as appropriate for nineteenth-century America.

Reform, of self and society, was the central concern of Emerson’s philosophy. Emerson saw that we as humans are by nature reformers, who should strive to mimic the natural and spontaneous processes of nature in our reform efforts. As he put in one of his earliest published essays, Man the Reformer (1841):

What is a man born for but to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all[?]

Reforming oneself, with models of moral and religious heroes from the past, and through one’s own example, others, and eventually society itself, was the idea at the center of Emerson’s philosophy. He would often echo the virtue ethicist Confucius’s (551–479 BCE) advice that “When you see someone who is worthy, concentrate on becoming their equal; when you see someone who is unworthy, use this as an opportunity to look within yourself [for similar vices].” [A.4.17.]

For example, in the essay History (1844), Emerson wrote that “there is properly no history; only biography” and argued that this “biography” exists to reveal the virtues and vices of exceptional individuals character:

So all that is said of the wise man by Stoic, or oriental or modern essayist, describes to each reader his own idea, describes his unattained but attainable self. All literature writes the character of the wise man. […]  A true aspirant, therefore, never needs look for allusions personal and laudatory in discourse. He hears the commendation, not of himself, but more sweet, of that character he seeks, in every word that is said concerning character[.]

For Emerson, the task, of all literature and history, was offering people enjoyable and memorable examples of virtue and vice for them to pattern their own character, relationships, and life by. “The student is to read history, actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary.” History is a biography of our own potential character.

The logical result of these beliefs, was Emerson’s later work, Representative Men (1850) a collection of essays which provided biographies of “wise men,” “geniuses” and “reformers” each illustrating certain virtues and vices for his readers to learn from.

Plato for example, represented to Emerson the virtues and vices of a character shaped by philosophy, Swedenborg a mystic, Montaigne a skeptic, Shakespeare a poet, Napoleon a man of the world, and finally Goethe, a writer.

Representative Men was in part a direct response to the work of Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship & The Heroic in History (1841). But both men’s works shared a common ancestor well known to their contemporaries, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

A bust of Plutarch in his hometown of Chaeronea, Greece

Plutarch (46-120 CE), a Greco-Roman biographer, essayist and virtue ethicist, who was deeply influenced by Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, wrote a collection of biographies (now usually called The Lives) and a collection of essays (The Morals) which would both serve as a models for Emerson’s work.

Plutarch’s Lives come down to us as a collection of 50 surviving biographies. Typically in each, the fate and character of one exceptional Greek individual, is compared with those of one exceptional Roman individual. In doing so, as Hugh Liebert argues, Plutarch was showing Greek and Roman citizens how they could play a role in shaping first themselves, and, through their own example, the Roman world. In an era that perceived itself as modern, chaotic, and adrift from the past; Plutarch showed his readers how they could become like the heroes of the past by imitating their virtuous patterns of conduct.

Plutarch’s Lives provoke moral questioning about character without moralizing. They give us a shared set of stories, some might say myths, by which we can measure ourselves and each other other. They show in memorable stories and anecdotes what is (and is not) worth admiring; virtues and vices.

We might, for example, admire Alexander the Great’s superhuman courage. But, what of the time he “resolved” a conflict between his best friends by swearing to kill the one that started their next disagreement? Or, even worse, what of when he executed Parmenion, one of his oldest friends? The Lives are not hagiographies.

Instead, they are mirrors for moral self-cultivation. For Plutarch, the “mirror” of history delights and instructs. It reflects the good and bad parts of ourselves in the heroes and villains of the past. The Lives are designed as tools to help reform our character. They help us see who we are and could become because they portray the faces of virtue and vice, as Plutarch put it at the start of his biography of Alexander the Great:

I do not aim to write narratives of events, but biographies. For rarely do a person’s most famous exploits reveal clear examples of their virtue and vice. Character is less visible in: the fights with countless corpses, the greatest military tactics, and the consequential sieges of cities. More often a person’s character shows itself in the small things: the way they casually speak to others, play games, and amuse themselves.

I leave to other historians the grand exploits and struggles of each of my subjects – just as a painter of portraits leaves out the details on every part of his subject’s body. Their work focuses upon the face. In particular, the expression of the eyes. Since this is where character is most visible. In the same way my biographies, like portraits, aim to illuminate the signs of the soul. (Life of Alexander. 1.2-1.3. Trans. Christopher Porzenheim)

Eighteenth-century European depiction of Confucius

Emerson was in firm agreement with Plutarch about the relationship between our everyday conduct, virtue and character. In Self Reliance (1841), he wrote that “Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.” This idea is axiomatic for Emerson. Hence why, in his essay Spiritual Laws (1841), he quotes Confucius’ claim: “Look at the means a man employs, observe the basis from which he acts, and discover where it is that he feels at ease. Where can he [his character] hide? Where can he [his character] hide?” [A.2.10] For Plutarch and Emerson, our character is revealed in the embodied way we act every moment; in the way we relate to others – in our spontaneous manners, etiquette, or lack thereof.

As Emersons approval of Confucius suggests, Plutarch’s Lives, and Greco-Roman philosophy in general was merely one great influence on Emerson ideals of self and societal reform.  It is to these other influences, from Confucian philosophy in particular, that we will turn in a subsequent post, in order to clarify Emerson’s philosophy of virtue ethics and social reform.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer. He is currently interested in the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular the figures of Socrates and Confucius as models for personal emulation. He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Gilgamesh & Aristotle: Friendship in the Epic and Philosophical Traditions.” When in doubt he usually opens up a copy of the Analects or the Meditations for guidance. See more of his work here.