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Is a Return to the Origins of Humanism still possible for European Civilization?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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What will future historians and cultural anthropologists have to say about Western Civilization as it turned a new millennium? If history has already ended, as Fukuyama asserts, they will of course have precious little to say. However, given the fact that, for better or for worse, we are not gods and are still living within time and space, “the end of history” remains a dubious proposition at best, and I dare say that it will remain such even a thousand years from now. Future historians will indeed attempt to define our era, as difficult as it may turn out to be.

The Neapolitan philosopher of history Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) would have had no hesitation in situating it within the third of his recurring cycles of history and civilizations (the cycles of gods, heroes, and men): that is to say, an era of extreme rationalism in tandem with relativism vis a vis the concept of Truth, what he dubs “the barbarism of the intellect.” But more specifically, we may ask: which will be the outstanding symptomatic phenomena that future historians will identify as characteristic of our age? I would venture two: 1) the speed of communication coupled with its banality, 2) thinking in the closet and herd thinking. Let us explore them briefly.

The first one is the more visible and pervasive. It is the kind of phenomenon that would have a great novelist begin his recounting of our times with “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We now possess a near miraculous ability to communicate instantaneously across oceans and continents; to forward entire texts in seconds and have them published within days. This ability challenges even Hermes, the god of messages, who perhaps was not as fast as our e-mail messages are, hence the popularity of hermeneutics in modern literature and philosophy.

But there is a snake in this utopia come of age and it is this: there seems to be an inverse proportion within this phenomenon, the faster the means of communication, the more trivial and banal the communication seems to get, and the less authentic the dialogue. That applies to at least 90% of what passes for dialogue nowadays. To wit, the tweeting of a Donald Trump whose ambition is to become the “brilliant” new tweeting president of the US.

It has become increasingly difficult to discern the authentic from the bogus. The presidential campaign is a mere symptom of a more pervasive deplorable cancerous mind-set. Whether the exoterism of what is even published on-line today will compensate the former esoterism of wonderful insightful articles languishing unread in academic libraries, remains to be seen. But of course this is a symptom of a deeper malaise (that a Kierkegaard might even call “the sickness unto death”) which has to do with the inability of people to really dialogue and commune with each other (different from merely communicating at an increasingly faster pace) with each other, and which may point to the real underlying problem: the loss of meaning in life; what philosophers define as nihilism, what a Victor Frankel wrote about in his Man’s Quest for Meaning.

The second above mentioned phenomenon is less visible and therefore, like radiation, much more dangerous and lethal. It is in the very cultural air we breathe and goes by the name of extreme rationalism. It is an attempt to reduce the whole of experience to purely abstract utilitalian rational categories to the exclusion of imagination, the mystical, the transcendent, the emotive and the intuitive within reality; in short, to the near exclusion of the poetical. The poetical is reduced to frosting on the cake, to mere poetry to delight oneself or others at a wedding party. In ancient times this critique begins with Plato banishing the poets from his Republic. In modern times it begins philosophically with Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum,” continues with Hegel’s dialectical historicism declaring that the synthesis of the thesis and the anti-thesis at the end of a process is always necessarily the best of all possible outcomes, and is underpinned by scientific positivism, the industrial revolution and the advent of Machiavellian real politik in the relations between nations wherein the end invariably justifies the means. Modern geopolitical science is an offshoot of this extreme Machiavellian realism.

It is in short a mindset that believes itself “enlightened”, and therefore doubts everything except one thing: that it itself may still need enlightenment. It begins with the so called “age of reason,” which believes that it can easily dispense with what is childish: the fables and myths spun by poets and visionaries, the whole of the humanistic world based on the poetic. It believes that adults endowed with reason must preoccupy themselves primarily with issues relating to the economic and the political and leave the rest to the Don Quixotes of this world, i.e., the losers, as distinguished from the winners with billions in the bank.

It is a mind-set unable to conceive that, as Vico believed, the poetical may well be complementary to the rational; that they may not be mutually exclusive; that both are indeed desirable and possible within a holistic view of Man. And so we get to the point that each individual that perceives him/herself thinking is convinced that he/she possesses the truth or can arrive at it individually beginning with the tabula rasa that is Descartes’ “cogito.” The slogan “everyone is entitled to his/her opinion” really means “to each his/her truth as he/she sees it.” Paradoxically, rather than the Cartesian “clear and distinct” ideas we have ended with the tower of Babel and herd thinking, the dystopian land of deplorable bigots devoid of consciousness and conscience roaming around as living dead; that is to say the land of the zombies headed by a tweeting leader admitting individual versions of the truth where at best the collective sum of all opinions is conceived as the truth, the collective, that is, headed by the head-zombie. One cannot but wonder on how we arrived at this sad state of affairs in the “enlightened” age of full-fledged rationality and scientific-technological inevitable progress.

