Saturday, September 26, 2015

Wastebasket Commentaries on Plato's Theaetetus and Statesman

In the Theaetetus, Plato initially proposes, but ultimately rejects, three models of knowledge to explain the conditions for the possibility of philosophic knowledge: perception (151e-187a); true belief (187b-201c); and justified true belief. (201d-210a) Plato first rejects knowledge by perception because if all perceptible things were always changing into something different, and nothing ever remains the same, then it would be impossible to consistently name or judge anything. (182a-183a) Plato also rejects knowledge by true belief because, if all knowledge were true beliefs, then there could be no knowledge of false beliefs, and every belief would be trivially true. (187e) Finally Plato proposes that the truth of any belief may only be discerned through a concept of justification. For the purpose of explaining justification, Socrates distinguishes the thought of the first simple elements that cannot be known from the thought of the final complex combinations that we presume to know in our concepts (logos). (202a) Socrates then proposes a part-whole dilemma: any complex concept is either (i) identical to the unknown combination of simple elements (203d), or (ii) different from this combination by some further addition above the parts (204a). Yet if the concept is (i) identical then it is just as unknown as the simple elements, but if it is (ii) different then any further addition must likewise be either a simple element that is thinkable but unknowable or not a simple element and hence unthinkable. (205c-e) Plato aporetically concludes the dialogue in a skeptical circle (209e) in which all knowledge is apparently derived from non-knowledge, knowledge has no definite foundation, and all pretensions to knowledge results in ignorance.

In the Statesman, Plato introduces his penultimate method of division and combination, modeled on the art of weaving, for the purpose of transforming negative dialectic into positive dialectic by dividing and combining formal measures. Where in the Phaedo and the Republic, the formal measures had been conceived as transcendent a priori hypotheses of speculative ontology, in the Statesman these formal measures are instead postulated as the immanent a posteriori standards that are contributed from all of the crafts that are practiced within the political community: all of the other arts (288a-291c) are meant to contribute their positive formal standards as instruments for the weaving together of all forms by the kingly art of statesmanship. (287c-e) Yet Plato seems to recognize that this strategy of re-locating the formal standards to the immanent political community cannot answer the criticisms of the Theaetetus and the Parmenides when he cautions that “if we dismiss statecraft as unreal, we shall have blocked all means of approach to any subsequent study of the science of kingly rule.” (284b) Since the problems of anti-foundationalism and contradiction bedevil any possibility of constructing a speculative ontology, regardless of the location of the formal standards, Plato advises that a future science of dialectics (284c-d) can only be secured by a “prophylactic argument” against the “malady of doubt.” (282c-284a) The method of division and combination can, in this way, only construct a speculative ontology by dogmatically presupposing the nullity of skeptical doubt.

For further analysis of Plato see my lecture Plato, Logic, and Ontology

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Hegel's Fragment on Love

An Incomplete Essay by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 

[…] But the wider this whole [i.e., either the Jewish people or Christendom] extends, the more an equality of rights is transposed to an equality of dependence (as happens when the believer in cosmopolitanism comprises in his whole the entire human race), the less is dominion over objects granted to any one individual, and the less the ruling Beings' favor does he enjoy. Hence, each individual loses more and more of his worth, his pretensions, and his independence. This must happen, because his worth was his share in dominion [over objects]; for a man without the pride of being the center of things and the end of his collective whole is supreme, and being, like all other individuals, so small a part of that, he despises himself.

[Here there is no living union between the individual and his world; the object, severed from the subject, is dead; and the only love possible is a sort of relationship between the living subject and the dead objects by which he is surrounded.] Since something dead here forms one term of the love relationship, love is girt by matter alone, and this matter is quite indifferent to it. Love's essence at this level, then, is that the individual in his innermost nature is something opposed [to objectivity]; he is an independent unit for whom everything else is a world external to him. That world is as eternal as he is, and, while the objects by which he is confronted change, they are never absent; they are there, and his God is there, as surely as he is here; this is the ground of his tranquility in face of loss and his sure confidence that his loss will be compensated, because compensation here is possible. This attitude makes matter something absolute in man's eyes; but, of course, if he never existed, then nothing would exist for him, and what necessity was there for his existence? That he might exist is intelligible enough, because beyond that collection of restricted experiences which make up his consciousness there is nothing whatever; the eternal and self-complete unification [with the object] is lacking. But the individual cannot bear to think himself in this nullity. He exists only as something opposed [to the object], and one of a pair of opposites is reciprocally condition and conditioned. Thus his thought of self must transcend his own consciousness, for there is no determinant without something determined, and vice versa.

In fact, nothing is unconditioned; nothing carries the root of its own being in itself. [Subject and object, man and matter,] each is only relatively necessary; the one exists only for the other, and hence exists in and for itself only on the strength of a power outside itself; and one shares in the other only through the power's favor and grace. Nowhere is any independent existence to be found except in an alien Being; it is this Being which (379) presents man with everything. This is the Being which man has to thank for himself and for immortality, blessings for which he begs with fear and trembling.

True union, or love proper, exists only between living beings who are alike in power and thus in one another's eyes living beings from every point of view; in no respect is either dead for another. This genuine love excludes all opposition. It is not the understanding, whose relations always leave the manifold of related terms as a manifold and whose unity is always a unity of opposites [left as opposites]. It is not reason either, because reason sharply opposes its determining power to what is determined. Love neither restricts nor is restricted; it is not finite at all. It is a feeling, yet not a single feeling [among other feelings]. A single feeling is only a part and not the whole of life; the life present in a single feeling dissolves its barriers and drives on till it disperses itself in the manifold of feelings with a view to finding itself in the entirety of this manifold. This whole life is not contained in love in the same way as it is in this sum of many particular and isolated feelings; in love, life is present as a duplicate of itself and as a single and unified self. Here life has run through the circle of its development from an immature to a completely mature unity: when the unity was immature, there still stood over against it the world and the possibility of a cleavage between itself and the world; as development proceeded, reflection produced more and more oppositions (unified by satisfied impulses) until it set the whole of man's life in opposition [to objectivity]; finally, love completely destroys objectivity and thereby annuls and transcends reflection, deprives man's opposite of all foreign character, and discovers life itself without further defect. In love the separate does still remain, but as something united and no longer as something separate; life [in the subject] senses life [in the object].

Since love is a sensing of something living, lovers can be distinct only in so far as they are mortal and do not look upon this possibility of separation as if there were really a separation or as if reality were a sort of conjunction between possibility and existence. In the lovers there is no matter; they are a living whole. To say that the lovers have an independence and a living principle peculiar to each of themselves means only that they may die [and may be separated by death]. To say that salt and other minerals are part of the makeup of a plant and that these carry in themselves their own laws governing their operation (380) is the judgment of external reflection and means no more than that the plant may rot. But love strives to annul even this distinction [between the lover as lover and the lover as physical organism], to annul this possibility [of separation] as a mere abstract possibility, to unite [with itself] even the mortal element [within the lover] and to make it immortal.

If the separable elements persists in either of the lovers as something peculiarly his own before their union is complete, it creates a difficulty for them. There is a sort of antagonism between complete surrender or the only possible cancellation of opposites (i.e. its cancellation in complete union) and a still subsisting independence. Union feels the latter as a hindrance; love is indignant if part of the individual is severed and held back as a private property. This raging of love against [exclusive] individuality is shame. Shame is not a reaction of the mortal body, not an expression of freedom to maintain one's life, to subsist. The hostility in a loveless assault does injury to the loving heart itself, and the shame of this now injured heart becomes the rage which defends only its right, its property. If shame, instead of being an effect of love, an effect which only takes an indignant form after encountering something hostile, were something itself by nature hostile which wanted to defend an assailable property of its own, then we would have to say that shame is most of all characteristic of tyrants, or of girls who will not yield their charms except for money, or of vain women who want to fascinate. None of these love; their defense of their mortal body is the opposite of indignation about it; they ascribe an intrinsic worth to it and are shameless.

