David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Category: Quotations (page 1 of 17)

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

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

J. Robert Oppenheimer famously spoke this quote of Krishna’s in the Bhagavad Gita in reference to the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. As a result, it is probably the most famous quote from the Bhagavad Gita in the Western world.

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

Colin Marshall recently wrote a brief retrospective on Oppenheimer, the bomb, and the quote, which is Oppenheimer’s own translation from the Sanskrit. As with any religious text, the meaning of this passage is highly disputed, and so without commentary, here are two dozen or so translations (at least 273 English translations exist) of this famous passage at Bhagavad Gita 11.32.

I have intentionally interspersed sacred and secular translators, popular and academic translators, American, British, and Indian translators, and translators with wildly differing interpretations. The only ordering applied is chronology.

The most notable dispute is whether Krishna is Death or Time (or, occasionally, the Destroyer, and in one case, Doom), depending on how काल (kala) is translated. By overwhelming majority, Time has won out.

Two good overviews of translations are available at sreenivasaro’s and Erenow.

I am Time, the destroyer of mankind, matured, come hither to seize at once all these who stand before us. Except thyself not one of all these warriors, destined against us in these numerous ranks, shall live.

I am death, the destroyer of the worlds, fully developed, and I am now active about the overthrow of the worlds. Even without you, the warriors standing in the adverse hosts, shall all cease to be.

Thou seest Me as Time who kills,
Time who brings all to doom,
The Slayer Time, Ancient of Days, come hither to consume;
Excepting thee, of all these hosts of hostile chiefs arrayed,
There stands not one shall leave alive the battlefield!

Doom am I, that causes worlds to perish, matured and here come forth to destroy the worlds; even apart from thee not one of the warriors drawn up in ranks opposing shall survive.

I have shown myself to thee as the Destroyer who lays waste the world and whose purpose is destruction. In spite of thy efforts, all these warriors gathered for battle shall not escape death.

I am the Time-Spirit, destroyer of the world, arisen huge-statured for the destruction of the nations. Even without thee all these warriors shall be not, who are ranked in the opposing armies.

I am the mighty world-destroying Time, now engaged in destroying the worlds. Even without thee, none of the warriors arrayed in the hostile armies shall live.

I am come as Time, the waster of the peoples,
Ready for that hour that ripens to their ruin.
All these hosts must die; strike, stay your hand—no matter.

I am Time (Death), cause of destruction of the worlds, matured
And set out to gather in the worlds here.
Even without thee (thy action), all shall cease to exist,
The warriors that are drawn up in the opposing ranks.

Time am I, world-destroying, grown mature, engaged here in subduing the world. Even without thee (thy action), all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to be.

R. C. ZAEHNER (1966)
Time am I, wreaker of the world’s destruction,
Matured,—[grimly] resolved here to swallow up the worlds.
Do what you will, all these warriors shall cease to be,
Drawn up [there] in their opposing ranks.

Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. With the exception of you [the Pāṇḍavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.

KEES W. BOLLE (1979)
I am Time who destroys man’s world.
I am the time that is now ripe
To gather in the people here;
That is what I am doing.
Even without you,
All these warriors
Drawn up for battle
In opposing ranks
Will cease to exist.

J. A. B. VAN BUITENEN (1981)
I am Time grown old to destroy the world,
Embarked on the course of world annihilation:
Except for yourself none of these will survive
Of these warriors arrayed in opposite armies.


I am Time, the mighty cause of world destruction,
Who has come forth to annihilate the worlds.
Even without any action of yours, all these warriors
Who are arrayed in the opposing ranks, shall cease to exist

I am time grown old,
creating world destruction,
set in motion
to annihilate the worlds;
even without you,
all these warriors
arrayed in hostile ranks
will cease to exist.

W. J. JOHNSON (1994)
I am time run on, destroyer of the universe, risen here to annihilate worlds. Regardless of you, all these warriors, stationed in opposing ranks, shall cease to exist.

I am time, the destroyer of all; I have come to consume the world. Even without your participation, all the warriors gathered here will die.

I am death, shatterer of worlds,
annihilating all things.
With or without you, these warriors
in their facing armies will die.

I am the terrible destroyer of people. I am now about to destroy these people. Even without you, all the warriors in the opposing army formations will not exist.

I am time that has aged,
who makes the world perish.
I have come forth
to destroy the worlds.
Even without you,
these warriors
facing off against each other
will no longer exist.

I am Time, the world destroyer, ripened, and here I am busy crushing the worlds. Even without you, all the warriors drawn up in the opposing ranks will cease to exist.

I am time, mighty wreaker of the world’s destruction, engaged here in annihilating the worlds. Except for you, all these warriors arrayed in the opposing armies shall not be [alive after this battle].

I am almighty time, the world-destroying,
and to destroy these worlds I have arisen!
Those warriors arrayed in lines opposing
your men, even without you, will have perished!

I am Time. I make worlds die.
I have come here to annihilate worlds.
All these warriors, stationed in opposing ranks:
Even without you, they will cease to be.

I am all-powerful time that brings destruction to the world. My activity here is to put an end to these worlds. Even without you, none of these warriors assembled here in battle array will survive.

