Evangelion ends: Aristotle, Arendt, and angels

The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born. This is the time of monsters.

Antonio Gramsci (paraphrase)

To defeat darkness, embrace it.

Edmund Wilson

‘You’re just desperate.’

‘I’m terrified.’

Dialogue from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Pain is an inevitable consequence of truth. You have to learn to withstand it.

In the end, humans are just creatures who wind up using the power of gods as weapons.

Discover your lost self.

Talk to me please, don’t ignore me.

As long as there is the will to live, you can turn any place into a paradise. After all, you are alive, opportunities for happiness are everywhere.

As long as there is the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth, it will all work out.

Aphorisms from Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, conclusion to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

It is impossible to refute the idea that what is important is what is memorable. We can suggest that what is important is moral or immoral. We can tell ourselves what we need to tell ourselves. But at the end of the day, what we fail to consider is that it is what is not memorable that is most fallen from goodness. Real evil, similarly, happens when no-one is looking, and no-one lives to tell the tale. But why do the history books tell us it’s the other way around — that we only remember evil, and forget the good? I know in my life, I repress what is bad and focus on what is good. To remember difficult things requires effort. The truth is painful. I do not consider the preceding sentence, or any sentences I have written or will right, to be completely true. Because I am still learning. This process of pursuing the truth without relent is fraught with error. But I am ready to make mistakes in order to be right. Those who are error-free and the most error-ridden. And those who are full of mistakes are those who may actually have a point. Again, this might not be true. But what if it were? This is not a question to gaslight you, dear reader, but to ask you if we can double check accepted meanings of reality, particularly in our collective storytelling about the new Richard IIIs, the new Hamlets, the new Henry Vs of our time: villains and heroes (Shakespeare), angels and demons (Weber), and such like. Here are some.

Baruch Spinoza, who left his Talmudic community in Amsterdam and found his views censored across religious divides, a heretic in all corners of the world — though he found an affinity between his views and those of Thomas Hobbes, paving the way to Hegel, Marx, and the rebirth of modern philosophy in the shadow of Immanuel Kant’s ‘Enlightenment’. Later, Adorno and Horkheimer critiqued this Enlightenment tradition, in part by tracing it to its roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. More recently, Strauss and Skinner have gone back to Machiavelli and the foundations of political thought in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But is it not the fate of those who pursue the truth to be labelled as evil for doing so? ‘Twas ever thus — as Benedictus de Spinoza would have admitted freely, albeit with a more serene and less irritable disposition than Hobbes or Machiavelli (although Spinoza’s writings are as strident as any prophet’s sermon, and as logical as Wittgenstein’s later Tractatus in the 1920s — which Eilenberger has termed ‘The Time of the Magicians’, in which Wittgenstein and Heidegger reinvented philosophy, paving the way to the present day, and everything in between).

It was alleged that Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, visually summarised his full-frontal linguistic assault on hegemonic ‘language games’ (Wittgenstein) about the twentieth century (an act of ‘linguistic violence,’ to use a common trope) in a synthesis of two images: the Star of David and the ancient Indian symbol that was misappropriated by the Nazi regime, puppeteered by modernity’s own Lucifer, an Austrian malcontent who became the leader of Germany’s Third Reich, namely Adolf Hitler. This reminded me of someone in many ways similar to Ye — who warns of the rise of totalitarian China in policy interviews unreported by mainstream media — namely maligned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Of course, Churchill has been praised in the framework of British nationalism, but this forgets how maligned he is in the Universities for his role in colonialism in India, by the Economist (quite rightly, I think) for Churchill’s role in prolonging the First World War by pushing Turkey into Germany’s arms, and in the 1930s before becoming Prime Minister after the outset of World War II (announced on the radio by appeasement Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain). Churchill has been called a bigot and a warmonger. But he was right about the most important question of the twentieth century: the need to stop National Socialism (another inglorious misnomer for territorial-expansionary capitalism) from spreading beyond the bounds of Germany, and the ultimate imperative to vanquish it decisively in military conflict.

America faced a similar quandary with post-war Japan and Russia, both of which saw their economies go into flatline (in Japan’s case) or tailspin (in Russia’s case) in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War. Marxism in its political articulation was defeated, but so was the legacy of Marx’s nemesis — idealism — which transmitted from Hegel to some of the romantics and nationalists who fed the rhetoric of fascism. One progenitor of idealism was Spinoza, who opposed Hobbes’ materialism with a kind of panpsychism that asserted the identity of God and nature, even though nature was comprised of both mental and material aspects. Ultimately the materialism/idealism divide was bridged by Machiavellian realism, a realism that was employed to defeat opponents to liberalism. Fascism, communism, and all plausible alternatives to liberal democracy and capitalism were defeated. The hegemony of liberal democracy (outside of China-backed North Korea, at least) led Japanese American Professor Francis Fukuyama to affirm the Hegelian ‘End of History’. Liberal democracy reconciled Marxian class conflict with Hegelian status struggle. History ended.