A pure heart is not ashamed of love; but is ashamed if its love is incomplete; it upbraids itself if there is some hostile power which hinders love's culmination. Shame enters only through the recollection of the body, through the presence of an [exclusive] personality. Or the sensing of an [exclusive] individuality. It is not a fear for what is mortal, for what is merely one's own, but rather a fear of it, a fear which vanishes as the separate element in the lover is diminished by his love. Lover is stronger than fear. It has no fear of its fear, but, led by its fear, it cancels separation, apprehensive as it is of finding opposition which may resist it or be a fixed barrier against it. It is a mutual giving and taking; through shyness its gifts may be disdained; through shyness an opponent may not yield to its receiving; but it still tried whether hope has not deceived it, whether it still finds itself everywhere. The lover who takes is not thereby made richer than the other; he is enriched indeed, but only so much as the other is. So too the giver does not make himself poorer; by giving to the other he has at the same time and to the same extent enhanced his own treasure (compare Juliet in Romeo and Juliet [ii. 1. 175-77: “My bound is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have”). This wealth of life lover acquires in the exchange of every thought, every variety of inner experience, for it seeks out differences and devises unifications ad infinitum; it turns to the whole manifold of nature in order to drink love out of every life. What (381) in the first instance is most the individual's own is united into the whole in the lover's touch and contact; consciousness of a separate self disappears, and all distinction between the lovers is annulled. The mortal element, the body, has lost the character of separability, and a living child, a seed of immortality, of the eternally self-developing and self-generating [race], has come into existence. What has been united [in the child] is not divided again; [in love and through love] God has acted and created.

This unity [the child], however, is only a point, [an undifferentiated unity,] a seed; the lovers cannot so contribute to it as to give it a manifold in itself at the start. Their union is free from all inner division in it there is no working on an opposite. Everything which gives the newly begotten child a manifold life and a specific existence, it must draw into itself, set over against itself, and unify with itself. The seed breaks free from its original unity, turns ever more and more to opposition, and begins to develop. Each stage of its development is a separation, and its aim in each is to regain for itself the full riches of life [enjoyed by the parents]. Thus the process is: unity, separated opposites, reunion. [fn.8 Here Hegel added and afterward deleted the words: “The child is the parents themselves.”] After their union the lovers separate again, but in the child their union has become unseparated.

This union in love is complete; but it can remain so only as long as the separate lovers are opposed solely in the sense that the one lovers and the other is loved, i.e., that each separate lover is one organ in a living whole. Yet the lovers are in connection with much that is dead; external objects belong to each of them. This means that a lover stands in relation to things opposed to him in his own eyes as objects and opposites; this is why lovers are capable of of multiplex opposition in the course of their multiplex acquisition and possession of property rights. The (382) dead object in the power of one of the lovers is opposed to both of them, and a union in respect of it seems to be possible only if it comes under the dominion of both. The one who sees the other in possession of a property, must sense in the other the separate individuality which has willed this possession. He cannot himself anull the exclusive dominion of the other, for this once again would be an opposition to the other's power, since no relation to an object is possible except mastery over it; he would be opposing mastery to the other's dominion and would be canceling one of the other's relationships, namely, his exclusion of others from his property. Since possession and property make up such an important part of men's life, cares, and thoughts, even lovers cannot refrain from reflection this aspect of their relations. Even if the use of property is common to both, the right to its possession would remain undecided, and the thought of this right would never be forgotten, because everything which men possess has the legal form of property. But if the possessor gives the other the same right of possession as he has himself, community of goods is still only the right of one or other of the two to a thing.

[Published in On Christianity: Early Theological Writings by Friedrich Hegel, Translated by T.M. Knox, Gloucester, Mass. 1970, pp. 302-308]

Monday, September 14, 2015

Reflections on the Difference, Contradiction, and Motion of all things in Plato's Sophist 246a-259b

the Sophist, Plato’s search for the nature of the sophist, who, in contrast to the philosopher, merely pretends to teach wisdom for wealth and fortune, leads him to examine the nature of appearances, falsehood, and lies, which are, for Plato, altogether defined as that which is neither real nor true. In the middle of the dialogue he presents, as a rhetorical antinomy, the “clash of argument” between the materialist Giants and the idealist Friends of the Gods (Findlay 1978, 12), and enters the fray of this “interminable battle” and “clash of argument” to “shatter and pulverize” each opponent (246a-249d): he argues against the materialists, who identify reality with bodies, for admitting that the body is animated by the soul while the soul is bodiless, and yet failing to recognize that this very admission requires some further universal ground to be shared between material bodies and the immaterial souls beyond the body (247d); and he argues against the idealists, who identify reality with intelligible forms, for admitting that the unchanging being of the souls may know changing becoming through the senses, and yet failing to recognize that this activity of knowing requires both the knowing subject and the known object to be changed in the process. (248c-d)

Plato forthrightly rejects both extreme positions of the stasis of the idealists for annulling becoming (249b) and the extreme dynamism of the materialists for annulling being (249c), and advises, instead, that “only one course is open to the philosopher”: to annul the extreme incompatible while preserving the moderate compatible elements of each opposed position, “like a child begging for ‘both’ at once.” (249d) The unity of these opposites is, however, not merely the sum of the opposed parts. In apparent answer to the part-whole dilemma of the Thaeatetus, which asked whether any complex whole as identical or different from the sum of its parts (203d-204a), he describes this reality as some “third thing over and above these two contraries”, which “is not motion and rest ‘both at once’, but something distinct from them… in virtue of its own nature.” (250c) This ‘third thing’ is thus neither unchangeable, nor changeable; nor both, nor neither; but rather some new mixture that can only emerge from within the confluence of the explosive contradiction of opposites.

Plato names this “guide on the voyage of discourse” (253b) the philosopher’s “science of dialectics.” (253d) He proposes to demonstrate its application by dividing and combining the “most important” Ideas for the purpose of finding the elusive definition of “what is not.” (254b) Since (i) Existence can be combined with both (ii) Rest and (iii) Motion, but neither (ii) Rest nor (iii) Motion may be combined with one another, while each participates in (i) Existence; and since (ii) Rest and (iii) Motion are the same for themselves but different for each other, while neither (ii) Rest nor (iii) Motion is the same as (iv) Sameness and (v) Difference; Plato enumerates at least five Arch-Ideas: (i) Existence; (ii) Rest; (iii) Motion; (iv) Sameness; and (v) Difference. (254d-255e) And just as Plato had previously rejected the extremes of static idealism and dynamic materialism, he now also rejects the extremes of absolute identity and absolute difference: for to avoid the transitivity of predicates and the Parmenidean reduction of all the Arch-Ideas to static Parmenidean Being, Plato denies the strict identity of any of the Arch-Ideas (255a); but to preserve the existence of motion Plato affirms that “motion is [exists] by virtue of partaking of existence.” (255e)