कालोऽस्मि लोकक्षयकृत्प्रवृद्धो
लोकान्समाहर्तुमिह प्रवृत्तः।
ऋतेऽपि त्वां न भविष्यन्ति सर्वे
येऽवस्थिताः प्रत्यनीकेषु योधाः
kālo ’smi lokakṣayakṛt pravṛddho
lokān samāhartum iha pravṛttaḥ
ṛte ’pi tvā na bhaviṣyanti sarve
ye ’vasthitāḥ pratyanīkeṣu yodhāḥ

The 100 Most Important Words (to I. A. Richards)

Amount, Argument, Art, Be, Beautiful, Belief, Cause, Certain, Chance, Change, Clear, Common, Comparison, Condition, Connection, Copy, Decision, Degree, Desire, Development, Different, Do, Education, End, Event, Example, Existence, Experience, Fact, Fear, Feeling, Fiction, Force, Form, Free, General, Get, Give, Good, Government, Happy, Have, History, Idea, Important, Interest, Knowledge, Law, Let, Level, Living, Love, Make, Material, Measure, Mind, Motion, Name, Nation, Natural, Necessary, Normal, Number, Observation, Opposite, Order, Organization, Part, Place, Pleasure, Possible, Power, Probable, Property, Purpose, Quality, Question, Rea­son, Relation, Representative, Respect, Responsible, Right, Same, Say, Science, See, Seem, Sense, Sign, Simple, Society, Sort, Special, Substance, Thing, Thought, True, Use, Way, Wise, Word, Work.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page (1942)

Richards began with the 850 words included in C. K. Ogden’s “Basic English” lexicon, intended to teach foreigners the maximum amount of English with the minimum amount of vocabulary. He selected those which he deemed most abstract and multifaceted, those which possessed “extreme versatility and ambiguity.” In fact, a word’s risk of being misunderstood is a significant criterion for inclusion.

This systematic ambiguity of all our most impor­tant words is a first cardinal point to note. But “am­biguity” is a sinister-looking word and it is better to say “resourcefulness.” They are the most important words for two reasons:

1. They cover the ideas we can least avoid using, those which are concerned in all that we do as thinking beings.

2. They are words we are forced to use in explain­ing other words because it is in terms of the ideas they cover that the meanings of other words must be given.

I have, in fact, left 103 words in this list—to incite the reader to the task of cutting out those he sees no point in and adding any he pleases, and to discourage the notion that there is anything sacrosanct about a hundred, or any other number.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page

Richards calls out a handful of words—Soul, God, Time, Space—as being equally ambiguous and important, but not functioning as tools of thought. (In the case of Time and Space, I’m not certain I agree.)

Learning to read—like learning to see how the catch on a door works—is becoming able to grasp some of the ways in which the parts of a complex sys­tem are dependent upon one another. The experience from which skill in reading derives is, of course, a vastly more complex and potent growth of universals than anything the cat can develop. Nonetheless, as with the cat, though much more so, the secret of suc­cess lies in the stabilization of universals in the soul. But the universals which good reading calls for con­cern the wide general ways in which minor universals of less scope may and may not fit together. What counts most is not familiarity with the senses of words taken separately but knowledge of their interdepend­encies.

If we can see how we read or misread “cause,” “form,” “be,” “know,” “see,” “say,” “make” . . . how we omit or fail to omit in taking their meaning, we develop our experi­ence as readers better than in any other fashion. It is with these words that the major universals which should order our reading can best be held up for less ‘exclusive attention.’ These words, as we all know, vary their sense with their company. Their variations are patterns for all other words which follow the same forms. As these patterns grow in our minds they be­ come operative in thousands of places in connection with thousands of other words and without our ever being aware what unnamed forms have become our guides in interpretation.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page

This is not such a bad summary of why I have maintained that artificial intelligence has such a long way to go before it can comprehend and engage in human language. Human language has been constructed in the most ad hoc, holistic way imaginable.

Computers don’t manage so terribly with concrete and technical words, but what will AI do when it can understand those words and yet fall down on Richards’s list? What would language be like without those words?

Is that where human language is going under the influence of computers and AI?

A friend has suggested “Taste,” “Health,” and “Care” as worthy additions/substitutions to the list. I think “Value” and “Real” deserve a place. Do readers have other suggestions?

Robert Musil in Martha Musil’s Coat

Martha Musil was not only Robert Musil’s wife, but his avowed soulmate and close collaborator, as well as the model for the central figure of Agathe in The Man Without Qualities. With two translations of Robert Musil’s mystical-erotic novella dyad out this year (Unions by Genese Grill and Intimate Ties by Peter Wortsman), along with Joel Agee’s forthcoming translation of a selection of the Agathe material from The Man Without Qualities, Martha herself is gaining, indirectly, some of the attention she deserves.

Below are two passages from Robert Musil’s notebooks, translated by Philip Payne in the Mark Mirsky-edited Diaries. These passages were only located in 1980, as they had been “sewn into the lining of a coat belonging to Martha Musil.”

Continue reading

from Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy

In the place of an art of disengagement, which rejoiced in its separation from ordinary life, we are now to have an art which completely involves us in real life – what in France is called art engagé. If I am sceptical about this doctrine, it is because it seems to me to make essentially the same mistake as the theory which it opposes. Both try to escape, in opposite directions, from the plain and fundamental fact that art is an exercise of the imagination, engaging and detaching us at the same time: it makes us participate in what it presents, and yet presents it as an aesthetic fiction. From that twofold root – participation and fiction – art draws its power to enlarge our vision by carrying us beyond the actual, and to deepen our experience by compassion; but it brings with it a pertinent oscillation between actual and vicarious experience. Art lives in this realm of ambiguity and suspense, and it is art only as long as the ambiguity is sustained. However, suspense is an awkward condition to live in, and we are persistently tempted to exchange it for some narrow but positive certainties; and yet we know very well that, as soon as the artistic imagination begins to work on us, we leave the safe shore for the open sea.

Edgar Wind, art and anarchy (1967)

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