David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: November 2020

We’re All Bozos on this Bus: Hegel’s Beautiful Soul

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the Lordship and Bondage (aka Master/Slave) passage frequently receives the most attention, but the sequence that has weighed most heavily on my mind in recent years has been the later discussion of the beautiful soul (schöne Seele).

Hegel’s portrait of the purity-obsessed moralist for whom words speak louder than actions and condemnation louder than solidarity, seems to hold particular relevance for our time, in which action and judgment have blurred in virtual space.


Here are some resonant passages, followed by H. S. Harris’s paraphrases of them from Hegel’s Ladder. I’ve always been struck here by the duel between Hegel’s leaden verbiage and his sarcasm:

The self’s immediate knowing that is certain of itself is law and duty. Its intention, through being its own intention, is what is right; -all that is required is that it should know this, and should state its conviction that its knowing and willing are right.

[Conscience is what it says it is. It is not legitimate to doubt its “truthfulness.” That everyone should define himself thus, is the essence of the right. (Harris)]

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §§654

The spirit and substance of their association are the reciprocal assurance of their conscientiousness and good intentions, rejoicing over this mutual purity, and basking in the glory of knowing, declaring, cherishing, and fostering such an excellent state of affairs.

[This lonely service is at the same time a communal one. What the voice says is “objective,” and has universal force. To express it is to set oneself up as a pure, hence a universal, self. Everyone respects it and we all feel good for being conscientious. (Harris)]

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §§656

It lives in dread of besmirching the splendour of its inner being by action and an existence; and, in order to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the actual world, and persists in its self-willed impotence to renounce its self which is reduced to the extreme of ultimate abstraction.

[It is a creative experience that loses everything, a speech that hears only its own fleeting echo. The echo cannot be identified as a return to self, because this self never leaves itself at all; it refuses to let Nature be, or to accept being for itself. It flies from the world and has its own emptiness for object; this beautiful soul is a lost soul. (Harris)]

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §§658

The ‘beautiful soul’, lacking an actual existence, entangled in the contradiction between its pure self and the necessity of that self to externalize itself and change itself into an actual existence, and dwelling in the immediacy of this firmly held antithesis—an immediacy which alone is the middle term reconciling the antithesis, which has been intensified to its pure abstraction, and is pure being or empty nothingness—this ‘beautiful soul’, then, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is disordered to the point of madness, wastes itself in yearning and pines away in consumption.

[This “beautiful soul” is now stuck in its negative certainty. It must be actual, but it cannot. It can only go mad, or pine away in spiritual consumption. (Harris)]

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §§668


As a summary, I’m not sure if one can do better than Jean Hyppolite’s assessment:

Above all, these beautiful souls are concerned with perceiving their inner purity and with being able to state it. Concern for them­selves never completely leaves them, as true action would re­quire.

Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

And here is some commentary on the “beautiful soul” concept (as well as the closely related acting vs. judging consciousness), beginning with Judith Shklar’s incisive portrait of the beautiful soul’s hypocrisy, and ending with Robert Brandom quoting the Firesign Theatre.

The language of ethical men is that of law and convention. Pure moralism is reduced to silence in its purity and inactivity. Kantian moralism is at least not talkative. The language of conscience is that of self-worship, but it need not remain solitary. Conscience that must speak can always find some mutual admiration society whose members accept each other’s professions of good intentions and purity of purpose and this gives much pleasure to all. They share ‘the glorious privilege of knowing and expressing, of fostering and cherishing, a state altogether admirable.’ The ironist here clearly is Hegel, and not for the last time.

Hegel was very much aware of how satisfying these associations of the high-minded can be, but he could not yet guess how effectively they reinforce the self-assurance of their members and how secure a basis they offer for every conceivable bit of moralistic casuistry. He was more impressed by their instability, and to be sure, the tendency of moralizing parties and sects to disintegrate is proverbial.

