The Ridiculous Woman: A Public Intellectual Parallels Dostoevsky’s “Ridiculous Man’s” Ability to Love

Capacities to Act and to Love

Recently, Marina Nemat gave participants at Acton University an account of her experiences as a political prisoner in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After an idyllic upbringing in a generally free society, everything changed when Nemat was arrested by Islamists at age sixteen. These perpetrators captured, interrogated, and tortured her relentlessly – almost to the point of death. When men beat the soles of her feet with cables, she wanted to die and says that she would have sold her soul to the devil in order to escape the pain. This thought perpetuated her agony because she was a Catholic who sensed in this moment that she was not fit to be a martyr. Arguing firmly that the purpose of torture is not to gain information nor punish, she insists the true purpose of torture is the destruction of the soul.  Eventually, Nemat was forced to “marry” one of her torturers. She went to his mother’s house and was warmly welcomed by his mother who showed her great hospitality.  Nemat wondered to herself: how can this woman be the mother of a torturer? Soon, this mother told her that her son had been the victim of even more severe torture. This marked a turning point at which Nemat says, “I realized then that he had been tortured – just like me. And I didn’t like that part because it made me recognize that he was a human being.” Briefly she considered revenge, perplexed by the possibility that someone can be the torturer today and the tortured tomorrow. But ultimately she conquered both this appetite for revenge and her desire to be placed in solitary confinement. Instead, Nemat chose to discover how to reaffirm her dignity in spite of the circumstances that made this seem impossible.
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Reading Week Part 2: The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset

This evening I finished reading José Ortega y Gasset’s book The Revolt of the Masses.
Soon, I intend to write more reflectively on what I have read, but for now, here are my favorite quotations from this exceptional book:

“The masses, suddenly, have made themselves visible, and have installed themselves in the preferred places of society. In the past, the mass, where it existed, went unnoticed. It was a background to the social scene, to the stage of society. Now it has advanced to the footlights, and plays the part of the leading character. There are no longer protagonists as such: there is only the chorus.”

“The characteristic note of our time is the dire truth that the mediocre soul, the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be mediocre, has the gall to assert its right to mediocrity, and goes to impose itself wherever it can. […] The mass crushes everything different, everything outstanding, excellent, individual, select, and choice.”

“The very name is alarming: that a century should call itself “modern,” that is, ultimate, definitive, compared to which all others are merely preterite, humble preparations aspiring to the present!”

“We live at a time which feels itself magnificently capable of any realization, but does not know what to realize. Lord of all things, man is not master of himself. He feels lost in his own abundance. Equipped with more means, more knowledge, more technique than ever, the world today proceeds as did the worst and most unfortunate of all former worlds: it simply drifts.”

“It is false to say, therefore, that in life ‘circumstances decide.’ On the contrary, circumstances are the dilemma, always new, constantly renewed, in the face of which we must make decisions. And it is our character which decides.”

“I do not believe in the absolute determinism of history. On the contrary, I believe that all life, including historical life, is composed of purely momentary instances, each relatively undetermined as far as the previous moment is concerned, so that in each of them reality hesitates, vacilates, marks time, runs in place, paws the ground, and is uncertain of which possibility to choose. This metaphysical wavering, this humming uncertainty, makes everything alive seem to vibrate tremulously.”

“The primary, radical meaning of the word life is made clear when it is used in the sense of biography and not of biology. And this is true for the very good reason that any biology, in the end, is only a chapter in certain biographies, whatever biologists do in the course of their biography. Any other notion is abstraction, fantasy, myth.”

“The world is civilized, but the inhabitant is not: he does not even see its civilization, but uses it as if it were a part of nature. The new man wants his automobile, and enjoys using it, but he thinks it is the spontaneous fruit of some Eden-like tree. His mind does not encompass the artificial, almost unreal nature of civilization, and the enthusiasm he feels for its instruments does not include the principles which make them possible.”

“Philosophy needs no protection, nor attention, nor sympathy, nor interest on the part of the masses. Its perfect uselessness protects it.”

“But the specialist cannot be subsumed under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for his is formally ignorant of all that does not fit into his speciality; but neither is he ignorant, for his is ‘a man of science,’ a scientist, and he knows his own sliver of the universe quite well. We shall have to call him a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, for it means that he will act in all areas in which he is ignorant, not like an ignorant man, but with all the airs of one who is learned in his own special line.”

“For philosophy to rule, it is not necessary that philosophers be rulers (as Plato first wanted) nor even that rulers philosophize (as he more modestly wished later). Both courses would prove fatal. For philosophy to rule it suffices that it exist, that is, that philosophers be philosophers. For over a century now, philosophers have been everything but philosophers: they have been politicians, pedagogues, professors, men of letters, and men of science.”

“Moreover, the mass-man sees in the state an anonymous power, and since he feels himself to be anonymous too, he believes that the state is something of his own. When conflict or crisis occurs in public life, the mass-man will tend to look to the state to assume the burden, take on the problem, take charge directly of solving the matter with its unusurpable means.”

“And this is the greatest danger threatening civilization today: the statification of life, state intervention, the taking over by the state of all social spontaneity. […] The mass tells itself: ‘The state is me,’ it’s own version of L’État, c’est moi. […] The contemporary state and the mass are only the same in being anonymous.”

“Without commandments obliging us to live in certain fashions, our lives become purely arbitrary, they become ‘expendable.'”

“Surely, the best that can humanely be said of any institution is that it should be reformed, for that implies that it is indispensable and that it  is capable of new life.”

“Such is the state. It is not a thing, but a movement.”

“If the state be a project for common action, its reality it purely dynamic: it is a doing, something to be done, the community in action.”

“But the same thing happens if the mass-soul decides to act the revolutionary: the apparent enthusiasm for the manual worker, for the afflicted, for social justice, serves as a mask to disguise the rejection of all obligations – such as courtesy, truth-telling, and, above all, respect for and just estimation of the superior individual.”

“This evasion of all obligation explains in part the phenomenon, half ridiculous and half disgraceful, of the promulgation of the platform of “Youth,” of youth per se. Perhaps our times offer no spectacle more grotesque. Almost comically, people call themselves “young,” because they have been told that youth has more rights than obligations, since the fulfillment of obligations can be postponed until the Greek calends of maturity. Youth has always considered itself exempt from doing or already having done great deeds or feats. It has always lived on credit. This has always been understood as being in the nature of humanity, a kind of feigned right, half ironic and half affectionate, conceded to their juniors by the no-longer young.”

“For morality is always and essentially a feeling of subordination and submission to something, a consciousness to obligation and service. […] Morality cannot be simply ignored. Amorality – a word which lacks even a proper construction – does not exist. If one wants to avoid submitting to any norm , one must, nolens volens, submit to the norm of denying all morality. And that is not amorality, but immorality. It constitutes a negative morality which conserves the empty form of the other morality.”