After enumerating the five kinds, or Arch-Ideas, by which reality is specifically divided (254d-255e), Plato first defines the third kind of (iii) Motion as that Arch-Idea which is not (ii) Rest (i.e. (iii) Motion), and yet exists in virtue of partaking in (i) Existence. (255e) Since, moreover, Motion partakes and yet is different from (iv) Sameness, Motion also participates in (v) Difference. Hence, (iii) Motion is defined as the proper opposite of (ii) Rest, which participates in (i) Existence, (iv) Sameness, and (v) Difference. Since Motion participates in (iv) Sameness that is itself the same and (v) Difference that is itself not the same, it is “both the same and not the same.” (256a) Plato explains how, for this equivocation, (iv) Sameness is imparted in the term 'same(ness)' in two different ways: Motion is called 'the same' “in reference to itself” by its participation in (iv) Sameness; but Motion is called 'not the same' when it is co-imparted in “combination with difference”, or with reference to another. The co-impartation of Sameness and Difference in an act of Existence makes Motion an existent in which identity and difference are centered, or as an identity-in-difference.  Plato applies this co-impartation of identity-in-difference to “fearlessly contend that motion is different from existence” even as it “partakes of existence.” (256d)

Plato makes identity-in-difference a universal principle of the science of dialectics when he suggests that it must “be possible for ‘that which is not [viz. different from existence] to be [viz. participative identity with existence] not only in the case of motion but of all other kinds.” (256d) Plato then applies the principle of identity-in-difference to the first Arch-Idea of (i) Existence when he contends that “existence likewise ‘is not’ in as many respects as there are other things.” (257a) There are thus as many negative opposites of existence as there are existing things. This application of the principle of identity-in-difference to Existence, allows Plato to re-conceive the logical function of negation (e.g. not-S) so that it may signify a relative rather than an absolute difference. He explains that “that which is not” does not mean “something contrary to what exists but only something that is different” (257b); and “the prefix ‘not’” does not signify its absolute contrary but rather only “indicates something different from the words that follow.” (258c)

Positive and negative terms (e.g. S & not-S) are thus no longer conceived as symmetrically opposed contraries. Rather, once negation has been re-conceived as relative difference, the negative term may now signify an asymmetrical opposition, in which a negative opposite is different in meaning from but also related back by participation to its positive opposite. This asymmetrical opposition of contraries allows Plato to re-conceive of the contrary differences that produce contradiction (e.g. S & not-S) on the model of participative difference, in which subordinate contraries are differentiated from even as they participate in superordinate contraries. Contradiction no longer simply annuls one or both of the contraries, but, for Plato’s dialectic, also promises to preserve both of the contraries in a participative identity-in-difference. Since, moreover, “the sum of all things is both at once - all that is unchangeable and all that is in change” (250d), this participative identity-in-difference is also a dynamic self-moving concept that comes to rest only in and through itself.

Since (iv) Sameness is only the same in relation to itself, or to itself, while (v) Difference is only difference in relation to another, or to-another, this identy-in-difference co-impartation of Sameness and Difference in Existence makes Motion both related to-itself and to-another. Since both Sameness relation to-itself and Different relation to-another are centered in the identity-in-difference act of existence, Motion is also only related to itself through its relation to another, and, vice versa, also only related to another through its relation to itself. Hence Motion is related to itself through relation to another through relation to itself, and vice versa, ad infinitum. Yet Plato also hints that this pivoting oscillation of relationality to-itself and to-another, like the framing false opposition of Idealism and Materialism (248a-249d), may be exceeded by a “third thing over above these two... in virtue of its own [essential] nature” (250b-c) and which, by their mutual participation, can be nothing other than the Arch-Idea of (i) Existence itself.

How does Existence exceed the pivoting oscillation of Motion, and Rest, Sameness and Difference, and relationality to-itself and to-another? This may only be possible if Plato's dualistic (and also tetradic) formulae are rejected in favor of triadic formulae, by which the false opposition of every binary-pair may be exceeded, anulled, and resolved. The second scholarch of the Old Academy, Xenocrates (c.339-314 BC), first rendered Platonism in the triadic formulae of the One, the Dyad, and the Triad; and this scheme was carried to perfection by the last ancient Platonist, Proclus (c. AD 412-485). Plato could not make his system comprehensively triadic so long as Existence was conceived as merely one among many extrinsically-related and substantival Arch-Ideas, for the extrinsic relationality of Existence made it impotent to move, exceed, and anull the various other Ideas, and especially the Arch-Ideas of Rest and Motion, Sameness and Difference. This triadicization of philosophy can, rather, only be accomplished once, as Plato seems to suggest, Existence is reconceived as the intrinsically related ground in which all other Ideas participate in themselves and are imparted in others.

For this purpose, we must now re-platonize Plato by reading the triadicism of Proclus into the Sophist. From the Phaedo (100c) and the Republic (596a), we learned that every universal Idea is the perfect paradigm of a predicate-property, which is imperfectly imparted into their particular instances, and which each participate in the universal Idea to the degree that they realize its perfection. Hence, the universal Ideas virtually possess all the diminishing degrees of the possible realization of particular instances. Since the first Arch-Idea of Existence must also virtually possess all the other Ideas, Existence must also be Rest, Motion, Same, and Different. And since Existence possesses Motion, it must, in some sense, be set in motion. It is not merely the self-standing substance of Aristotle, nor merely an eternal and static Ideas of the Phaedo and Republic, but a self-moving Idea that unfolds by division and enfolds by combination all reality reflected within itself.

Plato suggests this absolutization of Motion when he extends its distinctive difference, i.e.  identity-in-difference, to “all the other kinds.” (256e) Everything other than Existence is minimally different, i.e. non-identical and the proper negative opposite of Sameness, only insofar as it is “different from Existence” and “a thing that 'is not'” and “are not”, even though, by participation in Existence, they also “are” and exist. (256e) Since, moreover, everything that is not Existence is different from Existence and an impartation of Difference, all things are negatively differentiated. Everything at all is thus negative in some way simply because all things are different, and difference implies negation, not only horizontally from one another, but also vertically from Sameness and Existence itself.

This absolutization of the negativity of Difference may be dynamized into motion whenever the negativity of Difference coincides by co-impartation with the positivity of Sameness: for example, supposing that the Demiurge, which is self-moving and reflecting Existence, first thinks the imparticipation of Difference into that which is other-than itself (e.g. for Xenocrates, the self-oppositing Dyad), and finally thinks the Sameness of the differentia, whereby that which is other-than itself is reflected back so that both the Difference and the Sameness may again participate in Existence, then Existence sets itself into motion by first thinking by unfolding its own self-difference and then reflecting by enfolding this self-difference back into its own self-participation, and Sameness and Difference coincide in the completely reflective self-relation (e.g. for Xenocrates, the self-relating Triad) of the unfolding Difference and enfolding Sameness. Since this triadic self-relation is absolutized to every impartation of Difference and Sameness in Existence, every thought may be rethought as thinking in Motion.

This re-thinking of thought as thinking in motion also implies that every instance of a contradiction is, from a deeper and higher philosophical perspective, also an instance of difference that may be resolved by setting the contraries into dynamic motion. Plato suggests the Spinozan principle that every determinate differentation also conversely implies a negation of that which is different from the determinate differentiation (determinatio est negatio) when he writes that “in the case of every one of the forms there is much that it is and an indefinite number of things that it is not.” (256e) Hence, whenever thinking determinately affirms the form X, thinking also conversely implies the determinate negation that X is differentiated from not-X, and the determination of X is always implicated in the negatively opposed differentiation of not-X. Since, moreover, the proposition that affirms X and not-X is a contradiction, any formulation of a determinate proposition P may also conversely imply its opposed differentiation not-P.