At first glance, Vichian paradoxical thinking (the both/and) seems to defy the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction (the either/or). The various rationalists and mysologists of our era often parade as classical thinkers on Olympus, above the fray of the existential vicissitudes and the common sense cleverness of the “unwashed masses.” They tend to present us with an isolated reason that gives no ground to the poetical and the pure intuitive promptitude of the mind as a mode of reasoning (as even a Plato did with his myths…despite his protestations against poetry). They seem to have no inkling whatsoever that such an operation is dangerous, sterile at best, because it can conveniently prove anything with its complete pseudo-impartiality, it can in fact choose any hypothesis to work from and then say “nothing personal,” I am presenting you with the reality of the situation and according to it certain necessities follow. One of those necessities may be that eleven million people may have to put into gas chambers or perhaps deported, or perhaps shut out with barbed wires or a tall wall.

That is why madmen’s arguments are so unassailable on the level of logic; it is their pride and joy. Hitler for one was proud of his talent for presenting logical iron-clad, unassailable arguments. It would appear that the more vigorously logic prosecutes its own internal pursuit, the greater is the danger of its turning away from direct experience and fact and losing sight of reality. Its arguments may be perfect, but it is a narrow and circular perfection; that of the snake eating its own tail. The rationalists who defend an absolute idealism are using the madman’s detailed reasoning; no contradictions or exceptions intrude into this perfect circle, because direct experience of different levels of reality is not taken as its own test. Logical consistency is more important to rationalists than the immediate reality of facts. They may even deny that if they bang their head hard enough against a wall it will bleed. At that point of failure of rationality, to disprove their point, all one can do is in fact bang their head against the wall.

The above begs the question: why cannot reason meet its own test? Vico teaches us that it is not because the intellect is a useless tool, far from it. In fact he comes to its defense when he insists that pure reason is irrational reason, i.e., the use of an instrument against its proper aim. The mind is constructive, as those medieval thinkers well understood when they called logic an art as well as a science. Syllogisms are pieces of architecture; the mind must take the materials for this manufacturing process from life, through man’s entire perceptive apparatus. When reason takes upon itself the task of entire discovery and construction, it makes discovery impossible. That is the point where mythology is confused for children’s fairy tales superseded by full-fledged reason, in fact, for this rationalistic mind-set, to call a story a myth is equivalent to calling it a lie. They would even expunge myths from Plato’s philosophy.

A sculptor who wants all the credit for his work is a bit vain if he is only jealous of his rivals or teachers (recognize the type?), or his predecessors, and will inevitably end up in the futility of re-inventing the wheel. But if he is jealous of the marble and refuses any help from it, no statue will ever receive his proud care. This applies to the mind as well. When pure reason asserts that it will accept nothing which it cannot justify on its own terms, it proceeds to destroy itself. If Vico had taught us nothing but this he would still have been a great European philosopher.

Descartes, on the other hand, wrote “Cogito ergo sum,” beginning his journey in the chamber of his own intellect, literally in a closet. Because he did not look out from that closet but at it, his journey never got under way; and the modern man is still sitting inside a narrow room cogitating on cogitation. If we are or exist only because we think, then logically we are what we think, and all things are what we think or do not think them. What a Trump declares in his tweets is the truth to be imposed with Machiavellian power on those who rebel against it. Indeed, the lunatic is God for whom thinking and doing are one and the same. The difference is that God is sane because he knows his nature and identity, the lunatic is insane. Rationalism’s attack on faith becomes also an attack on reason. The more astute rationalists (such as Leo Strauss, to mention one) will of course make a nice dichotomy between the two, even asserting that the reasoning in Plato’s Euthyphro is not a natural theology.

But there are different degree of exhaustion by which a rationalist will re-invent the wheel. Another is pure volition which usually will take Nietzschean-existential forms, but because this was merely an escape from Cartesian intellection, it remained a reflection of it, opposed only as things are when reversed in a mirror. Rationalism is the ally of all unreason. In his motion of mere escape from reason, Nietzsche had to deny all perceptive tests and fixed norms of facts; but this takes away the point of the will, the grip and exclusion, the creative and destructive choices. It is a Dionysian worship of will, simple ecstasy and expenditure in the void leading to nihilism. It gives the will no goal, it carries the will nowhere: pure self-destruction. Dionysius is after all the god of dissolution.