There are no principles or words of unity among self- admiring consciences, even if they all approve of each other and this way of talking. ‘This general equality breaks up into the inequality of each individual existing for himself,’ because there is no way of overcoming the opposition of these individuals to other individuals or to society in general. Each one demands that he be respected, but for what? Unless there is a common standard, even if it be only common humanity, to judge actions, there is no ground for respect. The sovereignty of personal conviction renders such a yardstick impossible. Its language is therefore just an act of self-assertion. Assurances of inner righteousness, without any references to actions, are not automatically convincing. Not deeds, only inner states are offered up to be recognized. Here duty is merely a matter of words. It is a situation that has only two possibilities, evil or hypocrisy. Evil is honest and declares, ‘I do as I like.’ Hypocrisy behaves the same ways but proclaims loudly, ‘I act out of deep, inner conviction.’ Evil expects to be condemned. Hypocrisy insists on admiration. That is how conscience becomes simple selfishness…

By carefully analyzing the motives of those who act the hypocrite can easily find some selfishness lying at the root of their works. This moralistic reductionism is not only mean-spirited, it is also paralyzing. Its final success would bring a reign of pure verbiage upon us all…

Judith Shklar, Freedom and Independence

What now counts is the language in which one expresses one’s convictions. Each can say, “I assure you, I am convinced that I am doing what is right” (§§653). There is no way of gainsaying that, of determining whether the “assurance” of the “conviction” is true; each one’s “intention” is a right intention, simply because it is his own (§§654). Because there is no disputing convictions, everyone is right, and because there can be no universally valid judgment regarding either conscience or action, the only universality involved is the universal intelligibility of the language one uses in assuring others that he acts according to the conviction of his conscience (§§654)…

“Conscience” has turned into a travesty of “moral consciousness”; “good intention” has been substituted for moral goodness.

Quentin Lauer, A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

The world may be a messy place, but one can always have a beautiful soul. The problem with beautiful souls, of course, is that they, too, substitute an aesthetic solution for a real one, and they end up in various forms of moral fanaticism. At one end of the spectrum, they are people so intent on keeping their hands clean that they never do anything; the demands of the moral life leads them to a life, paradoxically enough, of inaction. Or they can become fierce moralistic judges, ready to condemn, never ready to act themselves; or moralists who are willing to admit they make mistakes but never willing to compromise on the purity of their motives.

However, if ‘‘beautiful souls’’ are not to remain mute and simply ‘‘evaporate,’’ they must act, which means that their internal beauty and the prosaic nature of the world around them (including their own embedded selves) exists in an ineliminable tension with each other. Inevitably one form this takes is that of the judgmental moral fanatic, quick to condemn while being glacially slow to act, so worried about dirtying his hands that he can never bring them into contact with anything in the world but equally quick to point out and denounce what he sees as the stain on others’ hands. The other form it can take is that of the hyper-ironic actor, the man behind the mask, who can never be pinned down to any particular identity or action, the ‘‘free spirit’’ who is never to be identified with any action.

Terry Pinkard, in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: A Critical Guide (ed. Moyar and Quante)

The individual who acts from conscience will look evil to others who abide by the established moral order, because he refuses to act in accordance with the duties laid down by that order; the individual will also be accused of hypocrisy, because he claims to be interested in acting morally while at the same time flouting the moral rules:

In condemning the individual conscience, the dutiful majority show themselves to be more interested in criticizing others than in acting themselves, while their accusation of hypocrisy betrays a mean-minded spirit, blind to the moral integrity of the moral individualist: ‘No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet – is a valet’ (PS: §665, p. 404). The moral individualist thus comes to see that its critic has much in common with itself, and that both are equally fallible: it therefore ‘confesses’ to the other, expecting the other to reciprocate. However, at first the other does not do so, remaining ‘hard hearted’: it thus itself becomes a ‘beautiful soul’, taking up a position of deranged sanctimoniousness (PS: §§668–69, pp. 406–7).

Robert Stern, Routledge Guide to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

What is behind the common interpretation of Hegel’s concept of the beautiful soul – it is necessary to say – is a very shopworn and stereotypical account of Romanticism, which scarcely fits historical reality. Since Hegel himself traded in these stereotypes, it is still possible that he had the Romantics in mind after all. But if that is the case, it is necessary to admit that his critique misfires entirely, directed against little more than a monster of his own making.

