For the hell of it

Terry Eagleton

  • In Praise of Meekness: Essays on Ethics and Politics by Norberto Bobbio, translated by Teresa Chataway
    Polity, 186 pp, £50.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 7456 2309 3

The political Left has always had trouble with ethics, in theory as well as in practice. The practical problems hardly need recounting. It was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century that socialism proved least possible where it was most necessary. A vision of human emancipation which presupposed for its success all the precious fruits of modernity – material wealth, liberal traditions, a flourishing civic society, an educated populace – became instead the guiding light by which wretchedly impoverished nations bereft of such benefits sought to throw off their chains. Shunned by those well-heeled nations who might have smoothed their path to freedom, they marched their people into modernity at gunpoint, with criminal consequences. One would not describe Fascism as tragic, whatever the tragic destruction to which it gave birth. But Stalinism was tragedy of a classical kind, as the noble intentions of socialism were deflected into their opposites in that fatal inversion which Aristotle calls peripeteia.

The theoretical problems were less catastrophic, though just as severe. Marx, for example, could never decide whether ethics was what he was up to in his own work, or a bourgeois mystification implacably opposed to it. If he sometimes appeals to notions of justice, denouncing the wage-relation as ‘robbery’, he more often dismisses moral ideas as ideological baggage, superstructural fictions by which our rulers aim to sweeten their sovereignty. There would be no need for justice in a Communist society, since the very concept implies a scarcity which would have been surpassed. Morality, rather as for Nietzsche, belongs to prehistory; it is a child of the realm of necessity, and there will be no place for it in the kingdom of freedom.

Marx’s contempt for morality is especially ironic, since he himself was a moralist in the most classical sense of the term. As Norman Geras has remarked, Marx believed in moral notions, but he did not know that he did. He did not know it because he wrongly identified morality with bourgeois moralism, which he quite rightly rejected. He was, in short, too respectful of his opponents’ formulations, rather as some unwary leftists today disown ‘tradition’ because they are thinking of the Changing of the Guard rather than the Chartists. Moralism is the belief that there exists a realm of specifically moral questions, but as Aristotle understood, there is no autonomously ‘moral’ issue which can be abstracted from the complex institutional life of the polis. It is only the modern age which has come up with this alienated view, just as it holds that there is something called the aesthetic which is not only independent of the social, but more or less its antithesis. Aristotle observes at the beginning of his Ethics that there is a science which deals with the supreme good, and then tells us – surprisingly, given the title of his book – that its name is politics.

Marx was a closet Aristotelian, and a traditional moralist just because he set questions of justice, equality and the like in their social and historical contexts. If this made it fatally easy for him to relativise them away, it also saved him from the Modernist error of those for whom adultery is a moral affair but public ownership a political one, for whom ethics is what you do in bed, and politics or economics what you do when you get out of bed. But Marx is an Aristotelian also because he sees ethics in terms of virtues rather than obligations. Like Aristotle, he recognises that the good life is all about enjoying yourself, that the end of human life is happiness or well-being, and that this involves a many-sided flourishing, realising your historically-bred powers and capacities to the full. It is this which class-society forestalls, and what it forestalls it with, among other weapons, is morality. Freud would later identify moral ideology, or the superego, as a kind of sickness, a frenzied sadistic idealism which drives us to self-destruction in the name of righteousness.

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