Vico teaches us that there is a higher dialectic: not that of the mind with mind but of mind with fact (the particular and the contingent) where men remember once again, via the poetical, that conclusions are made to follow but not to be. This is the fallacy of those who transfer the rules of the mind to external processes discerning necessity where there is none. Because the sun comes up every morning the mind assumes that it must do so. But repetition is not proof of necessity and it merely dulls our sense of wonder with which philosophy began. As St. Augustine aptly points out, the birth of any baby is more miraculous than the resurrection of Lazarus. To discern that the mind must first admit that it is not dealing with a fact that it did not invent but simply found. This is the wonder of being, of pure existence. When the mind so admits, then sanity returns.

In conclusion, Western Civilization as a whole needs to heed Vico who is the culmination of Humanism and return to its origins. Is it time to think paradoxically: of the new as the old and of the old as the new: novantiqua. It is time to go back to the future. Time is fast running out.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Europe

From Davos to Munich

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An overview of the views and attitudes of European officials during the Davos and Munich Conference and their comparison with each other suggests that the security, economic, and political concerns of European countries have not only not diminished but are increasing.

During the World Economic Summit in Davos, the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France both gave a significant warning about the return of nationalism and populism to Europe. This warning has been sent in a time when Far-Right movements in Europe have been able to gain unbelievable power and even seek to conquer a majority of parliaments and form governments.

In her speech, Angela Merkel emphasized that the twentieth century’s mistake shouldn’t be repeated. By this, the German Chancellor meant the tendency of European countries to nationalism. Although the German Chancellor warning was serious and necessary, the warning seems to be a little late. Perhaps it would have been better if the warning was forwarded after the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, and subsequently, more practical and deterrent measures were designed. However, Merkel and other European leaders ignored the representation of over a hundred right-wing extremist in the European Parliament in 2014 and merely saw it as a kind of social excitement.

This social excitement has now become a “political demand” in the West. The dissatisfaction of European citizens with their governments has caused them to explicitly demand the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe. The recent victories of right wing extremists in Austria, Germany and…, isn’t merely the result of the nationalist movement success in introducing its principles and manifestos. But it is also a result of the failure of the “European moderation” policy to resolve social, security and economic problems in the Eurozone and the European Union. In such a situation, European citizens find that the solutions offered by the moderate left parties didn’t work in removing the existing crises in Europe. Obviously, in this situation “crossing the traditional parties” would become a general demand in the West. Under such circumstances, Merkel’s and other European leaders’ warnings about the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe simply means the inability of the Eurozone authorities in preventing the Right-extremism in the West.

These concerns remain at the Munich Security Conference. As Reuters reported, The defense ministers of Germany and France pledged to redouble their military and foreign policy cooperation efforts on Friday, inviting other European countries to participate if they felt ready to do so.
In a speech to the Munich Security Conference, German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen said Europe’s countries would not be able to respond nimbly enough to global challenges if they were stymied by the need to decide joint foreign policy approaches unanimously.

“Europe has to up its pace in the face of global challenges from terrorism, poverty and climate change,” she said. “Those who want to must be able to advance without being blocked by individual countries.”

Her French counterpart Florence Parly said any such deepened cooperation would be complementary to the NATO alliance, which itself was based on the principle that members contributed differently depending on their capacities.

“The reality has always been that some countries are by choice more integrated and more able to act than others,” she said.

The push comes as Germany’s political class reluctantly concedes it must play a larger security role to match its economic pre-eminence in Europe, amid concerns that the European Union is unable to respond effectively to security concerns beyond its eastern and southern borders.

But in their deal for another four years of a “grand coalition” government, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats have agreed to boost spending on the armed forces after years of post-Cold War decline.

The deal, which must still be ratified by the Social Democrat membership, comes as Germany reluctantly takes on the role of the continent’s pre-eminent political power-broker, a role generations of post-war politicians have shied away from.

Days after U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated President Donald Trump’s demand that European countries spend more on their militaries, Von der Leyen pledged to spend more on its military and the United Nations, but called in return for other countries not to turn away from mulitlateralism.

The pledges come as the EU seeks a new basis on which to cooperate with Britain, traditionally one of the continent’s leading security players, after its vote to leave the EU.

Earlier on Friday, the leaders of the three countries’ security services said close security cooperation in areas like terrorism, illegal migration, proliferation and cyber attacks, must continue after Britain’s departure.