We need not make this assumption, however, if we consider other more likely sources for Hegel’s reflections. One of these is Book VI of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, “The Confessions of a Beautiful Soul.” Goethe’s treatment and diagnosis of the beautiful soul anticipates Hegel’s chapter in many respects: in its suspicions about moral purity, in its criticisms of withdrawal from the world, and in its belief in the necessity of self-limitation (cf. PR §13Z). Another plausible source is Rousseau’s account of the life of the beautiful soul in Julie, or the New Heloise. There is a remarkable similarity between Hegel’s account of the beautiful soul and the main characters in Rousseau’s novel, Wolmar, Julie, and Saint-Preux. They are guided entirely by their moral feelings; they believe utterly in their moral purity; they attempt to seclude themselves from society by forming their own moral community where complete honesty and openness prevail. Last but not least, their community fails for reasons very like those Hegel discusses in the Phenomenology: they are all victims of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is indeed the fatal flaw of the beautiful soul. The beautiful soul retreats from the world into the life of his small community because he does not want to compromise and corrupt himself. Rousseau recommended such an experiment in living because natural sentiments, the source of all virtue, are corrupted by general society. But the problem is that, even in this small community, the beautiful soul has to compromise his moral principles. The beautiful soul wants to lead a life that is completely honest, open, and authentic, and he wants to do away with all the dishonesty, repression, and conformity of society. For this reason he chooses to live only among his friends in a secluded community. But Wolmar, Julie, and Saint-Preux constantly find that, even among themselves, they have to conceal their convictions, repress their feelings, and embellish their opinions, if they are not to offend one another or embarrass themselves. They still claim to follow principles of openness, honesty, and authenticity; but they do not comply with them in their everyday life. In other words, they are hypocrites. Thus the beautiful soul fails by its own standards. It demands honesty, openness, and authenticity; yet its hypocrisy is nothing less than self-deception.

Frederick Beiser, in Blackwell Guide to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (ed. Westphal)

The hard-hearted judge is doing what he originally indicted the other for. He is letting particularity affect his application of universals: applying different normative standards to doings just because they happen to be his doings…What is normatively called for—in the sense that it would be the explicit acknowledgment (what things are for the judge) of what is implicitly (in itself) going on—is a reciprocal confession. That would be the judge’s recognition of himself in the one who confessed. (As the Firesign Theatre puts it: “We’re all bozos on this bus.”)

Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust

Trump Diary: Election Eve

There is surprisingly little left to say about Donald Trump. He has proven to be remarkably consistent in who he is, and people’s reactions remained remarkably consistent even in the face of some severe events. I wondered four years ago what it would take to have the bottom fall out of Trump’s support, and I still wonder that now.

Whether it’s Trump’s embrace and abandonment of everyone from Steve Bannon to John Bolton, his endless ability to bring out the worst in both his supporters and his opponents, or his careful management and exploitation by Mitch McConnell (the true Machiavellian here), Trump ceased to surprise many years ago. With impeachment, China, COVID-19, Amy Coney Barrett, right wing protests, left wing protests, and anything else, Trump has always turned to the same playbook and things have played out exactly as one could have predicted.

After an initial period of massive uncertainty during which it was uncertain how far the Trump team’s authoritarian tendencies would go, the would-be revolutionary Bannon faction was slowly purged from Trump’s sphere, and a sense of limits was established. Talk of executive branch coups died down, at least until this year. The Trump presidency settled into a regular cycle of constant pushing at the margins and endemic corruption, but little in the way of active dictatorship. Trump prefers things to come easily to him. When they don’t, he either ignores them, or when he can’t (as with COVID), he turns to self-pity rather than grand schemes.

Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, they’re highly thought of, but nobody likes me? It can only be my personality, that’s all

Donald Trump, July 28, 2020

Trump remains exactly what he was. In mid-2016 I compared him to Robert Musil’s Moosbrugger, calling him a non-politician with primeval charisma but an indifference to rationality and semantics.

Trump has no motive other than to be the dominant and not the dominated. The GOP convention paraded a roster of fearmongers to put people in a desperate and anxious frame of mind, all the better to paint Trump as their savior. Yet Trump offers no concrete plan of action, nor does he secretly possess one: he offers only the spectacle of himself.

Moosbrugger and Trump are, ultimately, only whom the rest of us perceive them to be. Such figures only desire that we perceive them as great. Because they are empty in and of themselves, they are constitutionally incapable of taking responsibility for anything they do, or of having any intuition that words and thoughts should accord with an external reality. Trump’s profound and sweeping ignorance of all things outside himself serves his narcissism; knowledge would only put constraints on his ability to be what people want him to be and what people will love him for: “So there he sat, the wild, captive threat of a dreaded act, like an uninhabited coral island in a boundless sea of scientific papers that surrounded him invisibly on all sides.”

Make America Austria Again: How Robert Musil Predicted the Rise of Donald Trump

Subsequent events only reinforced my impression of Trump:

Because Trump reacts to appearances, and cares only about his own appearance rather than accomplishing anything in itself, an issue truly does not register with him until it is public. And once it is public, he can’t let it go, whether it’s his 3 million popular vote loss or the size of the crowds at his inauguration. The news media, in turn, mindlessly feed this bottomless hunger by magnifying whatever the object of Trump’s angst is so that he sees it even more. It’s a codependent feedback loop.