But as the enormously influential anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion showed in the mid-1990s, the end of history raised the prospect of a return to history by way of the violent struggle against annihilation. Weapons of mass destruction may keep us save through Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) — until they don’t. Geopolitics remains stable under America’s nuclear umbrella — until a new power rises. And economics remains capitalist — until it doesn’t. History ends — until it starts again, if not from necessity then at least, as Fukuyama himself predicted, from sheer boredom with accepting a status quo.

Indeed, for Marx, every regime of power must fall, as it will not remain technologically efficient forever. Then when the social relations of production fetter their material forces, the relations go about an internal contradiction that leads to revolution — and a new set of relation to develop the forces afterwards. In Evangelion, this is epitomised in the idea of rebirth or return to the origin point, from which a new form of life can grow. The idea of tabula rasa, or blank slate, is one basis for this hope — but when the blank slate becomes too full of ideas, it must be wiped clean again.

Socrates asked citizens of Athens to ask questions. Ye’s big mantra from the 2010s was to ‘ask more questions’. His lyrics, as the Watching the Throne podcast and other sources such as Pitchfork have exhaustively shown, are ingenious and deep — far from the ‘banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt witnessed in Auschwitz administrator Adolf Eichmann. But Ye’s originality is seen as evil, and the banality of many of his critics is seen as good. How far we have come, and yet how far we have fallen. To be truly good, we must be maligned. Only the evil seek out social recognition for its own sake. True recognition is deserved through diligence and patience — qualities which Ye seems to have in abundance.

But we all have dark sides. A piece by historian Adam Tooze referred to the Machiavelli-reading Chicago professor of international politics John Mearsheimer as possessed by the ‘dark origins of realism’ in Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. But Schmitt is far removed from Hobbes, Mearsheimer’s bigger inspiration, and many American universities are possessed by the spirit of Strauss, who read Schmitt, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and pretty much anyone from whom he could find texts to read. Britain’s answer came in the form of Quentin Skinner, an intellectual historian who denies Strauss while affirming many of his conclusions, such as the vital role of Machiavelli and Hobbes in inaugurating the pivot from antiquity to modernity. Tooze himself founded his career on an analysis of the Nazi economy — and has pivoted to an analysis of the financialised capitalism in which we now live. Is there a link?

If I am possessed by any idea, it is unity. I think distinctions are false, and separation lies. I think Nietzsche was right that good/evil is a false dichotomy. But I also think that the distinction is often made, and indeed must be made to combat the erection of the distinction itself. But then we get into an infinite regress of Manichean good/evil distinctions. We can deny the first distinction, but to continue the fight afterwards is exhausting.

I am also possessed by the idea of the future. I think we are fighting yesterday’s war — like Oliver Cromwell combatting Spain when he should have been worrying about France. This Cromwellian trap is one we have fallen into by pushing Russia into China’s arms — just as Churchill pushed Turkey into Germany’s. The Economist thinks Churchill may have prolonged the Great War as a result. Similarly Chamberlain’s refusal to confront Hitler was devastating in its consequences. I went to Selwyn College, Cambridge, for my undergraduate and postgraduate education in politics, social sciences, and history, and another alumnus, the writer Robert Harris, has argued that Chamberlain has been unfairly maligned. Perhaps he is. But appeasement is neither good nor bad. It is a strategy like any other. Whether it is right or wrong is, in fact, contextual — it depends on the situation.

And yet, despite the Cambridge contextualism that has pervaded intellectual thought across the western world, I find so many contextualists often refuse to put ‘controversial’ remarks in their proper context. Indeed even the term ‘controversy’ is mis-used. We use the term to refer to ‘bad’ ideas — but the term implies the existence of ideas to the ‘contrary’, revealing ambiguity.

History is ambiguous, but it tricks us into thinking it is not so. Hegel’s philosophy of history is meant to resolve dichotomies — but it preaches with such a reverence to Truth that it might as well be a secularised religion, an allegation often levelled against Marxism (and so little against liberalism). We as human beings suffer from a chronic self-deception that can enlighten others but must deceive ourselves. We view ourselves as ‘Lucifer, Son of the Morning’, to echo the ‘genius’ Kanye-produced Jay-Z song, but fail to embrace the label. Indeed, even Kanye feels the need to draw a distinction between the ‘God’ he follows and the ‘Devil’ (albeit ‘in a new dress’) he has rejected. But the Devil allowed him to make such transcendent artistry on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — though he did, on songs like So Appalled, reject the hedonism to which the devilry of capitalism tends.