“Cooperation between European intelligence agencies combined with the values of liberal democracy is indispensable, especially against a background of diverse foreign and security challenges,” they said.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect

Alina Toporas

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This year’s election calendar released by OSCE showcases a broad display of future presidential, parliamentary and general elections with hefty political subjecthoods which have the potential of transforming in their entirety particularly the European Union, the African Union and the Latin American sub-continent. A wide sample of these countries welcoming elections are currently facing a breadth of challenges in terms of the level of transparency in their election processes. To this end, election observation campaigns conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for American States (OAS), the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the National Democratic Institute, Carter Center and even youth organisations such as AEGEE and Silba are of paramount importance in safeguarding the incorruptibility of election proceedings in fraudulent and what cannot be seen with the naked eye type of fraudulent political systems, making sure elections unfold abiding national legislation and international standards.

What exactly does an election observation mission supposed to accomplish?   

An election monitoring mission consists of operational experts and analysts who are all part of a core team and are conducting their assignments for a period of time varying between 8 and 12 weeks. Aside from the core team experts and analysts, there can be short-term or long-term observers and seconded observers or funded observers. Joining them, there is usually a massive local support staff acting as interpreters and intermediaries. Generally, an election observer does not interfere with the process, but merely takes informative notes. With this in mind, it is imperative of the observer to make sure there isn’t any meddling with votes at polling stations by parties and individual candidates; that the people facilitating the election process are picked according to fair and rigorous benchmarks; that these same people can be held accountable for the final results and that, at the end of the day, the election system put in place by the national and local authorities is solid from both a physical and logical standpoint. Oftentimes, particularly in emerging democracies, the election monitoring process goes beyond the actual process of voting by extending to campaign monitoring.

In practical terms, the average election observer needs to abide by certain guidelines for a smooth and standardised monitoring process. Of course, these rules can vary slightly, depending on the sending institution. Typically, once the election observer has landed in the country awaiting elections, their first two days are normally filled with seminars on the electoral system of the country and on the electoral law. Meetings with candidates from the opposition are sometimes organised by the electoral commission. Talking to ordinary voters from builders to cleaners, from artists to businesspeople is another way through which an election observer can get a sense of what social classes pledged their allegiances to what candidates. After two days in training and the one day testing political preferences on the ground, election day begins. Since the early bird gets the worm, polling stations open at least two hours earlier than the work day starts, at around 7am. Throughout the day, observers ask voters whether they feel they need to complain about anything and whether they were asked to identify themselves when voting. Other details such as the polling stations opening on time are very much within the scope of investigation for election monitors. Observers visit both urban voting centres and rural ones. In the afternoon, counting begins with observers carefully watching the volunteers from at least 3 metres away. At the end of the day, observers go back to their hotels and begin filling in their initial questionnaires with their immediate reactions on the whole voting process. In a few weeks time, a detailed report would be issued in cooperation with all the other election observers deployed in various regions of the country and under the supervision of the mission coordinators.   

Why are these upcoming elections particularly challenging to monitor?  

Talks of potential Russian interference into the U.S. elections have led to full-on FBI investigations. Moreover, the idea of Russian interference in the Brexit vote is slowly creeping into the British political discourse. Therefore, it does not take a quantum physicist to see a pattern here. Hacking the voting mechanism is yet another not-so-classic conundrum election observers are facing. We’re in the midst of election hacking at the cognitive level in the form of influence operations, doxing and propaganda. But, even more disturbingly, we’re helpless witnesses to interference at the technical level as well. Removing opposition’s website from the Internet through DDOS attacks to downright political web-hacking in Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to show as winner a far-right candidate are only some of the ways which present an unprecedented political savviness and sophistication directed at the tampering of the election machinery. Even in a country such as the U.S. (or Sweden – their elections being held September of this year) where there is a great deal of control over the physical vote, there is not much election monitoring can do to enhance the transparency of it all when interference occurs by way of the cyber domain affecting palpable election-related infrastructure.

Sketching ideational terrains seems like a fruitful exercise in imagining worst-case scenarios which call for the design of a comprehensive pre-emptive approach for election fraud. But how do you prevent election fraud? Sometimes, the election observer needs to come to terms with the fact that they are merely a reporter, a pawn which notwithstanding the action of finding oneself in the middle of it all, can generally use only its hindsight perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is good enough when employed to draft comprehensive electoral reports, making a difference between the blurry lines of legitimate and illegitimate political and electoral systems.

