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Absolutism fixates while creativity liberates

August 10, 2020

From two articles, contrasting Camus and Sartre, Decartes and Shakespeare:

1. “How Camus and Sartre Split up Over the Question of How to Be Free”
Their radically opposed ideas of freedom broke up the philosophical friendship of the 20th century. By Sam Dresser, editor of Aeon

As Europe was rebuilding after WWII, “They were gleaming icons of the era. Newspapers reported on their daily movements: Sartre holed up at Les Deux Magots, Camus the peripatetic of Paris… Readers looked to Sartre and Camus to articulate what that new world might look like. ‘We were,’ remembered the fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, ‘to provide the postwar era with its ideology.'”

The existentialism of “Sartre, Camus and their intellectual companions rejected religion, staged new and unnerving plays, challenged readers to live authentically…” As Sam Dresser writes, “We must choose to live in this world and to project our own meaning and value onto it in order to make sense of it. This means that people are free and burdened by it, since with freedom there is a terrible, even debilitating, responsibility to live and act authentically… If the idea of freedom bound Camus and Sartre philosophically, then the fight for justice united them politically.”

Albert Camus: “Absolute freedom is the right of the strongest to dominate… Absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom.” In Dresser’s words, “The conflict between justice and freedom required constant re-balancing, political moderation, an acceptance and celebration of that which limits the most: our humanity. “‘To live and let live’ [said Camus] ‘in order to create what we are.’ Sartre read The Rebel with disgust. As far as he was concerned, it was possible to achieve perfect justice and freedom.” This absolutism threw Jean-Paul Sartre and many others down the addictive rabbit hole, the impossible symmetries of communism (plus of course, Tweedledum and Tweedledee).

Dresser continues, “With the publication of The Rebel, Camus declared for a peaceful socialism that would not resort to revolutionary violence… Sartre, meanwhile, would fight for communism, and he was prepared to endorse violence to do so. The split between the two friends was a media sensation.”

Dresser concludes: “Absolutism, and the impossible idealism it inspires, is a dangerous path forward – and the reason Europe lay in ashes, as Camus and Sartre struggled to envision a fairer and freer world.” Read the relevant and succinct article here…

2. “Much Ado About Uncertainty: How Shakespeare Navigates Doubt.” By Lorenzo Zucca, author of the work-in-progress, The Poet of Uncertainty: How Shakespeare Helps us Navigate an Uncertain World. 

I am spoiled for choice of quotes in this article, but Zucca begins by summing things up with a familiar and relevant theme:

William Shakespeare lived in an age of uncertainty. His society was traversing a number of unpredictable challenges that spun from the succession of the heirless queen Elizabeth to the ascent of a new class of merchants. But the biggest issue had to do with religious conflicts. In the premodern world, religion provided absolute certainty: whatever we knew was implanted in our mind by God. We didn’t have to look any further. Once that system of beliefs started to collapse, Europe was left with a yawning gap. Religion no longer seemed capable to explain the world. René Descartes and Shakespeare, who were contemporaries, gave opposite answers to the sceptical challenge: Descartes believed that our quest for knowledge could be rebuilt and founded on indubitable certainties. Shakespeare, on the other hand, made uncertainty a leitmotiv of all his works, and harnessed its creative power.

Zucca brings vitality to these matters by spotlighting some plays, revealing such things as ethics and factual analysis like we rarely see them. Because I am tired of hearing reverence for Plato, I like this:

Poets have long been denied the right of residence in the republic of philosophers. The main charge against poets is that their art is not likely to educate the masses to be good. Plato castigates poetry and claims it should be expunged of images that command excessive emotions: gods cannot be portrayed as moody or weak or as having too much pleasure; that would send the wrong message to the people. Heroes should not be shown as doing monstrous deeds; they would no longer be seen as models. More generally, poets have a tragic worldview that captures psychological conflicts within someone’s soul, but don’t advance recommendations as to how to deal with them.

Plato made an icon of Socrates, whose famous suicidal encounter with democracy lives in memory today. But how long would Shakespeare have lasted in Plato’s Republic? We only need to wonder what kind of death that would have been.

One more, involving the rebel poet John Keats:

Shakespeare’s vision from uncertainty brings together the imagination of a poet, the judgment of a philosopher, and the creativity of a scientist. Being capable to stare into the abyss without being swiped away emotionally is a great attitude for whoever wishes to further our understanding of the world and the way we live in it. The poet John Keats described it in 1817 as the negative capability: ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. By refusing to colour the world with his own rose-tinted spectacles, Shakespeare allows greater room for systematic understanding. He has an intuitive grasp of human limitations of knowledge, and to this extent he painstakingly alerts us to the biases and prejudices in our judgment.

As Zucca says, “Uncertainty makes freedom and creativity possible.” Read the long and the short of it here at Psyche

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