February 14, 2017

His neediness and insistence on recognition in the absence of accomplishment became an active impairment to actual accomplishment.

Trump is driven by insecurity and narcissism to the point of constant distraction. Even leaving aside the wiretapping craziness, he apparently has a great man chart comparing himself to Obama, and he doesn’t feel he’s stacking up well.

March 14, 2017

With the decline of the Bannon faction, I raised the question of whether Trump would let himself become an establishment stooge or whether he would lash out against those who sought to use him for their own ends, McConnell and Paul Ryan chief among them.

Second, there is Trump himself, hobbled, humbled, and humiliated, but still defective and unpredictable. For now he seems to be guided by Jared Kushner above all in his desperate turn toward Goldman Sachs and McMaster, but when this turn fails to yield him love and success, as it will, it’s difficult to predict what will come next. At the center of the Trump administration remains the void himself, reluctantly allowing himself to be remade in the establishment mold, but still fundamentally incompetent and narcissistic and stuck in the midst of a party at war with itself.

April 22, 2017

Trump chose to become a stooge. The establishment Republicans still do not like Trump and consider him a pain, but they fundamentally made peace with him and brought him more or less under control. Republicans complain far less about Trump now than they did in 2017. That, more than anything else, is how pseudonormalization prevailed, and how a constant stream of Never Trumpism and petty scandals replaced a genuine factional war within the Republican party. Despite an inability to pass meaningful legislation beyond the tax bill, the Republican party as a whole won many battles in the early years, the judiciary chief among them, and winning heals.

And the stoogedom was likely decisive in letting pseudonormality prevail over periodic crisis points. The most significant one in the post-Bannon period was the firing of James Comey, treated as a constitutional crisis at the time, now a distant memory as merely the beginning of a blandly uneventful impeachment–itself a distant memory. At the time, I inclined toward believing that Comey’s firing would still recede into pseudonormalization.

Yet despite Trump’s engorged persecution complex and the sclerotic executive branch, I’m skeptical that we’ll reach the crisis point soon. Things could still calm down and we could return to another pseudonormalization period.

May 19, 2017

When that proved true, future “crises” lost their punch and relevance, even as they happened. By October, the cycle seemed established:

Patterns that were set in place by April or May have played out without too much alteration in the underlying dynamics.

For the news, this means alternating cycles of “Trump has done something newly awful and unthinkable” and “Trump is for the moment behaving and merely being his usual bad self” (palace intrigue, governmental incompetence, etc.). 

For the administration, it means alternating between the creeping whiff of Muller’s detectives and ham-fisted attempts to accomplish anything whatsoever.

For the country, it appears to be a slowly increasing sense of detachment, as the promises of revival or totalitarianism fail to be realized. Even when an escalating event occurs, such as with Charlottesville or North Korea, there is no longer a sense that any tipping point has been reached.

October 16, 2017

And so it has remained. The most severe effects of the Trump administration are likely to be felt years down the line, not immediately, a consequence of the ongoing internal destruction of a government that once functioned rather well.

…and the Opposition

If there is one assessment that does need to be brought up to date, it’s that of the opposition. I have long said that Trump brings out the worst in both his supporters and his opponents, by enabling a damaging sort of Cortisol Politics:

Cortisol politics produces rhetorical excess and insincerity, sloganeering generated by the moment. It causes words to lose their meanings. It turns politics into an intrinsic game of manipulation, since reason is bypassed in favor of emotional appeals, primarily to negative emotions.

Cortisol Politics, July 8, 2018

That has proven true to a depth beyond which I’d conceived. Trump has nurtured a resistance “movement” that has often turned into a performative pantomime where righteous speech trumps meaningful action. There was a remission after the midterms and the change of power in the House of Representatives provided a symbolic and occasionally meaningful mooring for those who bemoaned an all-Republican government, though much of what the Republican wanted could be accomplished in the Senate and Presidency alone. But the election brought it back in full force.

If you believe that at least some of Trump’s excesses could have been tempered by smarter action on the order of the initial fight against the travel ban, then the majority of the last four years have been a cause for disappointment and even despair, as impulsive recrimination has replaced strategic thinking.