Christianity has been destructive. But it need not be so forever. It can be recoded with the spirit of its foundation. This Evangelism risks becoming a dogmatism, but it can itself be recoded, recalibrated. Nothing is certain. Nothing is set in stone.

So the next time someone — whether that person be me, or someone else — tells you what is good and what is bad, who is God and who is the Devil, just ask yourself: Why are they really saying this? Because those who could actually, legitimately speak of the greatest suffering of the twentieth century are dwindling in number, and yet we cling to their stories as if we are followers of a religion: the religion of history.

But we must break free. History teaches us not to take it too seriously. We must not fight yesterday’s war, as Cromwell did, and avoid tomorrow’s. We must make the future present, and let the past go. I am sorry for the severity of this call. I do not mean to offend. In ‘The Last Jedi’ a similar call is made, and it is hard to accept. But I think it could be made better if novelty is accepted as a return to originality, as represented in Evangelion. For so often we identify, as Spinoza did, God with Nature — forgetting that this natural world may be riddled with contradictions often levelled, as Heidegger does, against modern technology. In ‘Homo Deus’, Yuval Noah Harari suggests bio-tech could free us from the human condition, as described by Heidegger’s student, lover, and lifelong friend Hannah Arendt. But fear is a strange thing, and we are unlikely to get beyond humanity any time soon — especially so long as capitalism privatises the means of production and thereby fetters the development of emancipatory, deifying technology in favour of a bio-sociology of exploitation. Musk may want to become a god — but what about the rest of us?

To paraphrase a sage YouTuber around the time of some of the fiercest, most terrifying controversies of late 2022 (terrifying not just for those condemning Ye as Lucifer, but also for those desperately defending free speech against the new totalitarianism of liberal censorship — though I guess the ideology of empathy has its limit: reality), ‘I don’t have the answers to these questions’. Neither did Socrates. Neither did Ye.

But I must keep asking. Even if, like Socrates, there are consequences. Free speech is worth the consequences. For to be truly human is not to be a slave to society’s definition of good and evil, but to be free to draw one’s own definition, or to overthrow definitions altogether. This need not be a conceptual anarchism against the current climate of totalitarianism (indeed, aren’t these the same thing?). It may better be seen as, to follow Evangelion, a recalibration.

What I am saying now, in other words, will not make much sense, and it won’t for some time. But after the recalibration is complete, perhaps it will. I don’t know. It depends on who decides on the recalibration — some of us, or all of us. For all our sakes, I hope the decision is made collectively. Rousseau did have a point about ‘sublime reason’ as the faculty of the philosopher legislator — but my reason is, to misquote Kant, neither sublime nor beautiful; certainly unlike yourself, dear reader.

Thank you for your time. I hope this has helped you challenge the orthodoxies of our world, and presented alternative ways of thinking about things to those we are taught at school, university, or beyond. For the true remedy to indoctrination is emancipation — beyond angels and demons, towards the humanity we, as truly free beings, all share. Let freedom reign. Shall we begin?

I would like to conclude by reflecting on how peripheral members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, namely Franz Neumann and Ernst Fraenkel, found that only military defeat of Nazism by America and its allies would vanquish its evil. This reminds me of Tracy Strong’s introduction to the Strauss-edited volume of Carl Schmitt’s ‘Concept of the Political’. Schmitt believed that politics was about friend/enemy distinctions. But to defeat this form of anti-politics, an antithesis to post-Aristotelian liberal technocracy of endless deliberation and ‘friend’-making, we must first make an enemy of the act of friend-enemy distinctions. But this is itself a friend-enemy distinction! Defeating totalitarianism required making concessions to it — as happens in Evangelion where the monstrous ‘Angels’ are only defeated with the help of the ‘Ava’, which turn out to be robotic shells on human monstrosities. The Angels and the Ava are not Aristotle’s ‘gods’; they are ‘beasts’.

To be human is to lie between these extremes, to break the cycle and to be truly balanced — the surest path to unity. But to balance, we must prioritise, which risks falling to an extreme. And yet, balance is possible, if we only care to look. It won’t be the first answer that pops into your head — and it almost certainly won’t be the narrative peddled by the mainstream media. But it will be an answer that will reveal itself for those who, as Arendt urgently insisted we do, think — as Skinner put it, for ourselves. For the past is past. We must learn to think again if we wish to survive into the future. The present lies ‘between past and future’ (Arendt). We must find a way of reconciling our differences here and now — recognising what is style, and what is substance, and putting substance and truth before appearance and illusion. Reality, the whole of all things, is only approximated — never reached. So, let the journey commence …

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