When every thought is rethought as thinking in Motion, the self-moving thinking may exceed and annul even the formulation of oppositively determined propositions P and not-P: for just as Plato rhetorically demonstrated the antinomy of Materialism and Idealism, and promised to resolve it by dividing reality according to the five-fold Arch-Ideas, in which every ideal opposition is resolved into some third essence (250b), so may every co-impartation of Difference and Sameness in Existence, or identity-in-difference, be resolved in and through the dynamic self-moving of thinking. Plato suggests this rethinking of contradiction when he first denies that “a negative signifies a contrary” and admits only that “the prefix 'not' indicates something different from the words pronounced after the negative” and then affirms that “the nature of the different appears to be parceled out in the same way as knowledge.” (257c) Once the negative is reduced to nothing more than a difference, or an instance of Difference, and every such instance of Difference is imparted in and through the self-differentiating Motion of Existence, which is similar to thinking, then the fixed opposition of determinate propositions P and not-P may also be rethought in and through self-moving thinking.

The re-thinking of contradiction as self-moving thinking promises to re-relate every differential and oppository instance of contradiction in and through the continuously unfolding and enfolding triadic identity-in-difference of Difference and Sameness in Existence. Since, movement operates in the aesthetic realm of space and time, Plato also describes how, although “knowledge is surely one”, difference is parceled out across certain fields that are “marked off and given a special name proper to itself”, including “the parts of the single nature of the different” or of Difference itself. (257d) Difference is parceled out by its impartation into the fields of art, nature, and language: in art, difference is imparted into the distinct spaces that are delimited to include what is the same in relation to one part and exclude what is different in relation to another part; in nature, difference is imparted into the motion of bodies, which are both related to themselves as the object included in motion and also related to others as that which is excluded from the object yet towards which this self-related object is moving; in language, difference is imparted into the oppository determinate differentiations of words, X and not-X, that may be formulated into the contradictory propositions P and not-P.

Plato thus externalizes the logic of Difference into the aesthetic space of the beautiful when he writes that “there exists a part of the different that is set in contrast to the beautiful… whenever we use the expression 'not-beautiful'” for “that which is different from the nature of the beautiful.” (257e) Since this determination of the beautiful is “an instance of something that exists” and the not-beautiful is “set in contrast to something that exists”, and Existence is self-moving thinking, the self-moving differentiation of Existence may unfold into the aesthetic space of the beautiful, even as it reflexively participates to enfold the beautiful back into the triadic architectonic of Existence thinking itself. And since, moreover, this imparticipative unfolding and participative enfolding of Difference through the thinking of Existence is both the Same and Different, and at Rest and in Motion, through its architectronic self-relation of identity-in-difference, this self-moving thinking of Existence also eternally reflects the self-movement of thinking.

Parmenides had prohibited the possibility that non-being could ever be re-thought as a being; for “never shall this be proved, that things that are not, are.” (258c) Yet Plato concludes, to the contrary, that since the co-impartation of Sameness and Difference in language allows us to understand non-being as a being related to others, the 'what-is-not' of the Sophist “unquestionably is a thing, that has a nature of its own... in the sense 'that which is not' also, on the same principle, both was and is 'what is not', a single form to be reckoned with among the many realities.” (258c) Plato congratulates himself on having demonstrated the ontological innovation of the Sophist: “we have not merely shown that things that are not, are, but we have brought to light the real character of 'not-being'... of every part of it that is set in contrast to [or differentiated from] 'that which is' we have dared to say precisely that is really 'that which is not' [i.e. non-being].” (258d-e) The real character of non-being thus cannot be described as absolutely not being, without some degree of participation in Existence, but may rather only be described as that differentiated determination in between the extremes of absolute being, or Existence, and absolute non-being, which participates to some minimal degree in Existence as well as co-instantiates both Sameness and Difference.

For more information on Plato's ontology, see my lecture Plato, Logic, and Ontology

F.H. Bradley on Contradiction

F. H. Bradley (c.1846-1924) was a British Idealist and professor of philosophy at Oxford who described how contradictions could be resolved by expanding the scope of the contraries until all definite distinctions were dissolved in absolute unity. 

Originally Published in Appearance and Reality, 1916, pp. 192-193, 562-572

[192] There is only one way to get rid of contradiction, and that is by dissolution. Instead of one subject distracted, we get a large subject with distinctions, and so the tension is removed. We have at first A, which possesses the qualities c and b, inconsistent adjectives which collide; and we go on to produce harmony by making a distinction within the subject. That was really not mere A, but either a complex within A, or (rather here) a wider whole in which A is included. The real subject is A+D; and this subject contains the contradiction made harmless by division, since A is c and D is b. This is the general principle, and I will attempt here to apply it in particular. Let us suppose the reality to be X(a, b, c, d, e, f, g,…), and that we are able only to get partial view of this reality. Let us first take such a view as ‘X(a, b) is b’. This (rightly or wrongly) we should probably call a true view. For the content b does plainly belong to the subject; and, further, the appearance also – in other words, the separation of b in the predicate – can partly be explained. For answering to this separation, we postulate now another adjective in the subject; let us call it B. The ‘thatness’, the psychical existence of the predicate, which at first was neglected, has now also been included in the subject. We may hence write the subject as X(a, b, B); and in this way we seem to avoid contradiction. Let us go further on the same line, and, having dealt with a truth, pass next to an error. Take the subject once more as X(a, b, c, d, e,…), and let us now say ‘X(a, b) is d’. This is false because d is not present in the subject and so we have a collision. But the collision is resolved if we take the subject, not as mere X(a, b), but more widely as X(a, b, c, d). In this case the predicate d becomes applicable. Thus the error considered in reference of d to a b; as it might have consisted in the reference to ab to c, or again of c to d. All of these exist in the subject, and the reality possesses with each both its ‘what’ and its ‘that’. But not content with a provisional separation of these indissoluble aspects, not satisfied (as in true appearance) to have aA, bB, and dD – forms which may typify distinctions that bring no discord into the qualities – we have gone on further into error. We have not only loosened ‘what’ from ‘that’, and so have made appearance; but we have in each case then bestowed the ‘what’ on a wrong quality within the real subject. We have crossed the thread of the connexion between our ‘whats’ and our ‘that’s’, and have thus caused collision, a collision which disappears when things are taken as a whole.

Note A. Contradiction and the Contrary

[562] If we are asked “What is contrary or contradictory?” (I do not find it necessary here to distinguish between these), the more we consider the more difficult we find it to answer. “A thing cannot be or do two opposites at once and in the same respect”—this reply at first sight may seem clear, but on reflection may threaten us with an unmeaning circle. For what are “opposites” except the adjectives which the thing cannot so combine? Hence we have said no more than that we in fact find predicates which in fact will not go together, and our further introduction of their “opposite” nature seems to add nothing. “Opposites will not unite, and their apparent union is mere appearance.” But the mere appearance really perhaps only lies in their intrinsic opposition. And if one arrangement has made them opposite, a wider arrangement may perhaps unmake their opposition, and may include them all at once and harmoniously. Are, in short, opposites really opposite at all, or are they, after all, merely different? Let us attempt to take them in this latter character.

“A thing cannot without an internal distinction be (or do) two different things, and differences cannot belong to the same thing in the same point unless in that point there is diversity. The appearance of such a union may be fact, but is for thought a contradiction.” This is the thesis which to me seems to contain the truth about the contrary, and I will now try to recommend this thesis to the reader.