Schrödinger’s slogan (c/o David Shor)

A slogan such as “Punch a Nazi!” simultaneously communicates empty machismo and blatant insincerity, neither especially inspiring. Complementing it were “We don’t really mean it but maybe we do” slogans like “Defund the police!” and “ACAB,” and amorphous calls for reparations, which functioned more as triggers for internecine conflict than rallying cries. Reparations holds particular resonance because its most prominent early advocate, Ta-Nehisi Coates, admitted to millennial uplift intent:

When I wrote ‘The Case for Reparations,’ my notion wasn’t that you could actually get reparations passed, even in my lifetime. My notion was that you could get people to stop laughing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, March 20, 2019

The inflated hopes of reparations and “Pack the Court!” are partly just a consequence of cortisol politics, but also an indicator of the tension and exhaustion of constant political awareness. Some good may nonetheless come out of this hot air, but the missed opportunities are galling.

I continue to think that the main target of attack should have been Fox News, which functions as the main buoy for positive opinions on Trump. For those who find this to be too selective, I’d happily sacrifice CNN and MSNBC as well if Fox News went with them. The failure of the “resistance” to focus on the institutional strength of Fox News, instead engaging in a cult of anti-personality around Trump, led to a colossal waste of effort.

But faced with the pseudonormalization of Trump, the “resistance” collapsed into increasing incoherence and infighting. No factions were immune. Bernie Sanders, having run a shockingly effective insurgent campaign in 2016, ran a far less successful one in 2020.

Into this enervated bouillabaisse came Joe Biden, the face of Delaware, the DLC, and everything else the left wished to leave behind. The forced enthusiasm for him is more transparent than it was for Hillary Clinton four years ago. For vice president, Biden chose a figure who had attacked him for not supporting busing, only to effectively renounce busing herself the following day.

“I think of busing as being in the toolbox of what is available and what can be used for the goal of desegregating America’s schools,” she responded.

Asked to clarify whether she supports federally mandated busing, she replied, “I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district.”

In a tweet Wednesday, Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield knocked Harris for her response, writing, “It’s disappointing that Senator Harris chose to distort Vice President Biden’s position on busing — particularly now that she is tying herself in knots trying not to answer the very question she posed to him!”

Harris says busing should be considered, not mandated, AP, July 4, 2019

A small incident, but one that sums up so much of the state of Democratic politics. The only more apt choice for VP would have been Condoleezza Rice.

Combined with the corporate coopting of fashionable resistance (MSNBC, Gillette, Oreo, you name it) and the resulting free advertising that can bypass even the most stringent adblocker, the rule for the left/resistance/opposition has become less “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” than “The master’s tools are great for remodeling the master’s house.”

The problem may ultimately be many people’s inability to accept the lack of control over the intrusion of national politics into their lives, an intrusion made incessant and violating by the ubiquitous presence of online media and cable television. Thirty, even 20 years ago, you could escape from the news for most of the day–you often had no choice but to do so. Now to do so requires active effort and one which most people do not take. The constant reminders of the existence of an unacceptable fact (Trump’s presidency, or for the other side, the supposed threat of forces arrayed against Trump) instill the conviction in many individuals that they can actually affect this fact in a meaningful, macroscopic way, and that therefore they must do so.

People want to feel good about themselves. The avenues society provides for doing so can be productive, non-productive, or destructive. Over the last four years, the actual causal efficacy of feel-good action has sharply declined across the board, even as people’s demand to participate in such action soared. An anonymous insider in Occupy echoed this problem:

One veteran organizer involved in New York’s Occupy movements, who asked not to be named, said, “Occupy is outside the authority of existing institutions. It’s a magnet for people who are needy and even pushy, abusive, and exploitative.”

Arun Gupta, Seattle’s CHOP Went Out With Both a Bang and a Whimper

The result has been a mutant politics combining the most ineffectual aspects of liberalism (empty utopian platitudes and lifestyle activism) and leftism (exclusionary and elitist self-policing and casual sanctioning of violence), resulting in a torrent of self-defeating sanctimony which has exhausted even its advocates—especially its advocates, in fact. Tired of chasing chimeric scandals to no gain, tired of punching Richard Spencer while Mitch McConnell runs the table, a once-promising self-organizing “resistance” ultimately has very little to its credit. The mobilization against the travel ban at the beginning of Trump’s presidency remains its greatest achievement, and one worth remembering.

If the upcoming election is disputed or stolen, perhaps the resistance will recapture some of the focus and efficacy it possessed in early 2017. It is a slim hope.

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