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Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?

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Photo by Mateo Avila Chinchilla on Unsplash

In what looks set to become the ‘dieselgate’ of the tobacco industry, a French anti-smoking organization has filed a lawsuit against four major tobacco brands for knowingly selling cigarettes with tar and nicotine levels that were between 2 and 10 times higher than what was indicated on the packs. Because the firms had manipulated the testing process, smokers who thought they were smoking a pack a day were in fact lighting up the equivalent of up to 10, significantly raising their risk for lung cancer and other diseases.

According to the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT), cigarettes sold by the four companies have small holes in the filter that ventilate smoke inhaled under test conditions. But when smoked by a person, the holes compress due to pressure from the lips and fingers, causing the smoker to inhale higher levels of tar and nicotine. According to the lawsuit, the irregularity “tricks smokers because they are unaware of the degree of risk they are taking.”

It was only the most recent example of what appears to be a deeply entrenched propensity for malfeasance in the tobacco industry. And unfortunately, regulatory authorities across Europe still appear unprepared to just say no to big tobacco.

Earlier this month, for instance, Public Health England published a report which shines a positive light on “tobacco heating products” and indicates that electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks. Unsurprisingly, the UK report has been welcomed by big tobacco, with British American Tobacco praising the clear-sightedness of Public Health England.

Meanwhile, on an EU-wide level, lawmakers are cooperating too closely for comfort with tobacco industry executives in their efforts to craft new cigarette tracking rules for the bloc.

The new rules are part of a campaign to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, a problem that is particularly insidious in Europe and is often attributed to the tobacco industry’s own efforts to stiff the taxman. According to the WHO, the illicit cigarette market makes up between 6-10% of the total market, and Europe ranks first worldwide in terms of the number of seized cigarettes. According to studies, tobacco smuggling is also estimated to cost national and EU budgets more than €10 billion each year in lost public revenue and is a significant source of cash for organized crime. Not surprisingly, cheap availability of illegally traded cigarettes is also a major cause of persistently high smoking rates in the bloc.

To help curtail cigarette smuggling and set best practices in the fight against the tobacco epidemic, the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The first protocol to the FCTC, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, was adopted in 2012 and later ratified by the EU. Among other criteria, the Protocol requires all cigarette packs to be marked with unique identifiers to ensure they can be tracked and traced, thereby making smuggling more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry has come up with its own candidates to meet track and trace requirements, notably Codentify, a system developed by PMI. From 2005 through 2016, PMI used Codentify as part of an anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. But the agreement was subject to withering criticism from the WHO and other stakeholders for going against the Protocol, which requires the EU and other parties to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in anti-smuggling efforts.

The EU-PMI agreement expired in 2016 and any hopes of reviving it collapsed after the European Parliament, at loggerheads with the Commission, overwhelmingly voted against a new deal and decided to ratify the WHO’s Protocol instead. Codentify has since been sold to the French firm Impala and was rebranded as Inexto – which critics say is nothing but a front company for PMI since its leadership is made out of former PMI executives. Nonetheless, due to lack of stringency in the EU’s draft track and trace proposal, there is still a chance that Inexto may play a role in any new track and trace system, sidelining efforts to set up a system that is completely independent of the tobacco industry.

This could end up by seriously derailing the EU’s efforts to curb tobacco smuggling, given the industry’s history of active involvement in covertly propping up the black market for cigarettes. In 2004, PMI paid $1.25 billion to the EU to settle claims that it was complicit in tobacco smuggling. As part of the settlement, PMI agreed to issue an annual report about tobacco smuggling in the EU, a report that independent researchers found “served the interests of PMI over those of the EU and its member states.”

Given the industry’s sordid history of efforts to prop up the illicit tobacco trade, it’s little surprise that critics are still dissatisfied with the current version of the EU’s track and trace proposal.

Now, the CNCT’s lawsuit against four major tobacco firms gives all the more reason to take a harder line against the industry. After all, if big tobacco can’t even be honest with authorities about the real levels of chemicals in their own products, what makes lawmakers think that they can play a viable role in any effort to quell the illegal cigarette trade – one that directly benefits the industry?

Later this month, the European Parliament will have a new chance to show they’re ready to get tough on tobacco, when they vote on the pending proposal for an EU-wide track and trace system. French MEP Younous Omarjee has already filed a motion against the system due to its incompatibility with the letter of the WHO. Perhaps a ‘dieselgate’ for the tobacco industry might be just the catalyst they need to finally say no to PMI and its co-conspirators.

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