The thesis in the first place does not imply that the end which we seek is tautology. Thought most certainly does not demand mere sameness, which to it would be nothing. A bare tautology (Hegel has taught us this, and I wish we could all learn it) is not even so much as a poor truth or a thin truth. It is not a truth in any way, in any sense, or at all. Thought involves analysis and synthesis, and if the Law of Contradiction forbade diversity, it would forbid thinking altogether. And with this too necessary warning I will turn to the other side of the difficulty. Thought cannot do without differences, but on the other hand it cannot make them. And, as it cannot make them, so it cannot receive them merely from the outside and ready-made. Thought demands to go proprio motu, or, what is the same thing, with a ground and reason. Now to pass from A to B, if the ground remains external, is for thought to pass with no ground at all. But if, again, the external fact of A’s and B’s conjunction is offered as a reason, then that conjunction itself creates the same difficulty. For thought’s analysis can respect nothing, nor is there any principle by which at a certain point it should arrest itself or be arrested. Every distinguishable aspect becomes therefore for thought a diverse element to be brought to unity. Hence thought can no more pass without a reason from A or fromB to its conjunction, than before it could pass groundlessly from A to B. The transition, being offered as a mere datum, or effected as a mere fact, is not thought’s own self-movement. Or in other words, because for thought no ground can be merely external, the passage is groundless. Thus A and B and their conjunction are, like atoms, pushed in from the outside by chance or fate; and what is thought to do with them but either make or accept an arrangement which to it is wanton and without reason,—or, having no reason for anything else, attempt against reason to identify them simply?

“This is not so,” I shall be told, “and the whole case is otherwise. There are certain ultimate complexes given to us as facts, and these ultimates, as they are given, thought simply takes up as principles and employs them to explain the detail of the world. And with this process thought is satisfied.” To me such a doctrine is quite erroneous. For these ultimates (a) cannot make the world intelligible, and again (b) they are not given, and (c) in themselves they are self-contradictory, and not truth but appearance.

Certainly for practice we have to work with appearance and with relative untruths, and without these things the sciences of course would not exist. There is, I suppose, here no question about all this, and all this is irrelevant. The question here is whether with so much as this the intellect can be satisfied, or whether on the other hand it does not find in the end defect and self-contradiction. Consider first (a) the failure of what is called “explanation.” The principles taken up are not merely in themselves not rational, but, being limited, they remain external to the facts to be explained. The diversities therefore will only fall, or rather must be brought, under the principle. They do not come out of it, nor of themselves do they bring themselves under it. The explanation therefore in the end does but conjoin aliens inexplicably. The obvious instance is the mechanical interpretation of the world. Even if here the principles were rational intrinsically, as surely they are not, they express but one portion of a complex whole. The rest therefore, even when and where it has been “brought under” the principles, is but conjoined with them externally and for no known reason. Hence in the explanation there is in the end neither self-evidence nor any “because” except that brutally things come so.

“But in any case,” I may hear, “these complexes are given and do not contradict themselves,” and let us take these points in their order. (b) The transition from A to B, the inherence of b and c as adjectives in A, the union of discretion and continuity in time and space—“such things are facts,” it is said. “They are given to an intellect which is satisfied to accept and to employ them.” They may be facts, I reply, in some sense of that word, but to say that, as such and in and by themselves, they are given is erroneous. What is given is a presented whole, a sensuous total in which these characters are found; and beyond and beside these characters there is always given something else. And to urge “but at any rate these characters are there,” is surely futile. For certainly they are not, when there, as they are when you by an abstraction have taken them out. Your contention is that certain ultimate conjunctions of elements are given. And I reply that no such bare conjunction is or possibly can be given. For the background is present, and the background and the conjunction are, I submit, alike integral aspects of the fact. The background therefore must be taken as a condition of the conjunction’s existence, and the intellect must assert the conjunction subject in this way to a condition. The conjunction is hence not bare but dependent, and it is really a connection mediated by something falling outside it. A thing, for example, with its adjectives can never be simply given. It is given integrally with a mass of other features, and when it is affirmed of Reality it is affirmed of Reality qualified by this presented background. And this Reality (to go further) is and must be qualified also by what transcends any one presentation. Hence the mere complex, alleged to be given to the intellect, is really a selection made by or accepted by that intellect. An abstraction cuts away a mass of environing particulars, and offers the residue bare, as something given and to be accepted free from supporting conditions. And for working purposes such an artifice is natural and necessary, but to offer it as ultimate fact seems to me to be monstrous. We have an intellectual product, to be logically justified, if indeed that could be possible, and most certainly we have not a genuine datum.

At this point we may lay down an important result. The intellect cannot be reduced to choose between accepting an irrational conjunction or rejecting something given. For the intellect can always accept the conjunction not as bare but as a connection, the bond of which is at present unknown. It is taken therefore as by itself appearance which is less or more false in proportion as the unknown conditions, if filled in, less or more would swamp and transform it. The intellect therefore while rejecting whatever is alien to itself, if offered as absolute, can accept the inconsistent if taken as subject to conditions.

Beside absolute truth there is relative truth, useful opinion, and validity, and to this latter world belong so-called non-rational facts.

(c) And any mere conjunction, I go on to urge, is for thought self-contradictory. Thought, I may perhaps assume, implies analysis and synthesis and distinction in unity. Further the mere conjunction offered to thought cannot be set apart itself as something sacred, but may itself properly and indeed must become thought’s object. There will be a passage therefore from one element in this conjunction to its other element or elements. And on the other hand, by its own nature, thought must hold these in unity. But, in a bare conjunction, starting with A thought will externally be driven to B, and seeking to unite these it will find no ground of union. Thought can of itself supply no internal bond by which to hold them together, nor has it any internal diversity by which to maintain them apart. It must therefore seek barely to identify them, though they are different, or somehow to unite both diversities where it has no ground of distinction and union. And this does not mean that the connection is merely unknown and may be affirmed as unknown, and also, supposing it were known, as rational. For, if so, the conjunction would at once not be bare, and it is as bare that it is offered and not as conditional. But, if on the other hand it remains bare, then thought to affirm it must unite diversities without any internal distinction, and the attempt to do this is precisely what contradiction means.

“But,” I shall be told, “you misrepresent the case. What is offered is not the elements apart, nor the elements plus an external bond, but the elements together and in conjunction.” Yes, I reply, but the question is how thought can think what is offered. If thought in its own nature possessed a “together,” a “between,” and an “all at once,” then in its own intrinsic passage, or at least somehow in its own way and manner, it could re-affirm the external conjunction. But if these sensible bonds of union fall outside the inner nature of thought, just as much as do the sensible terms which they outwardly conjoin—the case surely is different. Then forced to distinguish and unable to conjoin by its own proper nature, or with a reason, thought is confronted by elements that strive to come together without a way of union. The sensible conjunctions remain for thought mere other elements in the congeries, themselves failing in connection and external to others. And, on the other hand, driven to unite without internal distinction thought finds in this attempt a self-contradiction. You may exclaim against thought’s failure, and in this to some degree I am with you; but the fact remains thus. Thought cannot accept tautology and yet demands unity in diversity. But your offered conjunctions on the other side are for it no connections or ways of union. They are themselves merely other external things to be connected. And so thought, knowing what it wants, refuses to accept something different, something which for it is appearance, a self-inconsistent attempt at reality and truth. It is idle from the outside to say to thought, “Well, unite but do not identify.” How can thought unite except so far as in itself it has a mode of union? To unite without an internal ground of connection and distinction is to strive to bring together barely in the same point, and that is self-contradiction.

