Reflecting on Post-Enlightenment Ethics and the Post-Modern Self

Reflecting on Post-Enlightenment Ethics and the Post-Modern Self

Ljiljana Radenovic of the University of Belgrade (@Ljiljana1972 on Twitter) recently wrote an insightful, provoking essay, titled, “A Post-Enlightenment Ethics of the Desert Fathers”, which I would like to think about and briefly comment on. In it she argues that the limitations of Kantian and utilitarian ethics—products of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the individual and reason, apart from the outside world—manifest the need for a new ethics which affirms the individual’s placement in a community of other human agents, and one which addresses the question, not merely, “What am I to do?”, but rather, “What am I to be?” Asking how one should be or live is partly one factor behind the revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics in the mid- to late 20th Century, which holds that acting morally or well is the result of inculcating virtue: by possessing the right virtues, one can judge the right action in any given circumstance.

As Ljiljana notes, the “New Stoicism”, which has become popular in various circles, borrows much from this Aristotelian background, albeit in a more pragmatic key: it emphasizes a cognitive therapeutical approach alongside virtue ethics. Unlike ancient Stoics, however, the New Stoics detach the metaphysics of their ancient predecessors from their own ethics. Whereas the modern set aver affirming any explicit metaphysics, the ancient Stoics maintained the existence of nature and the logos as a divine, material principle shaping all things and forming their fate. Yet, so Ljiljana argues well, Stoic ethics makes no sense without its metaphysical root: the goal of the Stoic is union with nature, inherently connected with the Stoic’s ultimate goal of ataraxia, i.e. serene tranquility. Instead, what we find in the New Stoics, despite their ancient heritage, is a re-affirmation of the individual: instead of nature, by which one unites with others and with the whole cosmos, the whole project devolves into yet another form of egocentric ethics and outlook.

This becomes Ljiljana’s main argument advocating for the Early Christian Desert Fathers as a better basis for a post-Enlightenment ethics. Though they share much with the ancient Stoic framework, good, virtuous action and balance of mind are meant not just for ataraxia, but rather man’s salvation. Ethical action for the Desert Fathers is inherently tied to a person’s place and context among other people: care for one’s life, and the good actions flowing from that life, depend on the people one is surrounded by. And yet, as Ljiljana argues, one cannot maintain this kind of communitarianism without an explicit affirmation of the metaphysics behind this framework, lest one reverts to an egocentric individualism. The Christianity of the Desert Fathers must be maintained if one can maintain and adhere to a communitarian ethics of the kind we see in the Desert Fathers—the way forward for a post-Enlightenment ethics.

There is much in this argument that greatly interests me, but one aspect I would like to focus on is the claim that explicitly affirming a metaphysical framework—whether Christian or something else—is necessary for the kind of ethical framework we’re after.1 There are two particular angles in which to analyze this issue—between the objective and subjective.

From the objective angle, it seems clear that the existence of nature (or natures) underlies any understanding of virtue and states of character for the human subject: what is good for the self—the basis for good actions—ultimately depends on the kind of being one possesses. It means recognizing that a human life must account for its nature as a finite, enmattered creature which possesses thought and intellect, and thus possessing common, basic desires which recur across different human beings. Those desires all have a basis in one’s being, and yet recognizing their goodness or malevolence depend on the kind of being one has, and what is good for one’s being. In this I’m expressing a basic intuition from Aristotle’s ethics, much of which recurs in the Stoics and most ancients in general. Contra David Hume’s is-ought fallacy, this does not mean an over-simplified equation between one’s nature and the outcome to be done. Instead one’s being provides the basis from which one can consider one’s actions as good or ill: in other words there is a proportionality between two domains that still remain distinct in their being. To jettison one side—the “metaphysics” aspect, i.e. one’s being and the underlying factors going into that being—is to ruin any orientation or understanding of how one can act, let alone live. (Hence, Hume’s is-ought “fallacy” is likely one main cause behind contemporary/20th-cent. ethics’ unwillingness to concede any kind of metaphysics.)

In this respect, though the larger, cosmological picture is more muted in Aristotle, Plato brings out the wider consequences of ethical action and its inherent relation to metaphysics: toward the end of the Timaeus, Plato has his dialogue’s namesake-character wrap up his exposition as the ground for why humans act and do what they do well—purely by imitating the cosmos’ order and structure. It is obviously not an exact imitation, but it is a proportional imitation of the cosmos’ well-being and order by which man can both be well and do well by measuring his own being (and actions) with the greater being of the cosmos as his source—something we already see in Plato’s “open philosophy”.2 Without that framework, there is no way to know what is or can be good or otherwise. It is thus all the more striking that the Desert Fathers’ ethical framework, as Ljiljana shows near the post’s end, expands on Plato’s intuition, where the selflessness of Christ is the foundation for understanding their ethics: take away that foundation, and understanding the ratio or meaning of selfless actions becomes meaningless.3

This leads me to the second, subjective angle. So far one might think, well, ok, but still—why can’t I persist in my metaphysical (and/or religious) agnosticism, regardless of the objective, philosophical consequences? Is it not enough to remain agnostic while being utilitarian in acting “as if” there is some grand order or nature—even if I still cannot find myself intellectually consenting (or consenting by will) to the Christian framework of the Desert Fathers, much less anything generally (even Platonic)? In one way this is the kind of argument we find in someone like William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, where he makes a utilitarian argument for the practice of “religion”, or an as-if belief in a given religion (presumably whatever it may be), based on its effects and good character that it inculcates—even if a person in that position cannot believe the ontological claims made in that religion. Indeed this seems to describe so-called “Nones”, or the “spiritually homeless” of recent times, particularly in the West:4 those who de-converted from their religion—or perhaps those who never had any previous religious background—yet their approach and mindset is one of searching and openness for something “spiritual”, or perhaps generically “religious” in James’ sense, without the background of traditional religion. (By extension, we could probably describe the “metaphysically homeless” in similar terms, in attempting to leave behind “traditional metaphysics”.) Much of the current postmodern (or post-postmodern) mindset could be described this way too: caught between the collapse of Enlightenment reason and anything resembling this cardboard box—including religious frameworks like Christianity, let alone Platonism—and yet the desire for collectivity and communion despite this. It is a kind of push-pull relationship: the desire for a communitarian ethics, away from individualism—yet all still decided within the frame of the individual, by wish or choice.

