David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2008

Poulet’s Quotes

From Georges Poulet’s Studies in Human Time. Poulet’s analysis tends towards paraphrase, but he digs up amazing quotes.

The soul is afraid…in seeing that each moment snatches from her the enjoyment of her good, and that what is most dear to her glides away at every moment….

It is a horrible thing to feel all one’s possessions flowing away.


Let not anyone tell me that all the feelings which I attribute to men…are not felt as I describe them; for it is only in the occasion itself that it seems as if one has them or not; and not even then does anyone discover that he has them; it is just that one’s actions make us suppose necessarily that one has them.

Molière, Lettre sur la comédie de l’Imposteur

Woe to the man who, in the first moments of a love affair does not believe that this liaison will be eternal! Woe to him who, in the arms of the mistress he has just won, preserves a deadly prescience, and foresees that he will be able to detach himself from her.

Benjamin Constant, A Mme de Krudner

I have always had such a dread of the present and of the real in my life that I have never represented in art a painful or delightful emotion while I was experiencing it, but have attempted instead to flee to the sky of poetry from that land whose brambles have, at every step, lacerated feet too fragile and perhaps too ready to bleed….

Thus I always carried within me the memory of times that I had not seen, and the discontented experience of old age entered into my child’s mind and filled it with mistrust and a precocious misanthropy.

Alfred de Vigny, Journal

Jeffrey Collins on Mark Lilla

From the July 18, 2008 TLS:

Several German thinkers produced by interwar Germany cast a shadow over The Stillborn God. Lilla’s account of the varied political implications of anthropological, cosmological and Gnostic conceptions of God recalls the work of Eric Voegelin; his interest in the fecundity of Hegel’s eschatological vision that of Karl Lowith. But the most palpable unnamed influence in Lilla’s text is Carl Schmitt, the German theorist of political “decisionism” whose posthumous academic popularity has been little hampered by his Nazism. Lilla borrows Schmitt’s thesis that Hobbes first introduced a hairline split between political and religious authority that was subsequently widened by Spinoza. Schmitt also influentially deployed the term “political theology” to argue that most ideologies of the state were “secularized theological concepts”. The Stillborn God seems to deploy this conceptual apparatus, but with the intention of celebrating the liberal tradition that Schmitt reviled.

As an account of Enlightenment ideas, The Stillborn God is schematically misshapen. Categorizing canonical philosophers as friends or enemies of a “Great Separation” – at least as that notion is defined by Lilla – elides too many complexities. John Locke, for instance, did advocate a stringent “separation” of religious and political life, but he did not share the anthropologically circumscribed (and inherently atheistic) understanding of religion that supposedly undergirded Lilla’s “Great Separation”. By contrast, Hobbes and Spinoza exhibited the irreligion that Lilla requires, but they were not “separationists”. Both advocated religious establishments, theological censorship, political controls on the clergy, and minimalist religious creeds designed to valorize state power. In crafting an autonomous political logic, they sought to co-opt (rather than sequester) the social power of religion.

Lilla has domesticated Hobbes in particular, who was capable of writing: “Is not a Christian king as much a bishop now, as the heathen kings were of old?”.

And Rousseau hardly betrayed Hobbes on this point. Lilla’s narrative, astoundingly, ignores The Social Contract, where Rousseau’s account of “civil religion” pays homage to Hobbes for boldly fusing religious and political power. Likewise, there is a distinct echo of Hobbes’s “Mortall God” in Hegel’s spiritualized state.

In short, Lilla’s effort to disentangle an Anglo-American “separationist” liberalism from a German “theological” variant encounters more than a few hopeless snarls. Indeed, his polarization of these two options sets up a non shooting war of small differences.

I think this is about right, but I take the error to be one of anachronism: casting contemporary atheism back onto the earlier thinkers most amenable to it, while ignoring the issue that the secularized state that it would produce was fairly unthinkable at the time. It doesn’t make Hobbes or Rousseau any less secular, but it makes the fulcrum on which Lilla’s distinction pivots somewhat incoherent. There’s a similarity here to the deflationary readings of Hegel, which assign to Hegel a thoroughly modern atheism which does not seem capable of transcending the present epoch.

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