Things are not contrary because they are opposite, for things by themselves are not opposite. And things are not contrary because they are diverse, for the world as a fact holds diversity in unity. Things are self-contrary when, and just so far as, they appear as bare conjunctions, when in order to think them you would have to predicate differences without an internal ground of connection and distinction, when, in other words, you would have to unite diversities simply, and that means in the same point. This is what contradiction means, or I at least have been able to find no other meaning. For a mere “together,” a bare conjunction in space or time, is for thought unsatisfactory and in the end impossible. It depends for its existence on our neglecting to reflect, or on our purposely abstaining, so far as it is concerned, from analysis and thought. But any such working arrangement, however valid, is but provisional. On the other hand, we have found that no intrinsical opposites exist, but that contraries, in a sense, are made. Hence in the end nothing is contrary nor is there any insoluble contradiction. Contradictions exist so far only as internal distinction seems impossible, only so far as diversities are attached to one unyielding point assumed, tacitly contradiction what in the end would satisfy the intellect supposing that it could be got? This question, I venture to think, is too often ignored. Too often a writer will criticise and condemn some view as being that which the mind cannot accept, when he apparently has never asked himself what it is that would satisfy the intellect, or even whether the intellect could endure his own implied alternative. What in the end then, let us ask, would content the intellect?

While the diversities are external to each other and to their union, ultimate satisfaction is impossible. There must, as we have seen, be an identity and in that identity a ground of distinction and connection. But that ground, if external to the elements into which the conjunction must be analyzed, becomes for the intellect a fresh element, and it itself calls for synthesis in a fresh point of unity. But hereon, because in the intellect no intrinsic connections were found, ensues the infinite process. Is there a remedy for this evil?

The remedy might lie here. If the diversities were complementary aspects of a process of connection and distinction, the process not being external to the elements or again a foreign compulsion of the intellect, but itself the intellect’s own proprius motus, the case would be altered. Each aspect would of itself be a transition to the other aspect, a transition intrinsic and natural at once to itself and to the intellect. And the Whole would be a self-evident analysis and synthesis of the intellect itself by itself. Synthesis here has ceased to be mere synthesis and has become self-completion, and analysis, no longer mere analysis, is self-explication. And the question how or why the many are one and the one is many here loses its meaning. There is no why or how beside the self-evident process, and towards its own differences this whole is at once their how and their why, their being, substance and system, their reason, ground, and principle of diversity and unity.

Has the Law of Contradiction anything here to condemn? It seems to me it has nothing. The identity of which diversities are predicated is in no case simple. There is no point which is not itself internally the transition to its complement, and there is no unity which fails in internal diversity and ground of distinction. In short “the identity of opposites,” far from conflicting with the Law of Contradiction, may claim to be the one view which satisfies its demands, the only theory which everywhere refuses to accept a standing contradiction. And if all that we find were in the end such a self-evident and self-complete whole, containing in itself as constituent processes the detail of the Universe, so far as I see the intellect would receive satisfaction in full. But for myself, unable to verify a solution of this kind, connections in the end must remain in part mere syntheses, the putting together of differences external to one another and to that which couples them. And against my intellectual world the Law of Contradiction has therefore claims nowhere satisfied in full. And since, on the other hand, the intellect insists that these demands must be and are met, I am led to hold that they are met in and by a whole beyond the mere intellect. And in the intellect itself I seem to find an inner want and defect and a demand thus to pass itself beyond itself. And against this conclusion I have not yet seen any tenable objection.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Reflections on Revolutionary Gotham: Counter-Revolutionary Batman

A recent post in Modern Medevialism, Gotham's reckoning: Bane, Burke, and the French Revolution, develops a previous interpretation of Batman as the aristocratic prince of Gotham by thematically situating the final installment of Christopher Nolan's the Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution. The author views the series as representing a ‘microcosm of history’: the prosperous days of Gotham for Bruce Wayne’s parents represents the glory days of Medieval Catholic Europe; the League of Shadows, the Protestant Reformation; the Dent Act, the Westphalian state-system after the wars of religion; Bane, Robespierre leading the Jacobin terror of the French Revolution; and Batman, a latter-day aristocrat who, like Edmund Burke, opposes it to conserve the traditional moral order. However, as I have described in my essay Comics Capitalism and Christ, the comic book superhero genre cannot be read as a merely Christian allegory because it functions as an essentially Gnostic re-fantasticization of secular modernity for the purpose of justifying capitalist democracy. Since the comic book genre has as its essential purpose to fantastically justify modernity to itself, any aristocratic halo cast around the Dark Knight must transcend the thematic polarities of the sacred and the secular, royalist and republican, ancient and modern.

As a character who reflects this essentially modern self-understanding, Batman does not merely seek to conserve a long-lost pre-modern, medieval, and Catholic aristocratic moral order, but, by a new kind of symbolic terror, initiates his own escalating cavalcade of counter-revolutionary terror. Batman’s counter-revolutionary crusade is directed against the old order of liberal democracy which Ra’s Al Ghul describes as a “breeding ground for suffering and injustice.” Once the legal order becomes complicit in the very crime that it prohibits, Bruce Wayne must become a criminal vigilante to combat both crime and law. Becoming a criminal requires the imitation of criminality, and the internalization of criminal violence. Batman externally reflects this criminal violence to combat criminality with criminality. Since, moreover, the law itself is complicit in criminality, Batman’s opposition of criminality to criminality produces a self-opposition of crime and a self-contradiction for the law: for he is both a criminal vigilante whose work is necessary for the law to punish criminality, and also a living symbol of the impotence of the law to punish criminality. Batman may restore the old aristocratic order, not by conserving the legal order of liberal democracy, but only by accelerating its latent contradictions through revolutionary violence.

Make no mistake: Batman is a revolutionary whose criminal vigilantism against crime is also terrorism directed against the liberal democratic state. This revolutionary violence is first initiated by Batman, escalates throughout the film series, and finally demands the sacrifice of Batman for its narrative resolution. The sacrifice of Batman, at the conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises, discloses, from the subterranean depths of post-secular consciousness, the sacramental dimension of Batman as the sovereign and the sacrifice. Where in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne must make himself a symbol of imminent retributive justice by internalizing, imitating, and combating criminal violence; The Dark Knight escalates the polarity of criminal chaos and retributive order into a cascading crescendo of criss-crossing conflagrations; and, in the The Dark Knight Rises, this muffled maelstrom explodes both externally on the political-economic plane of Gotham and internally in the psyche of Bruce Wayne.

The Joker is Batman’s essential opponent and grand maistro of this symphony of chaos. Nolan suggests that he has been dialectically summoned forth as necessary consequence of Batman’s caped crusade when, at the conclusion of Batman Begins, Commissioner Gordon introduces the sign of the Joker: “What about escalation?... We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds… you're wearing a mask. Jumping off rooftops. Now, take this guy. Armed robbery, double homicide, has a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card. [the card of the Joker]"

Batman and the Joker are thematically joined together in an essential unity-of-opposites: Batman's chaotic crusade for justice against criminality can only be recognized as justified, heroic, and not merely criminal if he has an equally chaotic opponent; and the Joker's chaotic cacophony of crime can only be warranted in opposition to Batman's crusade for justice. Hence, the Joker's eulogy for Batman, in what is perhaps the most tragic moment of Batman: The Animated Series, is not merely about the death of his life-long opponent but about the death of himself; for while Batman has a tragic biography, the Joker has no biography except in opposition to Batman. In the Dark Knight, the Joker likewise confesses “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, you [Batman] you complete me.” Conversely, since the final victory of justice in Gotham would also mark the end of any compelling social need for Batman, his caped crusade to combat criminal violence with the faceless fear of imminent retribution can never successfully restore justice without at the same time annulling itself. A world without the Joker would be a world with no need for Batman.