This is why I have found David Foster Wallace immensely fascinating and insightful (as I partly discussed last year), because he recognizes this implicit double-bind the postmodern finds him-/herself in—and Wallace identifies himself and his central characters in this bind. He sees that this kind of condition leaves us in an existential state of infinite loneliness—a lack of communion or connection with the other (or others).5 For Wallace, as in his famous “This is Water” commencement speech, this state of loneliness engenders varying states of “worship”—if not worship of a deity or infinite self beyond one’s self (“be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles”), then of one finite thing or another, whether beauty, wealth, sex, power, or anything else on any and every level. It is out of this state of loneliness that one “worships” some given thing, which—particularly in the finite cases—leaves one stuck in the self: attempts to get out of the self in “worship” leave one stuck further within the self. True selflessness means full surrender to something which is entirely out of one’s control—in other words something infinite, “be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess”, and so on—if one is to truly go beyond the self. In other words, for the postmodern self to be able to realize its desire for selfless communion with the other, it means a real sacrifice and openness for something truly infinite—something which is beyond one’s control.

This brings me back to a great quote at the end of Ljiljana’s post from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov:

In ‘A Lady of Little Faith,’ Mrs. Khokhlakov confesses to Father Zosima that she suffers from a lack of faith and has come to him to try to regain it. She admits that, when she was a child, she believed without doubt and faith came to her naturally, but not anymore. To this, Father Zosima responds: ‘Nothing can be proved but one can become convinced.’ And we can become convinced, he says,

‘By acts of love. Try to love your neighbours; love them actively and unceasingly. And as you learn to love them more and more, you will more and more be convinced of the existence of God and of the immortality of your soul. And if you achieve the complete self-abnegation in your love for your fellow man, you will certainly gain faith, and there will be no room in your soul for any doubt whatsoever. This has been tested. This is the true way.’

But to follow Father Zosima’s advice demands that we open our hearts and minds and leave behind intellectual debates and attempts to ground selfless acts of love and Christian ethics in a godless universe.

The kind of advice we see from Fr. Zosima parallels Wallace’s emphasis on inculcating awareness—i.e. being aware of other positions or narratives outside oneself, and placing oneself in others’ shoes outside one’s own narrative of the world. It is by merely stepping out of oneself in this way that one already makes the first attempt at true selflessness. Although of course this isn’t what Fr. Zosima is saying (nor Ljiljana, to be fair), it is in the very act of doing or acting in a way beyond one’s own dispositions that already places oneself on the way toward a true selflessness—at least in Wallace’s sense of the term. Ultimately—for the subject who still doubts, from above—this then means that one must not merely act “as if” God exists, but also think “as if” God exists—albeit in a way beyond one’s own rationalization or estimation, a total abandon in true selflessness.

Hence, my aim from the subjective angle is to peel out some of the implications we find in Fr. Zosima, brought out well in Ljiljana Radenovic’s thesis, and how David Foster Wallace is a recent example of a postmodern attempt to return to a pre-modern/pre-Enlightenment notion of the self, as in communion with others and the truly Other—God beyond being, and immanent to all being. Wallace himself often described what he was doing as a postmodernist attempt to retrieve a pre-modern conception of the self and the cosmos (or at least something to this effect).6 I suppose the subjective angle I have so far considered is more addressed to the postmodern or “spiritually/metaphysically homeless” (or maybe continentalist?) rather than a contemporary philosopher (at least the analytic kind—or the kind willing to accept premises beyond their own first principles). And yet I suspect this kind of consideration applies to many people regardless. In any case, I think this is one main challenge in the attempt toward a post-Enlightenment ethics which can successfully combine communitarianism and an acknowledgement of the metaphysics (if not religious frame) that undergirds it.

  1. Mainly this is my attempt to flesh out the basic idea already there in Ljiljana’s essay—which she does a fine job already of explicating. 

  2. Dominic O’Meara in his 2017 book, Cosmology and Politics in Plato’s Later Works, also brings out this notion of proportionality throughout Plato’s late works, esp. the Timaeus and Laws. I talk briefly about this in my late 2020 review of O’Meara’s book. 

  3. From near the end of the post: “Similarly, devoting ourselves selflessly to others, helping them, watching out for them—and in the end, sacrificing for them—have particular meaning in Christianity. Christ sacrificed everything, including his life, for us, and sacrificing for the other is the ultimate way to live within a Christian framework. Once that framework is compromised, the imperative to selflessly love and sacrifice for others is too. The reason why we should do so loses its force. A godless universe, in which Christ’s sacrifice has no importance, is a shaky ground for selfless love.” 

  4. To quote a useful phrase from a good friend’s recent MA thesis: “Nowhere to Rest: Spiritual Homelessness in a Postsecular Age”, by Sebastian Temlett (2019). 

  5. “The great transcendent horror [a character reflects in Infinite Jest] is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self”, p. 694. 

  6. [Reference forthcoming…] 

Header image credit: A miniature from the Minologion of Basil II (Constantinople, ~985 AD) of Vendemianus of Bithynia, a solitary monk of the early sixth century.

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.


Ethics Desert Fathers Postmodern Self David Foster Wallace Plato Virtue Ethics

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