This internal opposition of Batman and the Joker that is operative within Bruce Wayne's psyche is symbolically externalized in the explosive spectacles of the Dark Knight that ultimately costs him both the lives the woman he loves, Rachel Dawson, and his best friend Harvey Dent: Batman produces the Joker; the Joker immolates Rachel; and her death drives Harvey to a spree of murder. His resulting schizophrenia, as Two-Face, is but a further realization of the escalation, externalization, and explosive symbolic opposition initiated by Bruce Wayne. The Joker merely makes explicit, through Two-Face, the explosive polarity of lawful order and criminal chaos that was already implicit in Bruce Wayne’s own schizophrenic internalization of criminality to combat criminality. He explains how his escalation of retributive violence has assimilated Harvey Dent to the madness of the Batman and the Joker: "I took Gotham's white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!" 

Batman accepts the guilt of Two Face and tells the noble lie that he has murdered Harvey Dent to save Gotham by saving himself from recognizing the truth that the justice of the city has been founded upon and perpetuated by violence. Since Batman is essentially united to and vicariously responsible for the Joker, and the Joker’s crimes transformed Harvey Dent into Two-Face, the guilt of Harvey Dent redounds upon his own conscience. But since the purpose of Batman’s criminal violence is to preserve the legal order, and it can only be preserved by perpetuating the fiction of final justice, Batman can only save the city of Gotham from the same madness that has destroyed his family and his friends by assuming upon the himself the guilt of the entire city. By thus assuming the guilt of the moral cosmos, Batman is transfigured from an individual criminal vigilante into the absolute bearer of guilty conscience. He thereby becomes an absolute individual who is blackened by exile from the political community, but remains the indispensable agent of its symbolic preservation. Commissioner Gordon concludes “he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now… he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”

The Dark Knight personifies a moral paradox in which, after the White Knight symbol of justice has been transformed by the Joker into an agent of crime, Batman must become the Dark Knight so as to betray the conventional sense of morality for truth in order to preserve, in the innocent memory of the Harvey Dent, an immortal symbol of the belief in the finality of justice. This belief in justice requires an innocent symbol, but its innocence can only be preserved through the injustice of the noble lie. Ordinarily it is believed to be morally good to tell the truth, and never good to tell a lie; but for Batman, as for Plato's Guardians, there are certain exceptional moments of political crisis in which it may be better for the polity, and hence morally right, to tell a lie rather than to tell the truth. This moral license may be permitted to the political guardians because they have been initiated, as by the League of Shadows, into a super-moral insight of the paradoxes of conventional morality. The Joker can thus ironically excuse himself from the ordinary conventions of law and morality because he, like Batman and Bane, is just “a little ahead of the curve.”

The initiation of Batman into the Dark Knight elevates him beyond the people of Gotham to a higher caste of super-moral political actors. After Batman is transfigured into the Dark Knight by a super-moral act of injustice for the purpose of justice, Commissioner Gordon axes the bat-signal to mark a decisive rupture between Batman and Gotham. Where formerly Batman had acted as an instrument of police violence to preserve the principles of liberal-democracy in Gotham, thereafter he no longer serves but exceeds its political parameters of violence. Yet since he remains the absolute individual who alone may bear the guilt and preserve the justice of Gotham, the Dark Knight initiates a symbolic revolution in the economy of violence. Once the aesthetic finality of justice symbolized by the police has been unmasked as contradictorily complicit in criminal violence, only the Dark Knight can aesthetically re-center in himself the economy of political violence. By re-aestheticizing the political, Batman makes himself its supreme political actor. Neither the mafiosos, nor the police, nor even the mayor, but Batman alone is the true prince of Gotham. He rules the city in secret with his cowl as his crown and his cave as the throne of his symbolic counter-revolution.

Bane’s kitsch repetition of Jacobin demagoguery merely recapitulates, on a broader political plane, the symbolic revolution already accomplished by Batman. Once Batman had escaped into the depths of the night, Bane brings this symbolic revolution to the daylight. His greatest crime is, then, not his heist on Wall Street, nor even his dynamiting of the city, but – most explosive of all - his exposure of Batman’s noble lie. Bane summons the people of Gotham to storm Blackgate prison, the imminent embodiment of police-power, by bringing light to the noble lie told by and on behalf of Harvey Dent that justice is final and “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” In the Dark Knight, Batman still believes that Gotham "is full of people ready to believe in good", but this innocent belief could only be hypocritically sustained by his own costumed charade of the law triumphant over crime. Batman had only tentatively resolved this self-opposition of crime by internalizing, externally reflecting, and further escalating its inner dynamic polarity. But even during the interregnum of Gotham’s uncrowned prince, its explosive force continued to collect in the chambers and channels of discontent. Then Bane appeared, like a voice crying from the sewers, as a costumed pretender to the throne of Gotham. Bane breaks Batman upon the knee of this contradiction - that Gotham is potentially justified but hopelessly depraved - by exposing this belief to be, not merely false, but a deliberate deception that has been perpetrated by Batman to protect Gotham by protecting Bruce Wayne from his own guilty conscience.

The Modern Medievalist writes that “If Bane is Robespierre, Batman is Edmund Burke.” Bane is no doubt a late-born recapitulation of Robespierre, but Batman is not merely a Burkean conservative who seeks to preserve "the method of nature in the conduct of the state." He is, more radically, a Maistrean counter-revolutionary who seeks to transfigure the symbolic order of politics through the subterranean power of violence and sacrifice. Edmund Burke was an English Whig politician who sought to conserve English society from the violence of the French Revolution, and Joseph De Maistre was a Savoyard diplomat who believed that France could only be saved from the unprecedented upheavals of the Revolution once it had been cured of its folly by the furthest acceleration of revolutionary violence. Where Burke viewed the Revolution as a miscalculated human endeavor that could be corrected by merely human means, De Maistre smelt in it the putrid sulfur of Satanic rebellion against the divinely established moral order for which no earthly hope was possible save for by the guiding the hand of divine providence: "There is a satanic element in the French Revolution which distinguishes it from any other revolution known or perhaps that will be known. Remember the great occasions… these all leave the ordinary sphere of crimes and seem to belong to a different world… the great criminals of the Revolution can fall only under the blows of their accomplices.” (Considerations on France)

Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre, 1753-1821

Criminal violence is for De Maistre so pervasive that it spoils every merely human attempt to teach and practice goodness: “Man in general, if reduced to himself, is too wicked to be free… There is nothing but violence in the world; but we are tainted by modern philosophy which has taught us that all is good, whereas evil has polluted everything and in a very real sense all is evil.” (Considerations on France) The violence of man can only be purged by the countervailing violence of sovereign punishment: “The whole of creation bemoans its fate [Rm. 8:22] and strives, with effort and grief, for a new order of things. Observers of great human tragedies must be led to these sad conclusions, but let us not lose our courage; there is no punishment which does not purify, no disorder which the eternal love does not turn against the principle of evil.” (Considerations on France) The executioner is the exemplar of sovereign violence because the death-blow of his ax is a super-moral act through which he sacrifices his own innocence for the restoration of the moral order: “All greatness, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner; he is both the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and in a moment order gives way to chaos, thrones fall, and society disappears.” (The First Dialogue)

Once the negative procedural operations of liberal democracy have been deprived of their positive ground in divinely ordained sovereign authority, De Maistre contends that men alone are incapable of preserving justice: “Every conceivable institution either rests on a religious idea or is ephemeral. Institutions are strong and durable to the degree that they partake of the Divinity. Not only is human reason, or what is ignorantly called philosophy, unable to replace those foundations ignorantly called superstitions, but philosophy is, on the contrary, an essentially destructive force." (Considerations on France) Where Burke believed that violence was unnecessary and harmful to the conservation of the old order, Maistre believed the acceleration of revolutionary violence to be woefully necessary to purge the polity of its crimes. Their decisive difference is most clearly exhibited in the narrative sequence of escalating symbolic violence in the Dark Knight Trilogy: in response to the impending collapse of Gotham from Chicago to Detroit, it was Batman rather than Bane who lights the first fire of revolution. Where in the French Revolution the Third Estate, Girondists, and the Jacobinists, were the saboteurs who subverted the symbolic sovereignty of the crown by convening the National Assembly and dissolving the Estates General, in the Dark Knight Trilogy, it is Batman who is the lone arch-provocateur who revolutionizes Gotham by dismantling the old alliance of mafia bosses and corrupt judges.

After Gotham has been inundated by a deluge of wanton criminal violence, Bruce Wayne must make himself more of a criminal than the criminals themselves, as an avenging symbol of invisible terror and imminent retribution. His symbolic revolution is, moreover, not clumsily directed, like the san-culottes, squarely against the conservation of the "order of the world”, but, with the oblique polish of the Scarlet Pimpernel, against the long-established but quickly disintegrating post-revolutionary order of liberal democracy. Batman begins, not by combating the exceptional anarchism of the Joker nor even the radical jacobinism of Bane, but rather the ordinary criminality that proliferates once democracy’s “myths of opportunity” have proven false. This symbolic transfiguration requires Bruce Wayne to internalize within his own psyche the criminality that has been engendered by the political-economic failures of liberal democracy. Since his criminal combating of criminality externalizes his own essential self-opposition between lawful justice and chaotic crime and escalates criminal violence in a spiral of polar opposition, Batman’s must continually re-internalize his own self-externalized criminality. This repeated re-internalization of self-externalized criminality requires Batman to sacrifice the order of his psyche for the order of Gotham: the external violence that threatens to destroy the order of Gotham must be internally re-directed within himself as a sacrificial victim. Joseph De Maistre describes this function as a universal law of sacrifice:
“Man being thus guilty through his sensuous principle, through his flesh, through his life, the curse fell on his blood, for blood was the principle of life, or rather blood was life… [for] heaven grew angry with the flesh, and blood could be appeased only by blood.” (Enlightenment on Sacrifice)


“The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite until the consummation of the world,the extinction of evil,the death of death.” (Saint Petersburg Dialogues)
Batman is the sovereign executioner and sacrificial victim who aesthetically preserve the political community by repeatedly re-internalizing and externally reflecting criminal violence. Sacrifice violently annuls the finite integrity of its offering to propitiate the vengeful retribution of supersensible powers and restore symbolic order to the invisible economy of violence. It is a sacred act because it exceeds and restores the symbolic integrity of the world. Batman’s self-reflection of criminal violence thus transfigures him into a sacred person who exceeds even as he is required for the preservation of the moral community. And as the uncrowned prince of Gotham who exceeds so as to overpower the political, he is doubly excessive – more and less than a man - as both the sovereign priest and sacrificial lamb of the political community. His Christological significance in The Dark Knight Rises is thus not merely an adventitious allusion to the religious predilections of the audience, but is already essentially implicit through his self-sacrificial and sovereign function within Gotham’s symbolic economy of violence: Batman operates as a caped crusader to restore the long lost social function of the aristocracy by transfiguring himself into the Dark Knight which, no less than the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis, is a counter-revolutionary symbol of the re-internalized externalization of revolutionary violence.

The Dark Knight Trilogy climaxes in a spiritual torment to prepare Batman for his final sacrifice. Bane explains, immediately before defeating Batman, that Bruce had merely “adopted the dark” whereas he “was born it, moulded by it”, and after his imprisonment that “your punishment must be more severe… not of your body [but] of your soul.” Once he has been exiled from the heavenly heights of Gotham to the hellish pits of Ra's Al Guhl's prison, Bruce Wayne can only restore the moral order of Gotham by re-learning the fear of death. The blind prisoner explains that “you do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak… you [cannot] move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death… [Climb] without the rope. Then fear will find you again.” Batman must pass through the shadow of death, of total self-obliteration, to rediscover within his own dark night the spiritual ladder to believe once more in the finality of justice.

Since Batman's caped crusade can only externally escalate his own inner self-opposition of lawful order and criminal chaos in an endless Manichaen cycle of crime and retribution, and Bruce Wayne's internal psychological opposition has been externalized to the whole city, which symbolizes the moral cosmos, Gotham’s final justification requires the Dark Knight - as the absolute individual, sovereign executioner, and sacred person - to offer himself as a sacrificial offering to atone for the guilt of the city. The seed of Original Sin is symbolized by the power of clean-energy turned into the destructive blast of an atomic bomb; the final countdown, Batman’s Via Delorosa; and its blast, the Cross that is at once the altar and throne of his new Golgotha. Batman reflects on his impending sacrifice when Catwoman demands "Come with me. Save yourself. You don't owe these people any more. You've given them everything." and he answers, in the imitation of Christ in the Garden of Gathsemene, "Not everything. Not yet."

Christopher Nolan’s the Dark Knight Trilogy is not merely a Christian allegory but also a post-Secular attempt to narratively justify by re-fantasticizing modern capitalist democracy. Where Christian allegory may presuppose an extrinsic correspondence between the secular signifier and the religious signified, Nolan’s films thematically dissolve the stable signification of secular reality. His style has been favorably contrasted as a psychologically introspective and grisly realist alternative to Tim Burton’s ‘dark-noir’ and Joel Schumacher’s ‘camp-baroque’ adaptations. But by making this ‘reality’ the ideal site of Bruce Wayne’s opposing and exceeding spiritual conflict, Nolan consistently renders its factiveness porous and open to psychological fantasy: Bruce Wayne internalizes criminality to become Batman who externally reflects criminal vigilantism against crime; Batman’s escalation of self-opposed criminality produces his essential opposite in the Joker; the Joker accelerates this opposition until it explodes upon his lover, his friend, and his city; but Batman saves Gotham by assuming the guilt of the city in his noble exile as the Dark Knight; until frustration for the absence of his symbolic sovereignty boils over into the political revolution of Bane, who breaks Batman by exposing the contradiction that Gotham is possibly good but necessarily evil; which requires Bruce Wayne to pass through the fearsome night of self-obliteration to offer himself as a final sacrifice for his absolutely individuated guilt.

Nolan’s post-Secular re-fantasticization of the real is thus coded as a fascistic re-aestheticization of the political. Since Secular progressive politics has been traditionally determined by the Enlightenment promise of the positive disclosure of factive reality, Nolan’s dissolution of a stable system of signification for real intelligible facts equally marks for Nolan as much as for Batman a symbolic rupture between Secular liberalism and the fascistic restoration of theological fantasy. Like Bruce Wayne, Walt Disney, and Benito Mussolini, he uses the full technical panoply of mass-media semiotics to aesthetically transform and mythically re-imagine political possibilities. The aesthetic possibility of Batman is the political possibility of aristocratic counter-revolution: it imagines that once liberal-democracy has become terminally corrupt and its law complicit in its crime, the martial elite must internalize its criminality to externally reflect, oppose, and conquer crime, law, and liberal democracy itself. This conquest of liberal democracy is also post-secular because it can only be accomplished by summoning the subterranean power of sacrifice to sacramentally transfigure its new lords into its dark knights.

For more theological analyses of the comic book superhero genre, see my essay:
Comics, Capitalism, and Christ: American Heroes and Gnostic Gods